Upcoming Yale Rep productions deal with race issues
“I don’t want a black history month — that’s ridiculous,” said actor Morgan Freeman in a 2009 interview. “Black history is American history.” At Yale Rep, which has two black-centered plays coming up, that admonishment is taken seriously.
“I think it’s important to be clear that these productions not be qualified as Black History Month programming at Yale Rep,” said spokesman Steven Padla. “We don’t approach programming that way. Rather they are two examples of our ongoing commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion on our stages year-round.”
Nevertheless, it’s fitting that New Haven, which harbors a replica of the Amistad, the ship commandeered by escaping slaves, is producing two African-American-slanted plays this month, “Good Faith” and “What Remains.”
The former, subtitled “Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Dept.” is based on the 2009 Supreme Court ruling that the city violated the civil rights of a group of mostly white firefighters passed over for promotion in favor of minority recruits who scored lower on qualifying exams. The city argued it was merely following directives, but they lost the case because of not being able to prove “disparate liability” to justify discrimination.
To make a theatrical work of the lawsuit, Yale Rep commissioned Karen Hartman, a Yale School of Drama graduate. One “chat” in her subtitle is between Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff (New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. was the defendant of record) and new members of the department. Another is between two former fire fighters, discussing the impact of the decision.
“I hope the play makes the people of this city more visible to one another,” said Hartman. “I want people to leave with a broader sense of humanity, to feel more engaged and connected.”
Echoing Hartman, the play’s director, Kenny Leon, hopes for “commonality.”
Yale is also presenting “What Remains,” a collaboration between choreographer Will Rawls and poet Claudia Rankine. The play is described as being “layered with poetry, dance, and music,” as it exposes “society’s role in the disturbance and murder of its black citizens.”
Hartford Stage is doing its bit with “Detroit ’67,” the first part of Dominique Morisseau’s trilogy on that city’s troubles. Part two, “Paradise Blue” was at Long Wharf earlier this season; part three, “Skeleton Crew,” will be at the Westport Country Playhouse this summer.
Unfolding during an explosive moment in U.S. history — the race riots that tore a city apart — “Detroit ’67” centers on a sister and brother who make ends meet by running an unlicensed bar in their basement. The arrival of a mysterious woman causes conflicts between the siblings, exacerbated by the fact that the stranger is white and attracts the brother.
Music-lovers also have a treat, a celebration of the life of Marian Anderson on the anniversary of her birthday, Feb. 27. The great contralto and her husband bought a 100-acre farm in Danbury when they were turned down by realtors in other places because of their race.
Featuring vocalist Christine Jobson and pianist Gregory Thompson, the concert pays tribute to the first African-American to sing at the Met Opera. Years before that historic 1955 debut, Anderson was scheduled to sing to an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. in 1939. The Daughters of the American Revolution, who owned the hall, shockingly refused to let Anderson sing there, prompting Eleanor Roosevelt to arrange for her to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to an integrated crowd of more than 75,000.
The DAR eventually ate crow, hosting a 75th anniversary celebration in 2009 and detailing the facts of the controversial snub on its website. To their credit, the DAR at least attempted to heal the wounds they caused.
But can the wound of racism be healed? Can the country’s divisiveness be breached? In a nation where hate crimes are on the rise, will America’s original sin of slavery ever be assuaged?
“I want everybody to listen to others,” said Leon. “If we did more of that right now, we would discover a lot more beauty about us.”
David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.