Reading Toni Morrison at 17, 25 and 35 It took nearly 20 years, but revisiting ‘Sula,’ I finally saw myself in her words, as only a grown woman can

In the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the poet Sonia Sanchez offers a method for reading and understanding the work of her friend, the only black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

“In order to survive,” Sanchez says, “you should reread Toni Morrison every 10 years.”

After the news broke last week that Morrison had died, her death hit with the same intensity one associates with the passing of a beloved auntie. And yet I found comfort in three things. Unlike the beginning of her career as a novelist, when Morrison’s genius was up for debate and her choice to write free of concerns about the opinions of white people raised hackles, the entire world rose up to mourn her and celebrate her many contributions. Second, she graced the earth for 88 years. It didn’t feel as though someone had been prematurely stolen from us, like Lorraine Hansberry dying at age 34 or being forced to say goodbye to Jimmy Baldwin when he was 63. And third, I decided to follow Sanchez’s advice, starting with Sula.

Toni Morrison attends the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on Oct. 20, 2010.

Photo by Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic

For most of my childhood, Morrison’s works were beautifully crafted abstractions. The words were accessible, and yet admiring them was not the same as understanding them.

When I read Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, as a high school senior, my approach was practically clinical. I absorbed the work the same way I pored over the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — that is to say, in obsessive pursuit of an “A” — reading and regurgitating literary criticism and taking apart the book’s symbolism, context and ideas. But there was one moment when I connected to Morrison as a black girl.

During a class discussion, a white girl in the nearly all-white class asked the teacher what “high yellow” meant. I piped up because I actually knew the answer. “It’s a couple shades lighter than me,” I explained.

The girl turned and glared at me. “Well, thanks for that, Soraya,” she snarled, and then went on to admonish me for employing such a graphic example. I was confused and a little embarrassed. Why was she angry with me? Why had she reacted with such venom, as though I’d pointed out a deficiency that had embarrassed her? A wall grew between my blackness and that which Morrison had recorded for posterity, and I learned that it was offensive to connect the two. So Pecola Breedlove, the book’s main character, meant about as much to me as Ivan Denisovich. Two fascinating foreigners in two different gulags.

It wasn’t until my 20s — after having studied at Howard, the same university Morrison attended and taught at — that I picked up her work again, dared to see myself in it and read for my own pleasure and edification.

I chose Sula. Morrison’s second novel, published in 1973, is the story of friends Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who grow up in a small town and whose adult lives move in different directions. Probably about 10% of it stuck with me. I remember being enchanted by Sula’s clothing. Wrote Morrison:

She was dressed in a manner that was as close to a movie star as anyone would ever see. A black crepe dress splashed with pink and yellow zinnias, foxtails, a black felt hat with the veil of net lowered over one eye. In her right hand was a black purse with a beaded clasp and in her left a red leather traveling case, so small, so charming — no one had ever seen anything like it before, including the mayor’s wife and the music teacher, both of whom had been to Rome.

Sula had left her tiny community of Medallion, Ohio, for college in Nashville, Tennessee, and had returned worldly, glamorous and uncontainable. I grew up in a small North Carolina town I had no desire to revisit. After spending a summer working in Jackson, Mississippi, and another in Kansas City, Missouri, I realized I had something in common with Sula, which was that the provincial life was not for me. I yearned to be in a real city with black people and public transportation. And like Sula, I didn’t much see the point of marriage.

Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people’s skinned dreams and bony regrets. Those without men were like sour-tipped needles featuring one constant empty eye. Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh. They had looked at the world and back at their children, back at the world and back again at their children, and Sula knew that one clear young eye was all that kept the knife away from the throat’s curve.

The married women of Medallion were cautionary tales, especially for a young adult woman with no children. Every time a relative or a stranger made a remark about my potential as a wife and mother, I wanted to scream, the same way I wanted to scream every Thanksgiving in my grandmother’s house when all the women were conscripted into domestic duties while the men got to sit and watch football.

So Sula’s words to her grandmother, Eva, made perfect sense to me. “You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you,” Eva told Sula.

“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

“Selfish. Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man.”

Award-winning New York author Toni Morrison is seen here at the Harbourfront’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto in 1982.

Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

I supposed I, like Sula, would simply be selfish. Sula made sense to me. I didn’t fully grasp why Sula kept bouncing from man to man — I suppose I thought of her as the Samantha Jones of her day — but I understood choosing yourself first.

Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her, and with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.

So what if she died young? At least she had the sense to do a little living first. My admiration was superficial and grounded in my own stubborn, rather narrowly defined pursuit of the feminist cause. The darker details of Sula’s life slid by in my mind, and for the next 10 years, I walked around with an incomplete understanding of her.

And then the woman who created Sula died.

Recently, I’d been skipping around Morrison’s essays in The Source of Self-Regard, which, on some level, is a helpful guidebook for how to be a black woman in America without going mad. And I’d seen Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ wonderful documentary about Morrison.

Her words were still important, but I was mostly obsessed with Morrison’s life and personality. She was a lioness of American literature, yes, but she was also charming, sensual and self-assured. Here was a woman with a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize grinning as she talked about how good she was at making carrot cakes, how she indulged her sexual appetites as a Howard student without a lick of shame or regret. To Morrison, chasing ambition did not require abandoning pleasure.

Toni Morrison attends Art & Social Activism, a discussion on Broadway with TaNehisi Coates, Morrison and Sonia Sanchez, on June 15, 2016, in New York City.

Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The Stella Adler Studio of Acting

For some time now, my editor has sent me on assignments and reminded me to have fun. My responses are always halting and awkward because I’m going to work, and work requires focus, and fun just seemed inappropriate.

And yet here was the freest black woman in the world, and she lived her life in such a way that pleasure and style were not antithetical to intellectual rigor. If anything, they fed it. The fact that Morrison was a writer made this seem all the more superhuman. Writing is typically characterized by long bouts of misery rewarded with occasional pearls of short-lived but deeply intense satisfaction. Morrison seemed to have found a way to supply herself with a steady stream of joy.

Rather than living literary goddess, I began to think about Morrison as a fellow writer, a fellow Howard grad, a fellow woman. There were whole worlds in the lives of my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers and their grandmothers that I thought were none of my business because, well, they told me they were none of my business. What did a child need to know about the personal exploits of her ancestors? That was grown folks’ business. I realized that reading Morrison’s books feels like gaining entry into a club of black adulthood. They turn ancestors into contemporaries.

So I revisited Sula last week because Sula, like so much of Morrison’s writing, is a grown woman novel. The fact that Sula slept with her best friend’s husband is, frankly, the least interesting thing about her. I saw Sula through new eyes, as a woman who did a horrible thing as a 12-year-old (accidentally killing Chicken Little by throwing him in the river, where he drowned) and never fully got over it, no matter how hard she tried.

This time, I marveled at Morrison’s freedom. So much focus has been paid, and rightfully so, to how she didn’t seek white validation. But it’s more than that. Morrison possessed the moxie to create whatever world she pleased and follow whatever road beckoned in it. In doing so, she could create a heroine who slept with everyone’s husbands but genuinely didn’t mean anything by it. Who else breaks taboos with such gentle elegance, without the need to shout about it in the prose, but simply allows it to unfold?

Now I think the thing Sula actually spent most of her adult life chasing was joy, the love she felt she deserved, and she kept coming up short. She’d try on a man, then do away with him the moment she knew he didn’t have what she was looking for. And she kept doing it until she met Ajax.

Morrison was unafraid of letting everyone in Medallion regard Sula as a witch while daring to assert how Sula’s presence actually improved the lives of those in her community, whether they recognized it or not. When the people of Medallion don’t have Sula to kick around, they lose the vessel for all their displeasures and frustrations and insecurities and simply fall prey to them again.

This time, I paid closer attention to Nel, Sula’s best friend, and her realization that motherhood will be the most interesting thing about her life. I thought of my friends who are now mothers, and I felt grateful that I am able to make space for their children and their partners in my heart instead of walling myself off from the changes they welcomed in their lives. I got lost in Sula and Nel’s friendship in a way I never had before, and in this passage in particular, when Sula is alone on her deathbed:

While in this state of weary anticipation, she noticed that she was not breathing, that her heart had stopped completely. A crease of fear touched her breast, for any second there was sure to be a violent explosion in her brain, a gasping for breath. Then she realized, or rather, she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead.

Sula felt her face smiling. “Well I’ll be damned,” she thought, “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.”

It took nearly 20 years, but I finally did what Morrison had been inviting me to do, through decades of writing: to see myself in her words, as only a grown woman can.

OWN’s ‘David Makes Man’ melds surrealism with the everyday oddities of Florida A new drama from ‘Moonlight’ scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney remixes poverty, danger and adolescence with a setting that seasons it all with a little strange

A new OWN drama from the playwright behind Moonlight and Choir Boy has the potential to grow into a compelling work of television — once it develops some consistency.

David Makes Man, which premieres Aug. 14 at 10 p.m. EDT on OWN, stars Akili McDowell as David, a 14-year-old middle schooler from the projects who plays guardian to his precocious 9-year-old brother when their mother, Gloria (Alana Arenas), is too weary to be roused. Every morning, David gets Jonathan Greg, or JG (Cayden Williams), out the door to school, then sprints to catch a bus to a predominantly white magnet school across town. He and his mother have high hopes that David can earn entrance into an exclusive prep school called Hurston.

Akili McDowell as David (left) meets with his teacher, Dr. Woods-Trap, played by Phylicia Rashad (right), in David Makes Man.

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

There are plenty of unconventional supporting characters, from a drug dealer named Sky (Isaiah Johnson), who urges David to do right with a never-ending supply of riddles and poetry, to Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles), a kindly, shade-throwing drag queen who lives next door, to David’s best friend Seren (Nathaniel McIntyre), a mixed-race, middle-class kid who to David appears to have it made. David’s teacher (Phylicia Rashad) and counselor (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) provide a combination of tough love and constancy in his life.

The OWN drama faces a challenge in marrying the demands of serialized television with an impressionistic style more common in film.

This is the first time McCraney has brought his meditative style to television. He’s working with Dee Harris-Lawrence (Shots Fired, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.), who serves as showrunner. OWN labels David Makes Man, co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan, a “lyrical drama,” but the results are mixed. Themes from McCraney’s previous work, such as poverty, adolescence and dubious mentors, show up in David Makes Man. A chorus of purples and blues punctuates the visual style of director Michael Francis Williams. But the South Florida setting is what keeps David Makes Man from turning into a collection of clichés about a poor black kid growing up in the projects with a single mom who’s a recovering addict.

Watching the characters of David Makes Man can sometimes feel like a visit to Bon Temps, the fictional setting for True Blood, minus the vampires and werewolves and with significantly more black people. The OWN drama faces a challenge in marrying the demands of serialized television with an impressionistic style more common in film. Its pilot is immersive, focused more on viewer experience than plot. For instance, a needed clarification about where the show and David’s life will go comes in the final minutes of the first episode.

Akili McDowell’s character, David, is a 14-year-old middle schooler from the projects who plays guardian to his precocious 9-year-old brother.

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

The search for balance between styles is evident in subsequent episodes, as the surrealism of ghosts, internal voices and flashbacks creeps into the daily drama of David’s life in The Ville, a housing project officially known as Homestead Gardens. Not unlike the cheery purple of the motel in The Florida Project, the apartments of The Ville are coated in a candy cane pink stucco that’s frequently at odds with the realities of life for most of its residents. As if he doesn’t have enough to contend with, David is also trying to stay out of the clutches of Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert), a menacing teenage dealer who is bent on conscripting David into serving him and his boss, Raynan’s fearsome uncle.

A scene at the house of Seren’s white mother and black stepfather veers into soap opera territory, and so does a confrontation between David’s mother and father. That’s not unusual for OWN’s other prestige dramas, Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, but it feels out of place in a show that’s set its ambitions rather high. That’s especially true given the abuse that Seren appears to be enduring from both parents.

Still, David Makes Man grows more comfortable and confident in itself by episode five. With engaging performances from Arenas, Coles, Johnson and especially McDowell, who colors David with a potent mix of sweetness and anxiety, it’s ripe to blossom into something special. When Gloria joins Mx. Elijah to dress up as Janelle Monáe, she comes alive for a momentary spark of joy in a show that’s often characterized by the heaviness of lack — lack of food, lack of money, lack of safety — and the tension that comes with the possibility of violence.

It’s intriguing to see a variety of shows find different ways to wrestle with the strangeness that emanates from Florida. There’s Claws, starring Niecy Nash, which recently concluded its second season, and the upcoming On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a dark comedy premiering on Showtime later this month that follows a woman trying to exact revenge on the pyramid scheme that bankrupted her family. Claws and On Becoming a God offer more levity than David Makes Man, but they’re all panels of a patchwork quilt making sense of Florida. It’s the only thing, really, that can explain the presence of a group of tough but amiable trans sex workers who help David get home one night, like he’s Dorothy in a modern-day Oz.

That balance of earnestness and oddities could make for compelling television, so long as its makers keep tweaking.

A world premiere opera, ‘Blue,’ confronts the police shooting of a teenage boy A powerful new work is destined to join the American canon

There are stories that become part of the fabric of American culture, told, retold and reimagined many times over, like West Side Story, Porgy and Bess, and A Raisin in the Sun. In recent years, a number of storytellers have attempted to fold police shootings of black people into works that are similarly grand and timeless.

Few of those efforts have been so memorable, so unshakable, that they ascend to something more. Blue, a new opera that just had its world premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, may be the exception.

The show begins with The Mother (Briana Hunter, right) chatting with her Three Girlfriends about giving birth to a baby boy. The Girlfriends say America is no place to safely raise a black boy.

Connor Lange/The Glimmerglass Festival

The opera, by composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson, is a tragedy built on big themes: familial loyalty, race and regret. Blue tells the story of a black couple in Harlem and the death of their only son, who, as a teen, is shot and killed by a police officer (whose race is not specified). What’s more devastating is that the teen’s father is a police officer too. One of his colleagues killed his son.

Police violence provides a rich area for opera and theater in general. The tragedy of innocence and hope interrupted by untimely, unprovoked death works in the same way that consumption provides a common vehicle for life cut short in La Traviata, La Bohème and Les Contes D’Hoffman.

What makes Blue stand out is that it demands a place in the American operatic canon. Thompson and Tesori skillfully marry the traditions of opera with modern storytelling to create new archetypes, which is underscored by Thompson’s decision to keep his characters nameless. They are simply identified as The Father, The Mother and The Reverend, with supporting roles played by Three Girlfriends and Three Police Officer Buddies.

The show opens with The Mother (mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter) cupping her pregnant belly and chatting with her Three Girlfriends. She’s married a cop, much to their horror, and is about to give birth to a baby boy.

Her friends’ advice is morbid. They counsel her to have an abortion and try again for a girl. America, they say, is no place to safely raise a black boy. If she insists on having the kid, maybe raise him in China, where he won’t be seen as a threat before he even hits his 10th birthday.

But The Mother and The Father (bass baritone Kenneth Kellogg) carry on, making a home in Harlem for their little boy, who quickly grows into a teen questioning how and why he ended up with a cop for a father.

Aaron Crouch (right) stars as The Son and is well-aware of how he’s perceived in the world. He’s angry and full of resentment toward his cop father (Kenneth Kellogg, left).

Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Tesori’s orchestrations hum with the aural signatures of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, two composers who shaped the sound of Americana. But Tesori also uses Blue to expand definitions of the quintessential American sound by including a few bars from Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” in a scene where The Son (tenor Aaron Crouch) is arguing with The Father. The Son provides yet another variation on Bigger Thomas, updated for 2019. This time, he’s a middle-class skater punk. Costume designer Jessica Jahn has kitted The Son in the Gen Z aesthetic of the newly woke: a plaid shirt, a Thrasher hoodie, ripped jeans, DC sneakers and, most notably, a half-shorn head topped with dreadlocks à la Erik Killmonger.

Blue centers on one big conflict. In The Son’s bedroom, The Father and his teenage progeny engage in a well-worn argument. The Son, hyperaware of how race colors the way he is perceived in the world, is a simmering cauldron of anger and resentment directed toward his cop father. He can’t understand why his father would choose to earn a living by contributing to the mass incarceration system that disproportionately targets black and brown people.

Sings The Son:

That’s exactly what I am.

Endangered species.

Black men brought into this world as white people’s fodder. For labor and for sport.

Go so far but no further.

But we keep multiplying and climbing and advancing. Now they can’t get rid of us fast enough.

The Father has more immediate concerns: providing for his family, and keeping his son safe. He tells him:

Stay alive.

That’s what you’re supposed to do.

Look at you.

Dressed like somebody’s damn Gypsy.

Get a haircut, pull up your pants, remove the jewelry.

Take off the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie.

The generational divide between parent and son over race and respectability, especially with regard to police violence, is a common trope at this point. Thematically, Blue has a lot in common with the Broadway play American Son and the third season of Queen Sugar, which both feature teen boys pushing back against the way their parents choose to navigate race and prejudice in America. Jamal, the never-seen son in American Son, and Micah West (Nicholas L. Ashe) hate the politics of respectability and actively rebel against them.

They reject their parents’ accommodationist tactics for dealing with white supremacy. In American Son, it’s Jamal’s father, Scott (Steven Pasquale), who has faith in the American judicial system. In the most recent season of Queen Sugar, Micah finds himself at odds with his mother, Charley (Dawn Lyen-Gardner), who wants to repair a broken system from within. Micah, by contrast, wants to set the whole system ablaze.

In all three stories, the parents must face the fact that they are helpless when it comes to protecting their sons from state violence. Their sons see their attempts as capitulations to white supremacy. Normal family squabbles, like the emotional distance between a stoic, conservatively masculine father and his radical son, get complicated and even more hurtful.

In Blue, The Son sings:

If you struck me

or put your arms around me …

Just once …

I’d begin to know there was a human being inside that blue clown suit — who imagines he’s my father.

A black man.

In blue.

Pathetic!

Kellogg, Crouch and Hunter make for a powerful trio of voices, and when Hunter disappears for nearly a third of the opera, it’s impossible not to wonder if Thompson forgot about her. The argument between The Father and The Son is momentous, and The Mother’s absence prompts a question: What is her role when it comes to the ideological rift between the two most important people in her life? The stage goes black with The Father embracing his son as he stews with teenage rancor. When the lights come back up after intermission, The Son is dead and The Father is sitting with The Reverend (Gordon Hawkins), trying to process the guilty ache his son’s homicide has created.

Kenneth Kellogg as The Father is trying to process the guilty ache his son’s homicide has created.

Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

But Thompson, who also directs the production, is not forgetful, merely strategic. A flashback in the third act hinges on The Mother’s role as nurturer, caregiver and peacekeeper. It also takes a largely predictable plot someplace devastating. Thompson fashions The Mother, The Father and The Son into a new black Everyfamily. Their pain can be easily projected onto so many parents, whom we come to know when the worst moments of their lives become hashtags and images of their slain children echo across the internet.

The story of Blue crystalizes a horrifying event, the killing of an unarmed black child and the extinguishing of hope and innocence, while its score never lets its audience forget that this, too, is part of the American tradition.

In theater, the white gaze takes center stage Three plays — ‘Fairview,’ ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘Toni Stone’ — highlight how black theater-makers approach audiences who do not look like them

Right before the end of Act I of Toni Stone, a new play about the first woman to play in baseball’s Negro Leagues, its company engages in an extended shuck-and-jive routine.

The nine actors, all wearing the uniform of the Indianapolis Clowns, sport wide, ersatz grins as they leap across the stage, each performing some grotesque trick. One juggles, another high-kicks. The team of court jesters does its best to amuse an imaginary crowd of white baseball spectators, most of whom showed up to see the team’s feigned merrymaking and Bojangling in the outfield.

There was some laughter from the mostly white and mostly older audience at the performance I attended at Roundabout Theatre Company. It simmered into nervous titters as it became clear that the routine the Clowns were performing was demeaning, soul-deadening work. An uncomfortable silence fell over the audience. The stadium lights of the set flashed bright for an instant, then went black.

The show actively talks to an audience it correctly assumes will be majority white, and so it is written in a way to explain elements of black culture that may seem foreign.

Joan Marcus

Stone, played by April Matthis, delivered the last word: “Our people always did have a way of turning what matters into something beautiful that touches the soul. We call that laughter and they call that clowning. But you know they know. They know it’s powerful so’s they come back for more of it. But they also know they can’t do it … never mind catch a pop an’ flip back an’ throw it in for the double play. White people think if it’s fun an’ have a certain elegance, it ain’t serious. But they know. Everyone knows they can’t turn what’s practical into something more, the Charleston Slide, the Mississippi slow grind, or the art of making a skill pretty. So they laugh and give us a little bit of money so they keep laughing, but they know it’s powerful and they know that we know what they doin’ to us while we still steady makin’ em laugh.”

When the play resumed after intermission, one of the Clowns, known as King Tut (Phillip James Brannon), broke the fourth wall to address the audience. King Tut tried to smooth over any tension from the show’s unexpected turn toward the team’s resentment of racist fans by addressing it head-on. “Oh, good,” he said. “Thoughta mighta scared you at the bottom of the first.”

In another instance, Stone turns to reassure the audience before lighting into another teammate, Jimmy, while they are all on the bus together. Here’s how it appears in the script:

TONI

No … I just called him over here to ask him ’bout his mama.

(to audience) I don’t know Jimmy’s mama. We about to play the dozens. (beat) It’s just a game.

The play is a biographical sketch of Stone, focusing mostly on the ways that she’s an outsider within a group of outsiders. Her male teammates in the Negro Leagues, shut out from the opportunity in the majors, have conversations about what makes a black man like Jackie Robinson suitable to break baseball’s color barrier. Meanwhile, Stone is constantly wrestling with the way her gender impacts how she’s received as a ballplayer, along with expectations about her behavior, hair and style of dress and the roles she and her husband (also the Clowns’ manager) occupy once they’re married.

Stone often faces the audience to explain who she is, what she wants and what she loves to set up scenes from her life. There’s a recurring joke to break up these bits: Stone faces the audience and deadpans, “I’m a little girl” during flashbacks when she is, in fact, a little girl.

But what I kept noticing was how much playwright Lydia R. Diamond had fashioned her play with the white gaze in mind. The show actively talks to an audience it correctly assumes will be majority white, and so it is written in a way to explain elements of black culture that may seem foreign.

Once I realized this was a pattern and not just a one-off, the tic became increasingly grating for a couple of reasons:

1) This sort of narrative hand-holding coddles and enables cultural ignorance on the part of the audience.

2) It tells black audience members that even though they’re watching a show that’s about black people, played entirely by black actors and written by a black playwright, the show isn’t interested in acknowledging its black audience or the knowledge of ourselves that we bring to our own stories.


Considerations about the overrepresentation of whiteness in theater audiences are almost unavoidable because it’s built into the experience of consuming theater in a way that, say, it’s not with television. You can see strangers watching alongside you and their reactions.

So, should playwrights and directors acknowledge this in the work? And if so, how? Three plays running in New York this summer — Toni Stone, Much Ado About Nothing and Fairview — help us focus on those questions.

Toni Stone often faces the audience to explain who she is, what she wants and what she loves to set up scenes from her life.

Toni Stone accommodates its white audience unfamiliar with black traditions. Public Theater’s all-black production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kenny Leon, was utterly unconcerned with explaining Leon’s vision for Beatrice and Benedick. Either you understood the references or you didn’t. Then there’s Fairview, the play that netted Jackie Sibblies Drury the Pulitzer Prize by not just acknowledging the white gaze but also actively challenging it.

I became exasperated with the racial exposition of Toni Stone, but that’s not to say clever ways of acknowledging the whiteness of theater audiences don’t exist. Take, for instance, Jordan E. Cooper’s Ain’t No Mo’, which closed this spring after a run at The Public.

Ain’t No Mo’ starts with a very black funeral taking place in a very black church. It’s Nov. 4, 2008, and within the casket sitting onstage rests not a person but a thing: black people’s right to complain. Or, as the pastor refers to it, “Brother Righttocomplain.”

At one point during an extremely spirited eulogy, Pastor Freeman (Marchánt Davis) begins to lead his congregation in a rather unconventional church shout:

I guess y’all done went to sleep on Pastor Freeman, I-I-I-I-I must be preaching to mySELF this evening cause I ain’t heard a SHOUT yet. I said there ain’t no more tears to be shed because the President is WHAT? Ain’t no more marching in the streets to be heard, because the President is WHAT? Come on and say it, somebody, I can see the spirit doing the Cupid Shuffle in yo chest right now, waiting to rise up and reveal itself as yo true voice. … I want every colored person in this room to turn to yo neighbor and say neighbor … the President is my n—- …… Louder … SAY THE PRESIDENT IS MY N—-.

Pastor Freeman would improvise as he bounced from aisle to aisle, among the theater audience turned congregants. “THE PRESIDENT IS MY N—-,” the good pastor would holler, raising his arms and making eye contact with the black folks in the audience, encouraging them to join in the shouting. Then a white face would appear in his line of sight. “Not you!”

I practically bellowed with laughter.

Considerations about the overrepresentation of whiteness in theater audiences are almost unavoidable because it’s built into the experience of consuming theater in a way that, say, it’s not with television. You can see strangers watching alongside you and their reactions.

Admittedly, my gauge for this sort of thing is heavily influenced by my job, my upbringing and my education. I grew up with a black parent and graduated from a historically black university. I write about culture and race for a site that is mostly trafficked by white readers, but they are not the primary audience I’m addressing. There’s a reason for that distinction. Part of it is simply that not everything is about white people. Even the stuff they can see! But the other part is that getting trapped in a perpetual introductory class of Race Theory 101 becomes rather dull rather quickly. Having to repeatedly pause to explain basic concepts about black culture or about racism eats up time and energy I’d prefer to expend elsewhere. The white gaze doesn’t just assume whiteness is the default. It reorients everything to force that fallacy to be true. It’s indicative of a power imbalance that even in art about black folks, accommodating white ignorance is expected. The fact that Hamilton largely refused to do this was one of the things that made it such a revelation.

These pauses that exist solely to enlighten white people who lead racially blinkered lives have been named “explanatory commas” by Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, the hosts of NPR’s Code Switch podcast. One of the problems with Toni Stone is that its explanatory commas feel retrograde. Frankly, after a season that included work such as BLKS, Ain’t No Mo’, Choir Boy and Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing, all of which are steeped in black culture and not particularly interested in justifying or explaining it, I began to take for granted that black artists could make theater about themselves without having to include a pause for white people to catch up.

Leon’s Much Ado, produced for the Free Shakespeare in the Park series, is hammy and energetic and encourages audience interaction and scene-stealing. It’s a rendering of Shakespeare that pays homage to traveling black stage plays.

Everything about its design, from the giant “STACEY ABRAMS 2020” banners that flank the set to the Morehouse maroon of the actors’ costumes to Camille A. Brown’s choreography, screams bougie black contemporary Atlanta. Yet Shakespeare’s text remained the same. There were no signposts in the dialogue to direct you to the inspirations for Leon’s aesthetic decisions. They simply existed.

The thing I appreciated about the lack of explanatory commas was how it rearranged the power dynamic between artist and patron to something more equitable. What Leon did with Much Ado is move the baseline for cultural literacy in the theater audience. There were things about black life that you’re expected to know because it’s unthinkable that you wouldn’t. And he did it by pairing it with the words of the most universally known and respected playwright in human history: Shakespeare.

Fairview takes a different approach, running head-on at the white gaze, even during its unconventional curtain call. The play challenges the white gaze by making it a part of the show in a way that highlights how such narcissism spills into the consumption of black art.

Fairview starts out as a conventional-seeming work about a black family celebrating its matriarch’s birthday. But lighting and sound changes in the second act reveal to the seated audience that it’s actually witnessing white people watch a play about black people. The second act is a repeat of the first, except the actors are muted while a soundtrack of unseen white people comments about what’s happening in the plot and their own attitudes about race. Finally, the white people physically inject themselves into the story as if they bought tickets to some sort of blackness immersion theme park ride.

Fairview leaves audiences unable to deny the influence of the white gaze and pushes them to question their own complicity in perpetuating it. Toni Stone seems to have succumbed to it. And Leon’s Much Ado ignores it. Here’s to more art that offers up blackness without apology or explanation, expands definitions of cultural literacy and challenges audiences of all stripes to do the reading.

Pulitzer-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury wants her audience to feel awkward Her play ‘Fairview’ wrestles with white audiences judging work by people of color

Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury is a veteran of occupying spaces, from the theater to Yale to America itself, that aren’t necessarily welcoming but still feel like home.

Her play Fairview, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, critiques the white gaze, particularly in theater, where it’s not uncommon to see shows starring, written and directed by black people that are performed for audiences that are older and whiter than the country at large.

Heather Alicia Simms (left) stars as Beverly and Roslyn Ruff (right) is Jasmine in Fairview, playing at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn.

Gerry Goodstein

One of the most impressive things about Fairview is its creativity in addressing this strangeness. The first act is about a black family getting ready to fete the family’s matriarch for her birthday. But the show takes a left turn in the second act, when the actors repeat the same lines and scenes from the first act but they’re muted. Instead, the audience hears a running commentary from four white characters who have been watching the play and eventually begin talking about what race they would be if they could choose. In the third act, the white people are visible and insert themselves into the family drama. Havoc ensues, and the whole enterprise is wrapped up with a surprise shift in the power dynamics between the audience and the actors.

A first-generation American, Sibblies Drury, 37, grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, the daughter of Jamaican parents. She studied playwriting at Yale School of Drama after years of traveling to New York with her mother to see plays and musicals as a child.

Her newest work, Marys Seacole, which ended its run at Lincoln Center in April, looked at the Jamaican nurse known as the black Florence Nightingale. But it’s more than a dramatized biography. Sibblies Drury uses the play to examine generations of care work by Jamaican women, how it is undervalued and how race colors that lack of appreciation.

A few days before the show’s opening at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, New York, where Fairview is running through July 28, Sibblies Drury and I spoke while having tacos and margaritas at a restaurant across the street.

The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

The night that I saw Fairview, people were shell-shocked as they filed out. Is that always the reaction?

Charles Browning (right), who plays Dayton, joins Heather Alicia Simms (left) onstage in Fairview.

Henry Grossman

The audience changes every night. I know that actors have to alter their performances based on the energy that they’re getting from the audience. If a line that normally gets a laugh doesn’t get a laugh, you sort of pause and you feel a little bit like a schmuck for a second.

If people find the first act of the show really funny, generally in the second act of the show the audience is really quiet. And then if people are more quiet in the first act, and less sure of how to interact with that kind of humor, then sometimes they’re much more vocal in the second act. At the end of the show … it’s awkward. And it’s sort of by design.

Sarah Benson, who directed it, and Raja [Feather Kelly], who is the choreographer, talked a lot about whether or not to play music even as the audience is leaving the theater space and how it was really good to let people sit in their awkwardness. … Much of the show is so ugly that letting it be awkward at the end feels appropriate.

Tell me a little bit about watching people watch your work.

I feel like watching white audiences watch the work of people that I respect and admire who are people of color, and seeing how the audience changes the work, I feel is a big part. Just acknowledging the inherent power dynamic in that and how that feels connected to power dynamics in society.

My first play [We Are Proud to Present] was at Soho Rep seven or eight years ago. The director and I put the audience mostly around the sides of the room so that everyone would watch each other during the show. It was also a show about race in that it was about both white and black people imagining Africa and projecting themselves onto it. And then in trying to talk about Africa, they end up bringing up American racial trauma because it’s really hard to see black and white dynamics and not think about that. Theater people spend a lot of time watching audiences in all shows. But it was nice to let the audience know that that was a part of it just by the staging of it, and not an accident.

I am a little bit obsessed with watching whiteness and blackness. I do think that it was about going to see a lot of plays in my teens, 20s, 30s, and often being the only person of color in an audience and often feeling very visible in that way. And even welcomed in a very ‘So what brought you to the play? We’re so happy to have you,’ on the good end of the spectrum. And then if I ever did anything wrong, if I forgot to turn off my cellphone, I’m feeling very not welcome in that space.

So I feel like watching white audiences watch the work of people that I respect and admire who are people of color, and seeing how the audience changes the work, I feel is a big part. Just acknowledging the inherent power dynamic in that and how that feels connected to power dynamics in society. It just felt like this weird, dense metaphor.

Has this ever been performed in front of a completely POC [people of color] audience?

No.

It would be a really different experience if it was for all POC because the space would have been granted. For a little while, I thought that it would be impossible to do it without having any white people in the audience. I feel like the whole play would be more joyful maybe? And less uncomfortable. But maybe that’s not true.

What was your experience like at Yale?

Weird. Deeply, like, deeply odd.

Tell us more.

Jackie Sibblies Drury says Roslyn Ruff (pictured) and all the actors have to alter their performances based on the energy that they’re getting from the audience.

Gerry Goodstein

I went to a private school in New Jersey. And I knew what rich people were, so I was, like, there are people at my [high] school that are members of the country club, and that is wealth. And then I got to Yale, and I was like, whoa, whoa. And I thought, I just hadn’t experienced people that had access to literally everything their entire lives.

I remember going to the freshman quad thing and having someone close the door behind them and not let me in because they thought that I was from New Haven and not from Yale, and I was like, what? Why? I just had no understanding of any of that. But I had it a lot easier than a lot of people because I was also a weird theater kid, so I fell in with the weird theater kids, which was helpful.

Seeing people that were actually entitled, like very, very, very entitled, expected everything from the world and expected the world would greet them with open arms and give them whatever they wanted, was helpful. I don’t think that I would be thinking that I could write things that other people would find interesting if I hadn’t been completely drowned in that kind of psychotic self-interest, and so I’m really grateful for that.

Your mom introduced you to theater?

She worked for a supermarket company. When I was in middle school, high school, she was in charge of the frozen food department for this New York-, New Jersey-, Connecticut-based supermarket company, Pathmark. One of the perks was that people that were coming out with a new ice cream brand would be like, ‘Let’s wine and dine you. And we’ll send you to a Broadway show.’ Because she was divorced, she would take me. So I would get to go see Cats and Les Mis and stuff.

It was so awesome. And you get free dinner at some place in Times Square that was fancy. I was really into lobster tails at the time. I was like, ‘What’s the fanciest, most expensive thing I can get on this menu?’ I was like, ‘I don’t even know if I like them, but you get butter. And they’re expensive. So I’ll have three!’

My mom was always an incredibly avid reader and consumer of culture. It’s funny, in the last 10 years, I’ve dragged her to see all this superweird s— downtown. And I’m like, ‘It’s going to be great, mom. Someone is going to get naked and they’re going to throw their own feces at the back wall of the stage.’ But now she’ll go and see a show on Broadway and she’ll be like, ‘I don’t know, I found it derivative.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes. I’ve made you a theater snob!’

Soho Rep, where Fairview premiered, is so intimate, with just 65 seats, and I imagine that ratchets up the level of discomfort. How do you preserve that in moving to the 299-seat Theatre for a New Audience?

Part of the reason that we wanted to be in this space is that even though it’s bigger, it’s not a 500-seat theater or a 1,000-seat theater. And there is something about the balconies and the acoustics that no one is so far away from the stage or from someone else in the audience. And you can see other audience members from everywhere. I feel like there are some theaters that roll out and it gets very dark in the house, and you feel like the people onstage can’t even hear you if you said anything. We were all interested in still having people feel like they could participate in the events and in the experience of the play, and that they could hear other people in the audience as it was happening.

What’s it like, having a Pulitzer? Have you thought about it much?

No. I mean, only when I’ve changed lines in a rehearsal room. And the actors have been like, ‘You really want to change the lines of the Pulitzer-winning play?!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, yeah. Now you need a longer exit line, so we’re going to change.’

I realize I do have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder in a lot of different ways. And anything that can be seen as validating can also be explained away. As many people as there are like, ‘Wow. The Pulitzers really got it right, so great for you, hurray,’ there are equally as many people that I have, thankfully, not talked to that much that are like, ‘What an off year. The Pulitzers are trying to follow a trend. This is such bulls—, and this is devaluing the Pulitzer.’

And so it’s like, yay? I don’t know. I should be happier about it. I should just be purely happy.

Does your husband ever remind you that you’re great?

He’s actually really good about that. … And then also, ‘I know you won an award and everything, but do you want to do a dish once in a while?’ But I say that with love. He’s incredibly supportive in a lot of ways. Emotional, physical, mental, he’s great. I’m very lucky. Not to be a sap.

Did you talk with your grandmother and mother much about race?

I think that my mom had a very particular experience. She’s Jamaican, but my grandmother is white and eventually married my mother’s father, who was a black man, but they were both Jamaican. So my mom grew up with a very different conception about an interracial relationship, or interracial wasn’t a word that she heard until she came to America. She has never referred to herself as biracial. She’s just a black Jamaican person in her mind. And I think moving near Newark in the early ’70s, when there were race riots happening, it was like America is racist and terrifying. But I think that she didn’t think about race that much before coming to America.

There’s definitely an immigrant filter that you see race through.

For West Indian people, generally, historically, colorism is a huge issue. I feel like my mom was more sensitive to that than she was to race in some ways, and thinking about what it meant to be treated differently from a cousin because she had lighter skin than them or darker skin than them. A lot of her sense of fairness and equality is shade-oriented rather than race-oriented. And in some ways that was really helpful for me growing up in terms of feeling kinship with lots of different minorities.

I feel like my mom was like, ‘Americans were racist. You have to be careful.’ And she’d be like, ‘Jamaicans are sexist. So you have to be careful.’ Not wrong. I just think it’s more complicated.

Tony-nominated playwright Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people She’s nominated for her work on the hit Broadway musical ‘Ain’t Too Proud’

Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people, and she’s doing it by paying homage to her hometown of Detroit.

The 41-year-old playwright has been having a banner year. In October, she was one of 25 fellows to win grants from the MacArthur Foundation. Morisseau wrote the book for one of Broadway’s hottest shows this season, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. Now, it’s nominated for 12 Tonys, including best musical. There’s a possibility Morisseau could be taking home a statue for herself on Sunday night, as the show is nominated for best book (for spoken dialogue and storyline).

Oprah Winfrey (standing, center) poses with the cast and creative team backstage at the hit musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations on May 17 at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.

Photo by Bruce Glikas/WireImage

The jukebox musical tells the story of one of Motown’s most beloved groups as it soars to worldwide fame while balancing the needs and egos of a rotating array of singers. Founding member Otis Williams, played by Derrick Baskin, narrates the timeline from his beginnings as a teenage singer straight up to the modern day. At 77, the real Williams is still very much alive, and Ain’t Too Proud is based on his memoir. The musical briefly touches on issues that affected the group’s many singers, including being an absentee father, drug abuse and the pressure to avoid commenting on the Vietnam War, segregation or anything else that might pierce the melodic escapism they came to represent. But those issues are never allowed to overtake the tone of the show.

A big Broadway musical is a departure for Morisseau, and as her profile continues to grow, it’s something she’ll likely have to navigate more in the future.

“There are some things about writing a musical that are different than writing a play,” Morisseau told me. “The scarcity of language, how fast I have to convey an idea because we don’t have a lot of time between songs. The songs are really the story.”

Morisseau is married to musician James Keys, and music factors heavily in her plays. She figures they’ll likely write a musical together.

Before Ain’t Too Proud, Morisseau was a queen of off-Broadway, which is typically less commercial, racking up plaudits including a 2015 Steinberg Playwright Award and an Obie for her play Pipeline in 2018. Her work challenges audiences with complicated, interweaving social issues, especially when it comes to race. Pipeline, for instance, is about a black mother and public schoolteacher confronting her feelings of powerlessness in trying to prevent her son from getting sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Morisseau is a passionate advocate for her fellow black playwrights and actors, and for ways to improve the faults she sees in contemporary American theater, whether or not there’s a proscenium involved.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people.” — Dominique Morisseau

“I will say no to very shiny productions of my play if it does not feel like everything around it has the kind of artistic integrity that I want,” Morisseau said. “I’ve had to stand up to theaters several times around the curation of my work or my relationship with them. … I have a really great relationship with a lot of theaters in the city, but it comes from push and pull and us developing mutual respect, because I’m just not going to be the kind of artist that you can tell what to do.

“When it comes to making decisions about who’s going to be in my plays, who’s going to direct my plays, I take a strong stance. I collaborate with a theater. Sometimes they want to push a director on me. I have worked with directors that the theater has brought to the table, but those directors that they brought to the table have been African American women directors or African American directors. Then I’ll go, ‘Oh, OK, well let me meet that person.’ ”

She’s also vocal about calling for more black artistic directors, the people in charge of programming theater seasons who are responsible for maintaining an existing donor base of largely white patrons while courting new, younger and browner audiences. When Hana Sharif was named artistic director of St. Louis Repertory, Morisseau shared her huzzahs on Facebook.

“You don’t see artistic directors of color, period,” Morisseau explained. “And you don’t see women artistic directors very often. There’s a few white women artistic directors of a few regional theaters, significant regional theaters, but not enough. St. Louis Rep, that is a huge regional theater, so for Hana to run that regional theater, it’s a big seismic shift in our industry.”

Actress Simone Missick, who is best known for playing Misty Knight in Luke Cage, told me she considers Morisseau “one of the pre-eminent writers of our time in the theater world and in television.” Although Morisseau’s chief focus is theater, she was also a co-producer on the Showtime series Shameless, and she is currently developing projects for FX and HBO.

Missick starred in Paradise Blue, the middle play of Morisseau’s Detroit Project trilogy. Set in 1949, Paradise Blue follows a talented trumpeter named Blue, who is trying to decide what to do about the jazz club he owns in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. It’s not bringing in much money, and Blue wants to move on. At the same time, white speculators are buying up property in the neighborhood intending to gentrify it and pushing out the black residents. Oh — Blue also has a serious mental illness, and he’s troubled by the fact that his girlfriend, Pumpkin, wants to stay in Detroit even though he wants to leave. A mysterious woman from out of town, a literal black widow known as Silver, raises everyone’s hackles. Morisseau, who played Silver in the play’s original staging, describes the character as “Spicy. Gritty and raw in a way that men find irresistible. Has a meeeeeaaaannnn walk.”

“Dominique has a mastery which I wish more writers had,” Missick said. “When you read it, it reads the way that people talk.

“You could drop a microphone in Detroit or in Alabama, where some of these characters are from, or Louisiana, where my character was from. You could drop a microphone and those people would sound exactly the way that Dominique has written. And that is a beautiful thing because so often when I read work as an actor, you read things and you think, people don’t talk like that. … But she also gives her writing a musicality, and if the rhythm of it does not sync with her spirit, then she changes it.”

Within Morisseau’s story of gentrification and the upheaval it brings is another story about Pumpkin and the fights black women face battling racism and sexism. Morisseau chuckled when I referred to her in conversation as a feminist August Wilson. It turned out that I’d tripped over one of the things she hopes will change about theater, which is that the press compares every black playwright to Wilson, no matter how incongruous their styles may be.

“I laugh when people liken me to August Wilson in any way or shape or form,” she said. “They do that for so many of us young black playwrights. It’s like any of us that have poetry in our language and kind of capture this unapologetic rhythm of black dialect, we all are writing in the fashion of August.

“Some of us actually really are, and would own that. And I don’t think others are doing that at all or intending to do that. I think that they’re getting called that because that’s the easiest go-to reference for a lot of people.

“I can’t ever deny August’s influence on my work,” Morisseau said. “I started writing the Detroit [Project] because I was reading August Wilson’s work. I read his work back to back, and I read Pearl Cleage, who was from Detroit, I read her writing back to back. I was just so inspired by their canon of work. … I just thought, Wow, what his work is doing for the people of Pittsburgh, how they must feel so loved, so immortalized in his writing, I want to do that for Detroit.”

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters, gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect.” — actress Simone Missick

Like Wilson, Morisseau focuses on working-class black people, and her Detroit trilogy (Paradise Blue, Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew) shares some broad ideas with Wilson’s famous Pittsburgh Cycle.

Furthermore, Morisseau writes fully realized black characters who exist in a racist society without being polemical. The contours of white supremacy are very much part of the worlds she creates, but her plays are about people, not arguments. Detroit ’67 is set during the infamous riot that took place in 1967, and Skeleton Crew, set in 2008, examines the difficult decisions autoworkers face as their industry weathers storm after storm. All of them seek to portray a Detroit that’s more than a collection of pathologies, as evidenced in Morisseau’s dedication for Skeleton Crew, which is pointed and personal:

“This is for my Auntie Francine, my grandfather Pike, my cousins Michael Abney and Patti Poindexter, my Uncle Sandy, my friend David Livingston, my relative Willie Felder, and all of the UAW members and autoworkers whose passion for their work inspires me. And this is for the working-class warriors who keep this country driving forward.

“This is also for the politicians, financial analysts, and everyday citizens who echoed the negating sentiments, ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’ Yep, this is for you, too, dammit.”

In some ways, Morisseau plays a role in theater similar to the one Ava DuVernay occupies in film. Both women are vocal about inequities in their fields and the way they affect whose stories get told and the budgets allotted to tell them. Just as DuVernay has been committed to creating a pipeline of female directors with her OWN drama Queen Sugar, Morisseau has pushed to work with black directors in theater.

Like DuVernay, Morisseau’s writing is ambitious, deeply researched work that focuses on characters surmounting challenges large and small stemming from racial inequality.

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect,” Missick said. “It’s not trivial. It’s not trite. There is no character that is used to push the story along. I very rarely see that onstage or on screen, that every single person has something that they’re fighting for. … It’s something that I think makes her writing something that actors for generations will want to perform.”

Morisseau wants to keep challenging audiences. And she wants artistic directors to internalize that approach. She told me that artistic directors too often underestimate how much white audiences are willing to be pushed. And their conception of potential audience members remains blinkered.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people,” Morisseau said.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was snubbed in Tony nominations for best play. What a relief. Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation ignores the racist Atticus who Harper Lee described in ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles: Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was snubbed Tuesday morning in the Tony nominations for best play, thereby avoiding a disaster of Green Bookian proportions at this summer’s awards ceremony.

That sigh you hear is this writer exhaling in a mixture of both relief and schadenfreude. Since its debut in December, To Kill a Mockingbird has been showered with rapturous plaudits, suggesting it was a shoo-in for a best play nomination. Instead, the nominations went to Choir Boy, The Ferryman, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, Ink and What the Constitution Means to Me.

Mockingbird received nominations for lighting design, sound design, scene design, costume design, score and for performances by Jeff Daniels, Gideon Glick and Celia Keenan-Bolger. Bartlett Sher was also nominated for direction. But it struck out on the big prize, and deservedly so.

This new version of Mockingbird perpetuates one of the most pernicious, seductive lies in the history of this country: That racism, and all that results from it, can be blamed on a few cartoonishly evil characters. I have a name for these characters and the lie they have come to represent. I call them TROTs: Those Racists Over There. TROTs are scapegoats for racism, and they are everywhere, but they seem to proliferate in films that get nominated for awards. There’s Daisy Werthan in Driving Miss Daisy, Hilly Holbrook in The Help, Dixon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and every Southern white person who is mean to Don Shirley in Green Book.

Thanks to Sorkin, the TROT takes up residence eight times a week in the Shubert Theatre. His name is Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), the mouth-breathing bigot who rapes his daughter and falsely accuses a handicapped black man named Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) of attacking her.

Frederick Weller as Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Julieta Cervantes

The TROT exists in a symbiotic relationship with another trope: the white savior, who relies on the TROT so that he or she may be defined as noble, principled and morally unblemished. (Or at least, not so blemished that whatever ails them can’t be remedied by the end of the story with the aid of a psychological helpmeet. In Mockingbird, whatever perspective Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) may be lacking, his domestic, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), dryly provides.)

But the lie that white people can be divided into distinct groups of TROTs and saviors is one that Mockingbird’s original author doesn’t believe, as evidenced by the information Harper Lee introduces about her legendarily heroic country lawyer in Go Set a Watchman.

Set 20 years after the fateful summer in which 6-year-old Scout Finch witnesses her father defend Robinson, the 2015 sequel to Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel provides a complicated and less flattering picture of Atticus than the one Sorkin valorizes through Daniels. While Lee’s Mockingbird supplies a picture of a man as seen through the admiring eyes of his young daughter, her sequel removes Scout’s rose-colored glasses and subjects Atticus to the scrutiny of a grown woman realizing that her father is not a superhero after all.

Most children discover their parents are not as perfect as they once thought. But in adapting Mockingbird for the stage, Sorkin ignored Watchman. He’s still holding fast to the notion that education and liberalism somehow flush out racism in white people like a detox tea. Sorkin’s Atticus refers to the Ewells and people like them as “ignorant citizens stuck in the old ways.” They’re easy to identify, condemn and distance oneself from.

This Mockingbird reassures the Good White People that make up its audience that they are, in fact, good. Should they need to outwardly telegraph their goodness, the production offers hoodies for sale in the basement of the Shubert that simply say “TRAYVON.” More than anything, the play encourages them to see themselves in Atticus, even after the woman who created Atticus told us his goodness was a lie.


LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Calpurnia (left) and Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch (right) in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Julieta Cervantes

Atticus Finch was never as perfect as Sorkin made him. Lee told us so in Go Set a Watchman. He used to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the same organization that Sorkin’s Finch looks down on Bob Ewell for daring to fraternize with. In Mockingbird, Lee wrote that Finch was a descendant of slave owners. In Watchman, the same man who vigorously defended Tom Robinson is also a bigot who despises the NAACP and refers to its lawyers as “buzzards.”

“The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people,” he says. He asks the adult Scout, who goes by Jean Louise, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

Sorkin, then, creates Finch from a position of willful ignorance, which proves useful for avoiding feather-ruffling and culpability. Atticus was always racist, and Watchman provides an opportunity to see how individual racism provides the building blocks for structural inequality. But Sorkin’s Mockingbird reduces structural racism to little more than a figment of the imagination. Somehow, despite the fact that Sheriff Heck Tate, Judge Taylor and Tom Robinson’s own attorney, Atticus, all seem to agree that Ewell is clearly lying, their hands are tied and Robinson is doomed. They are utterly blameless for it.

In a recent talk at the Public Theater, White Noise playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and director Oskar Eustis shared their thinly veiled opinions of Mockingbird.

“There’s a piece of fiction that’s being staged uptown, and it posits that in a small Southern town in the ’50s or early ’60s, that in a small Southern town in that time, that the top lawyer in town [the white lawyer], the top judge in town and the white sheriff in town are all unbelievably enlightened and progressive on the subject of race relations,” Eustis said. “That only the poor white trash hate the black people.

“You sit there watching this critically acclaimed piece and you just go, ‘What world is this describing where the problem of racism is solely the problem of poor white people and the town’s white power structure had nothing to do with it?’ I mean, forget now. We’re talking about the South in the ’60s!”

Sorkin has been repeatedly praised for updating To Kill a Mockingbird for a modern audience, though I would question just how modern. It is the sort of play that either seems to be for white people who love Martin Luther King Jr. but who’ve never read Letter from Birmingham Jail or who cannot imagine that it is they who are being excoriated in it.

[Mockingbird] is describing the desire of people of means to point to impoverished white people as the problem,” Parks said. “This is exactly what’s happening now.”

In the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, director Raoul Peck includes a quotation from James Baldwin about the Birmingham of the 1960s clinging to Jim Crow.

“White people are astounded by Birmingham, black people aren’t,” Baldwin wrote. “They are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars. They don’t want to believe, still, less act on the belief, that what is happening in Birmingham is happening all over the country.”

This is the purpose of the TROT: to reinforce the delusion that the Bob Ewells of the world are Martians so that everyone else can tell themselves they are Atticus Finch (or, at least, who we thought Atticus was before the release of Watchman). The soothing blindness of works such as Sorkin’s Mockingbird, and the absolving embrace they offer to Good White People, is popular. It’s lucrative too. At the end of April, the show broke its own weekly Broadway box-office record for the fourth time. Its total grosses have topped $36 million since previews began in November.

But there is a cost to TROT art and the comforting lie it perpetuates, one that is borne by millions of real Tom Robinsons that America continues to persecute, in ways large and small, personal and structural. Good for the Tony voters for recognizing as much.

The 2019 Tony Nominations

Best Musical

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations

Beetlejuice

Hadestown

The Prom

Tootsie

Best Play

Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney

The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus by Taylor Mac

Ink by James Graham

What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck

Best Revival of a Musical

Kiss Me, Kate

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

Best Revival of a Play

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons

The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley

Burn This

Torch Song by Harvey Fierstein

The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical

Brooks Ashmanskas, The Prom

Derrick Baskin, Ain’t Too Proud

Alex Brightman, Beetlejuice

Damon Daunno, Oklahoma!

Santino Fontana, Tootsie

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical

Stephanie J. Block, The Cher Show

Caitlin Kinnunen, The Prom

Beth Leavel, The Prom

Eva Noblezada, Hadestown

Kelli O’Hara, Kiss Me, Kate

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play

Paddy Considine, The Ferryman

Bryan Cranston, Network

Jeff Daniels, To Kill a Mockingbird

Adam Driver, Burn This

Jeremy Pope, Choir Boy

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play

Annette Bening, All My Sons

Laura Donnelly, The Ferryman

Elaine May, The Waverly Gallery

Janet McTeer, Bernhardt/Hamlet

Laurie Metcalf, Hillary and Clinton

Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me

Best Book of a Musical

Ain’t Too Proud, Dominique Morisseau

Beetlejuice, Scott Brown and Anthony King

Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell

The Prom, Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin

Tootsie, Robert Horn

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

Be More Chill, Joe Iconis

Beetlejuice, Eddie Perfect

Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell

The Prom, Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin

To Kill a Mockingbird, Adam Guettel

Tootsie, David Yazbek

Best Direction of a Musical

Rachel Chavkin, Hadestown

Scott Ellis, Tootsie

Daniel Fish, Oklahoma!

Des McAnuff, Ain’t Too Proud

Casey Nicholaw, The Prom

Best Direction of a Play

Rupert Goold, Ink

Sam Mendes, The Ferryman

Bartlett Sher, To Kill a Mockingbird

Ivo van Hove, Network

George C. Wolfe, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical

André De Shields, Hadestown

Andy Grotelueschen, Tootsie

Patrick Page, Hadestown

Jeremy Pope, Ain’t Too Proud

Ephraim Sykes, Ain’t Too Proud

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

Lilli Cooper, Tootsie

Amber Gray, Hadestown

Sarah Stiles, Tootsie

Ali Stroker, Oklahoma!

Mary Testa, Oklahoma!

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play

Bertie Carvel, Ink

Robin De Jesús, The Boys in the Band

Gideon Glick, To Kill a Mockingbird

Brandon Uranowitz, Burn This

Benjamin Walker, All My Sons

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

Fionnula Flanagan, The Ferryman

Celia Keenan-Bolger, To Kill a Mockingbird

Kristine Nielsen, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Julie White, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Ruth Wilson, King Lear

Best Choreography

Camille A. Brown, Choir Boy

Warren Carlyle, Kiss Me, Kate

Denis Jones, Tootsie

David Neumann, Hadestown

Sergio Trujillo, Ain’t Too Proud

Best Orchestrations

Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, Hadestown

Larry Hochman, Kiss Me, Kate

Daniel Kluger, Oklahoma!

Simon Hale, Tootsie

Harold Wheeler, Ain’t Too Proud

Best Scenic Design of a Musical

Robert Brill and Peter Nigrini, Ain’t Too Proud

Peter England, King Kong

Rachel Hauck, Hadestown

Laura Jellinek, Oklahoma!

David Korins, Beetlejuice

Best Scenic Design of a Play

Miriam Buether, To Kill a Mockingbird

Bunny Christie, Ink

Rob Howell, The Ferryman

Santo Loquasto, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Jan Versweyveld, Network

Best Costume Design of a Musical

Michael Krass, Hadestown

William Ivey Long, Beetlejuice

William Ivey Long, Tootsie

Bob Mackie, The Cher Show

Paul Tazewell, Ain’t Too Proud

Best Costume Design of a Play

Rob Howell, The Ferryman

Toni-Leslie James, Bernhardt/Hamlet

Clint Ramos, Torch Song

Ann Roth, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Ann Roth, To Kill a Mockingbird

Best Sound Design of a Musical

Peter Hylenski, Beetlejuice

Peter Hylenski, King Kong

Steve Canyon Kennedy, Ain’t Too Proud

Drew Levy, Oklahoma!

Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz, Hadestown

Best Sound Design of a Play

Adam Cork, Ink

Scott Lehrer, To Kill a Mockingbird

Fitz Patton, Choir Boy

Nick Powell, The Ferryman

Eric Sleichim, Network

Best Lighting Design of a Musical

Kevin Adams, The Cher Show

Howell Binkley, Ain’t Too Proud

Bradley King, Hadestown

Peter Mumford, King Kong

Kenneth Posner and Peter Nigrini, Beetlejuice

Best Lighting Design of a Play

Neil Austin, Ink

Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Peter Mumford, The Ferryman

Jennifer Tipton, To Kill a Mockingbird

Jan Versweyveld and Tal Yarden, Network

In Nia DaCosta’s ‘Little Woods,’ a tale of quiet desperation, with little hope of transcendence Tessa Thompson and Lily James star as desperate women in a town caught in a time warp

There is a widespread and poorly considered tendency to romanticize modern rural America, from Carhartt commercials to the new comedy series Bless This Mess, which features Lake Bell and Dax Shepard as naive city slickers inventing a new life in Nebraska.

But in her feature film debut, Little Woods, writer-director Nia DaCosta dispenses Waldenesque illusion in favor of a look at the quiet desperation that comes with being poor and a woman in middle of nowhere. The result is a snapshot of two sisters caught in the gritty binds of Little Woods, North Dakota, a miserable natural gas boomtown with little more to offer besides too many men and not enough well-paying jobs.

Tessa Thompson plays Ollie (short for Oleander), an industrious hustler nearing the end of her parole looking to start a new life if she gets a promising job in Spokane, Washington. Ollie used to make a living running opioids across the Canadian border before she was caught. She lives in a foreclosed house that belonged to her mother, who died of a terminal illness.

Her sister, Deb (Lily James) is a waitress who lives with her small son Johnny in a trailer parked in a lot with a bunch of other trailers belonging to people who can’t afford anything else.

The two women find themselves calling on desperate measures. Ollie can’t bring herself to leave until she knows her sister and nephew are safe, and so she plunges back into the opioid business once more, just long enough to make a haul that will pay off half the $5,800 needed to keep the bank from seizing the family home. Deb is pregnant, and in need of an abortion. The nearest American clinic is hundreds of miles away, a back alley arrangement has fallen through. Without health insurance, it costs anywhere between $8,000-$12,000 just to give birth in a hospital.

Lily James (left) and Tessa Thompson (right) star in Little Woods.

Neon

DaCosta, who is slated to direct the coming remake of Candyman, constructs the shots in Little Woods in a way that amplifies the town’s suffocating limitations. This is not the rural America of Terrence Malick, full of open spaces and ripe with possibility. Instead, it’s desolate and depressed, and danger lurks everywhere in the form of men who don’t respect boundaries. When Ollie goes lurking about a truck stop in the middle of the night to serve new customers, it’s absolutely harrowing. Thompson plays Ollie with taut, barely contained fear, curled up like a spring, keeping the audience waiting for the moment her little life, and the possibility of a better one, collapses into nothing.

DaCosta’s vision of the American West has more in common with the one playwright and actress Heidi Schreck brings to light in What the Constitution Means to Me (currently running on Broadway) as she speaks about her great-grandmother, a Scandinavian mail-order bride her great-grandfather ordered from a catalog. It’s a vision where women are scarce and their rights and safety are scarcer. Schreck’s ancestors lived in Washington, where they earned a living as loggers clearing the state’s untamed natural resource. Schreck uses What the Constitution Means to Me to reflect on the ways the women in her family were barely people in the eyes of the U.S. Constitution, but regarded as children or property under the purview of men.

In the generations since, not much has changed, depending on where you go. In Little Woods, the natural resource is natural gas instead of wood, but the threats to female bodies are just as common, the violence against them just as casual and routine. Ollie gets roughed up by the local opioid magnate when she briefly starts selling again. Deb faces danger the night she tries to procure a fake Canadian health card that will allow her to get an abortion in Winnipeg, Manitoba, covered by the country’s national health insurance.

DaCosta draws her audience in by daring them to hope for better, and closes with a peaceful shot of the wilderness that bridges Canada with the United States. But she never romanticizes the wildness of the West. Too many women are still falling victim to its ills.

Today in black history: Michael Jackson takes home 8 Grammys, ‘Porgy and Bess’ opens on Broadway, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 28

1704 — Elias Neau, a Frenchman, opens a school for black students in New York. Neau, who worked as a cabin boy and a sailor in his early life, was always willing to lend a helping hand. But Neau was especially inspired to help enslaved communities after being captured by a French privateer near Jamaica in 1692 while out to sea. After being transferred to Marseille, France, for not renouncing his faith — he wrote letters to his wife, prayers, poems and hymns to pass time — Neau landed himself in solitary confinement, where he remained for six months. He was released from prison six years later.

1879 — Blacks flee political and economic exploitation in the South. Kansas became the land of promise for African-Americans, both free and enslaved, who sought educational, political and economic opportunities in the 1860s and 1870s. Although slavery still existed in surrounding areas, Kansas seemed to be a much better option than the tumultuous climate for African-Americans in the South.

Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a runaway slave from Tennessee who sheltered escaped slaves once he was free, noted the conditions African-Americans were subjected to in the South and eyed Kansas. Singleton enlisted the help of Columbus Johnson, who helped Singleton circulate posters across the South that explained their plans. The withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877, marking the end of the Reconstruction era, caused the “Great Exodus” to peak in 1879. By then, at least 50,000 blacks, known as Exodusters, sought freedom in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois with the help of Singleton, who became known as the father of the Black Exodus.

1932 — Richard Spikes, an auto enthusiast and industry innovator, receives a patent for the automatic gear shift for cars. In 1962, while losing his vision, Spikes continued to work on creating the automatic safety brake for cars. All of Spikes’ creations are still essential components of cars today.

1943 — Porgy and Bess opens on Broadway with Anne Brown and Todd Duncan in starring roles.

1948 — Sgt. Cornelius Frederick Adjetey, a member of the 81st and 82nd divisions of the Royal West African Frontier Force, became the first martyr for national independence of Ghana while on a peaceful march. Adjetey, along with unarmed ex-servicemen, began their journey from Accra, Ghana’s capital, to meet with the governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Gerald Creasy, to air their grievances and present a petition in regard to ending service entitlements that had not been received. Creasy dismissed the men, ordering them to leave. After the ex-servicemen refused to leave without a resolution, Creasy ordered police to open fire, instantly killing Adjetey and his cohorts. The killings were investigated, but not before causing general disorder and disturbances in Accra.

1984 — Michael Jackson wins eight Grammys. It was a night to remember for musician and entertainer Jackson, who took home eight Grammy Awards, including seven for his best-selling album Thriller. The album, which produced seven Top 10 singles after its November 1982 release, swept several categories, including best male R&B vocal performance and best R&B song for “Billie Jean,” best male rock vocal performance and record of the year for “Beat It,” best male pop vocal performance for “Thriller” and album of the year. Thriller broke all sales records to date and remains one of the top-grossing albums of all time.

1990 — Philip Emeagwali, known as the “Bill Gates of Africa,” receives the Gordon Bell Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of computing, for solving one of the 20 most difficult problems in the computing field.