The unbearable whiteness of ‘Oklahoma!’ In new Broadway revival, the blinding sunshine of the Territory exposes the violence beneath the romantic myth

Though it hasn’t always been acknowledged, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has always been a musical about whiteness.

This is important because a new and well-reviewed production is now running on Broadway. Oklahoma! has often been summarized through a lens of racial neutrality as a romantic musical about a woman named Laurey Williams trying to make a choice between two suitors: Jud Fry, a hard-working farmhand who lives in the smokehouse of a farm owned by Laurey and her Aunt Eller. And guitar-strumming Curly McClain, who is more socially adept, but doesn’t offer much beyond a pretty face. Set in the Claremore Indian Territory of Oklahoma in 1906, Oklahoma! delivers a rose-tinted view of history that centers on happy white people whose greatest concern is a town dance that will raise money to build a new school. It’s a classic example of willful erasure and ahistorical mythmaking.

In 1838 and 1839, President Andrew Jackson forced thousands of Native Americans to abandon their homes east of the Mississippi. Even though Oklahoma was the end point of the genocidal forced migration known as the Trail of Tears, Oklahoma! doesn’t feature a single Native American character. In fact, its only explicitly nonwhite character is Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler who seeks romantic encounters that don’t come with marital strings.

Jud Fry (played by Patrick Vaill, left) might be an excellent farmhand, but he is not a good man.

Little Fang Photo

Director Daniel Fish’s new, stripped-down revival of Oklahoma! doesn’t play by those rules, though. In this version, now running at Circle in the Square Theater through Jan. 19, Laurey is played by a black woman, Rebecca Naomi Jones. Laurey’s best friend, Ado Annie, is played by Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, the first actress to do so on a Broadway stage. When Stroker won the Tony for best actress in a featured role in a musical in June, she was the first performer who uses a wheelchair to be nominated, much less win.

Suffice it to say, this ain’t your granny’s Oklahoma! The musical, which won the 2019 Tony for best revival, has been popularly characterized as “Sexy Oklahoma!” That’s largely because of the horny howling of its handsome leading man, Damon Daunno, who plays Curly, and its shamelessly libidinous Ado Annie. But I did not find Oklahoma! to be sexy so much as darkly terrifying — and I mean that in a good way.

That’s because this version, which faithfully maintains the original script and lyrics of the 1943 musical while updating the orchestrations with modern arrangements, subjects toxic whiteness and masculinity to the glaring bleach of the noonday sun.

Oklahoma! provides a nuanced opportunity for audiences to reexamine systems of power from the view of those least protected by them.

The revival is unique because of its deft interrogation of the whiteness and toxic masculinity that has long been romanticized in the American western, and in the many treacly iterations of Oklahoma! that have been mounted since 1943. This version asks its audience to consider a familiar world in an unfamiliar way: through the eyes of a black woman with little to no physical security or power of her own.


The first thing one notices upon entering Circle in the Square is the aggressive brightness of the room’s lighting (more than a few members of the audience wore sunglasses through the performance). The second is that the walls are lined with racks upon racks upon racks of shotguns.

The lighting turns out to be subversive. Much like a black light held over the surfaces of a sketchy motel room, it illuminates all the ickiness lurking on surfaces that appear otherwise innocuous. It welcomes you to the Oklahoma territory, where flowers fill the prairie and the june bugs zoom, and then it ensures that you cannot turn away from the ugliness that lurks there. “Everything’s going my way” certainly applies to the men of the Territory. But its female residents? Not so much.

Tony winner Ali Stroker (left) plays Ado Annie and Will Brill (right) is Ali Hakim in Oklahoma!

Little Fang Photo

It’s strange to see Oklahoma! when the horrors of mass shootings (most recently in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas) are still in the shallow recesses of one’s consciousness. But mostly, I was reminded of violence specifically linked to virulent misogyny, and so Alek Minassian, Elliot Rodger, and George Sodini entered my mind within minutes of the introduction of Jud (Patrick Vaill). Minassian, Rodgers, and Sodini are white men who committed mass murder because they were angry, lonely, and felt entitled to attention from women when they weren’t getting it. Minassian identifies as an “incel,” or involuntary celibate.

There is a rhythm to the news of mass shootings, and one beat in particular is frustratingly metronomic: The killers, more often than not, have a history of abuse or antipathy toward women. In Oklahoma!, Jud is armed with an unshakable crush, a shifty attitude, and a revolver. Vaill imbues Jud with a patina of gentle shyness, underneath which beats a familiar pulse of resentment, entitlement, and a violent temper precariously held in check. Jud might be an excellent farmhand, but he is not a good man. It makes for a terribly dangerous combination for Laurey.

To survive in the modern world, women develop a spidey sense about men who would potentially harm us, and we mold our lives around the avoidance of male aggression. We move to a different subway car if someone stares a little too long, or brushes up a little too close. We slow our gait to let someone pass rather than take the chance that he may be following when we must walk late at night. And we get very good at managing — managing expectations, managing tempers, and managing egos.

The same reality of ever-present male danger is true for the women of the Territory. For them, the most effective way to guard against it is to get married. (Nothing sucks the romance out of courtship quite like knowing you’re seeking a man in hopes that his presence will prevent your rape or murder.) Laurey has a decision to make about who she will choose for the dance and her life afterward: Curly or Jud? By Laurey’s second interaction with the seemingly mild-mannered Jud, I felt my stomach grow queasy with worry. Oda Mae Brown from Ghost made an entrance in my notebook: “Laurey,” I wrote furiously, “You in danger, girl!”

Before Fish reimagined her, Laurey was usually portrayed as a lucky woman blessed with a surfeit of romantic possibilities. Nowhere is that more clear than in Fred Zinneman’s 1955 film adaptation. In Zinneman’s Oklahoma!, Laurey is played by Shirley Jones, a sunny, self-assured blonde whose good looks, tiny waist, and homespun charm are enough to tame any man.

When Shirley Jones sings “Many A New Day,” she’s surrounded by white women pirouetting in bloomers and petticoats, and she’s laying out a philosophy that Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider would come to monetize some four decades later in The Rules, possibly the worst self-help book about dating ever published. Essentially, it is a doctrine that tells women that all their power and moral authority lie in their sexual availability or lack thereof, also known as playing hard to get.

But this display of performative reluctance isn’t an indication of power, so much as the lack of it, especially when you consider the presence of armed threats like Jud. From the beginning of the musical, Aunt Eller is telling Curly how much her niece likes him, no matter how much Laurey’s behavior indicates the opposite. It’s strategic: Aunt Eller’s trying to provide some security for Laurey, in the limited way that she can, by playing matchmaker. Sexual violation is a constant threat for women, even for Ado Annie, who is generally portrayed as a ditsy, well-meaning slut with her rendition of the song “I Cain’t Say No.”

Stroker’s Ado Annie, on the other hand, delivers a rollicking, proudly sex positive rendition of the song, a recognition of the character’s agency.

Still, in both scenarios, Ado Annie’s choices are protected by her father’s ever-present shotgun — to a point. She may get around, and she may like it, but she’s still got to marry somebody, and furthermore, someone with money. Ado Annie’s father insists that a man vying for her affections have at least $50 to his name before he’ll let him marry her. (Remember, it’s 1906.)

Laurey doesn’t really have two viable options so much as she’s faced with making a choice between a man who will almost certainly kill her if he doesn’t get what he wants and a well-meaning dunce who thinks the height of being gentlemanly means getting down to the dirty business of dispatching the Territory’s resident incel.


Jones is not the only member of the Oklahoma! company who is black, but her blackness serves to reinforce just how vulnerable and disenfranchised Laurey is in a place where men hold an overwhelming amount of sociopolitical power and women have nearly none. That social order is enforced and maintained with guns:

  • When Ali Hakim won’t commit to Ado Annie, her father threatens him with a shotgun.
  • When Jud and Curly want to intimidate each other, they shoot holes into the roof and wall of the smokehouse.
  • When Laurey finds herself in need of protection from one bad man, it comes from another wielding — you guessed it — a gun.

Jones plays Laurey as a woman moving through the world with tense, uneasy reluctance. At times, she exhibits an attraction to Curly, but it never seems to permeate too deeply, perhaps with the exception of the dream ballet (danced with magnetic athleticism by Gabrielle Hamilton) that explores Laurey’s subconscious. It concludes with Laurey’s id scooching crotch first offstage toward Curly — she’s made her “choice.”

But even when Laurey agrees to marry Curly and enters the stage in her wedding dress, she’s bereft of the glowing, floaty ebullience typically associated with brides. Instead, the subtle hesitations in Jones’ movements and the drawn expression of her face leaves the viewer wishing poor Laurey had a trusted maid of honor to ask, “You OK, sis? I got the horses in the back if you want to ride east ’til we can’t ride no more.” It’s a beautifully crafted performance, full of simmering internal contradictions that Laurey dare not raise aloud. She seems more resigned than anything to spend her life with Curly, if only because he provides protection from the Juds of the world and she knows that she needs it.

Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones, right) eyes Curly (Damon Daunno, left) as he serenades her in Oklahoma!

Little Fang Photo

I could not help but see parallels between Laurey and the protagonist of Test Pattern, a new film from director Shatara Michelle Ford that premiered earlier this year at BlackStar Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution. Test Pattern explores the aftermath of sexual assault for a black woman living in Austin, Texas, named Renesha. Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is in a loving interracial relationship when she is sexually assaulted during a celebratory night out with a friend. (Coincidentally, the two works share an actor; Will Brill plays Hakim in Oklahoma! and Renesha’s boyfriend Evan in Test Pattern.) Like Laurey, Renesha ends up spending a great deal of time managing the emotions of two white men, one of whom is ostensibly “good” and the other who is “bad.” It turns out the two men are not so different. Like Jud and Curly, they both prioritize their own wants over the needs of the black woman who is the object of their desire or devotion. This is not accidental. In both the Territory of 1906 and modern-day Austin, the world is constructed to serve these men, and that’s what they’ve come to expect. This is their version of neutral.

Oklahoma! becomes a jaunty horror show when Laurey is splattered with Jud’s blood on her wedding day after Curly guns him down and the entire company belts out a lively rendition of “Oklahoma.” The residents of the territory ignore the cancer infecting their community in favor of singing, dancing, and the avoidance of discomfort, in much the same way that no amount of tragic deaths seems to spur meaningful action on gun control.

Ultimately, Oklahoma! provides a nuanced opportunity for audiences to reexamine systems of power from the view of those least protected by them. The artists will even serve you chili and cornbread during the show’s intermission. The timing is key — better to eat a bowl before pore Jud is daid, when its contents can’t remind you of his bullet-blasted innards.

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.

Eddie Murphy returns to stand-up and we rank his 5 best routines From Buckwheat to Ice Cream Man, a rundown of Murphy’s comedic brilliance

Eddie Murphy, who in his prime in the 1980s was the funniest sentient being on Earth, is set to return to the world of stand-up comedy.

To put this in perspective, Murphy, 58, hasn’t set foot on a live comedy stage since 1987. That’s a ridiculously long time, even for an Oscar-nominated actor who stands as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars with a combined $6 billion in box-office totals from movies such as 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop and Beverly Hills Cop II, Coming to America, Boomerang, The Nutty Professor and Dreamgirls.

Murphy, who recently appeared on the Jerry Seinfeld Netflix series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, reportedly is close to signing a $70 million deal with Netflix for a series of comedy specials. For those wondering why you should be excited that the voice of Mushu the dragon (Mulan) and Donkey (Shrek, Shrek 2, Shrek the Third and Shrek Forever After) is coming back to the comedy stage, we’ve got you covered. Here are the top five greatest Eddie Murphy stand-up routines:

5. “Buckwheat” (1982)

Recorded at New York’s Comic Strip Live before his landmark and controversial 1983 HBO stand-up special Delirious, this riff on the Saturday Night Live character, who helped catapult Murphy to superstar status, is just 1 minute and 36 seconds long.

Mary Gross (left) as Alfalfa and Eddie Murphy (right) as Buckwheat during the skit “The End of Buckwheat” on Feb. 18, 1984.

RM Lewis Jr./NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

“I was standing outside getting ready to come in here, man, and this little Jewish guy walked up to me and said, ‘Buckwheat!’ ” Murphy once recounted of his surreal association with the racially stereotypical, English-mangling icon from the Little Rascals comedy shorts, which ran from 1929 to 1938. “And there was some brothers standing next to me saying, ‘What that guy call you, man?’ ”

This leads to Murphy weighing the absurdity of such a name as he imagines Buckwheat’s extended breakfast-themed family, which includes his brother Farina, little sister Shredded Wheat and twin brothers Quisp and Quake. There’s also a special needs cousin Special K, big sister Trix, who happens to be a sex worker, an older flamboyant brother Lucky Charms and … well, you get the point.

4. “James Brown” (1983)

Murphy’s aforementioned Delirious gig, filmed at Washington, D.C.’s historic DAR Constitution Hall, has its share of insensitive material. Fifteen years later, the comedian apologized to the LGBTQ community for using a homophobic slur during several bits.

Edwin Newman (left) and Eddie Murphy (right) as James Brown on Saturday Night Live during the “Speaking Freely” skit on Feb. 25, 1984.

Photo by Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

But despite those cringeworthy moments, there are still copious amounts of comedic brilliance. Only Murphy could celebrate the rhythmic genius of the Godfather of Soul while lambasting his indecipherable lyrics. “You don’t even have to be able to talk to sing and get famous,” he explains. “James Brown been singing for 20 years. I don’t know what the f— James is talking about.” From there, the gifted impersonator breaks into an in-the-zone Brown, leading his confused band into a laughable call-and-response routine.

3. “The Pope and Ronald Reagan” (1982)

Jokes about assassinations can be dicey. Indeed, the same year that Murphy released his debut comedy album, America was embroiled in a serious debate over gun control. The 1980 shooting death of Beatles legend John Lennon and the assassination attempts on President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, as well as the killing of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, in 1981 cast a cloud over the nation.

But Murphy was still able to find humor in even the darkest of times. “What’s your rationale for shooting the Pope?” he ponders soberly before sticking the landing. “I guess the guy figured, ‘Look, I want to go to hell, but I don’t want to stand [in] a line with everybody else. I want the hell express.’ ” The nervous spectators erupt with laughter.

2. “Dexter St. Jock” (1987)

“Women ain’t like us,” offers a philosophical Murphy, wearing a blue and black leather suit and gloves as if he were the lead singer in a swaggering rock ’n’ roll outfit. “It’s not their nature to fool around.” Of course, he was just softening up the men in the audience who were witnessing his show at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum. This was the site of Murphy’s record-breaking 1987 concert film Raw, the highest-grossing stand-up comedy movie ($50.5 million) of all time.

The sexual politics of male/female relationships has always been a go-to topic for Murphy. But what makes Dexter St. Jock — the fictional, chiseled, well-endowed island god — is the nightmare he represents to all cheating dudes who have gotten away with their fair share of dirt in dingy hotel rooms. “Women are going to do it classy,” Murphy warns. “You keep messing her over, then eventually she says some s— like, ‘I think I’m going to go to the Bahamas by myself for the weekend.’ ” We all know what happens next. Dexter (“If you were my woman, I would make love to you CON-STANT-LY!”), mammoth joint in hand, amid the intoxicating sounds of Bob Marley, is “f—ing your woman. … Well.”

1. “Ice Cream Man” (1987)

We could have easily placed Murphy’s memorable “Half” Raw rant, in which he envisions the sheer horror of entering a marriage without a prenup, at the No. 1 spot. His boisterous retelling of a phone conversation with Bill Cosby demanding that Murphy clean up his act also deserves mention. (This was years before Cosby was found guilty of assaulting and drugging a woman in his home near Philadelphia).

Eddie Murphy hasn’t stepped onto a live comedy stage since 1987.

Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

But for the top spot we went with Murphy’s sublimely joyous “Ice Cream Man.” It’s the perfect Eddie Murphy joke that transcends class, race, age and sex. The Delirious standout works because we were all kids once. “Remember when the Ice Cream Man used to come to town when you was little and no matter what you was doing, you would stop and lose your f—ing mind?” Murphy asks. By the time he breaks into the ice cream dance, you are in tears.

Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ led him to Jim Crow Florida His new novel, ‘The Nickel Boys,’ is based on a real reform school notorious for its brutality

Elwood and Turner, the adolescent protagonists of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, become fast friends at a brutal, segregated reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, but they are opposites. Elwood is bookish, optimistic and gullible. While working in a hotel kitchen before being sent to the Nickel Academy, Elwood gets duped into dishwashing “competitions,” ending up doing the work of his older, wised-up peers. At home, he listens again and again to a Martin Luther King Jr. oration — “containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be” — and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision he waits expectantly, and in vain, for a black man to enter the hotel’s whites-only dining room and sit down for a meal.

Turner is already at Nickel when Elwood arrives, so he knows how the world works. Turner, Whitehead writes, “was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls upon a creek — it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current.”

Colson Whitehead says he sees himself in the two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, in his book “The Nickel Boys.”

Penguin Random House

Whitehead, who is 49, says he sees himself in both boys. We were having lunch at a diner on New York’s Upper West Side, where the author spent his high school years. He recently moved back to the neighborhood after 18 years in Brooklyn. “It’s really boring and the food’s terrible, but we don’t go out much and my wife’s parents live here,” he said.

The idea for the novel came in 2014, after Whitehead came across news reports about the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which serves as the model for the Nickel Academy. Throughout its 111-year history, Dozier, which shut down in 2011, was known for brutality: beatings, rapes and, yes, murder. Dozier was segregated, but there was one building, “The White House,” where both black boys and white boys would be taken for beatings and worse.

When he first read these accounts, Whitehead was writing The Underground Railroad, which was published in 2016 to wide acclaim. It has since won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and it is being adapted into an Amazon series by Barry Jenkins. The novel follows an enslaved woman’s escape from antebellum Georgia. It’s a haunting, brutal, hallucinatory journey set against the backdrop of several fantastical conceits, including the central one: What if the Underground Railroad were, in fact, a real subterranean railroad?

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book,” Whitehead told me. “The Nickel Boys was a departure because I had just finished Underground.” He was planning to write a detective novel, but current events intervened.

“It was the spring of 2017 and Trump was trying to get his Muslim ban, and I was angry and discouraged by the rhetoric you’d see at his rallies,” Whitehead said. “I hadn’t written anything for a year and a half, and it was time to get back to work. I could do the detective novel or The Nickel Boys. I thought that with the optimistic figure of Elwood and the more cynical character of Turner I could draw on my own confusion about where we were going as a country.”

Unlike with The Underground Railroad, for which Whitehead drew upon stories from former slaves collected by the New Deal-funded Federal Writers’ Project and other historical accounts, there are living survivors of Dozier.

“It was a horrible place,” said Jerry Cooper, president of The Official White House Boys Association, an alumni group of sorts for the abused. Cooper, who is white, said, “We didn’t have interaction with the black boys, aside from maybe when we saw them bringing produce to the cafeteria. They were in one area of the campus, and the whites were another. And if the guards caught you interacting, you’d be sent to the White House — no matter your color.”

Cooper, who was at Dozer in 1961, told me African Americans may have had it worse overall because their work detail involved toiling in fields under the burning Florida sun. “But there wasn’t any difference in the beatings,” he said.

Cooper recalled a 2 a.m. trip to the White House, where he was placed facedown on a mattress and given 135 lashes with a 3-foot leather strap. “I passed out at around 70, but a boy waiting outside for his punishment kept count,” he said. “I still have the scars. That night I realized what it must have been like to have been a slave.”


But neither Cooper nor his ancestors were slaves. Many of Whitehead’s ancestors were.

His mother’s side of the family hailed from Virginia. Her father was named Colson, as was another enslaved forebear, “who bought himself out of slavery,” Whitehead said. His father’s side of the family was rooted in Georgia and Florida — “there’s an ancestor on that side from whom I got the name Turner” — while his paternal grandmother emigrated from Barbados through Ellis Island in the 1920s.

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book. ‘The Nickel Boys’ was a departure because I had just finished ‘Underground.’” — Colson Whitehead

“A lot of my family history is lost to slavery,” Whitehead said. “And some that’s out there, I didn’t know at the time of writing Underground.” After it was published, some of his cousins reached out to chide him. “They’d say, ‘Didn’t you know about this, and this and this, about our history?’ ”

Whitehead grew up in Manhattan to upper-middle-class parents and spent his summers at the family vacation home in an African American enclave of Sag Harbor, New York. “The first generation came from Harlem, Brownstone Brooklyn, inland Jersey islands of the black community,” writes Whitehead in his fourth book, Sag Harbor (2009), a semiautobiographical novel that captures a nerdy, carefree adolescence. “They were doctors, lawyers, city workers, teachers by the dozen. Undertakers. Respectable professions of need, after Jim Crow’s logic: White doctors won’t lay a hand on us, we have to heal ourselves; white people won’t throw dirt in our graves, we must bury ourselves.”

Whitehead’s mother’s family owned three funeral homes in New Jersey, and his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. His mother and father became the parents of two daughters, then Colson and a younger brother. On paper, it was a Cosby Show existence. But as Whitehead recently told Time: “My dad was a bit of a drinker, had a temper. His personality was sort of the weather in the house.” (There are two sad examples of such temper in Sag Harbor, including one in which the father repeatedly punches young Benji, the protagonist, in the face as an ill-conceived demonstration of standing up to racial taunting.)

Colson (right) grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s with his brother Clarke Whitehead (left) and their two sisters.

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

After attending private schools in New York City, Whitehead went to Harvard. Growing up, he had immersed himself in comic books and horror films. “I wanted to write horror, science fiction and comic books,” he said. “A lot of writers my age had similar influences,” he added, citing Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem. “Then, in late high school and college, I started to think, Maybe I don’t have to write about werewolves.”

He was approached by another young African American writer at Harvard, Kevin Young, who is now an accomplished poet, the poetry editor at The New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “I was working with a friend on reviving a black magazine from the 1970s, Diaspora, and she had met Cole and said he could be our new fiction editor,” Young said. “We hit it off instantly, and I published his first story.”

After college, Whitehead worked for five years at The Village Voice, eventually becoming the television critic. It was there he met writer-photographer Natasha Stovall, whom he married in 2000. (They later divorced.) He wrote a novel, but it was turned down by publishers and his agent dropped him.

“I was depressed,” Whitehead said. “But I wasn’t going to get a real job, and no one was going to write my books for me, so I understood I needed to get going. That’s really when I became a writer.”

His second effort, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and is set in a simulacrum of fedora-era New York, where there’s a war brewing within the city’s powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, the first black female inspector in the department, is tasked with investigating a mysterious elevator crash. The book was well-received, including comparisons to debut efforts by Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison.

In 2001, Whitehead published John Henry Days, a multilayered, encyclopedic narrative thematically tied to the legend of John Henry, the railroad laborer who is said to have bested a steam-powered drilling machine. The following year he won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Other novels (Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One), a historical exploration of his city (The Colossus of New York) and even a poker memoir (The Noble Hustle, spun off from a Grantland article), followed. But it was The Underground Railroad (with a boost from Oprah’s Book Club) that launched Whitehead into literary stardom.

“It’s been remarkable to see Cole’s journey both in terms of his writing and as a person,” said writer and publisher Richard Nash, whom Whitehead met at Harvard and to whom The Nickel Boys is dedicated. “I remember going to one of his readings for his first book, The Intuitionist, at a bookstore in Soho. His hands were shaking, he was so nervous. And now I fully expect in a few years you’ll see his name crop up on the betting lists for the Nobel Prize.

“Especially with the last two books, it’s clear that’s where he’s headed.”

Whitehead has his critics. In a stinging review of John Henry Days, The New Republic’s James Wood (now at The New Yorker) pointed out instances of sloppy writing, such as using “deviant” for “divergent” and “discreet” when the intended meaning was “discrete.” Wood went on to note that Whitehead “tends to excessively anthropomorphize his inanimate objects” to “squeeze as much metaphor from them as he can.” Whitehead returned the favor a few years later when he satirized Wood in a Harper’s Magazine essay.

But Whitehead’s style has evolved, and his writing has become more precise. In The Nickel Boys, the anthropomorphization is sparing and powerful, as when he describes the shackles employed on defenseless boys who were beaten to death: “Most of those who know the stories of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”


After our lunch, Whitehead said he was considering making chili for his family — his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, and 5-year-old son, Beckett. “It’s hot, but there’s something about chili, it’s so hearty and satisfying,” he said. Cooking is a passion, and he’s been perfecting his meat smoking skills at his new vacation home in East Hampton.

Colson Whitehead’s book, “The Underground Railroad,” launched him into literary stardom when it was published in 2016.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

When he was writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead said, he was struck by the parallels between the 1960s and today in terms of race relations. As a father myself, I was curious about how he broached the subject of race with his own children.

“It comes up more when we talk about police,” he said. “[My son is] really into cops and robbers. So when we’re walking around and he sees a police car with its sirens blaring, he’ll say, ‘They’re going to catch a robber.’ And I’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s an innocent man. Maybe it’s just a dark-skinned guy driving a nice car.’ ”

Whitehead couldn’t remember when his daughter first became aware of race — when she discovered that, to borrow a phrase from one Nobel Prize-winning writer, the world is what it is.

“That was a long time ago, and I can’t recall a particular moment,” Whitehead said. “But the thing is, everyone figures it out sometime.”

Matthew Cherry moved from the practice squad in the NFL to first string in Hollywood His second stint as a TV director airs Sunday on CBS’ ‘Red Line’

The fact that Matthew Cherry was a wide receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens is the least most interesting thing about him.

He was a star at the University of Akron, where he still holds the school record for most yards on punt returns in a season, with 305 in 2003, the same year he was named second-team All-Mid-American Conference.

But Cherry gave up the game in 2007. He walked away from the Ravens, his final team, with a $30,000 pretax settlement for a shoulder injury after being placed on injured reserve.

His professional career lasted about three seasons — some of it on practice squads, some of it on a roster. It was time for a pivot.

The settlement money helped him move to Los Angeles, where he was just another kid from the Midwest trying to make a go at this Hollywood dream.

He worked at it hard. For 12 solid years, including a stint of unemployment that sent him back home to Chicago to live with mom and dad.

And finally, his grind paid off — and then some. Cherry is now a TV director, an executive at Jordan Peele’s highly successful Monkeypaw Productions, helping to bring some of Ava DuVernay’s vision to life on CBS’ new limited series Red Line and working on an animated short in partnership with Sony Pictures Animation. He also is directing in ABC’s new series Whiskey Cavalier.

None of this came easy. Not when he set up fundraising accounts to finance his first feature film. Not when his mother died suddenly of an aneurysm — after telling him the previous night how proud she was seeing him begin to fulfill his dreams.

For a long time, that’s exactly what they were — dreams.

“I really didn’t even tell people I played ball,” he says now, sitting behind his desk at Peele’s Monkeypaw production compound in the Hollywood Hills. “I look at it how athletes are received when they break into music. People always roll their eyes like, ‘Ah, Kobe’s trying to do an album,’ or ‘Shaq is trying to do a project,’ or I remember specifically Allen Iverson, when he tried to drop an album. Athletes are always looked at weirdly when they try to do something outside of what they’ve been known for, and I was always conscious of that. …

“It helped that I really wasn’t a big name when I was in the NFL either. It made it easier just to be like: ‘Matthew. P.A. [Production assistant] I want to learn this from scratch.’ … Because people will have a perception of you, for whatever reason. In my experience, people assume that former pro athletes aren’t hard workers. Or we just want stuff handed to us, and we’re not willing to put in the work and grind for it.”


Matthew Cherry played briefly for the Baltimore Ravens.

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

Cherry grew up on Chicago’s North Side, and the first sport that caught his eye was baseball. He wasn’t a standout athlete, but his dad was a big Chicago Cubs fan, so he stuck with it. His earliest memory of the sport? It was horrible. He couldn’t remember which hand his mitt went on.

But there was always a lesson to be learned.

“I saw very quickly, if you put the time in and you practice, you can get better at it,” he said.

He also was growing. Rapidly. He decided to try football. Although his parents were middle-class, there weren’t enough resources for travel teams. But with practice, he became good enough to catch the eye of the coaches at a private Jesuit school in the northern suburbs, Loyola Academy in Wilmette.

“I very much felt like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Cherry said of his high school experience. “Just being this kid that’s actually from Chicago, a black kid, [and] at the time, it was not diverse at all. I remember my graduating class, we had five black kids in a class of 500.”

In fall 1999, he headed off to Akron, Ohio, and by his senior year he was an All-MAC candidate. Maybe this pipe dream of playing in the NFL — something he never thought seriously about before, as football was merely the means to getting a scholarship — could come to fruition?


He wasn’t drafted. And life in the NFL didn’t look like it looked in the movies, that’s for sure. He was on the practice squad most of his rookie year, until the Cincinnati Bengals signed him to the active roster for the last two games of the 2004 season.

Cherry started thinking of a different plan in 2005. A friend from college called him before training camp of his second season. Cherry had studied broadcasting in college and had worked in campus radio as a music director and on-air personality. He interned at a Cleveland radio station.

“One of my guys that I worked with on the Cleveland radio station, he was like, ‘Man, I’m going to L.A. for the BET Awards. Will and Jada are hosting. We’re doing a live remote there. I don’t know what you’re doing, but we’ll let you kick it with us if you want to come out,’ ” he recalled.

“He listens. I don’t know if that comes from being coached, but he listens. And that’s very rare for a man in this industry.” — Angela Nissel

“In the back of my mind I was already starting to think about what my Plan B was going to be. Because my rookie year, I got cut and placed on practice squad, and that was really the first time I’d ever dealt with a situation like that, where I felt like I was good enough. But because of some of the politics around coming in as an undrafted player, sometimes if you’re not in the right situation, regardless of how well you do, you’re not gonna get a shot,” he said.

Arriving in Los Angeles, “I just remember my mind being blown. The weather. The mountains. The palm trees — but also how the entire city was just based off entertainment. It was all coffee shops, people in there writing scripts. The print/copy place, they’re talking about a discount for headshots and script printing. I was like, ‘This entire city revolves around this industry. That’s crazy.’ I just remember coming back from that experience just being really inspired. And I met this person who knew this other person who knew this other person who had been part of this program called Streetlights … a nonprofit organization that basically helps men and women of color get jobs as production assistants.”

Fast-forward to year three as a professional football player and Cherry is playing for the Baltimore Ravens after stints in NFL Europe with Hamburg and in the Canadian Football League. He had lived in nine cities and three countries in that three-year span.

He’d had enough. And he was ready to see what Hollywood was about. So he got into the production program, and his first job was working on Mara Brock Akil’s comedy series Girlfriends. On his off weeks, he worked on her spinoff series The Game, about a newly minted NFL player navigating his rookie year with his college sweetheart.

He was earning $300-$400 a week. It was low. But he loved it. This was his film school. He got to see how TV directors such as Debbie Allen, Sheldon Epps and Salim Akil worked, used camera equipment, set up shoots.

His next gig was on NBC’s sci-fi drama Heroes, but this time he took some extracurricular initiative: asking if he could use the camera equipment on off days to shoot music videos. He’d scour MySpace and reach out to rhythm and blues artists, offering to direct their music videos free of charge if they could make it out to L.A. He’d come up with the concept and he’d have the equipment — he just wanted a chance to tell a story. He got his first credit in 2008 directing a video for R&B artist Terry Dexter.

His side hustle served him well. He ultimately directed music videos for Michelle Williams featuring Beyoncé & Kelly Rowland, Tweet, Jazmine Sullivan, Lalah Hathaway, Kindred the Family Soul, Snoop Dogg, The Foreign Exchange, Bilal, N’Dambi, Maysa Leak, Dwele, Najee, K’Jon and Chloe x Halle.

Which brings us to now. Cherry has hit the place that he’s worked nonstop for since he arrived in 2007. He’s a creative executive at Monkeypaw. An executive producer on the award-winning BlacKkKlansman and a producer on The Last O.G. for TBS, where he just directed his first episode of TV.

“I thought he was going to be a stereotypical, kind of misogynist-without-recognizing-it, football guy,” said Angela Nissel, the co-executive producer of The Last O.G. “I remember the first time he was on set. Sometimes when you bring things up and there are a lot of guys, sometimes they tend not to hear you. He was the first one to say, ‘Wow, Ang, I hadn’t thought of that perspective. I’m glad we have a woman on set.’ He listens. I don’t know if that comes from being coached, but he listens. And that’s very rare for a man in this industry.”

Cherry’s second stint as a TV director airs Sunday on CBS’ Red Line, an eight-episode limited series about three Chicago families forced by tragedy to think about how race and racial biases affect their lives. The series is executive produced by DuVernay, who encouraged Cherry to write and direct a film about his experience in the NFL years ago. The result was The Last Fall, which aired on BET in 2012 after having its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival and receiving an award for best screenplay at the American Black Film Festival.


Matthew Cherry (left) with Tracy Morgan (right) on the set of The Last O.G.

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

Now, as he thinks about that decade-plus of struggle, Cherry can smile. He met Peele in the midst of the successful run of Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out. Peele liked a tweet Cherry tagged him in, started following Cherry and later sent him a direct message and asked to meet him. That was 2017, right after Peele announced his first-look overall production deal with Universal and Cherry thought maybe he’d be asked to direct a small-budget film. Instead, Peele wanted to hire him. Peele shared with him in that meeting that he was creating a space where he could continue what he did with Get Out: tell stories that have a social message and use genres such as horror, sci-fi and thrillers to make films and TV that are fun and commercially viable.

One of those projects is TBS’s The Last O.G., which stars comedian Tracy Morgan as a newly released felon who is trying to acclimate himself to society, get to know the twins he never knew he fathered and adjust to the new whitewashed affluence of his old Brooklyn neighborhood. The series also stars Cedric the Entertainer and Tiffany Haddish.

“Jordan really has given me that boost. When I first started working here, I was always looking at it like, man, what are the opportunities for directing? Maybe I can do some shows here and try to get that first opportunity. And The Last O.G. was always on my mind … just really fell in love with that show. The heart that it has, seeing Tracy in a way you’ve never seen him before,” Cherry said.

And for what it’s worth, we’ve never seen Cherry like this before either. He’s in the zone. And there doesn’t appear to be a slowdown anytime soon.

“It just literally felt like all these 10-plus years of being in L.A. and struggling, and living out of my car at some point, all these things you would do just to stay in L.A., stay in the game … if you could just stay here long enough, you might be able to make it,” he said.

He did that as a high school football player trying to get a college scholarship. He found it when he was struggling in the NFL and knew he needed to pivot.

And now, he’s figured it out in Hollywood. That early life lesson was key.

“It really is an athlete thing,” he said. “I would even go back further to that first time I picked up a baseball glove and put it on the wrong hand. Being able to see progress is something as an athlete that’s probably been the most important thing. Knowing that if you work hard enough, if you just stick it out long enough, you’ll get your shot.

“And then when you get your shot, you gotta take it. Or you have to go back to the bench. And that’s just always been a thing that’s been with me. I never felt like I had any opportunities that were just given to me. I’ve always had to create my own opportunity or give my own look or try to figure it out myself. And I just think, luckily it’s worked so far. And I think that’s the biggest thing about being an athlete, is being able to set a goal and knowing if you work hard enough, you can reach that goal for sure.”

Believe it or not: Two new plays feature modern characters volunteering to be slaves Forget plausible. Is it defensible?

It can’t be flippant. It can’t be casual, and it can’t be all about the white people.

Two of off-Broadway’s most unconventional playwrights opened shows this season that feature black characters voluntarily engaging in situations that require them to be enslaved: Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play and Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise.

If one were to compile a list of Things Black People Do Not Care to Resurrect, the institution of slavery would be at the top by unanimous decision. The instinct to reach for pitchforks is understandable, but hold off for a moment. If having modern black characters enter into slavery or recreations of it is going to be a thing, it might be best to establish some guidelines. Not rules, which only invite themselves to be broken, but some best practices.

Slave Play enjoyed a much buzzed-about run at New York Theatre Workshop (Madonna came!) before it closed in January. The plot revolves around three black characters, all in interracial relationships, who invite their white partners to a Virginia plantation for something called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy. The couples have reached psychosexual impasses in their relationships, and they are all seeking a way back to having good, enjoyable sex. Harris, the creator of this scenario, is a 30-year-old graduate student at Yale School of Drama.

White Noise is the product of a 55-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner and is running at the Public Theater through May 5. In it, Leo (Daveed Diggs) is a black artist who asks his white friend, Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), to buy him for a period of 40 days and 40 nights for $89,000, the amount it will take to pay off his credit card and student loan debt. Each man is in a relationship: Leo is with a white woman named Dawn (Zoë Winters) and Ralph has a black girlfriend named Misha (Sheria Irving).

Both plays follow white characters as they submit to the seduction of white supremacy and finally admit that they’re not necessarily the Good White People they believe themselves to be.

The imagery required by such a thought experiment is deeply disturbing, of course. That’s the point.

Slave Play includes a scene in which a black woman named Kaneisha is ordered to eat fruit off the ground at the behest of her white overseer/boyfriend. In White Noise, Leo is placed upon a desk that functions as an auction block while wearing an iron collar designed to snag on trees and branches and break the wearer’s neck should he or she run away. Ralph forces him to wear a T-shirt that reads “SLAVE.”

The night I saw White Noise, there were audible gasps of horror when Diggs-as-Leo entered the stage with the collar around his neck. It wasn’t just the presence of an iron torture device that inspired such reaction. It was Leo’s body language. His shoulders slumped. The light had disappeared from his eyes. He was enveloped in a cloud of shame and resignation. In that moment, I could not see Leo. I could only see Daveed Diggs, and it was beyond awful.

I wanted to vomit.

Forget plausible. In what world, imagined or otherwise, was this level of degradation useful, much less defensible?

I couldn’t be fully present for the remainder of the show. Instead, I started wondering how Diggs was managing to play this role for eight performances a week. I checked my phone to see how much more of Leo’s enslavement we’d have to endure. I squirmed in my seat and I seethed, waiting for the play to end.


Daveed Diggs (left) as Leo is comforted by Zoë Winters (right) as his girlfriend Dawn in a scene from White Noise.

Joan Marcus

Is it even possible to suspend disbelief to accept “modern black person voluntarily enters slavery” as a plausible (if absurd) plot point? How do we determine where the proverbial line is?

Its location depends upon a number of factors. It’s helpful to think about the use of slavery in storytelling the way we do with other topics that audiences can find repellent, such as sexual violence.

In recent years, plenty of critics have written about the way sexual assault is deployed in film and television, especially because both mediums are dominated by male writers and directors and much of the sexual violence that happens to female characters happens without much thought, or as motivation for the vengeful actions of another male character. It’s gratuitous.

In 2016, there was a tense exchange between HBO’s head of programming and members of the Television Critics Association, who were challenging the network’s reliance on rape as a plot device in The Night Of and Westworld. In 2015, after a disturbing episode of Game of Thrones aired in which Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) was raped by her husband on their wedding night, Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenberg offered some clarity on how to think about the way sexual violence is deployed in storytelling. “I think it’s important to preserve the distinction between saying that something simply isn’t for me and drawing a more definitive conclusion that something is a poor artistic choice,” she wrote. “You can assert the former, but you have to argue the latter, using the text and the language of the artistic form at hand.”

So when it comes to Slave Play and White Noise, which are both risky, wire-walking productions, how do we know when the choice to have black characters willingly enter enslavement is simply personally distasteful and when it’s a poor artistic choice?

Well, it can’t be flippant. And it can’t be casual.

Paul Alexander Nolan (left) as Jim and Teyonah Parris (right) as Kaneisha in Slave Play.

Joan Marcus

The first two points are easy enough to understand. The likelihood that a show will be terrible if it treats the choice to become a slave with the same consideration that one might give to forgoing flossing is 99.9 percent. It’s not an exact comparison, but see: the uproar when Russell Simmons released a “Harriet Tubman sex tape” under the auspices of parody. There are ways to make excellent jokes about the most repugnant of topics (hello, The Producers!), but it’s not easy.

In White Noise, Leo, an insomniac, has a contract drawn up that lays out the terms of the enslaved engagement after he’s attacked by police while walking in his neighborhood one night. Leo comes out of the incident with a badly bruised face, a broken tooth and a desire for one of his oldest friends to own him. As Leo puts it:

“Back in the day, a guy like me would be walking wherever and he’d get stopped by the Law, some law enforcement individual, and there would be a ‘Whose n—– are you, n—–?’ moment and the guy like me would be like, ‘I belong to Master So-And-So,’ and the Law would be like, ‘Oh, if you’re Master So-And-So’s property, then you’re cool with us, so go ahead on with your black self’ and a guy like me would go on,” Leo explains. “ ’Cause he was owned by somebody. ’Cause the brother was the property of the man. He was safe ’cause he was a slave.”

Both White Noise and Slave Play are deeply considered works, not intellectual clickbait. Slave Play especially understands the need for an off-ramp if audiences are to follow its characters to such a dark place. It even includes a safe word: “Starbucks!” Furthermore, Slave Play is based in a real kink that exists in the world of bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism. It’s strange, but it’s not unthinkable.

The journey to urban plantation life in White Noise feels a little more undercooked. Black men get harassed and beaten up by the police with such frequency in this country that black parents prepare their children for it. Using a violent encounter with police as Leo’s motivation does seem rather flippant or, at the very least, not all that well-considered. It certainly invites a question: Given how often these interactions take place, why aren’t other desperate black men offering themselves up for further abuse and unpaid labor? The answer is obvious, and the idea collapses in on itself before we’re halfway through the play.


Thomas Sadoski (left) as Ralph and Daveed Diggs (right) as Leo in a scene from White Noise.

Joan Marcus

The third guideline for putting voluntary slavery on stage — it can’t be all about the white people — is the trickiest.

Parks recently participated in a discussion about White Noise in New York with Oskar Eustis, the show’s director and the artistic director of the Public Theater, and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. Parks said she has a rule for her approach to writing characters: “Everyone gets to ride the bus. … No one gets thrown under the bus.”

Parks added: “I love each of these characters, and I understand each of their points of view.”

I wanted to scream. When the person on the bus is a rapist, or a slave owner, or a Nazi, and an enthusiastic one at that, it’s OK to throw them under the damn bus. It is possible to write a play about race and racism that manages to successfully keep all its characters aboard the bus without capitulating to whiteness (The Niceties is an example), but it’s not as straightforward as understanding the white ones.

If only White Noise reflected the love that Parks proclaims for each of her characters. Of the four main roles, Ralph, the sole white man, is the most clearly developed, to a stunning degree. His motivations are the most clearly articulated, and his grievances genuine. Parks sends him down a rabbit hole of white supremacy so deep that by Day 28 of his jaunt into slave ownership Ralph joins a “White Club” and then brags to his White Club friends that he has his own personal slave. Ralph’s storyline cuts off the development of all the other characters in White Noise.

I had a better understanding of the show’s weaknesses after I heard Eustis say he wanted to keep the audience on Ralph’s side for as long as possible. Again, I found myself stifling the urge to scream.

Why!?! Why is there a need to keep the audience on Ralph’s side at all? Everything, from the Constitution (as playwright and actress Heidi Schreck thoughtfully illustrates in What the Constitution Means to Me) to the Supreme Court to virtually every instrument of power in the history of this country is on Ralph’s side. To quote Peggy Olson in Mad Men: “You have everything, and so much of it.”

To conduct a successful thought experiment about a black person volunteering for slavery, it’s paramount to acknowledge this imbalance and to resist the deep gravitational pull of white narcissism, which devours injustice toward black people and spits out white injury. (Ralph finds that slaveholding soothes his wounded ego after he’s passed over for a tenured professorship in favor of a person of color.)

It’s a stage version of “All Lives Matter”: What starts out as a story about how white supremacy affects a black person (Leo) becomes subsumed by talk about how white people feel and how they’re being victimized. There’s no room to center the voice of the person who the terrible thing actually happened to. And that’s not enough to justify the humiliation of trotting out some lost brotha, who doesn’t feel remotely believable, in an iron collar.

Parks concludes White Noise with Leo the insomniac shouting, “I’m awake. I’m awake.” But she never establishes how he managed to be asleep for so long in the first place.

Lest you think this sort of well-intentioned clumsiness is unique to stories about American racism, I assure you it is not. In her 2018 film When Hands Touch, writer-director Amma Asante somehow managed to All Lives Matter the Holocaust with a story in which a black German girl falls in love with an actual Nazi.

By contrast, even though the white characters of Slave Play cannot get past their own solipsism, the play itself does. The black characters go on their own journeys and come to their own realizations independently. And there’s a deeper truth within Slave Play, which is that sometimes nothing, not even placing oneself in the role of a slave owner, will get white people to wake the hell up. Sometimes you just have to take the L and let them go.

HBO’s new ‘Native Son’ still can’t figure out Bigger Thomas Latest adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel excises some of the crucial violence against a black woman

Nobody knows what to do with Bigger Thomas.

The lead character of Richard Wright’s seminal 1940 novel, Native Son, is one of the most frustrating in American literature. The latest evidence is a new film adaptation written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson in his feature film debut. It airs at 10 p.m. Saturday on HBO.

The Bigger Wright left us on the page is a 20-year-old black man who lives in a one-room Chicago tenement with his brother, sister and mother in 1939. In Wright’s opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the family’s freezing apartment and pounds a giant rat to death with an iron skillet. Bigger is bitterly aware of the limitations his race and class have predetermined for him, and so are his friends. They have nothing, and so they rob other black folks of their tiny bit of something. Bigger seems doomed to a small, miserable life until he gets a job across town as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, the Daltons. The Daltons don’t consider themselves racists, but they benefit handsomely from the structural circumstances that have placed a boot upon Bigger’s neck.

What follows is tragic: A panicked Bigger accidentally kills the Dalton heiress, Mary, whose kindness and uninformed, if well-intentioned, habitual racial line-stepping do more to endanger Bigger than help him. After a night out with her boyfriend, Jan, Mary drunkenly invites Bigger, who’s driven her home, to her bedroom. Bigger assents, hoping to simply settle Mary in her room before stealing off to his own in the back of the house. Instead, he smothers her to death out of fear they’ll be discovered and he’ll be fired. Afterward, Bigger shoves Mary’s body into the mansion’s furnace.

When reporters discover bones and jewelry among the furnace’s ashes, Bigger flees. He explains to his girlfriend, Bessie, how he ended up killing Mary, then rapes and kills Bessie too, disposing of her body down an air shaft. When he’s finally caught, Bigger is bound for the executioner’s chair.

Needless to say, this is not a character who inspires sympathy. The HBO movie is the third attempt to bring Bigger to life on film. (In 1941, Orson Welles produced and directed the story as a play.) Wright actually starred as Bigger in a 1951 version of Native Son filmed in Argentina by the Belgian director Pierre Chenal. A 1986 version, with Victor Love as Bigger, had a big-name Hollywood cast, including Matt Dillon, Elizabeth McGovern, Geraldine Page and Oprah Winfrey.

Each of them has had to struggle with hard questions about Wright’s central character: How much of Bigger’s awfulness can be attributed to a country that twisted him into a murderer and how much of his evil is individual? Is cruelty from those denied dignity inevitable or a choice? Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror?

Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.


Ashton Sanders, as Bigger Thomas in HBO’s Native Son, stands in front of “The Bean,” a landmark public sculpture in downtown Chicago.

Chris Herr/HBO

This latest film adaptation, produced by A24 (the company behind Moonlight, Lady Bird and First Reformed) has the distinction of being the brainchild of a student of James Baldwin — Parks studied creative writing under Baldwin at Mount Holyoke College.

Baldwin famously seethed at Wright’s interpretation of black life and dismissed Native Son as a “protest novel” full of one-dimensional stereotypes, and he likened Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

“Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant, flesh of his flesh, so exactly opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses,” Baldwin wrote in the essay Everybody’s Protest Novel. And yet Baldwin softened his stance toward Wright and Native Son after Wright’s death in 1960. Wrote Baldwin in Alas, Poor Richard:

Shortly after we learned of Richard Wright’s death, a Negro woman who was rereading Native Son told me that it meant more to her now than it had when she had first read it. This, she said, was because the specific social climate which had produced it, or with which it was identified, seemed archaic now, was fading from our memories. Now, there was only the book itself to deal with, for it could no longer be read, as it had been in 1940, as a militant racial manifesto. Today’s racial manifestoes were being written very differently, and in many languages; what mattered about the book now was how accurately or deeply the life of Chicago’s South Side had been conveyed.

The ambivalence Bigger inspires in Baldwin and others has come to be one of his defining characteristics. In 1986, Temple University professor David Bradley, writing an introduction for a new edition of the novel, shared his roller coaster of emotions about Native Son, which fluctuated with each new reading.

Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror? Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.

Both the 1986 film and the new one struggle with the monstrousness of Bigger’s actions — and both decided to dull them. Neither one includes Bigger’s rape and murder of Bessie. It’s the biggest omission from both versions, and especially notable in this latest adaptation, given how much Parks and Johnson elected to change.

They removed Bigger from the South Side of 1939 and dropped him into modern-day Chicago, simultaneously eradicating the bleakness of Bigger’s life as Wright fashioned it. Bigger no longer shares a one-room apartment with his mother, sister and brother but rather a multiroom unit with space for a dining table where the family gathers regularly. His mother, Trudy (Sanaa Lathan), is an ambitious paralegal eyeing law school, not a desperate washerwoman consigned to abject poverty. Trudy has a romantic partner, a do-gooder lawyer named Marty (David Alan Grier). The Thomas household is warm and structured, and there isn’t nearly as much pressure on Bigger to get a job to prevent his family from being turned out on the street.

Bigger, too, has undergone renovation. Played by Ashton Sanders (best known for portraying high school-age Chiron in Moonlight), this modern Bigger sports green hair, black fingernail polish, and an assortment of black coats and jackets customized with graffiti and patches. He’s an Afropunk and an anarchist who prefers the sounds of Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Death, as opposed to, say, Chief Keef. Sanders is tall and lanky, and he mostly plays Bigger as a quiet kid who folds into himself but who can be goaded into violent outbursts. His girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), has been transformed from a figure of pitiable, gin-soaked scorn into a sober and sensible hairdresser.

From the book to the screen, Wright’s white characters remain the most static. Mrs. Dalton is always blind, and Mr. Dalton is always the dutiful limousine liberal who sees himself as doing what he can to help the downtrodden Negroes on the other side of town. Mary Dalton (Margaret Qualley) and her boyfriend, Jan Erlone (Nick Robinson), remain a couple of rebellious anti-capitalists (here, they’re Occupy Wall Street sympathizers) thumbing their noses at Mr. Dalton’s money and privilege while simultaneously enjoying it.


Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne in Native Son.

Thomas Hank Willis/HBO

The urge to use a new adaptation of Native Son as a corrective to the perceived faults of Wright’s original work is understandable, especially when its setting, Chicago, is repeatedly slandered as a cesspool of black cultural pathologies. Its murder rate trails that of several other cities, and yet it’s seen as an avatar for gun violence and a favorite example of those looking to deploy the whataboutism of “black-on-black” crime. Chicago is the home of Emmett Till and Laquan McDonald, and somehow also the place that produced Barack Obama and Harold Washington. Victims of white supremacy and heroes who manage to dodge it are much easier to hold in one’s head. But where do we place Bigger?

If we take him as Wright wrote him, perhaps the only appropriate place is exile. Maybe that’s why the resulting Bigger imagined by Parks and Johnson is far more sympathetic than Wright’s original rendering. For instance, Johnson neglects to show Bigger decapitating Mary once he realizes her body is too big to fully fit in the furnace. And in this modern version, Bigger never makes it to jail, much less a trial. He’s gunned down by Chicago police officers the moment they find him.

Parks and Johnson gesture at Bigger’s violence toward Bessie — he begins to strangle her but doesn’t go through with the deed. Bigger’s sexual violence, though, is completely eliminated. When I spoke to Johnson recently at HBO’s offices in New York, he told me that he thought of Bessie’s survival as the truest outcome for this retelling.

“We can’t murder and rape Bessie.”

“Between 1939 and today, stories around violence towards women and the way that we interpret them has changed dramatically,” Johnson said. “I was raised by a black woman who’s an academic and a feminist. I am not capable of telling stories where a woman is treated violently in the respect that Bigger treats Bessie in the book. That’s not something that I’m interested in.

“I think it neuters the other aspects of the story that are quite complicated around both race, class, etc. I think that it does a damage to the story and its contemporary telling, that story cannot survive. So we’d originally written it with the murder of Bessie and the rape of Bessie and the story, and I read that version in the script because we tried to keep as much in as possible in our early stages of interpreting it. And I called Suzan-Lori Parks very early in the morning and I said, ‘There’s something that is very challenging for me,’ and she said, ‘We can’t murder and rape Bessie.’ ”

Yet black and Native American women today experience the highest rates of death as a result of intimate partner violence, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wright’s Native Son, in part, is a tale of black masculinity, disfigured by white supremacy and run amok. It is a horror story, in the way that Toni Morrison’s Beloved can be seen as horror too.

In 2015, when Straight Outta Compton was released, hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes wrote about the violence she experienced at the hands of Dr. Dre. “There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women,” she wrote. “It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy.”

It’s impossible to separate the murder and rape of Bessie from any discussion about how race and class have victimized Bigger. The same factors contribute to Bigger’s abuse of Bessie, although they do not excuse it. We can see a contemporary example of this dynamic in Erik Killmonger, the villain of Black Panther. Like Bigger, Killmonger is meant to engender sympathy, for the United States turned him into what he is: a psychopathic human instrument of death seeking revenge and power. And yet, for all his wokeness regarding imperialist theft, Killmonger has little regard for women. He does not hesitate to kill them, and he certainly doesn’t have any remorse about it.

When we turn away from black misogyny, as Parks and Johnson do, and as filmmaker F. Gary Gray did in Straight Outta Compton, we do a disservice to black women’s lived reality — the stories preserved on-screen tell an incomplete truth.

This new Native Son from Parks and Johnson doesn’t answer many of the questions Wright presents. Rather, it leaves us with even more questions: How can a film adaptation work if it excises one of the most horrifying scenes in its source material? And can Native Son truly capture the worst effects of America’s subjugation of black people if it turns away from the mortal injuries that befall black women as a result of it?

Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ has a message for those who can hear above the screams Lupita Nyong’o is the two-faced queen come to warn us of what happens when we keep our own brethren out of sight and out of mind

This essay includes spoilers.

After seeing Jordan Peele’s new horror film, Us, I wondered if the director had created it as a warning to himself to resist the siren comforts of wealth, fame and his own id after the smashing reception he received for last year’s Get Out. Forget the voiceless and pay the price, Us seems to be croaking at its audience.

Allow me to explain: Us is about a middle-class black family, the Wilsons, who go on vacation to California only to find themselves at the center of a revenge plot 30 years in the making. The father, Gabe (Winston Duke), is a big, corny teddy bear of a man who is overcome by an almost pathological need to keep up with the family frenemies, the Tylers. The Tylers, who are white, have a nicer car, a bigger boat and a more modern, better-equipped vacation house. Gabe, much to the chagrin of his wife, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), wants to go to the beach to hang out with Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and compare boat notes. Adelaide wants to stay home and read instead of making small talk while Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss) sips her mommy juice. It turns out Adelaide’s nervousness is about way more than hanging out with a bickering white couple and their bratty twin daughters.

The Wilsons are soon visited by a family that is a twisted mirror of their own: a husband, a wife and two children, all clad in red jumpsuits and tan leather driving gloves on their right hands. Each of them is equipped with sharp brass shears that are useful for stabbing people and cutting the heads off of rabbits.

It turns out everyone, including the Tylers, have these red-clad doppelgängers, who refer to themselves as “shadows.” The shadows live underground, tethered to the whims of their sun-basking counterparts. They are a permaclass of the unseen, unheard and unacknowledged, and none of them has the ability to speak — except Red, who communicates with a creaking, disturbed hollowness, as if an animal had chewed halfway through her vocal cords. When Adelaide enjoys a Christmas of gifts, merriment and a hearty dinner, her shadow is forced to dine on raw rabbit. When Adelaide gets married, has sex and gives birth to two children, so too does Red. The shadows are crude copies of humans who experience pain, torture, madness and imprisonment from all the things that give their doubles pleasure.

Sick of their fate, the shadows emerge to conduct a massive, blood-soaked untethering. There are harbingers of disaster everywhere in the film that all point to the same Bible verse, Jeremiah 11:11: “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”

Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson in Us, written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele.

Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

Us is a jagged allegory for the pitfalls of capitalism and the resentment that mounts when we pretend those whose labor we exploit for our happiness do not exist. As social commentary, it’s not as razor-sharp as Get Out. But it still feels like an exceptional accomplishment, mainly because Peele created a role that is a worthy showcase of Nyong’o’s talent. In Us, Nyong’o is the unforgettable two-faced queen come to warn us of what will happen when we keep our own brethren out of sight and out of mind. She makes Red’s movements just as studied, precise and creepy as her voice. It is a virtuosic performance and wickedly fun. You get the sense that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?-era Bette Davis would hate Nyong’o if she were her awards season competition, before perhaps warming to her with grudging respect.

Peele has been explicit that Us is not a film about race, and yet it pulls off something that feels transcendent, both because of the unstudied blackness of its cast and because of Peele’s commitment to smartening up a genre typically defined by gore, monsters, cheap scares, or all of the above. In the history of the Oscars, only six horror films (The Exorcist, Jaws, Black Swan, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense and Get Out) have been nominated for best picture.

In both Get Out and Us, Peele builds on a tradition of black horror as social commentary and pushback against white stereotypes of blackness that extends as far back as Duane Jones’ turn as Ben in Night of the Living Dead (1968). Ben, who is actually the hero of the film, ends up getting shot and tossed on a funeral pyre when white rescuers assume he’s an enemy. This, after he’s spent the movie saving a bunch of white people from marauding ghouls looking to eat live flesh.

Peele delights in playing with tropes and subverting them. In Get Out, the black protagonist actually gets to live. In Us, the white family is deemed inessential to the plot and gets offed by the second act. In Us, the clue to Adelaide’s status as a misfit lay in her inability to snap on beat to a rapper’s ode to the communal consumption of a dimebag. Later in the movie, that same song gets reinvented with heavy, spooky, sonorous strings, courtesy of composer Michael Abels, who also scored Get Out. He simultaneously celebrates the genre and critiques it. Peele offers something for everyone: winks and Easter eggs for fanboys who consume movies as though they’re video games to be figured out, highbrow allegory for those who need more than an imaginary monster to keep them up at night, and now a fantastically twisted antihero played by an Academy Award-winning queen.

Furthermore, he broadens appreciation for the genre. Peele managed to get Oprah Winfrey (who is on record as someone who avoids scary movies) and plenty of others who are horror-averse to not only sit through Get Out but marvel at it and then see it again. He’ll likely accomplish something similar with Us. Both are too zeitgeisty to miss.

In the context of horror history, in which films such as King Kong, The Spider and The Creature from the Black Lagoon used monsters as stand-ins for black people, Peele’s success feels like a multilayered triumph. It wasn’t that long ago that a thoughtful horror film by a black director was pooh-poohed by studio executives for being too ambitious. When Bill Gunn released Ganja & Hess in 1973, in which the need for blood functioned as a metaphor for drug addiction, it was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival. But American film executives were so turned off that it was recut and released as the hackneyed Blood Couple. If you wanted to see Ganja & Hess, it was nearly impossible. The Museum of Modern Art possesses the print.

Almost 50 years later, Peele is getting the recognition that bypassed directors such as Gunn, and he is slashing his own path through Hollywood with remakes of The Twilight Zone and Candyman. He’s said repeatedly that Us is about how we are our own worst enemies. Maybe Peele is also thinking about how to avoid becoming his.

Madison Curry as young Adelaide in Us, written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele.

Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures