With Reparations, Playwright Darren Canady Wants America to “Piece Together Its Ghosts”

by Marcus Harrison Green

The chronic riddle of how modern American society can make restitution for the roaring legacy of chattel slavery is the crux of decorated playwright Darren Canady’s latest work, Reparations, presented by the Sound Theatre Company and opening January 10 at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.

When the will and testament of an abominable institution has bestowed trauma, hardship, and disadvantage on one group, and bequeathed power, benefit, and cultural hierarchy to another, who owns responsibility for ensuring a more equitable present? And what does that look like?

To explore those questions, Canady, who is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Kansas, who studied at Juilliard and New York University, enlisted elements of sci-fi, Afrofuturism, speculative drama, and personal family narrative to arrive at his latest work.

Set during three different time periods, it follows a young Black woman who wants to take advantage of a new technology and a government program to receive reparations for the lynching of her great-great-grandparents. The technology allows her to unlock the blood memories of her family that are a part of her genetic make up, and that unleashes a torrent of unpredictable consequences for her and her family.

The Emerald caught up with Canady to discuss the importance of Reparations’ Seattle premiere and its call for all Americans to “piece together their ghosts” before it’s too late.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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Darren Canady visiting Seattle for the premiere of his play Reparations. (Photo: Chloe Collyer)

Marcus Harrison Green: You’re from and currently live in Topeka, Kansas. Why was it important to premiere Reparations in a city like Seattle at this particular moment in our country?

Darren Canady: There’s something really fascinating about the way that theater is done in the United States. I think a lot of people do think “Broadway… New York… that’s theater!”

But for artists who are in the margins—who are Black, queer, women, non-binary, and poor—there’s actually a vibrant network of regional opportunities that creates gates and in-roads that people don’t often think about. Regional theaters are responding to a national conversation but also to the needs and demands of their communities.

Seattle has a significant Black community that is hungry to have art that is reflecting back on it and questioning the place of Black folks in the American narrative, and doing so in a way that is sensitive to place and attempting to move that conversation forward.

I had submitted an early draft of Reparations to the Pork Filled Productions Unleashed Festival and they matched me up with Director Jay O’Leary, who’s based in Seattle. Jay said I’m doing this. I’m producing this play!

She believes in the Seattle theatrical community and that this city needed this play. And I trusted her.

 

MHG: So you didn’t completely buy into the narrative of Seattle’s “irreprochable wokeness?”

DC: Some of this comes from conversations between Jay and I. Some of it comes from conversations with the actors (all Seattle-based). and then just nosing around in Seattle history.

About a year ago, my family made a discovery. I grew up in Kansas, home of Brown vs. Board of Education.

Amongst the Black community in Topeka you will hear a name, Harrison Caldwell. In the history of Brown vs Board, Caldwell was the superintendent of what would’ve been called “The Negro Schools.” He actually fought integration hard and became what we’d now call an “enforcer of respectability politics.” So, he was kind of in league with the school board in a lot of ways, and was a problematic person not only for Black and brown students but for their parents.

After school integration became a reality in 1954, he left Topeka and moved to Seattle where he became the first Black principal of an all white school in Seattle. Lo and behold, my family  found out he was a cousin of ours.

I definitely had feelings about that (laughs). He only lived another 15 years or so after moving here. But before he died he was named citizen of the year by a social club. That tells me that Seattle has a unique and specific understanding to Seattle of what integration looks like, and what exchange between – not just black and white- but interracial exchange- looks like.

While I was continuing to develop the play, and observing the actors during rehearsals, I said “Oh! The Black community here has a really fraught relationship not just with the education system here, but with how we have those discussions around access, how we have those discussions around who gets what resources and why?”

There are those sort of collision points that Reparations is exploring.

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Reparations cast members Brandon Jones Mooney, Aishe Keita (foreground), and Tracy Michelle Hughes (background). (Photo: Aaron Jin)

MHG: Toni Morrison famously said that the end of her books went beyond the last word, and actually concluded in the conversations she hoped her readers had after they put the book down. Audiences have the tendency to attend things like 12 Years A Slave or I Am Not Your Negro and have a cathartic experience that’s restricted to the theater. What do you hope anyone seeing Reparations takes with them?

DC: I want folks to ask how did we get here? And the deep dive into that question. People started calling us a “sound byte culture” almost 20 years ago. But we don’t extend that question further in terms of the possible dangers of being a “sound byte society.” Yes, it reduces things, but it also keeps us from telling fuller, more conflicting stories.

And that’s a lot of what’s at play in Reparations. I want people, when they ask the question of how did we get here, to not do the MSNBC or CNN thing of “I’m going to give you the story in a few minutes.” Do that long read. Understand that you are going to have conflicting narratives. You’re going to have multiple truths. And you have to sit with those. And it’s going to be a place of emotional twisting.

I want the audience to use critical thinking and suspicion in interrogating received narratives, when we talk about history. We have to be critical when someone says “I’m giving you a historical record.” Well, how are you interpreting that record?

Who wrote that record? Who wins according to that record? What’s the flesh and blood behind the Ancestry.com images? Ask yourself those things. What are the realities that everyday folks live that we don’t get to see in the Social Security number and the birth and death date?

The other thing that I want people to do is dig up their ghosts. The opening scene of the play conjectures a world where we can access the memories written into our blood because we carry things with us. Even though that’s a construction of the play, that’s something I believe.

It’s one thing to have scientific theory around it. It’s another thing to actually sit around the idea of what if our bodies remember traumas from previous generations. For Black people in America that narrative is so often about trauma. But what if our bodies can also carry the joy? We have to make space for that.

We need to pull up all of our ghosts. But ghosts don’t have to be scary. They may be the things that help you meet the difficulties you face now because there’s a measure of joy written into how you got here.

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Reparations cast members Brandon Jones Mooney and Aishe Keita. (Photo: Aaron Jin)

MHG: The concept of reparations has been a mainstay in the national conversation of late, from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ widely read essay, to last summer’s congressional judiciary hearing, to HBO’s recent Watchman series, what uniqueness does this play bring to that conversation?

DC: I think what I’m bringing to that discussion is that I’m always suspicious of any reparations discussion that is contingent upon the actions of the government. This play is suspicious of our current form of American government in terms of how it treats Black and brown lives. For me, I feel the history shows a very clear theme of anti-Black violence wedded in government actions in the United States.

The problem is that where do the reparations come from? Which I would say is an excellent question because this is not to let the government off the hook, whether it’s a federal or local government. But I don’t trust an answer that comes from them.

It’s an answer that has to come from us, from the affected communities.

And I think what Reparations argues is that in this process of calling forth the ghosts, that answer can’t just be limited to money. It can’t be limited to 40 acres and a mule. They’ll be people who will make great arguments that it needs to include that, and by all means, have that discussion.

But I think what I’m arguing here is that our acknowledgements of reality, lived experience and history is what we have to start with before we can even get to a question of a reparations formula.

Before we get there, I want us to acknowledge all of these levels of violence, and survival, and culture-making that are part of the Black experience. There’s a reason why I choose 1922 as the farthest back in time the play travels to because I didn’t want people to think that reparations is solely about slavery in America. This play deals with lynching, which took place after slavery. It deals with prison and how prison is used in the modern day.

Focusing solely on slavery assumes that in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation, all things were pretty much handled. We all know that ain’t it.

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Darren Canady (Photo: Chloe Collyer)

MHG: So then what do you say to non-Black folks who assert that they “didn’t own slaves” or  that slavery was also part of their ancestry, so why continue to emphasize Black slavery?

DC: There are a couple of things. In trying to keep a dramatic focus, this play can’t say all the things I want to say. It’s a roll of the dice to title the play Reparations because without giving too much away, what I think the main character discovers is that this idea of repaying for past wrongs means you have to be careful about even suggesting that there is a way to repay them, because you open up the possibility that once you do set a price, an amount, then someone can say, “Okay, we gave you this, now we can walk away. The debt is paid.”

And that is what I want to challenge folks who are non-Black, who feel like, “well, you’re free now,” and say “I don’t have time to engage with the aftermath.” No, you do need to have time to engage with the realities of how America got to be what it is.

The play does actually ask us to confront inequity. It does ask us to confront in the here and now why we have the sort of income and resource outcomes that can be predicted based on someone’s race. That is a problem that is in conflict with who we say we are as a nation.

I argue that it’s not just something that developed, it’s ongoing in institutions. If we aren’t calling forth what those institutions did, then we are perpetuating and responsible in the now for them continuing their work.

For all those people who say, “I didn’t own slaves”. All I can reiterate is that you didn’t have to own slaves. You can even ignore the idea of white privilege, if you want. But the reality is those institutions are still at work today.

These mechanisms are still rolling along. And we, us now, are responsible for the rolling of those mechanisms.

I would love people no matter what their race is to be able to think about how our policies and our histories play out in our bodies, in real time, in real flesh and blood. Look at that please.

Whether you feel responsible or not, I do want you to look at how those policies affect everyday lives through generations. It’s easy for us to look at 12 Years A Slave and say “well, glad things aren’t like that anymore.”

But then people want to look at Black folks and wonder why we leave a movie like that wanting to flip tables. It’s because what we are confronting on screen is playing out in our blood.

For those people saying, “I don’t know why Rakecia at my job is so surly all the time?” First off, is she surly or is that just you? And for those people who say “why do Black people x…” Well if you want to have that discussion then let’s. Let’s talk about why this random group of racialized folk respond in these ways, which you don’t understand. Let’s look at what that flesh and blood human being is.

That’s what this play is saying.

 

MHG: This play was influenced by your own personal and family history. I assume that meant the writing process had to come with its own dose of trauma and pain. Were there times during rehearsals where you had to take a self-care break?

DC: I think back to all of my work, I have yet to write what someone would call a comedy. There are lighter moments, because I think human existence plays out in various shades. It goes from light to dark and back, and in-between. If I’m going to tell all of those stories then I have to have moments that are hilarious, and moments that are not.

Over time I’ve developed a bit of a sensitivity so that I do know when I need to step out of the writing process and take a break, because I’ve been sitting in a reality for too long.

This play is interesting because there are some specific things that happened in my own family that were “leaping-off” places, the trauma that’s in the play. But also there are specific things that happened to my family that are “leaping- off” places for moments of joy in the piece.

I think there has to be a pendulum swing. I’m not trying to create trauma porn, but at the same time I don’t want to suggest that we don’t tell the truth. We absolutely must, and the truth owes us no comfort. The truth can never be a betrayal, as a group of my friends say back home. And I feel challenged to represent multiple truths.

Yes, these were hard rehearsals. But I believe that part of art is about catharsis. It goes back to Aristotle’s Poetics. And I am looking for a national catharsis. Though, I’ve learned not to hold my breath.

 

MHG: And yet, Reparations isn’t a fatalistic play?

DC: I come from a group of optimists. I don’t know if Black folks in the United States get as much credit for our optimism. We know our own personal histories, and we perceive difference and inequity, and still we get up in the morning. We go to work. We try to take care of family members and we try to express love. To me that expresses hope and optimism.

I think part of what I think is powerful about the genre of Afrofuturism, and I feel this play is adjacent to that, is that even in it conceiving a future where we exist, it’s hopeful.

Even if that future is dystopian, it’s saying I will survive through that. Afrofuturism says that we won’t let you write Black people out of the future.

 

MHG: It’s been my experience that oftentimes non-Black audience members want to immediately grab the first Black person they see to help them process something like Reparations. What is your recommendation on digesting this play?

DC: One of my recommendations is to “piece your ghosts together.” This play comes from a kind of Black metaphysical understanding, because I am Black. So there are mentions of God, and superstition. I grew up in a family who wouldn’t allow you to sweep a broom around someone’s feet.

People can be an atheist or whatever, but I am a believer that we are carrying the past and ghosts within us. My assignment is to stop running from them.

Here’s the harder assignment, for those folks who want to be “Oh, great magical negros, please tell me about this play and what it means!”

This is what I would say, particularly in a city like Seattle, I want to believe that it’s not an accident that Watchman and this play are out at the same time. This is the same year of the

1619 podcast, and the revolutionary thing that podcast was arguing was that the story of Blackness in America is not solely about Black people.

We have to consider that American culture doesn’t just owe a little bit of a debt to Black people. So many of our institutions, our political, cultural, medical, economic institutions and on down the line, exist because of the presence of Blackness in America. So those folks who want to come and piece together America’s ghost, when they do their taxes, go to a voting booth, apply for a job, I just want them to take between 15 seconds to a minute to ask how does someone who is Black engage these institutions?

If you have no conception of that then study yourself.

We’ve developed this word self-worth. We’ve been talking about the value of reflection since time immemorial, reflection and projection into someone else’s shoes. The information is there. The research has been done.

Reparations runs from Jan 10th to February 2nd at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Information on tickets and showtimes can be found here.


Featured image: Darren Canady by Chloe Collyer