Darren Canady’s world premiere play Reparations is a tantalizing, flawed new fable about how responsibility for the effects of Black intergenerational trauma is assigned and held.
by Neve Mazique
Spoiler Alert: The following review contains spoilers for Sound Theatre Company’s box office busting REPARATIONS. Personally, I think you’ll do okay even if you read this before you see it.
As my friend and I settled into our front and center seats at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (LHPAI) for Reparations, written by Darren Canady, produced by Sound Theatre Company, and directed by Jay O’Leary we immediately felt brought into the world of the play via the impressive set imagined by designer Lex Marcos. We would later learn that the jagged-edged grey rock wall to the left of us was the past, the cellar where so much was felt and survived. In the center was the near future now, illustrated by a warm and inviting looking kitchen where peach cobbler was purported to be baked. The righthand and final space was a lighter and more austere grey room, boasting clean and safe right angles of institutional control.
The premise of Reparations is sound. In the technologically advanced yet touchable future, the state has created light-up marble mazes inside vacuum tubes called visualizers. Give a few drops of your blood to this contraption and, like 23andMe on steroids, you will be transported back in time to a moment of a trauma experienced by your blood relatives. Why would you want to relive, or for younger generations, live for the first time, such things as your ancestors being slaughtered and strung up in a tree on their own farm?
For proof. In Black Mirror fashion, the visualizer allows you to watch your family’s experiences in the past just as it records a video of the event, which is then delivered to a conglomerate of a company and the Oklahoma state called the Commission. This Big Brother-esque entity then utilizes a fascist calculator to determine whether your family, as victims of state sanctioned violence, are entitled to monetary reparations. Rory, a 25-year-old gas station attendant and would be performer who is living in her family’s ancestral farmhouse with her aging grandmother, is aware that as African Americans, her family has been brutalized by the state of Oklahoma, and she intends to get what’s theirs, with the hope that said recompense might also be her ticket out of town.
Rory (Aishe Keita), her grandmother Billie Mae (Tracy Michelle Hughes), and her cousin Maceo (Brandon Mooney) get to re/live violent events of 1922 and 1961, and send their agent of the Commission, Pramesh (Bharan Bikshaandeswaran) back to his superiors with vital proof of the injustices their family suffered, but the toll on the living is great. As Billie Mae tells Rory, “You always had to pick at those scabs when you was little, you never could leave well enough alone. Even though you know that means they don’t heal right.” As a Black survivor, and a fan of therapy, I believe that often we don’t understand what baggage we’re carrying around, or if it’s even ours, until we unpack it. Rory, portrayed by the vibrant, committed Keita, seems to agree with me, which is why she brings Pramesh and a visualizer into her grandmother’s cellar, to help her get the footage she needs to file a claim for reparations.
Maceo, whose grandfather Jimmy (Mooney plays both of these roles) went to prison in 1961 and was never the same, is mad at both Billie Mae for snitching on her cousin in the past, and at Rory in the present, for revealing this history to him in the first place. A Black, female protagonist traveling through time to interact with familial trauma has the potential to tell us a very complex story of survival and emotional learning indeed. Like in Octavia Butler’s Kindred, where Dana begins to understand not only what her ancestors endured, but also the unsettling things they did to survive, specifically at the axis of misogynoir, where an experience and survival of violence was distinct to being both Black and a woman. Despite having strong Black female characters interacting in the future, this play managed to center a male perspective as the one definitive of Black struggle.
In a potent revelation, Jimmy shares that growing up, Billie Mae was the only thing that made him feel safe. As adults, he killed Billie Mae’s boyfriend (Anthony Lee Simmons) because he was threatening to take his protection away- by offering Billie Mae a way out of Oklahoma (in the past, Allison Lee Brown as Billie is exuberant, fiercely good, and sweetly red-afroed like her granddaughter Rory in the present, and she too wanted to be a performer in a city). Though all of the actors were stunning, the most emotive performances were elicited from the two Black men onstage, Mooney and Simmons, which I believe was because it was their story that was being told. The Black women and one brown man receive as much, if not more stage time, but the full spectrum of their feelings is not illuminated.
Pramesh is a cog in a machine it hadn’t occurred to him was racist until Rory pointed out that him and his family will never be white. Bikshaandeswaran, in the role, is a worthy dramatic-comedic actor, if a bit quiet, but what range he could have shown was stunted by the caricature that was his character. Had the role, and actor, been white, this throwaway character could have gotten away with feeling like Martin Freeman in Black Panther– a colonizer for sure, but one of the good ones. Presumably, the fact that the character is a first generation Indian immigrant is meant to show the clash and layering of different racisms in the United States. Unfortunately, most of the lines written for the character feel like they could have been cut, read aloud from a letter, or said by the scary Brave New World voiceover person, and the conversations illuminating anti-Black racism from white and brown folks, or anti-immigrant racism from Black and white folks, felt dampening rather than igniting.
Choreographed effectively by O’Leary into the physical presences of the actors was the expectation of Black femme labor. Hughes with her tremors in the present, Brown with her shielding and presentational arms in the past, and Keita with her pacing and gesticulating- these actors never stop moving, trying, dreaming, and telling the truth. Yet, Billie Mae is blamed for failing to protect her cousin Jimmy, just as Rory is blamed for failing to protect her cousin Maceo. Billie Mae likens the blame game to trying to stop Eve from giving Adam the apple. To remind Black men of their own pain caused by white men is a sin which should be protected against, not revealed by, Black women. The cathartic end of Reparations was moving, but I questioned who the catharsis was for.
I’m here for complicated, thoughtful theatre written and directed by Black artists and produced with liberation in mind, which is exactly what Reparations is. However, it will benefit from growth to make room for the dimensional potential of its genre, characters, and story. There are Black womxn speculative fiction and theatre authors continuing to define the way we think about what has happened, and what is possible, and perhaps future iterations of Reparations will show that it’s not only Black men in the storm of generations of racism-related trauma, and it’s not just Black women’s jobs to hold everything together.
REPARATIONS is playing at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute until February 2nd.
You can get tickets here.
NEVE (Neve Kamilah Mazique-Bianco) grew up in the part of rural, small-town Jersey Imogen Binnie aptly says, “seems never to be shown on TV.” They claim among their ancestors, Edward C Mazique, the physician to the Civil Rights Movement, and Margery Williams Bianco, the author of The Velveteen Rabbit. NEVE is a choreographer, writer, composer, and multidisciplinary punk performance artist based in Duwamish and other Unceded Coast Salish Territories. He/They identify as a mixed Black/Indigenous Sudanese, British/European American biqueer polygender femme disabled country punk. They have been published in Curve, ModelViewCulture, Harlot Magazine, Plenitude, Everyday Feminism, and Maximum RocknRoll among other places. You should never mess with him but you can always fucks with them. Keep up at https://nevebebad.com, https://patreon.com/nevebebad, and on everything else @nevebebad
Featured image courtesy of Sound Theatre