Theatre of Wokeness

Are we having a surface-level reckoning?

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | January 2019 | 7 minutes (1,942 words)

There’s a certain kind of conversation everybody seems to be having right now. It takes place most often online, but sometimes in real life. Specifics vary, and its frequency and level of intensity ebbs and flows with the news cycle. An awards show, a White House firing, a video of police misconduct, a local ballot initiative on medical marijuana — anything tangentially related to race or gender can be fodder. It starts out engaging enough. Then tensions mount; participants morph into archetypes. Its substance diminishes into the reduced, neutered language of the “moment” before disintegrating altogether.

In a would-be map of this phenomenon, the first Women’s March, held the day after President Trump’s inauguration, is an inflection point. On November 9, 2016, Teresa Shook, a white former attorney living in Hawaii, created a Facebook event for “a women’s march” that quickly drew several thousand RSVPs. Shook quickly enlisted a small group of women to help with early planning. Organizers were frightened the incoming administration would “threaten access to women’s healthcare, erode protection against sexual violence and roll back aid to struggling mothers.” Shook felt “shock and disbelief that this type of sentiment could win,” she told Reuters. “We had to let people know that is not who we are.” Yet, Trump’s victory wouldn’t have happened without heavy support from white women in the electorate. Terms like “intersectionality” entered the mass media’s lexicon to help explain the difficulty inherent in assembling women into a voting bloc. Along with the election’s results, the terms proliferated in a major way via Instagram, hashtags, and memes.

The march’s founders and early organizers soon appointed a diverse cadre  of women to leadership, with assistance from activist and political connector Michael Skolnik. The organizers also made sure an anti-racism agenda was part of their framework. Pulled together in just a few short months, the March was a resounding success. The central protest, in Washington, drew an estimated half a million attendees (yielding more than a million rides on DC’s Metro, the second largest crowd in its history, after the first inauguration of Barack Obama). When counting the well-attended “sister marches” held around the country, “1 percent to 1.6 percent of the U.S. population” participated in a demonstration, reported the Washington Post.

It isn’t exaggerating to say people who weren’t before are now concerned about race and social justice. According to a CNN / Kaiser poll, 49% of Americans said racism is “a big problem” in 2015, up from just over a quarter who said so in 2011. Gender inequality, too, seems top of mind: A Pew Research Center survey from 2018 said about half of Americans think men getting away with sexual harassment or assault is “a major problem.”

Some say we’re living through “a moment,” that we’re “having a reckoning.” I have a hard time with those words — they’re soundbite-y, naïve, and incomplete, as if the “moment” is for people who hadn’t even had to think about inequality or dealt with it in any large or small way — being followed around a store, or subjected to different standards on a job, or denied an apartment for no obvious reason. And if that’s the case, how’s it different from any other moment? Does it hold up, withstand rigor, or is it a surface-level reckoning, concerned with optics and the appearance of social justice and equality?

The Women’s March’s leaders have had to answer such questions. Under charges of administrative mismanagement as well as anti-Semitism, due to its alleged negligence toward Jewish women and interactions with the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan, some leaders and sister groups have split off from the central organizing body. Last August, Black Women’s Blueprint, a Brooklyn-based organization focused on policy advocacy and grassroots organizing, wrote Women’s March, Inc. an open letter: “Rather than rubbing elbows and entreating known misogynist leaders… we charge you to meet us in the trenches.” Hastily organized and orchestrated in pursuit of an of-the-moment illusion of inclusion, or what I’ll call a “theatre of wokeness,” the Women’s March may be in danger of imploding. In November, the founder, Shook, called for all four co-chairs to step down, and over the past few weeks (leading up to the third march, taking place January 19), several former sponsors and partners walked away from the March, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, EMILY’s List, and the Democratic National Committee.

Along with institutional and personal reckonings, our “moment” has also birthed a category of creations and products that support, mirror, and mine it. Sitcom episodes, satirical bits, comedy specials, films, and music, and other performance art across and in between genres and mediums have attempted to mimic and explore our confusion, our dinner table banter, the rhythm of our outrage cycle, our anxieties, awakenings, and incipient healing. It’s a prolific time. The results, for me, have been mixed; sometimes, in an attempt to titillate or provoke, characterization, interiority, or reflection gets lost or weighed down in favor of an appropriate level of wokeness. Other times, I’ve questioned the motives of the creators, wondering if staying current and in tune with the “moment” is what it’s all about after all. More than anything I wonder what the whole point is of the reckoning. In our creative responses, are we, in some cases, reinscribing the same disappointments we’re trying to reconcile? Further, what comes after the problems get addressed? What happens if, when, and after a collective consciousness has been awakened?


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


* * *

I had these and other questions watching Slave Play, a three-act satire that ran until January 13 at the New York Theater Workshop (I also heard whispers that it could be headed for Broadway). Director Robert O’Hara and playwright Jeremy O. Harris — a student at Yale’s School of Drama, and one of New York Times Style Magazine’s Black male writers of our time — imagines a world that, once fully revealed, looks very much like our own. Yet, we don’t know that at first. We see, instead, three interracial couples engaged in “slave play,” or sexual acts meant to simulate the race, gender, and class dynamics of antebellum America. Disorienting details hint that something is askew. The slave woman twerking on the floor to Rihanna while cleaning; the mistress twitchily summoning a tall, light-skinned fiddler to her bedside; the Black overseer crying frustrated tears through pleasure as his white indentured partner licks his boots. It titillates, it makes us (some of us, mostly the white folks) laugh. It, thankfully, ends quickly, giving way to a modern-day scene that sends up a certain kind of east coast, academic, therapeutic language, the language of our “moment,” to hilarious effect. It turns out the three interracial couples are all in therapy because the Black partners can no longer feel sexual pleasure in their respective relationships. And true to real life, the white partners (or those with closest proximity to whiteness) are emotive, externalized, and sometimes vocally annoyed, while the Black partners, for much of the time, simmer, stunned and silent.

All the actors play to some level of humiliation, but the Black woman in the therapeutic experiment, Kaneisha, played with a convincing prickliness by Teyonah Parris, seems to get especially short shrift: face down, she eats a busted cantaloupe off the floor in the first act, and by the third act, exorcises some trauma when her formerly petulant partner agrees to call her a “nasty negress” while they’re having sex. “Thank you for listening,” she says after the word play turns into several minutes of vigorous fucking.

The ending is an unsettling, confusing affair. I wasn’t sure if a rape had taken place or if it was, instead, a “breakthrough” achieved through consent. At any rate the labor of Parris, on whose character arc the entire show builds its human core, stayed heavy on my mind for days.

“I don’t want people to be able to walk away from a play about slavery and say, ‘Oh, well, that’s not about 2018,’” Slave Play’s playwright told an audience of donors, according to a Times profile. But who, exactly, doesn’t notice that the reverberations of slavery are still with us? If we’re really trying to wake up white people, I wish folks would say that. Slave Play’s Black cast members likely had to do heavier lifting — physically and psychically —  than the white (or white-ish) cast members in reimagining scenes drawn from America’s slave past. Do these interventions even work? And if they do, at what cost— to the audiences who may be harmed? To the cast and crew?

* * *

The politics of pleasure are as ripe as any place to dig, for creative play, for exploration and elucidation, mapped as it is into the subconscious, and there’s a legacy of its exploration in the work of Frantz Fanon and Adrienne Kennedy, both apparently influences on Slave Play’s playwright. The goal is to unsettle, to probe, and I can get with that, up to a point. What about context[1], interiority, reflection within the fictive universe of a piece? Maybe more of that would have been helpful in constructing Kaneisha as more than a spectacle. She speaks a lot, especially in the third act, but mostly, her character is seen through the eyes of her partner, as she talks about herself in relation to him and other white people from her past.

Even a journalistic endeavor could be improved with an ethics of care. In the six-part docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” which aired January 3-5 on Lifetime (and is still available on demand), the drama of Kelly’s victims’ pain is the main event, drawn out  for the benefit of the collective consciousness. I was well-acquainted with the story, yet still not entirely prepared for the grotesque details I saw and heard.

The series has already brought what feels like a shift: a lawyer for one of the families accusing Kelly confirmed that senior investigators from Fulton County, Georgia interviewed his client. The state’s attorney in Cook County, Illinois has asked for victims to reach out. There have also been costs: survivors featured in the documentary have been doxxed, discredited, and disparaged online. I saw it in my own feeds, from people in my own family. I’ve seen Black women, unaffiliated with Kelly, report they’re “not ok” and had difficulty sleeping after watching or talking about the series. In the series, some survivors were visibly traumatized during their interviews. (Watching Asante McGee revist a room she recalled being held captive in reminded me of a question from In the Wake: “Where is the breaking point, the breath, the pause…?”) How, really, should you manage when confronted with the truth of just how vulnerable you are?[2] More context could help. The music industry has a history of sexually exploiting underage girls—critics Ann Powers and Nelson George explain this powerfully in the series— but so does, specifically, the tradition of Black music upon which Kelly built everything. He’s a hip-hop generation misogynist who learned from his peers and from soul music forebears like Marvin Gaye and Al Green and James Brown, all of whom have allegations from harmed women tainting their legacies. Black Gen X-ers didn’t handle R. Kelly before because their forebears didn’t handle their own.

In Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Heather Love writes, “For groups constituted by historical injury, the challenge is to engage with the past without being destroyed by it.” Audiences and creators ask a great deal of people when they’re digging into the past, probing around the depths of ancient and not-so-ancient traumas. If the moment requires that the confusion of the present and the pain of the past get served up with realistic viscerality — if it’s about more than being current, and more than just theatre — special care should be taken with the subject matter as well as the casts, sources, and audiences most likely to be impacted.  

* * *

* * *

[1] On January 14, 2019, Jonathan Square of the digital humanities project Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom published a syllabus to help with processing Slave Play.

[2] Girls for Gender Equity and Black Women’s Blueprint produced and published reading guides and community toolkits for “Surviving R. Kelly.”