Thursday, April 5, 2012

Black Characters in Search of Reality

Brent Staples asserts in his New York Times article on 11 February 2012, "Black Characters in Search of Reality":  Through most of the 20th century, images of African-Americans in advertising were mainly limited to servants like the pancake-mammy Aunt Jemima and Rastus, the chef on the Cream of Wheat box. Imagine a Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep during the era of the Negro as household retainer and woke up in 2012. He would be struck speechless by billboards and commercials featuring affluent black people advising consumers on pharmaceuticals, real estate, financial services and the virtues of owning expensive cars. This kind of transformation has yet to take hold in the dramatic arts.

Advertisers, who must create the world anew every day, have to keep close tabs on changing social and cultural realities. The industry began to normalize images of black affluence in response to the civil rights revolution, and embraced those images as it became clear that they were good for selling breakfast cereal and mutual funds, too.

The dramatic arts are less nimble, partly because they draw on material that is rarely written by people of color and often firmly rooted in a past that allowed for only a narrow, impoverished view of African-American life. The black middle and upper classes have long fumed that stage and film have rendered them largely invisible — and are hungry for serious works with rounded characterizations of themselves.

This hunger was not satisfied by “The Help,” a movie about maids in the racist, early 1960s South that has been nominated in multiple categories for the Oscar. In addition to its best picture nomination, the film has produced a best actress nomination for the wonderful Viola Davis, who stars as the quietly volcanic Aibileen, and a best supporting actress nod for Octavia Spencer, who plays her voluble friend.

The troubling thing is that the only two black actors in this year’s Oscar competition are cast as domestics, and would probably not have found meaty, starring roles in other films had they passed on “The Help.” This brings to mind the first black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel, who received the award in 1940 for her portrayal of the loyal maid in “Gone With the Wind.” When criticized for often playing a mammy on film, Ms. McDaniel famously said she would rather play a maid in the movies than be one.

Black artists are often faced with the problem of having to elevate through sheer skill material that is stereotypical or even racist. The director Diane Paulus and her talented stars, Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, undertake just such a renovation in the new Broadway production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” African-Americans have generally disliked this work, the story of a love affair between a crippled beggar and a drug-addicted woman.

Sidney Poitier initially refused the role of Porgy in the 1959 film (calling it “not material complimentary to black people”), but later succumbed to Hollywood pressure. The New Yorker critic Hilton Als, who has praised the revised version, is no fan of the original either. The opera, he writes, is traditionally staged in a way that casts the love affair in the context of a poor black community’s “will to destruction.” There is “no uplift, just sweat, blood, carnality and resignation.”

Some purists have condemned the new version as a betrayal of the creators’ intentions. But the show now fleshes out the lives of the lovers, excavating the humanity of characters long buried beneath early-20th-century preconceptions.

In their vacation homes in Sag Harbor and Martha’s Vineyard, the black upper classes have complained about the white world’s tendency to equate blackness almost exclusively with poverty and deprivation. This grievance was in no way salved by late-20th-century sitcoms like “The Cosby Show” or “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which were comedies, after all, and could be dismissed as imaginary.

The hunger for textured depictions of black lives found an indulgence this season on Broadway. The Cort Theater in Manhattan was jumping during the two performances I attended of Lydia Diamond’s “Stick Fly.” This family drama is set in the Martha’s Vineyard vacation home of a black neurosurgeon and the blue-blooded wife he met at a “paper bag” party — so named because no African-American darker than the bag was supposed to be admitted.

The play deals interestingly, if melodramatically, with that special class tension that has always existed between the black elites and the less well off, with whom they were often pushed into close proximity by segregation. The playwright makes a passing reference to Jack and Jill, a once quasi-secret black organization, scarcely heard of among whites, whose chapters met mainly at the homes of black elites and served to foster what often became lifelong alliances.

At the performances I saw, the show unfolded with comfortable familiarity and knowing laughter from a largely black audience that was pleased to see itself credibly rendered onstage. --BRENT STAPLES  [source: The New York Times ]

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