Anna is a director and a woman of color

I’ll start with what’s in my pockets. I am a queer female person of color living in today’s America. I have only encountered Agatha Christie through the loving, sepia-toned eye of PBS / BBC / and other “masterpiece theater”-type jawns.

 

Reading Josh Hitchens’ director’s note from the And Then There Were None program, you know you aren’t in for masterpiece theater, which I was frankly glad for. Whenever the production was in danger of straying too near the classic pitfalls of “period theater” — melodramatic looks, overlong pauses, and labored accents — Hitchens and his design team were there to yank you back from the precipice.

 

In pulling that off, enormous credit must go to J. Kenneth Jordan for what was a powerful and ambitious show design. Set, lighting, sound, and video were the knife’s edge that kept the play dangerous. A less provocative designer and director might have given us a plush sea-side resort; Jordan and Hitchens delivered instead the lighthouse of Tévennec, threadbare and white as a bleached bone. My favorite parts of the show were Jordan’s videographic interludes (with one notable exception, which I’ll get to). While the sound balance was at times painfully loud, the interludes added genuine depth to the characters — an early hint at the puritanical Emily Brent’s queer identity (a lovely moment, played by Carole Mancini) or a view into the General’s reminiscences of his wife (played by a truly excellent Ryan Walter).

 

But in trying to balance on that knife’s edge between period play and horror show, a little wibble wobbling occurred. In the first act, bizarro-world butler Thomas Rogers (Geremy Webne-Behrman) was in a completely different play, replete with its own sound and light cues. I actually would very much like tickets to this drag show/Rocky Horror homage, preferably featuring even more of precocious dandy Anthony Marston (Jacob Glickman). But as it stands, I’m left a little confused.

 

There was also a lot of screaming. Screaming in the theater can be an amazing bit of catharsis, but whether it’s serving the actors vs. the audience is something I always contend with. (For a way it can serve both, fully and beautifully, see Annie Wilson’s At Home with the Humorless Bastard.) While most of the show’s scream queens take the maxi-approach with full-throated hysteria, Vera Claythorne (Megan Edelman) delivers a cannier, foxier kind of mental breakdown. She does an excellent job of staying “Suspect No. 1” throughout the show. One really wishes that she had been given more to do in the final denouement than sustain a fever pitch cry/scream-fest at the feet of the old man (Robert Bauer as Judge Wargrave) taking a very long time to explain how he outsmarted her. I felt exhausted for her.

 

All-in-all, it was an ambitious show and I applaud Hitchens’ unabashed embrace of horror on stage. The Allen’s Lane Art Center is one of those lovely community institutions (like PBS!) that exists to nurture and support its artists. It is always a pleasure to see the many ways that proscenium gets treated; with And Then There Were None it was thoroughly unrecognizable, and for that, praise to the full cast and crew.

 

But we’re not just shade and pats on the back here at Bonaly. I couldn’t in good conscience write about this production without addressing a moment that left me disappointed and confused. And in this, I definitely invite a dialogue with the artists involved, who are welcome to get in touch. The problem can be summarized thusly:

 

  • At some point in his past, Captain Philip Lombard decided to save his own skin by abandoning 21 men to die, somewhere in the wilderness of East Africa. Location and identities of these men not disclosed, but with all the racial sensitivity typical of 1939, we know them simply as “Africans.” (Reminder to the modern audience: Africa is a continent, not an ethnicity. This is important.)
  • The play spends a brief moment chastising Captain Lombard for viewing these people as disposable and suggesting that their race makes them less than human. Something about “brothers and sisters despite color.” A great sentiment, but absolutely nothing about the play or production actually gives them person-hood. They remain exactly as Christie made them: an “other.” Fridged, so that we can all feel good about the murder of the loathsome Captain Lombard. Essentially, nameless, faceless, personhood-less people of color, moving the plot along for our white protagonists.
  • UNTIL SUDDENLY: these unnamed men get faces.   
  • Mid-romance with Vera, Captain Lombard steps out of time while a video montage begins to play. This visual internal monologue is a language which the production established with earlier scenes featuring other characters (again, great work on part of director and design team).
  • As Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit begins to play, we are cycled through images of what one presumes are Captain Lombard’s victims. The photos are modern, glossy black and white, meditative portraits. The sort of stuff NatGeo still gets high on. The people depicted are in traditional dress… of what cultures, what national affiliations, we are not given the remotest clue or explanation. It would seem that just as Christie figured in 1939, as long as the audience can recognize that they are “Africans”, good enough.
  • Then the final image… an older photo of a mass lynching that instantly evoked the Jim Crowe American South. A tree weighted with anonymous, murdered black bodies. All the while, Billie Holiday sings.

 

With all sincerity, I ask, what the fuck is going on?

 

Did you just choose to use anonymous people’s race and cultural identity as a prop in your show?

Have you decided to elide black Africans (whatever the hell that even MEANS) with black Americans?

What gives you the right to use Billie Holiday and the uncensored, abject horror of a mass-lynching image, in a play where you’ve done absolutely no work to redress racial violence and oppression in America?

Why did you highlight the topic of racial violence only to take a sensationalist, 10,000-foot, tourist view?

 

If there are good answers to these questions, they were lost on me as an audience member. This moment didn’t challenge the problem of using POC as props for white narratives. It doubled down on it. This moment didn’t respect a complicated racial situation. Instead, it tokenized a bunch of dark-skinned people in some of the wildest leaps of racialization I’ve seen in awhile. (“They’re all black right?” the photo montage seemed to say. “These things are connected because the murderers are white and the victims are black! It’s that simple.”)

 

If, as Hitchens’ director’s note states, this is a show about guilt, let’s talk a moment about white guilt. Back to my pockets from earlier, I’m an “other” (note: I’m not a black person, just to be clear. I am only speaking on behalf of myself but I deal with white bullshit all the time). A real hallmark of white guilt, in my eyes, is that when white people try to address historical prejudice but inevitably end up repeating it in the present. I’m certain that And Then There Were None intended to send me a message condemning racism, past and present alike. So how did this happen?

 

I believe we need to hold our white allies accountable, now more than ever. The Philadelphia theater community often has the best intentions, but just as often, it falls down, because intentions are not enough. Your intentions don’t make you an ally; your actions do. If you are a white artistic team about to use people of color in your plays, my advice is stop taking and start engaging. A one-sided conversation with a photo doesn’t count as engagement. I implore And Then There Were None to consider the nature of their ally-hood in this photo montage. Who exactly are you helping, and how?

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