The Slave: Inflammatory Language Muddies the Message

Ed note – This review has generated some controversy and some very aggressive criticism online. It bears reminding folks that all reviews include an element of subjectivity. Our reviewers all make a commitment to give you their most honest impressions – whether popular or not. And because theater is subjective, other reviewers may vary dramatically in their impressions. We love it when a piece is controversial or complex enough to produce contrasting reactions. Great theater entertains but also incites, makes you think, and ideally generates passionate (but not nasty) conversation afterward. We’ve linked to contrasting takes on The Slave by other Motif writers, and recognize the dedication of the folks at Mixed Magic for choosing material that inspires conversations like these, even the painful ones.

Artistic Director for Mixed Magic Jonathan Pitts-Wiley told us, “Graduate level theses have been written about this playwright’s work – people should be offended … this is difficult art. One of the reasons I chose to do this play is because it is hard and does not give people places to hide. It holds up a mirror in a way that is completely uncomfortable and, I would offer, really compelling. If you step into the discomfort, not to excuse what is being said, but to consider it in a dynamic way, it will make an impression; that does not mean it is laying out the politics of the theater where it is happening.“

Questions abound when certain language or ideas are intended to shock. When does that language harm? When does the language in a play represent the thoughts of a character; when does it represent the thoughts, opinions or ideas of the playwright; and when does it represent the thoughts, opinions or politics of the theater hosting it? These are great questions – discuss amongst yourselves. Or better yet, see the play and tell us what you thought in the comments below.

Read another critic’s take on this topic here: motifri.com/slave2017letter

According to Pew Research, African-Americans still fall behind whites in homeownership and income levels. Police stop young black men at twice the rate of white men. Black men are more likely to face harsher sentences when accused of crimes, compared to white men. Racism is built into our educational and criminal systems in a way that ensures what is called the “school to prison pipeline.” Once a person is convicted of a felony, they lose their right to vote. One out of every 13 black voters has lost their right to vote, meaning they’ve lost their access to make change through the government that is supposed to represent all of its people. It doesn’t seem like justice, and we have seen the anger boil over in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, Charlotte, Charlottesville and St. Louis. Now, imagine that anger exploding on a national level, igniting a deadly civil war. That’s where we begin with Amiri Baraka’s The Slave, now in an extended run at Mixed Magic Theatre. Walker Vessels impassionedly says he “was crying out against 300 years of oppression; not against individuals.” The white man, Brad Easley, responds that Walker is wrong about everything. Sound familiar?

Artistic director, Jonathan Pitts-Willey, addressed the audience at the start of the show by quoting his father, director Ricardo Pitts-Willey, saying “time caught up with this script.” If, by that, he means we can no longer ignore the justifiable anger of black men and continue telling African-Americans that they are mistaken by their own experiences, then I agree that this script is timely. But if time caught up to this script, then we should be even more concerned about the times in which we live. This script uses racist language toward Native-Americans and the Japanese. It is degrading to women, and I lost count of the number of times a homophobic slur was used.

Why Mixed Magic would want to illustrate messages of thoughtless hate while exploring such a relevant topic is uncertain. This play is not an exploration or a challenge to the audience; at least not in the way this production has been handled. There is no director’s note in the program to explain why they would choose to talk about racism through such a misogynist and homophobic character. Talkbacks were instituted after the first two shows, and only with artistic staff — not community experts or a dramaturg with research and facts to help understand the work. In short, there is no way for an audience to engage in a meaningful way with what they see on the stage. It’s a poor move on the part of Mixed Magic to align the plight of black men in America with hate of women and the LGBTQ community.

As an audience member enters the theater, they are confronted by the interior of an apartment. The apartment was at one time well appointed with a piano and a martini bar. Now everything is covered in dust, presumably from the walls crumbling down around the occupants. The blinds are semi-shut, dirty and broken. Prominently placed at center stage is a stairway leading nowhere. The stairway is the most interesting feature of this production. Characters are positioned on it for monologues, not moving. Violence is choreographed on the stairs. Characters make an attempt to get up to the second floor, but solid walls are built where we would expect a doorway. No movement can happen on these stairs.

No movement happens with the characters either. At the start of the play, Brad and Grace (Terry Shea and Melanie Stone) enter their apartment wearing helmets and dodging the sounds of gunfire. They find Walker (Frederick Douglas), Grace’s ex-husband, already in their apartment. What continues is a violent discussion of poetry, their pasts and the current state of war. There is a lot of emotion built into the script, predominantly anger. The actors in this production seem to play only the anger, starting at such a high level of emotion there is nowhere for them to go with it. The play quickly becomes static as a result.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley directs this production, and could have helped with creating more emotional levels. Instead, it feels like he spent a lot of time working with Douglas on his powerful opening monologue, and leaving the rest of the play to run its own devices. Shea and Stone are often left looking like they are unsure where they should be on stage, and moments of physicality are lost. There are several times during the short play that Brad (Shea) is subjected to violence at the hands of Walker (Douglas) while Stone stands where she is, missing opportunities for intense conflict by physically interacting with the men on stage. Douglas spends the play expressing his anger in a monotone yell, while Shea and Stone make a lot of angry faces. By the end of the play, the audience is so bored by the stagnant anger it is difficult to feel surprise or be upset at the resolution of the action.

Overall, there are better ways to engage in a conversation about the justifiable anger of African-American men than to see this play. It is unfair to associate the injustice of continued racism in America with the levels of hate portrayed in this script. Unfortunately, while the set gives a momentary pause for reflection, the rest of the production feels like it needs more rehearsal time.

Read another critic’s take on this topic here: motifri.com/slave2017letter

Amiri Baraka’s The Slave has been extended through January 7 at Mixed Magic Theatre, 560 Mineral Spring Ave, Pawtucket. Call 401-305-7333, email TixMMT@gmail.com, or go to brownpapertickets.com.  

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