Theater

Invoice for Emotional Labor: Christopher Johnson’s latest performance explores questions about race and racism

This past weekend, April 8 – 10, Christopher Johnson debuted his workshop performance of Invoice For Emotional Labor. The streamed, recorded performance was presented by the Wilbury Theatre Group, in collaboration with the CCRI Players and Community College of Rhode Island.

Having witnessed readings of pieces of this work-in-progress over the past two years in venues like the Brooklyn Tea House, and at Wilbury Theatre’s DeCameron, I was eager to witness all of the pieces of Christopher’s full-length work come together as a whole.

Invoice For Emotional Labor is billed in its promotion as “a multi-discipline performance answering the asked and not so obvious unasked questions about race and racism…” from the perspective of Christopher, a poet, artist educator, and 2018 McColl Johnson Fellow finalist and RISCA Playwright fellow. 

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As in Christopher’s 2017 play, New and Dangerous Ideas, which centered itself on themes of the criminalization of Black people and the expatriation of police, Invoice For Emotional Labor also utilized the technique of weaving together film, poetry, narrative and scene, not only to share Christopher’s lived experience, but to teach white people about racism. Unlike the former play, which featured other actors, Invoice For Emotional Labor is a one man show, and its scope and aim is to not focus on one issue, but to encompass, and literally embody, the full experience of living as a Black man in America.

The performance was filmed over the course of just two days in CCRI’s Bobby Hackett Theatre by Oliver Arrias and staff from the Wilbury Theatre Group, and at varying turns was a space that felt both intimate and lonely. 

From the first moment the performance begins, we are indeed front and center within Christopher’s experience. On a movie screen, a shirtless Christopher appears, his long, twisted dreadlocks loosely falling over his shoulders. He shares how the journey of this work began, with being asked countless questions about race and racism by white friends and at student talks, on top of having to live the experience of being Black. 

It is here where we learn what Christopher means by the term emotional labor, defined as the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job, where workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors. Christopher translates that to the emotional labor of having to, as a Black person, manage his emotions dealing with all the questions, while also bearing witness to trauma committed against other Black people, as well as the endless encounters with racism, both personal and structural, he experiences. 

It is also here where Christopher shares how exhausting this is and how it is not his job to teach white people about racism — that this work he creates, is first and foremost, for him. It is his therapy. He tells us, the audience — and it is clear to me anyway, as a white woman, that Invoice For Emotional Labor is speaking to us, white people — that if we get anything out of his work, we should pay him for his emotional labor. And, in case you’re not quite sure you heard correctly, the screen flashes Christopher’s CashApp, Paypal and Venmo handles for the audience to pay him. 

From there, we encounter Christopher, wearing a Dashiki top, standing before the same screen, now bearing a waving American flag. He sings snippets of Star Spangled Banner, pausing at various points throughout the song to ask us to imagine the story of African people in the early 1500s leading a “normal” life, holding a naming ceremony for a baby, celebrating with rituals of their own, a new life, only to be captured and crammed together, shackled horizontally, inside the bottom of the first slave ship voyage, supposedly to Santa Domingo. As a figure in African diasporic storytelling, Ananzi, the trickster wise spider, appears to guide the African men and women, who then free themselves from their shackles and overtake the white men leading them into what would become the inhumanity and horrors of enslavement. Hoping to be guided by the stars to journey back to Africa, they instead, as Christopher tells us, are brought to Virginia, by the three white men remaining, one of them being Rhode Island naval officer and slave trader Esek Hopkins. 

The scene wraps with a crash course on the pull and harshest of pushbacks between the vast contributions Black people made to this country in building America’s infrastructure through forced, enslaved labor, to fighting for this country, to contributions to culture and the creation of every genre of “American” music, to the caretaking of white children and families — and how at every turn this country created laws and policies that told Black people they were not fully human and did not deserve the same treatment or opportunities that white people in this country were afforded, all because of the color of their skin. Christopher names redlining, the GI bill, segregation and voting rights as some of the many ways Black people were kept from being seen as fully human, to live freely, and be able to attain and build generational wealth.

While Christopher tells us that it is not his job to teach us about racism, he spends the hour-and-a-half performance pouring his body, mind, heart and soul, with intimacy, urgency, vulnerability, playfulness and anguish, to, ironically, teach us about racism. Therefore, we should consider this teaching a great gift, the reception of which, we will learn at the performance’s conclusion, comes with a responsibility.

The lessons come to us through each vignette, often preceded by another mechanism that weaves each piece together — the use of language used to talk about and understand race and racism. Terms such as Implicit Bias, White Fragility, and Microaggression appear in white print splashed across a black screen, each term’s definition underneath. The use of this suggests if we have the language and understanding of these terms, along with Christopher’s lived experience and historical teachings, hopefully, we can do something to change matters of both personal and structural racism. And change is what Christopher is asking us for.

Implicit Bias was the term used as the jumping off point for the intimate, anecdotal monologue where Christopher, sitting atop a concrete block on stage, shares how he had eyes kept on him by a white male staff member when shopping in a CVS, while white customers came and went without a glance. A film clip inserted here, the Proctor and Gamble “The Talk,” illustrates further examples of implicit bias, and how Black children are raised to stay safe, and be seen for who they are instead of what they’re believed to be by white people. 

Poems like Summer Rain, and stories shared about Christopher’s family’s Southern roots and his mother’s intentional move to Newark, New Jersey, to not have to raise her children in the Jim Crow South, give the audience a window into the world of aunts, grandmothers, and neighborhood “OGs” who try to impart the life lessons he will need as a Black man in this country. Especially in Summer Rain, we feel the joy of childhood play in red clay and puddles, and we feel a sense of hope in Christopher’s grandmother’s refrain of “just got to believe everything’s gonna be all right.”  

Along with the racism terminology shared, we are privy to a few screens that share translations of Black lexicon, and the difference between what is said and what is meant, like if a Black parent tells you to wash the dishes, it really means you clean all the counters, wipe the cabinets, mop the floor, and wash and dry and put away the dishes.

Christopher’s poems are breaths in between each lesson and tale, and it is amazing to consider how Christopher, with great agility in both emotion and craft, pivots from each mode of delivery and each deep piece of content shared.

In an African print suit jacket, black turtleneck and slacks, Christopher greets us from the stage’s empty audience seats with comfort and sardonic wit, as the game show host in I4EL, “the show where you white people get to ask a Black person anything you want to know about race or racism, but were afraid to ask, because to be honest, you f’n knew better.” In I4EL, Christopher fields questions — the voiceovers of real questions and statements he has been on the receiving end of — like, “How many times a day do you feel discriminated against…and how often does this happen in our area?” Christopher, as game show host, answers the questioner by sharing about the time he walked with a white woman friend on Blackstone Boulevard and was met with the comment from a white man about Christopher probably wishing he was wearing the watermelon printed shorts, a nearby toddler was sporting. He finishes his answer with, “Well, let me tell you, Bertha, I deal with racism every day I leave my house.”

If it is dizzying and overwhelming for the audience to take in all of the experiences Christopher shares scene after scene, one has to imagine the toll choosing which stories to tell, creating each narrative, and performing them must take on the creator. We move through Invoice For Emotional Labor and approach its ending, a piece in which Christopher tells about a day in his life where a detour, before a planned talk with Black youth at the Chad Brown Housing complex, leaves him feeling traumatized, erased and othered. As he stands on stage reading his story, the Christopher who appeared in the beginning of the play, is onscreen behind him, this time silent.

Christopher literally walks us through how his depression and anxiety and daily racism impacts his soul. We find Christopher walking downtown Westminster Street in Providence after watching the film The Green Book, which tells the story of the book Black travelers used from the 1930s through the early 1960s to find safe spaces to visit, stay and eat, as Christopher relates, “to avoid getting lynched.” As Christopher continues his walk this day, he is met over and over again through restaurant windows with “white faces, only white faces…white, smiling, white, oblivious, happy white people…” and remembrances of encounters with “white presenting” restaurant owners, and with memories of a white restaurant owner, a friend, who ignores Christopher’s employment inquiry the owner put out. He repeats his feeling of being othered, as the definition flashes across the screen: different, alien, not belonging. All the while, the onscreen Christopher shakes his head, bows his head in despair, pounds his chest with anger, tears at his hair, with tears seeming to well in his eyes, as onstage Christopher shares about the danger of living in a Black body and not being seen for who you are, like the young Tamir Rice, who at age 10 was shot and killed by a police officer within seconds of approach — all for playing with a toy gun on a playground.

Christopher feels like he doesn’t exist, and seeks to find a safe space in Providence, a diverse city, yet with only two monuments honoring Black people. The only place he can think of is the Michael Van Leesten walking bridge. There, he finds a moment of peace with the sign of redtail hawks flying above him, which reminds him of the Tuskegee Airmen who were preferred over white fighter pilots during the war because they were superior, and he feels protected. With a great amount of energy to get to this momentarily “safe space,” Christopher tells us it is time for him to “drop bombs” with his talk with the youth at Chad Brown, so they will not be erased or othered.

Yet, there are more stories and poems and game show questions to answer as the show builds toward its conclusion. In one harrowing scene, I am reminded of hearing from Black people how traumatizing it is to witness photos and videos of Black people being lynched throughout the Jim Crow era, to what’s called modern day lynchings of innocent Black people being beaten and killed, mostly at the hands of police officers. Yet, as white people, perhaps Christopher is asking us to watch. To witness these acts as another way to believe that this is happening, and that we cannot turn away from its existence.

In one scene, Christopher shares his sense that his white friends on social media are apathetic and care more about an impending snow storm than the first not guilty verdict in the Jordan Davis killing. Davis, a Black teenager, was killed by Michael Dunn, a white man, who shoots into the car Davis is in at a gas station, simply because Jordan refuses to turn down the music on the car radio. 

As he recounts the story on stage in close-up view, behind him, on the screen, we see Christopher with his wrists bound with the American flag. The image changes to him being gagged, the flag now tightly bound around his mouth, then, to him with hands behind his neck, again bound with the flag. In one image, he wears a hooded sweatshirt with the words emblazoned across the front: You can pick my brain once that invoice is paid. Next we witness Christopher, grimacing in pain, grasping onto the flag, wrapped tightly around his neck, the trail of it upward, as if he is being lynched. The images continue to change as Christopher continues to share about white apathy.

Christopher’s poem, Black Body Positive, follows another I4EL show segment where Christopher is faced with questioner Alison’s countless, age-old stereotypes criminalizing and deeming Black people morally inferior. It had me wishing for the same hope Christopher, the poet, wishes for, when it is hard to imagine. The smartly placed film clip here of author James Baldwin on “The Dick Cavett Show,” sharing his truth about the reality of the Black man’s experience in America, over the white guest’s idealized, “Why can’t we all get along instead of dividing, and making everything about race?” enforces our need to face this reality.

A brilliant closing scene has Christopher on stage in a madras suit jacket and fedora with a small folding table in front of him, playing Three Card Monty. This time, stage Christopher is silent, while the Christopher on screen wraps up his teachings. He challenges us by asking, “Now that you know who we are as Black people, you might ask yourself, who are you as white people?” He tells us that America has been playing Three Card Monty with Black people since the founding of this country, saying no matter what card Black people choose, they lose.

He rapid-fires each line:

“Separate but equal?” “F’ you, you lose!”

“Civil rights?” “F’ you, you lose!”

“First Black president, post-racial America?” “F’ you, you lose!”

He says that even though it might seem like Black people have a “win” every 30 or 40 years, “We sure do get the short end of the stick.”

Christopher challenges us with an ending that he hopes is not our ending. There is no “soft landing,” he tells us. We, as white people, are now shackled to the knowledge we have, and we are not off the hook for how this country continues to treat Black people. He says we are the only ones who can change it, and gives us ways to do just that, like protecting Black children as if they are our own and voting as if we were Black. 

He asks us if we learned something from him, and if so, to pay him. I particularly liked the, “..if you are out at a restaurant and you one-up your friends as the racial justice ally warrior with your tidbit of information you gleaned from this performance, and I don’t care if you credit me or not…I want you to pull out your cell phone, and pay me!”

The cash payment screen flashes again.

Christopher finishes Invoice For Emotional Labor with the punch of a poem about five lines long that puts a stop to the “my immigrant family came here with nothing” and serves as a counter to the myth of individualism, and the “proof” of the perceived Black inferiority created by white people. 

If audiences viewing Invoice For Emotional Labor were expecting to feel warm and fuzzy, to feel comfortable learning these lessons, they may have been disappointed. These lessons are a gift, though; one that can help white people to understand and empathize more with the history of race and the lived experience of anti-Black racism.

As a witness to this work, I cannot walk away from Christopher’s lesson without being willed to do something, and I hope that others are also willed. Whether we begin with self-reflection on the privileges we hold as white people, educate ourselves further on matters of race and racism or act in our daily lives to call out personal racist attacks and break down these racist systems, we can and must act. If we don’t, well, we will demonstrate the apathy that Christopher reflects upon in the scene with Jordan Davis. In a country where Christopher tells us even when you win, you lose, let’s heed the call of Invoice of Emotional Labor, and pay it forward.

Invoice For Emotional Labor, written and performed by Christopher Johnson, was a workshop performance presented by The Wilbury Theatre Group in collaboration with CCRI Players and Community College of Rhode Island. The work was filmed and edited by Oliver ‘Syde-Sho’ Arrias. Technical direction was by Max Ponticelli and production management was by Annalee Cavallaro. 

A Talk-Back on the performance was held Saturday, April 10, with Ted Clement; Wilbury Theatre Group artistic director, Josh Short; CCRI director of human resources and institutional equity, Sybil Bailey; CCRI dean of students, Michael Cunningham; CCRI professor of English, Eileen James; and CCRI alumnus, guest director, and Achievement First Mayoral Academy instructor Ronald Lewis.

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