The black theatre of today is a medium at a crossroad. While the stage can provide the best avenue for the expression of black thought, it remains at present its worst disseminator. Whether this is due to the theatre’s addressing itself to only a select group of people or whether the pool from which black theatre draws its audience is a shallow one is unanswerable at this point in time. What is known is that the historical circumstances of black society have forced the adoption of the spoken word as its main channel of expression? From the early field hands to the most charismatic preacher that ever occupied a pulpit, language, or in this case black talk, has served not merely as a form of communication but as a conduit for black ideology. Plainly, the artfulness of black language resides in its connoting more than it says on the surface.
Nowhere is this reverence for language more skillfully displayed than in Ntozake Shange’s Spell #7, currently at the Public Theatre. The author of For Colored Girls…, having been less than successful in her attempt at structured theatre [Photograph], has returned to the form that first brought her fame — the long poem. With black language as its foundation, Spell #7 presents, as its name suggests, a world of illusion and reality. Miss Shange, who is fastly becoming one of the most forceful voices in the theatre, draws her audience into a meandering journey of self-exploration and discovery. Spell #7 travels along a seemingly familiar road which sharply veers into an unchartered ground where the boundaries of the imagination must expand beyond its preconceived notion of what is real.
As the evening starts, the audience is confronted by a magician, our guide into this double-mirrored world where nothing is what it seems. He explains that his father gave up the magic trade when a black kid asked to be made white on the spot, a trick no self-respecting colored American magician could claim to have in his bag. Contrastedly, the son intends to make the audience colored & and love it love it/bein’ colored.
From there we are plunged into a nebulous region where the demarcation line between illusion and reality is constantly being redefined. The setting has all the appearance of a bar, but it is essentially a platform whereon the fantasies and realities of what it means to be black are enacted. The members of the cast are, according to the story line, out-of-work actors who congregate in this bar/stage to perform and watch each other’s performances. Their statements are not to be taken as part of their characters but rather as part of a role — one of the many they will each assume during the course of the evening. Dialogue, defined as a conversation between two characters, is at a bare minimum, for there are no dramatis personae in this piece. Neither can the speeches be considered dramatic monologues or soliloquies, for although a performer often seems to be revealing himself/herself to another performer, he/she is simply assuming a particular role for the moment.
What Miss Shange presents instead is a series of poetic recitations that create a fragmented yet detailed portrayal of the joys and pains of black lives. The unifying thread of this long dramatic poem is the meshing of illusion and reality which occurs in the style, setting, acting and writing of Spell#7. Miss Shange truly performs magic with words; with them as her instrument, she weaves before our eyes a tapestry-like vision of blackness in America. Her intention is to make us doubt what we believe as real and to accept what we took for illusion. She proclaims to be merely a poet, as Skeeter, the bartender/poet of Spell #7 and Shange’s alter ego, explains: i am a poet/i write poems/i make words/cartwheel & somersault down pages outta my mouth come visions distilled like bootleg whiskey. But poetry is only the tool of Miss Shange, who like a sorcerer relentlessly pursues her audience. While we are under her spell, she intends to strip off the mask that we all wear, that disguise that makes us bearable to ourselves and others.
Her technique, which uses a stage within a stage, actors moving in and out of different roles and dialogue without stress point or conflict, establishes a distance that prevents the reality of the stage from becoming our reality. Although we identify with the performers, we are always quietly reminded that it is a performance we are watching.
An example of this technique is the lonely housewife vignette. A deceptively humorous tone and mood opens this segment, which dramatizes the adventures of a housewife out on a spree, looking for a little excitement and adventure. The segment is a duet between a narrator and a performer. While the voice-over narrator’s description of the housewife’s experience and condition is trenchant and poignant, the pantomime of the actress initially conveys a light and airy feeling.
This journey into the night’s impact upon the housewife is vividly delineated in the gestures, facial expressions and body movements of actress Mary Alice. Emerging through the doorway of the bar, she strikes a playful pose and then proceeds to spring and flounce about the room, her arms swinging jovially as a child’s. We are made to feel this woman’s breathless anticipation and gnawing restlessness, for as her jaunt begins she is full of life and vitality. But after her dreams of having a good time are shattered, her back becomes haunched, her face void of expression and her form lifeless. By conveying the disillusionment of the woman’s youthful hopes and desires, Mary Alice has made the housewife age before our very eyes. The combined effect of the scene teeters along the line of the reality of the spoken words and the illusionary acting. At the segment’s end, just when the audience finally accepts Mary Alice as a real character, she quickly steps out of the role and complains to another performer, “aw reyno/when am i gonna get a chance to feel something like that/i got into this business cuz i wanted to feel things all the time/.”
The veil of illusion which drapes over Spell #7 is also the veil which shrouds our everyday lives. Subtly paralleling the fantasy of the black kid who wanted to be made white on the spot is Laurie Carlos’s recitation about hair. It is quite possible to tell of the history of black Americans through their attitudes about hair. Before the advent of the 1960s, hair that was long and straight was considered good hair and indicated the presence of some other racial strand. Thus the fantasy to have long and silky hair was/is a real preoccupation. Through the voice and acting of Laurie Carlos, Miss Shange gradually penetrates the fantasy to reveal the true nature of the wish in all its social and economic ramifications.
Starting on a satirical note of wishful thinking, the fantasy eventually builds to an extreme magnitude that encompasses an entire universe of dreams and yearnings of black people. In the piece, humorous, outlandish fancifulness is constantly set in juxtaposition with sharp stabs of reality: “i’m gonna simply brush my hair/rapunsel pull yr tresses back into the tower/& lady godiva give up horse back riding/i’m gonna alter my social and professional life dramatically.” This illusion of transformation is given full vent when Laurie later exclaims: “ i’ll find ambrosia. my hair’ll grow pomegranates & soil, rich as round the aswan. i’ll wake in my bed to bananas/avocados/collard greens/the trammp’s latest disco hit/fresh croissant/pouilly fuisse/ishmael reed’s essays/charlotte carter’s stories/stream from my hair. everything in the universe that i need falls from my hair.” Finally, we are made to realize that this dream is not merely a private fantasy of Laurie’s character but one shared by disenfranchised people the world over: “with the bricks that plop from where a nine year old’s top braid wd be, i’ll brush myself a house with running water & a bidet. i’ll have a closet full of clean bed linen and the lil girl from the castro convertible commercial opens the bed repeatedly & stays on as a helper to brush my hair.” The humor of Miss Shange is the scent which entices the spectator into a flytrap, and once caught we are fed a dosage of truth that turns our laughter into self-examination.
The deceptiveness of a magic trick resides in the fact that only the magician knows what’s going to happen. Moreover, the element of surprise is directly commensurate to the trick’s degree of difficulty. Shange’s mastery at creating searing vision out of an idea that heretofore was an insignificant trickle in the mind has the power to make reality so unbearable that the abyss of illusion seems a welcome refuge. Indeed, to turn reality into illusion and have the illusion turn into a nightmarish and grotesque revelation requires not merely the craft of a magician but the artistry of a poet as well. Nowhere in Spell #7 is this skill of Miss Shange’s as evident as in the symbolical episode on motherhood which closes Act I.
From out the darkness of the bar steps a girlish figure with the benign smile of a retarded soul. Sue-Jean is her name. The part is played by La Tanya Richardson, who up till now has remained a shadowy figure easily dismissed by the audience. As she walks downstage, the narrative unfolds with the placidity of mountain stream: “She had always wanted a baby/never a family/never a man/she had always wanted a baby who would suckle/& sleep.” It is almost an infantile dream, one that commands compassion for this ordinary colored girl with no claims to “anything/or anyone…(who) always wanted to have a baby/a lil boy/ named myself.” The choice of the child’s name registers a slight uneasy tremor in the senses which quickly disappears once the mother begins to prepare for the birth.
With the birth of Myself, Spell #7’s rare union of descriptive writing and acting reaches its apogee La Tanya Richardson becomes SueJean delivering a baby. Her body drenched with sweat, her face writhing with pain, she sits spread eagle, supporting herself on arms that contort into hind legs. With bulging eyes, a tumultuous cascade of pain pours from her mouth: “the nite/myself waz born/ol mama kareena/from the hills came down to see bout me/i hollered & breathed/i did exactly like mama kareena said/& i pushed & pushed & there waz a earthquake up in my womb/i wanted to sit up & pull the tons of logs trapped in my crotch out/so i cd sleep/but it wdnt go way/i pushed & thot i saw 19 horses runnin in my pussy/i waz sure there waz a locomotive stalled up in there burnin coal & stemin & pushin gainst a mountain.”
After partaking in the birth of Myself, the audience feels a special kinship with both mother and child. So it is with horror — a horror that makes the mind recoil behind its most protective shield — that we discover, less than a minute after the birth, the fate of the newborn baby.
Sue-Jean — everything waz goin awright
til/myself wanted to crawl
Narrator — &discover a world of his
own/then you became despondent/yr
tits began to dry & you lost the fullness
of yr womb/where myself/had lived
—& i wanted that back
—you wanted back the mild
—&the tight gourd of a stomach i
had/when myself waz bein’ in me
— so you slit his wrists
— he was sleepin
— sucked the blood back into yrself/&
waited/myself shriveled up in his crib
—a dank lil blk thing/i never touched
—you were always holdin yr
womb/feelin him kick & sing to you
bout love & you wd hold yr tit in yr
—&like i always did when i fed him
—& you waited & waited/for a new
myself/tho there were labor pains
—& i screamed in my bed
—yr legs pinnin to the air
—spinnin sometimes like a ferris wheel/i
cd get no child to fall from me
—& she forgot abt the child bein
born/& waz heavy & full all her life with ‘myself’.