Racial Rollercoaster Ride

This week’s show at The Yale Cabaret, the penultimate of the 44th Season, features the penultimate directorial offering by Co-Artistic Director Lileana Blain-Cruz before she graduates from the Yale School of Drama this spring. And her last Cab show, like her first Cab show at the end of the 2010 season, is something to behold. The play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, by Adrienne Kennedy, follows in interesting ways from two shows presented recently at the Cab: Arthur Kopit’s Chamber Music, directed by Katie McGerr, and Whitney Dibo and Martha Kaufman’s reworking of Jacob Gordin’s The Yiddish King Lear. Like Kopit’s play about loony ladies in an asylum that represented, in its seclusion, the etiolated potential of women in our general culture, Funnyhouse confronts the “insanity” of minority status, dramatizing the psychic distress that comes with oppression in any form. And like The Yiddish King Lear, the figure to be confronted is the threatening father, though in that play, a comedy, the gender struggle was leavened with a racial dimension that made Jewish patriarchy a role, a certain kind of staging and inflection, recalled for purposes of entertainment.

In Funnyhouse, the masquerade of racial identity is much more harrowing, and very much of the essence of what makes Negro Sarah (Miriam Hyman) sick. While the play has many comic touches, they tend to be of the acid rather than affirmative variety. In Sarah’s mind, her own father was a “black beast” who raped her white mother, giving birth to herself, a “pallid Negro” who worships whiteness and longs to be freed of any remnant of blackness in her appearance and in her being. In appearance, she can’t overcome her head of kinky hair, and in her being, she can’t overcome the dire implications, to her fantasy of selfhood, of what a black father means. A twist at the end, almost a throwaway line, suggests that this story of interracial rape and progeny may itself be a fantasy. In other words, everything is black and white in this play, but never only black and white.

The figures oppressing Sarah seem oddly chosen but maybe that’s the very point: first of all, two regal beings, the Duchess of Hapsburg (Elia Monte-Brown) and Queen Victoria Regina (Prema Cruz), whose ultra-whiteness is beyond question, then her white boyfriend Raymond (Mamoudou Athie)—all played by black actors in whiteface, alluding at once, visually, to Sarah’s inability to imagine herself in a world without blackness, try as she might. Then there’s Jesus (Jabari Brisport), in a loincloth, looking much more primeval than most depictions of him, indicating the extent to which whites themselves have largely created a white fantasy of him, and finally Patrice Lumumba (Paul Pryce), the first Prime Minister of the Congo after its independence from Belgium, seeming to represent political hope for black independence and self-governance; he had been assassinated a few years before the play initially appeared, so he also represents black martyrdom and, we’re told, Sarah’s father hung himself in a New York hotelroom not long after Lumumba’s death.

All these symbolic figures heckle, manhandle, and at times soothe Sarah, creating a fragmented and poetic drama that flirts with mad causalities and associative logic, while laying bare for the audience the fraught self-hatred of the person who pursues an imposed ideal they can never attain.

As is generally the case with Blain-Cruz’s work, the technical skill involved is stellar: Lighting by Masha Tsimring creates the “funhouse” effects that make the show so fascinating, and creepy, to watch; the Scenic Design by Kate Noll, assisted by Carmen Martinez, contributes the cracked sense of décor that reminded me of a kind of Miss Havisham boudoir, New Orleans-style, with a big brass bed, lots of mirrors, old books, draped crepe, muslin curtains; the Costumes by Kristin Fiebig add to this mustiness with hoop skirts for Sarah’s fantasy friends, Sixties-ish suits for the males, and sorta “timeless” black student-wear for Sarah, and, of course, white greasepaint, white powder, latex masks, and wigs. The getup of Prema Cruz as Funnyhouse Lady was a fetching business suit that only underscored how wild and crazy that character is—her look and moves at times created the effect of a thoroughly bleached Tina Turner.   Then there's Ken Goodwin's Sound Design which is nothing short of remarkable, letting hissed whispers crackle and rattling noises off unsettle and adding much of the wildness to the ride.

Great as all those features of the piece are, the car wouldn’t go without Miriam Hyman. She gives an extraordinary performance, unflagging in its self-possession even when she has to go totally ga-ga. Powdering her face, preening, throwing fits on the bed, humping the air sympathetically during the rape, cavorting, shrieking, trembling, and through it all maintaining the confidential tone of the person who inhabits this place and is familiar with its distortions. At one point snapping her head to the side, with bug eyes and slack mouth, mimicking the father’s death by hanging, Hyman makes Sarah’s sense of comedy and misery strongly self-aware, letting the character be, while still a mess, a commentator and a comment.

Sarah’s predicament, in the play, occupies a time before the Black Panthers, before “black is beautiful,” and well before the power of Oprah and Obama to suggest black self-determination and influence. Lest we imagine this play occurs in some historical museum-space, the mourning for Lumumba at one point becomes a mourning for Trayvon Martin. Is it fair to compare an assassinated political figure with an unarmed teen killed in the street by a vigilante? Not really, but it makes the point that outrages done against blacks as blacks is always a current event.

Funnyhouse of a Negro plays for two more shows: tonight at 8 and 11 p.m.

Funnyhouse of a Negro By Adrienne Kennedy Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz

The Yale Cabaret March 29-31, 2012

The final play of the Cabaret’s 2011-12 Season will be in two weeks: Carnival/Invisible, created by Benjamin Fainstein, recreates the sense of “carnival” (farewell to the flesh) as an element in the traveling circuses and tent shows of American popular entertainment, places people go to “get out of their skins” and to find belonging amidst the improbable and colorful spectacle. April 12th-14th.