Review of The Purple Flower, Yale Cabaret
The Yale Cabaret is back, opening its 51st season with The Purple Flower, a powerful and fairly obscure work by Marita Bonner. Bonner, an African American author associated with the Harlem Renaissance, though based in Chicago, published the play in W.E.B. DuBois’ Crisis magazine in 1928. It was given readings but no full production in her lifetime. Its themes, unfortunately, are still timely 90 years later.
At the Cabaret, the show’s proposer Mika H. Eubanks, director Aneesha Kudtarkar, and a talented team, many of them Cabaret associates this year, have devised a unique presentation of the play. Bonner’s script allows for over a dozen parts, but the Cabaret does it all with two mercurial actors, Ciara Monique McMillian (as the male characters of “the US’s”) and Adrienne Wells (as the female characters of “the US’s”). The brief non-speaking roles of “Sundry White Devil” are played, with masks and foppish manners and duds complete with tails, by Devin White and Patrick Young.
The text lends itself well to this streamlined approach, giving us a poetic play, amorphous in its characterizations. The action shows a collective of dark-skinned US’s pitting themselves against sundry white devils. The white devils hold the hilltop where the purple flower can be found. Their main intention is to keep the US’s from having access to it. Set on long planks surrounded by the detritus of what the text calls “the thin skin of civilization,” the play occurs in a mythic time that is both current and ancient (as is racism itself).
The play’s dialogue renders, at times almost telegraphically, the various views of the situation among the US’s. Some, like a lazy male who can’t be bothered, assume that sooner or later the situation will change; others, like an old woman who has slaved away for decades in hopes of improving her station, are becoming embittered. The tenor of the piece is to suggest—with a kind of light satire—the state of the US’s as they fool themselves into thinking that education (a bag of books) or wealth (a bag of gold) will gain them acceptance by the white devils. Bonner cannily alludes to the disappointments of such strategies, pointing, in the end, toward a more direct confrontation.
Describing the plot schematically is to rob the play of much of its poetry. Bonner’s text works like a parable. The language makes use of the prophetic mode found in the Bible and in works that derive from its sense of mysteries and portents. Much of the fascination is in trying to grasp the world portrayed and to see the world we know through its eyes.
The relation of one US to another is conveyed through dialogue, action, and movement, and McMillan and Wells are tellingly effective in rendering the different voices and mannerisms within the community. “Average,” for instance, a middle-aged, middle-class male, is brought to life by McMillian with a hat, a stoop, and a kind of laissez-faire patriarchy that’s all in the voice and body language. Sweet and Finest Blood represent the generation that may finally unseat the white devils. Sweet is girlish and lively, until molested by a white devil hiding in the bushes; her brother Finest Blood wants to avenge her honor.
An Old Woman, saying “it’s time!,” mixes, in a hard-iron pot, a handful of dust, the books, the gold, and, finally, blood, to produce “the New Man.” The refrain, “blood has been taken, blood must be given,” suggests one or both of two things: a mixing of blood—as in mating and intermarriage—or a shedding of blood, as in a fight to the finish. Finest Blood, as a figure associated deliberately with Isaac, whose father, Abraham, was called upon to sacrifice him in Genesis, might seem a possible victim, but he also emerges as a David against a Goliath, or a Christ before the Romans. The blood that must be given, in our day, might sound like a call for reparation of some kind for the social and political crimes committed against African Americans.
Bonner’s text is rich with the aesthetic tendency—a common practice among vanguard artists of the 1920s—to find new meaning in old myths and political significance in religious imagery. The play’s ultimate meaning, as with any parable, is ambiguous, but the show’s skillful presentation here makes for a thought-provoking and fascinating kick-off for the new season.
The Purple Flower
By Marita Bonner
Conceived by Mika H. Eubanks and Aneesha Kudtarkar
Directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar
Producer: Caitlin Crombleholme; Co-Dramaturgs: Christopher Audley Puglisi, Sophie Siegel-Warren; Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Lighting Designer: Nicole E. Lang; Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Emily Duncan Wilson; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Movement Director: Leandro Zaneti; Technical Director: Alex McNamara; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath
Cast: Ciara Monique McMillian, Adrienne Wells, Devin White, Patrick Young
September 14-15, 2018