Photo by Rxasgomez on en.wikipedia – Originally from en.wikipedia; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=738097
I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, as a German Jew, never explicitly taught but always implicitly believing that I was safe. Somehow, because my family had come here in 1830, and somehow, because they had assimilated into the predominantly Christian culture, I was not Jewish in the ways of those Jews who talked fast, drew attention to their Jewishness, and hung together come hell or high water. What a shock it must have been to many German Jews, at first, when Hitler didn’t discriminate. Education couldn’t save you; money guaranteed little unless it helped you get out of Europe quickly. If you were Jewish, you were the enemy. But today, more than 70 years after the Holocaust it might be surprising to discover how many German Jews still struggle with their heritage and the illusion that Antisemitism won’t happen to them.
Two plays I saw this past weekend touched deep chords in me, but from the reactions of everyone around me in the theatre, I was not alone. Both pieces ask the question if we can ever escape (or should escape) our backgrounds. Laden with all the history we bring with us, can we every really fit in to another, often antagonistic, culture?
The first, a Pulitzer prize winner, Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar played at the Huntington Theatre, and sadly has finished its run, but not before knocking the socks off its audience. In the program, one of the questions posed by Huntington’s Lisa Trimmel and Phaedre Scott is “How does one’s identity fit into the narrative of contemporary America?” And the particular journey Disgraced takes us on to answer that question is the journey of Amir, a Muslim-American, played brilliantly by Rajesh Bose, who has rejected his religion and risen to success as a lawyer in a fancy New York firm. But Amir does not have enough, in spite of the beautiful white American wife who is an artist and delves into Muslim inspired art. In spite of his luxurious apartment and obvious wealth. He lives with conflict. As the play intensifies, we shift in our seats as he at one moment hates his past and at another feels proud; criticizes violence in the Koran and yet for a horrifying moment, becomes violent; refuses to defend a fellow Pakistani accused of terrorism and yet shows up at his hearing.
The play touches on what parts of oneself we can let go of and what parts of oneself we can retain. In the U.S. where we certainly have our own “toolbox of colonization” as an audience member called it, there is no way that rage cannot be a result of the suppression of self, the definition of the “other” by the colonizer. To paraphrase Cornel West, will that rage be focused through love and justice or through rage and dissent? I would say that Amir has not yet answered that question to his own satisfaction. He loses his wife and his job as he realizes how much he has not dealt with his rage. We are each left wondering about our own part in this tragedy, no matter where we come from.
Across town in Cambridge at the Central Square Theatre, you still have a chance to see another powerful piece that also raises fascinating questions, The Convert by Danai Gurira. This play takes place in Southern Africa’s Zimbabwe in 1895. A young Shona woman is taken in by a black Evangelical who she calls “Master” in order to escape a forced marriage. Jekesai, played eloquently by Adobuere Ebiama, changes her name to Ester, submits to authority frequently, learns English fluidly, and seems to swallow Christianity in total. But the strength of her traditions and the power of her heritage come into play as violence swirls around the country. Her eventual reaction to being almost totally crushed is the complex and understandable response when a people have experienced colonization and conquest. She returns, in some part, to her roots.
Most interesting is the Master, called Chilford, who has become an Evangelical, played with depth and restraint by Maurice Emmanuel Parent. He is essentially bought by the Whites to carry the gospel of the Lord to the African population. But this bought spokeman buckles when his entire world is threatened; his loyalties battle with his assumed identity.
The audience is on the edge of its seat as the story unfolds, and the acting in this small space undoes us (only occasionally a bit more than the space can handle). The history shown so painfully hits us in the character of Shona’s relative and elder, Mai Tumbai, the servant of Chilford, acted with grace and passion by Liana Asim. She takes us to Zimbabwe in heart and soul. In the first act, she and Chilford enable us to see how religion is one of the most destructive forces of Colonialism.
But all the actors shine in this production, from Nehassaiu DeGannes’s Prudence, who finds she cannot have any impression on the White regime in spite of her years of education and adoption of the most perfect British mannerisms, to the representation of the power of tribe in the form of Uncle played by Paul S. Benford Bruce.
In a fascinating pre-play discussion panel for The Convert, one of the panelists made the comment that losing pieces of your family takes away from your whole being. Another mentioned that dehumanization occurs with colonization. “No Christ, no rice,” as Haitian victims of the hurricane in 2010 were told by Christian organizations providing relief.
But perhaps, my favorite comment of all was the one that tied together why it is so necessary to have such plays today when we see police brutality, the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, and a presidential campaign in the U.S. that is as terrifying as it is important. Panelist Robin Chandler, an artist and sociologist, shared noted playwright and poet Aimé Césaire’s thoughts. Césaire was one of the founding fathers of Negritude, a black consciousness movement that asserted pride in African cultural values. It aimed to “counterbalance the inferior status accorded to them in European colonial thinking.”
Césaire’s profound words underscore why these plays speak so truly to us. He said, “Art is the only weapon we have against the deafness of history.” Amen.