Review: ‘The Negroes Are Congregating’ (DC Black Theatre & Film Festival)

An unapologetically black-centric play that belongs on a major DC stage.

Midway through this fast, furious, in-your-face poetic explosive about anti-black racism, one of the three cast members stops the action and says: “I’m sorry, I’m trying to keep up the pace with this show but ya’ll know it’s draining as fuk to be talking about race all the damn time.”

The joke lands with this audience like a rim shot because this show is not draining in the least. Reactions voiced during a post-show discussion with the actors and the writer/director suggest that exhilarating and affirming would be more like it.

David Deslica (Male 1), Angaer Arop (Female), and Dennis W. Langley (Male 2) in ‘The Negroes Are Congregating.’ Photo courtesy of Piece of Mine Arts.

The title The Negroes Are Congregating is a defiant allusion to slave laws that forbade blacks to gather without the presence of a white person. The show traveled to the DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival from Toronto, where it originated in Piece of Mine Arts, a company founded in 2013 by Jamaican-Canadian writer Natasha Adiyana Morris to present “bold works created by multidisciplinary Black artists…that celebrate the vastness of Black culture.”

Written by Morris, the unapologetically black-centric script is a tough, tight choreopoem that starts off with a badass barrage of rapped outrage about everyday experiences of race hate, then segues into satirical sketches—very funny, but with the same dead-serious bite—and finally, with house lights up, becomes a cathartic interaction of rhythmic and emotional bonding with the audience. “Themes of physical, mental, and spiritual freedom cycle from beginning to end,” writes Morris. “There is no fourth wall.”

Morris has directed her text with high-energy blocking and intense choreography, drawing on and showcasing the talents of three protean performers whose nonstop verve and versatility blew me away: Angaer Arop (Female), David Deslica (Male 1), and Dennis W. Langley (Male 2). Their work together on the piece began in 2015, and it has since been in development while touring Canada and the U.S.

Angaer Arop (Female), David Deslica (Male 1), and Dennis W. Langley (Male 2) in ‘The Negroes Are Congregating.’ Photo courtesy of Piece of Mine Arts.

Though The Negroes Are Congregating includes a few Toronto-specific references, its depiction of racism—including the internalized kind—seemed completely familiar to this American audience. According to Morris, this has been the case even when the piece was done in Europe. “When your voice is heard and understood,” Morris said during the post-show, “that’s how you know you’re on the same page.”

The piece is performed with such a propulsive momentum that its many caustic zingers whiz by like the wind, for instance:

Integration is a sweet diabetes filled dessert decorated in chocolate and vanilla swirls.

Begging your oppressor for justice is as insane as white people leading white privilege workshops.

There’s a brilliant scene that retells the children’s fable of the independent and industrious Little Red Hen, played in counterpoint with narratives about race-based economic barriers to entrepreneurship. And there’s a hilariously harsh sendup of white-led diversity training in the workplace:

Welcome to the meal ticket of the day: Diversity When you think of diversity, I want for you to picture a rainbow with a pot of gold at the end. … [W]e have a real chance here to profit off this ‘multiculturalism’ thing. All we have to do is hire more coloured people but we continue to hold power.

More sobering is a scene in which a black driver is stopped by a white cop. It’s a too-familiar story that ends with the driver being beaten, but what distinguishes the writing is its focus on a bystander black cop who observes the brutality but fears to intervene.

Natasha Adiyana Morris, writer/director of ‘The Negroes Are Congregating.’ Photo courtesy of Piece of Mine Arts.

There’s much more dramatic and comedic content about anti-black racism packed into this play’s brief hour, but there’s also an important lens on whiteness, for instance:

How to tell if you don’t actually like your one black friend the way you say you do: Are you more comfortable with the thought of a dog staying in your house than a black person, unattended?

There’s nothing sweeter than the sound of white noise. White noise occurs when an unsuspecting white person tries to undermine the intelligence of a person of colour only to be verbally whipped and slayed through facts and wit leaving their opponent stricken, speechless and a face flushed with blood.

Recently more and more mainstream theaters in DC have programmed works that have been created by and about people of color and that do not hesitate to call out—sometimes in jest, sometimes not—white people’s obliviousness to their privilege. Three that come to mind are Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies at Mosaic, BLKS at Woolly Mammoth, and P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle at Studio. This is an estimable aggregation to which The Negroes Are Congregating decidedly belongs. The Negroes Are Congregating by Natasha Adiyana Morris deserves a full production on a major DC stage.

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

The Negroes Are Congregating at the PIECE OF MINE Festival | October 2016

The Negroes Are Congregating played July 1 and 2, 2019, presented by Piece of Mine Arts at THEARC Blackbox – 1801 Mississippi Ave SE, Washington, DC, as part of the 2019 DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.