Review: Theater Alliance’s ‘Day of Absence’ by Douglas Turner Ward

Two clowns open a suitcase. In that suitcase lies a rope. A long rope. They start to play with it, tug-of-war stuff, with the loser pretending he’s winning. Lotsa yuks.

Then the twist. And the painful twinge of conscience.

Cast of Day of Absence at Theater Alliance. Back: Kalya Warren, Jonathan Del Palmer, Ezinne Elele, Jared Shamberger, Charles Franklin IV, Nia Savoy, Kaisheem Fowler- Bryant, Sisi Reid and Damondre Green. Front: Dylan J. Fleming. Photo Manaf Azzam.

Back in the day, minstrel shows entertained audiences with a variety of skits and vignettes, clowning included, during what was called the “Olio” segment of the program; these skits were followed by a play. Theater Alliance has created an evening rooted in the principles of minstrelsy, but with a twist that not only stifles the cheap laughs, but also forces you to laugh and think hard at the same time.

The evening’s centerpiece is Douglas Turner Ward’s farce, Day of Absence, which depicts chaos descending on a typical southern town when the blacks—whose work makes the whites’ privilege possible—fail to show up for work en masse. Featuring black actors in whiteface, it’s hilarious, and hilariously telling.

The program for this Theater Alliance production transitions from music—a stirring medley featuring “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—through the Olio’s magic tricks, clowning, and sketch comedy, to Ward’s one-act play; it’s no easy feat, but the talent here pulls it off, with more twists and turns than a Marvel movie. The cast carefully researched the opening acts for authenticity—even as they added the tellingly modern touches to them—and co-directors Angelisa Gillyard and Raymond O. Caldwell have created an evening that is a highly conscious “blast from the past.” It vividly reminds us of the sickness that passed for fun back in the day, and of the unfinished business that lies before us.

When you go to see this show – you’re going, I’m just telling you now – you will enter the lobby of the Anacostia Playhouse to an exhibition drawn from the 1900 Paris Expo, organized by luminaries like W. E. B. Du Bois, with pictures of everyday black life contrasted by statistics about the struggles of sharecroppers, the number of blacks teaching in public schools, etc.—which even back then were designed to stand in stark contrast to the traditional display of benighted, ignorant Africans in their grass huts.

Kayla Warren (Courier), Kaisheem Fowler-Bryant (Jackson), Sisi Reid (Club Woman), Jared Shamberger (Mayor), Charles Franklin IV (Businessman) and Ezinne Elele (Businessman) in Day of Absence at Theater Alliance. Photo by Manaf Azzam.

No sooner do you pass through into the theater, however, than scenic designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson fills the space with blown-up posters of minstrel shows from the late 1800s-early 1900s. As at least one of these posters makes clear, the blackface entertainers were usually whites, whose “elite” clean-faced portraits were placed side-by-side with the demeaning black caricatures they played for cheap laughs.

For Day of Absence, Douglas Turner Ward insisted that the cast consist of black actors in whiteface—a reverse minstrel show, in other words—and as with the old genre, his dialogue clearly turns the tables by portraying white southerners as dim-witted, good-for-nothings.

Co-Directors Gillyard and Caldwell make a point of having the cast portray white people as comically hideous as possible, with the porch-dwelling good ol’ boys Clem and Luke—Damondre Green and Dylan Fleming—as the most antic of them all.

If, like this critic, you happen to be white, the effect is telling; you shift in your seat, wondering what on earth this caricature has to do with whiteness. Which would be precisely the point—after some 190 years of whites hideously caricaturing blacks, it’s high time that whiteface revealed just how appalling that concept truly was.

There are many star turns, but in the interests of time (hey, I’ve got lesson plans to do!) I can only give a few shout-outs, beginning with Green and Fleming, who start the evening as the clowns and end as Clem and Luke, as physically astute comedians as you could ask for. Sisi Reid is a stitch as a game-show host during the Olio, and then a Clubwoman in Day of Absence, while Nia Savoy—who starts out as the showgirl in the Olio’s sword-trick sequence—has a turn as a TV journalist, interviewing the flabbergasted townfolk in the play, a nice piece of straight-woman comedy.

Jared Shamberger, however, creates a truly thought-provoking contrast, playing a luckless performer in the Olio only to turn into the preening, over-the-top Mayor in Day of Absence.  Shamberger’s take on the mayor’s final-hour plea for “his” blacks to get back to work is a stunner, bringing the hurt, the hypocrisy, and the history to bear unforgettably.

The show is preceded by a brief talk from the cast: Theater Alliance is known for its community outreach, and although seasoned theatergoers will understand much of the strategies employed here, it’s important for newcomers to the theater to understand that the show is complex, by design.

There will also be post-show talks after every show, which—given the richness of topics this show takes on—should be well worth your time.

[READ John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column, “The Power of Subversive Design in Day of Absence at Theater Alliance.”]

Running Time:  95 minutes with no intermission.

Day of Absence runs through November 3, 2019, at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.

For newcomers, the Anacostia Playhouse is five blocks from the Anacostia Metro on the Green Line; for drivers, it’s just across the 11th Street Bridge (turn onto U St. to get to Shannon).  For directions see:  http://www.anacostiaplayhouse.com/getting-here/ .

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Andrew Walker White
Andrew Walker White (seen here taking tea at the walls of Troy) is a longtime Washington area theatre artist, whose career began with gigs at the Source Theatre (company member under Bart Whiteman) and included shows with Theatre Le Neon (company member, under Didier Rousselet) and the Capital Fringe Festival. He received his Ph.D. in Theatre History and Performance Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park with a specialty in post-classical Greek theatre and ritual. His book, "Performing Orthodox Ritual in Byzantium" marks the first of a series with Cambridge University Press, on the strange history of the Greek performing arts between Antiquity and the Renaissance.

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