What kind of country are we? Is the past, to paraphrase Faulkner, not only not dead but not even past? In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ masterful recent conversation starter in the Atlantic, he ostensibly makes the case for economic reparations to black America not only for slavery but for the systemic injustices visited either uniquely or disproportionately on African Americans (Jim Crow, redlining, block-busting, the “war on drugs") in the 150 years since slavery’s legal end. But apart from the practical and political challenges of such a proposal (to take only the most obvious objection: Should clear, demonstrable cases for economic redress, as in the instructive story of Clyde Ross, by rights take precedence over computing a price tag for the more generalized plunder of all descendants of African slaves?), I take Coates’ mission with the piece to be more about resetting the terms of the discussion than nailing the terms of a settlement. His project, it would seem to me, is nothing more nor less than to make us see ourselves more clearly and honestly: to understand that our ideals of freedom and democracy, not to mention private property and rule of law, have never been impartially or equally granted to all citizens (citizenship itself being a prize that can’t be taken for granted), indeed were never intended to be so; and that to the extent they ever have been, it has been as the result of furious, in fact still-ongoing struggle. It is to coolly grant the nationalist/nativist observation that the country was founded by and for white men, but to insist that those men’s founding ideas require us to do better, to effectively unyoke the country’s promise from its heritage of plunder (to use Coates' evocative word).
"I rarely hope for my writing to have any effect. But I confess that I hope this piece makes people feel a certain kind of way." -Ta-Nehisi Coates, reflecting on his Atlantic case for reparations
Chris Myers and Danny Wolohan in An Octoroon
"The whole point of this thing was to make you feel something." -a character in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon
But if Coates’ meticulous reporting here (as elsewhere) makes us realize is how far we haven’t come, indeed how recent in our history we can find cases of outright white-on-black theft, his larger point seems more existential and despairing: We are a nation, as he has starkly put it, “defined by white supremacy," in much the same way an alcoholic, no matter how long he’s been clean, will always be an alcoholic (an analogy he makes here). His case for reparations, in essence, is a plea for the U.S. to keep going to meetings and admitting we have a problem. It is not a recipe for closure, for healing, for a final moment when we can say, "That’s over and we’ll err no more," but for a process that will help us routinely and relentlessly face the past that still marks us, and turn away from it to do better. Indeed, though Coates’ project can be reduced (as it has been by his critics) to familiar arguments about redistribution, white guilt, and affirmative action, it is set apart by this insistence on a deeper, dare I say spiritual purging.
I thought of Coates’ piece while watching Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ extraordinary bit of postmodern meta-minstrelsy, An Octoroon, at Soho Rep last night, which, though in grave danger of being vastly overrated, is only slightly so (I found the first act a little dozy, but relished the second act all the way to the end). Like Coates’ piece, Jacobs-Jenkins’ play--essentially an annotated adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama The Octoroon--doesn’t play by now-familiar rules of the race-card game, particularly the shame-the-audience transaction by which we’re made to see how awful American attitudes used to be (oh but not anymore). Instead it shifts and shatters the frame, taking the racist conditions of 19th-century chattel slavery for granted while also taking Boucicault’s characters and their drama disarmingly seriously, give or take a contemporary joke here or a meta-theatrical gambit there. The result plays less like The Scottsboro Boys, about whose schematic ironies I had misgivings similar to Mildly Bitter’s, and feels closer in spirit to George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, which by connecting dots throughout black history implied continuity more than progress. Similarly, in An Octoroon Jacobs-Jenkins has the past and present hang out, seemingly casually but never less than pointedly, in the same space: a white actor in blackface alongside black actors, or a slave admonishing another, self-help-style, "Don't bring your work home with you." By suggesting these tropes' comfort with each other rather than italicizing their obvious differences, Jacobs-Jenkins is making a point not unlike Coates’: that Boucicault's literature of tragic blackness, of bad vs. good whites struggling for power while black folks get on with their lives as best they can, is who we are culturally, at least as much as or more than we are represented by the ameliorative liberal tradition currently on parade uptown in the great-man-of-history play All the Way.
Ostensibly, the feeling Jacobs-Jenkins hopes to evoke with An Octoroon ultimately has more to do with form than content (though as I think I’ve argued, Coates’ essay also advocates a change on the level of rhetoric as much as policy). The playwright has included some some fourth-wall-breaking footnotes to explain the way melodrama was supposed to affect its audience in Boucicault’s day, and then attempts to recreate something of that for our age of sensory overload (and by the way, the production, by Sarah Benson, is as sharp and unexpected as the play). In a long interview with my colleague Eliza Bent, Jacobs-Jenkins refers to melodrama as "the science part of what we do":
A generation of French guys literally just kept doing things to an audience and refined a codified formula for making an audience feel the way that these French guys thought they should feel at any given moment. This idea that we’re just these animals that are easily manipulated by certain steps or moves or gestures is so profound to me and made me wonder: What is it that we’re doing? Is it ethical? Or are ethics somehow besides the point.But like Jackie Sibblies Drury’s brilliant We Are Proud to Present a Presentation… a few years ago, also at Soho Rep, Jacobs-Jenkins is using an inquiry of genre to get at thornier issues of agency, responsibility, of what we think we’re doing with our entertainment; weighing a container this loaded is ultimately inseparable from a consideration of what’s in the container. Though Drury's project was a little more explicitly about interrogating our aesthetic response genocide and horror--about questioning the very idea that we should have an aesthetic approach to such things--Jacobs-Jenkins’ approach is more impish, elusive, less visceral, in a sense less universal but also somehow broader. It is as if he’s opened a giant volume titled America, a book that can be read backward and forward, sometimes both at once, and made from certain of its pages a flipbook of disturbingly lovely silhouettes (and no, the reference is not idle).
Not to be too glib about it, but if this is one theatrical form Coates' reparations might take, sign me up.