In 1966, Day of Absence, directed by its author, Douglas Turner Ward, premiered at the St. Marks Playhouse. Its success partially enabled the founding of The Negro Ensemble Company the following year. Turner Ward became Artistic Director. This season’s December production at Theater 80 St. Marks begins the Company’s 50th season. It was directed by original cast member, Arthur French.
Here come ole Roy down the street/Ho, can’t you hear those scufflin feet/He would rather sleep than eat./And tha tha tha that’s what I like about the south… “That’s What I Like About the South” Phil Harris
Albert Eggleston and Jimmy Gary Jr.
We find ourselves in a nameless southern town, slow as molasses, mired in traditional bigotry. The entirely black cast – except for a newsman – appears in whiteface. This is a direct nod to both white (Al Jolson), and negro performers who made careers entertaining in blackface. Laconic farmers Clem (Jimmy Gary, Jr.) and Luke (Albert Eggleston) could fit a truck in the space between comments. Suddenly, Clem feels a shift in the atmosphere.
At the home of John (Daniel Carlton) and Mary (China L. Colston), their ceaselessly wailing baby makes the couple aware mammy (nanny) Lula hasn’t shown up for work. Mary doesn’t know one end of a diaper from another. She hasn’t a clue how to quiet the infant. Nor can the lady of the house cook breakfast for her husband. When John goes to fetch Lula, he finds her whole neighborhood deserted. Mary is helpless. John escapes to work.
China L. Colston and Daniel Carlton; Allie Woods
Non-plussed Mayor Henry (Charles Weldon) has had to dress, feed, and drive himself today. “Get Mandy and Rufus to straighten up in here, “ he commands. Three men in nightclothes storm in, “There are no servants! All the nigras have disappeared; very last one!!” “Y’all must be drunk,” Henry responds, “half this town is colored! They must be here somewhere, probly playin’ hide and seek. Organize emergency squads.”
Someone is sent to check jails and hospitals, someone else to stop trains and buses passing through. Production has halted. Everything’s filthy. Public safety officials have been “denied their daily arrests, municipal judges are prevented from issuing sentences…” Mr. Clan denies driving the nigras away. “We want them to go when we tell them to go and not before!” Reverend Pious thinks it’s voodoo. When sister cities refuse to lend nigras from chain gangs, Henry doesn’t know where to turn.
Bill Jay as Clan
He will issue a personal appeal on television. The entire cast, dressed in red, white and blue – some in flag configurations – span out behind their representative. “With fond memories…he begins. Citizens call out like a Revival Meeting while others mumble, encourage, comment, punctuate…”You’re part of us, you belong to us. Think of all the fine times we had together, you singin’ those old coon songs…”
The city is crippled.
Jay Ward, Cecilia Antoinette, Aaron Lloyd
Just as an exercise, replace the word nigra/negro/black with the word immigrant or Jew or Gay. Observe fellow citizens who now feel they have a license to shoot on sight, to smear online, to leave horrific insignias in playgrounds and deface library books. Note how “White Supremacists” are looking for new signage, not as a signal for change but rather one of subterfuge. This, alas, is what keeps The Day of Absence topical and important.
The production itself was a mixed bag of those who didn’t take it seriously or didn’t know their lines (at the last performance?!) and actors who understood its worth.
Katherine Roberson’s Costume Design and Ali Turns Make-Up worked beautifully to evoke the proper mood.
Photos by Jonathan Slaff
Opening: Charles Weldon and The Company
The Negro Ensemble Company presents
Day of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward
Directed by Arthur French
Theatre 80 St. Marks
December 11, 2016