A New And In-Depth Look At Day Of Absence
The cherished black classic is revitalized, but its enlightening core remains intact for a new generation
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PERHAPS it is a phenomenon that both black and white people have imagined . . . what would a day be like if all black people disappeared––totally? A day where not one is visible, heard or participating in any way, shape or form in the necessary activities that help to make America the prosperous and flourishing America we know.
First, such a reality is not going to materialize. Forget it, it’s not happening! But for the purpose of make-believe, it does come true in the revival of Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 fantasy, Day of Absence, reimaged by Congo Square Theatre and showcased at Victory Gardens Theater through March 22.
In the hands of director Anthony Irons, the Obie Award-winning satirical classic thrives, even with the challenge of maintaining the integrity of Ward’s vision in a play that’s a reverse minstrel show––complete with everyone in whiteface, turning the tables on whites as helpless, hopeless and clueless.
The setting is a slow-paced town in the South where black people––mostly taken for granted––perform routine tasks that ensure everyday life flows smoothly and seamlessly. However, black friends Clem and Luke (played wonderfully by Kelvin Roston Jr. and Ronald L. Conner) realize on this particular day that, as singer Keith Sweat would say, "something, something just ain't right." With every passing moment, they become more and more dumbfounded by what they see––or more correctly, what they don't see. Watching passersby, there's the sudden realization that there are no POCs (people of color, pronounced POX). They're all gone and can't be found in the most likely places.
Hilariously, confusion and panic develop among whites who fear their worlds have been turned upside down––not knowing how to empty the garbage, soothe their crying babies or perform the most menial tasks. "What is we gonna do?!"
Written during the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement, the core of Ward’s 55-year-old original piece is intact, but Congo Square’s version infuses contemporary elements to bring it into 2020 with references to cell phones, Twitter, Black Lives Matter, the Kardashians, Lil’ Wayne, Ikea furniture and a snippet from Beyoncé’s hit song “Formation.” But most notably, a play written exclusively with black people in mind, has expanded its focus to include others, especially Hispanics, who have their own history of stereotypical victimization.
It takes an exceptional cast to fully deliver the depth of Day of Absence. Rolston and Conner (who also plays the role of the mayor’s hyperactive assistant) are joined in this entertaining presentation that also features Jordan Arredondo, Meagan Dilworth, Bryant Hayes, Sonya Madrigal and Ann Joseph, who puts her signature on the role as the animated, over-the-top mayor.
While Day of Absence generates moments of laughter, at the same time, it is a sobering reminder of the ridicule, disrespect and lingering pain that have come with years of racism. For decades, black Americans have endured the racist indignation of hateful whites who have implored black people to “go back to Africa.” Somehow, in the face of adversity, black people have continued to move forward, making invaluable contributions that can’t be denied. But, if somehow (for whatever reason) black people and other minorities disappeared, the response among those who wanted them to vanish likely could, for a number of reasons, be similar to the televised plea delivered by a distraught Mayor Henrietta in the play. “There is a void in the heart of every person in this city,” she said. “Just come on back and deliver us from this nightmare.”
A nightmare indeed.
Kelvin Roston Jr. (left) and Ronald L. Conner as Luke and Clem in Day of Absence.
The performance schedule for Day of Absence through March 22 is Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 3 p.m. All tickets are priced at $35 ($25 for seniors and students). Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more. For more information and tickets, go to www.congosquaretheatre.org or call 773-871-3000.