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I'm Black When I'm Singing, I'm Blue When I Ain't and Other Plays
By SONIA SANCHEZ
Duke University Press
Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Poetry Run Loose: Breaking the Rules
When I am asked why I decided to write a play, I must say that it is because I actually saw the affinity between being a poet and being a playwright. Every playwright that I liked also wrote poetry. I saw the connection of how closely we pay attention to words as poets. That same kind of attention is paid to the dialogues that we write in plays. So I saw a really kindred kind of spirit going from poetry to the play. I found out once when I was writing a poem that it wasn't going well because so many voices were surfacing. I realized these words, these ideas, these voices really worked better in a play. I moved some of the dialogue that I had been writing into The Bronx Is Next, and I realized that indeed this was going to work. That play was part of a trilogy that I had planned. The Bronx Is Next was the first play in this trilogy where Blacks were leaving Harlem to return home to the South. The other two plays (not written) were about their trek south and their final settlement. What I found sometimes with poetry is that I was constricted for the first time in my life by the poem. How I moved out of that constriction was through the play. There, what I considered poetry ran loose, as they say. I was able to move the language and use many different words, not just one person's voice as sometimes in a poem, but in different people's voices in a play. And I heard the same kind of majesty that is in the poem in the play.
The challenge for me with drama was realizing that I was going to have to put engaging words in each person's mouth, words that would make for movement on stage. As a consequence, I could not always be introspective; I mean I had to really look up and see how the play, for me was going to end, whereas with the poem that is not the case. Within my head, with my notes that I make in the margins as I'm writing, I always move ahead saying this is going to happen, that's going to happen, this is going to happen. I come back and begin to write the things that I said are going to happen in the play. In writing The Bronx Is Next, with the characters, I wanted to have them just be representative, so I have an Old Sister because it is unimportant what her name is. I have a Black Bitch, it's unimportant what her name is, and I have a White Cop. Then I give the others names. They are the key players, the revolutionaries. I start with the scene that's a block in Harlem. We have Charles begin, "Keep 'em moving Roland. C'mon you mothafuckers. Keep moving. Git you slow asses out of here. We ain't got all night. Into the streets. Oh shit. Look old sister. None of that. You can't take those things" (25).
Dr. Arthur Davis, a lovely, wonderful, brilliant professor at Howard University, said that The Bronx Is Next is one of the best, well-written plays that he's taught. The question he said to me that always came up for some of the students is did I take the Old Sister back into the house and leave her there? I did. Sending the woman back in there to die is symbolically the killing of the past in order for one to have a future. And the young men do it gently. They do it by giving her something to go to sleep because they know she cannot make the trek. It's not necessarily that there is no respect right here for the old woman, but it's similar to something Harriet Tubman did. Harriet Tubman carried a gun, and when you got on her Freedom Train she said the only way you get off this Freedom Train, if you can't make it, is you die. It was with that idea in mind that one saw the young men moving towards that old woman in that fashion. Just saying we'll put you to sleep old woman; you'll never make this long trek anyway. You'll keep us from making it. So it was to talk about the ideas of some of these young men who had just a very straight point of view of revolution, who could not veer to the left or the right. For them, if someone is there, someone elderly, then they don't make a wheelchair for them to travel in; they will not be detoured.
One does see, however, with the woman called Black Bitch, the conflict between black men and black women at that time. How she had decided to live, how she had decided to make it in the world, how she had decided to move. The men are very angry with her, as they are Black Nationalists. Their Black Nationalist point of view is how dare this woman be making out with this White Cop. And so they treat her in this kind of very negative way, this very cruel fashion. She says at some point, "I only explain the important things. He comes once a week. He fucks me. He puts his grayish white dick in me and dreams his dreams. They ain't 'bout me. Explain him to my boys? Man. I am surviving. This dude has been coming regularly for two years-he stays one evening, leaves and then drives on out to Long Island" (32). She has a really interesting sense of reality. So I have the men throwing up all these ideas that were running rampant at the time. One was concerning the black matriarch, the kind of idea that Moynihan had put into the black community that people adopted without thinking about. The interplay is between the Black Bitch and this so-called strong black man. After he hits her, she gets up and says, "Take your choice-your pick-slap me or fuck me-anyway you get the same charge" (33). It is significant that one young man does stand and say "let me help you." Black Bitch is still going to make the trek with them. And then a very surreal thing happens with the White Cop. The male characters all reverse roles where the White Cop becomes a Black man and the Black men become White Cops, and the White Cop experiences the oppression that occurs to Black men in their community.
When I was up for tenure, there was a committee for my plays, a committee for my poetry, and a committee for my prose. The man who headed the committee for my plays was walking down the hallway one day as I was going to get my mail. He said, "Sonia we are reading your plays; they are really quite good, but who in the world would ever be running down the street and be picked up by a cop"? Was he kidding? It was so weird. The next day I brought my Times in to read before class, and right in the Times was an article about a young man, at night, running down 125th Street, feeling free, facing the wind, and the cops stopped him and pushed him up against a wall and beat him. So I cut it out and put it in the professor's mailbox, so he could understand that this was not a farfetched kind of thing. To me the most interesting writing was the role-playing that occurred in The Bronx Is Next.
When I wrote the play at that time, I show a kind of complexity in the dynamics that are occurring in a black neighborhood, even when there is a revolutionary movement going on. There are the young men who see only one direction to go in. There is a lack of patience for anything that is going to interfere with that move out of Harlem. Within the black neighborhood there are the old, and then there are the young. What this play really questions is that even if you are in a revolutionary movement, you've got to be sympathetic towards the people who live there. You can go in and live a year and find out what they need and then come with your idea of what they need, but you must get to understand them and also to love them. I think that sometimes when people are very young, as these young revolutionaries were, they don't always see the human being; they see always the ideology. However, I wrote that play the way I did because a complexity is established. I end up by saying it's very obvious that if they had really been anti-woman, they would have killed the Black Bitch, but they didn't. In the midst of their ideas about something, they still have to see the reality of folks. The reality is that the Black Bitch had to take care of her children; she did the best that she could. The reality of that Old Sister is that she wanted to take all her things on that road. That was not possible, so they let her then stay with all of her things. She went to sleep with her things, because without those things she would not survive.
While writing Sister Son/ji, my second play, I was living in San Francisco and teaching at San Francisco State. Ed Bullins knew I wrote plays, and he asked me if I had a play for this anthology that he was editing. He was editing a collection, Plays from the New Black Theatre. I thought the very important thing in a university setting would be to write about a professional woman who had traveled the road that this woman had traveled. I think what is important was for people to see this woman who had aged, who is in the "Age and now and never again" time, to show her movement and evolution. That's why I began with the old. I'm always fascinated with the old and showing how people get to that stage. So this woman is on stage when the curtain goes up, and she's sitting in a rocking chair. She's talking to the audience. I did it poetically. She's talking to people about her life. "i shall be a remembered Sister Son/ji. today i shall be what i was/shd have been and never can be again. today i shall bring back yesterday as it can never be today. as it shd be tomorrow" (37). In this one-act play, this one-woman show, there is this sparse set, just a place for the change of clothing, just the table full of some make-up, and the chair. Therefore, this woman can engage her audience and take them with her wherever she wants them to go. That was the joy of it.
So we begin a logical thing. This play is about a lot of women who were involved with change and revolution and the movement. Coming to it with open arms, willing to struggle for change, willing to teach, willing to have children, willing to struggle and travel and pick up and go all out under the guise that change will happen in this country. This is almost a love song to the women who have done this. A love song to women who realized that they were going to take a chance to do things quite the same as, and differently from, their parents, from their own mothers, and their own grandmothers. They were going to go out into the world and challenge the world. So I present Sister Son/ ji next as a young woman in college and the first time she makes love, believing as if that were the key, but finally realizing oh, ok that's what that's about. Well, I've gotten that over with. I can go out into the world in a different way, with a new scent. She says, "nesbitt, do u think after a first love each succeeding love is a repetition?" (39). Certainly she recognizes the fact that this might be the first, but it's not the last.
In a sense, this event predicts what's going to happen to her as she goes out into the world. We hear this young woman learning some of the information that was being disseminated at that particular time. We hear of the Black Power conferences where people are talking over what people should be about and what they should do and how they should straighten out their lives. She internalized that if they didn't straighten out their lives, they would not be able to succeed and survive. They had to get rid of the weed, the alcohol, the drugs, and the womanizing, all the things that kept them from moving in the way that they needed to move. We see the women at some point being involved with revolutionary activities. Some women went crazy involved with the movement, but just as some women go crazy in their homes in the suburbs, just as some women go crazy if they live in the urban city, just as some women go crazy if they live in the Midwest, or some women have gone crazy who live in the South. I show Sister Son/ji going crazy from her immersion in a movement that cannot catch her when she falls down in midnight solitude. And all of a sudden she's singing, "THE HONKIES ARE COMING TO TOWN TODAY. HOORAY. HOORAY. HOORAY. / THE CRACKERS ARE COMING TO TOWN TODAY. TODAY. TODAY. HOORAY" (40). This was intentional. Using terminology that had been learned, and then throwing it back on the self. Recognizing that if she is indeed singing, going crazy, even the terminology perhaps is crazy. The craziness seeps into her bloodstream as she dances her dance of madness.
But name-calling was not what this was all about. This woman's really going crazy during the midnight hours and having to pull herself up and survive, and probably survive by herself. She must deal with everything that is happening in terms of the war and how she loses a couple of her children to the war. At the end of that war, Sister Son/ji says, "Death is a five o'clock door forever changing time. And wars end. Sometimes too late. i am here. still in mississippi. Near the graves of my past." Then she says, "i want to do what all old/dying people do. Nothing. but i have my memories" (43). Ultimately, she challenges the audience, "we dared to pick up the day and shake its tail until it became evening. a time for us. blk/ness. blk/people. Anybody can grab the day and make it stop. can u my friends? or maybe it's better if I ask: WILL YOU?" (43). I have seen many young actors do this piece. Gloria Foster in all her glory performed this role and got great reviews.
One of the places I was going with my next play, Dirty Hearts, was to expand the question of oppression. The character Shigeko was a person I actually met. She was one of the Hiroshima maidens who came to the U.S. She was a woman who wore a hat, with a veil to cover her face. We were meeting someplace with an all-women's group. And she took off her hat and revealed her scarred face, and I had to keep looking into her eyes to keep from turning away. Finally, when I talked to her, her very gentle voice made me forget what I was seeing, and I saw behind the scars and burns. I wanted in this play to show the interaction of what is happening with America and the world. The kind of oppression that still continues. It's an oppression that often happens against black folks; it's an oppression that often happens against many others like this young woman who has been scarred for life from the atomic bomb.
When I write, it's in terms of what goes on, not only in my life and with people around me, but I also write in terms of things that I'm doing and also the ever-expanding ideas I have about the world. One of the great things I've always said is that I taught school and also read my poetry to audiences, and, contrary to what people said about us, we always had an audience that was of many races. There were whites, and Asians, Native Americans, and Puerto Ricans sitting down front, listening to what we were saying about this country, and that was the joy. So I knew I always had this multiracial audience engaging me in a conversation.
When I taught in the university, I always had students, the same kind of multiracial students, coming toward me, asking me questions. So there was then the intersection of what is written and what is lived. Many of our early poems and the early plays were things that we did quite often coming from the discovery that we had been enslaved. Also the discovery of people who had moved in such a way as to change things on this earth. Our discovery of Malcolm, our discovery of Martin, our discovery of Frederick Douglass, our discovery of that kind of history/herstory. Our discovery of Africa, our discovery of people in Latin America, our discovery of Neruda. Our discovery of Guillén, our discovery of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. Our discovery of these people who also challenged the world. We saw them and smiled and knew that we were on the right road.
I have always read. I've understood many of the things that people have been saying about change. I read O'Casey, Yeats, Lorca, and Hughes. I read the 1930s playwrights and the Harlem Renaissance playwrights. As I wrote plays, I read Brecht and learned from him. There are all these connections that were going on for me and for others at the same time. I read other poets. Paul Blackburn was one of my favorite poets. Blackburn was a very gentle man and a very lyrical, very important poet. And he was a friend. I read Baraka's plays and poems and saw his genius, and I and others followed in his gargantuan footsteps, awed by his brilliance and vision. I read Ed Bullins and discerned sites and places and forces that were crucial to our understanding of the Black world. I think simply that there were already the intersections that many of us made on our own, getting to know people, getting to know how they wrote, how they write. We read with all kinds of people. We went on stage, especially the anti-Vietnam War events. This was constant movement that many of us had, going from the first realization that our ancestors had been enslaved in this country. Then the realization of just how discriminated against we were, to be involved in a country that we realized just didn't like us, would never like us, or appreciate us, or the contributions of our ancestors. But at the same time we recognized and realized that it was necessary to move the African American, this African, back on the human stage because he/she had been taken off that stage. That was always the hard thing to do. And certainly it has been important for me, as a consequence, to talk about what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.
Excerpted from I'm Black When I'm Singing, I'm Blue When I Ain't and Other Plays by SONIA SANCHEZ Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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