The 2014 winner of the Yale Drama Series “The play does not have a tragic ending, though you will be certain that it must. But it is a tragic story. It is the tragedy of lives lived without hope of deliverance. . . . I will leave you to read the play and determine how on earth we get to a satisfying ending to this tragic tale of a woman without a chance. But that ending is the genius of Nabers’s work, her faith in the ability of people with no chance, to find one.”—Marsha Norman, from the Foreword The year is 1979 and a serial killer in Atlanta is abducting and murdering young black children. Against a backdrop of fear and uncertainty, playwright Janine Nabers explores the emotional battleground where an African-American single mother wars with her teenage daughter, each coping in her own way with personal tragedy and loss. The volatility of their situation is intensified when a severely damaged and devastatingly handsome stranger becomes an integral part of their lives. Serial Black Face is the eighth winner of the DC Horn Foundation/Yale Drama Series Prize, selected by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Marsha Norman. At once startling, engrossing, suspenseful, and exhilarating, Nabers’s powerful drama employs a real-life nightmare, the Atlanta Child Murders of the late 1970s, to incisively examine human frailty and the prickly complexities of a mother-daughter relationship. A stunning theatrical work, both thoughtful and profoundly moving, Serial Black Face is richly deserving of this year’s prize.
About the Author
Janine Nabers is a 2013–2014 Aetna New Voices fellow at Hartford Stage and a 2013–2014 NYFA playwriting fellow. She holds an MFA from the New School for Drama and is currently staff writer for the Bravo cable network’s first scripted series, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. Her previous plays include Annie Bosh Is Missing, Welcome to Jesus, A Swell in the Ground, and the Sylvia Plath–Ted Hughes musical Mrs. Hughes. She divides her time between Los Angeles and New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Serial Black Face
By Janine Nabers
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2015 Janine Nabers
All rights reserved.
A dark stage. A male voice booms from off.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Next!
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Jesus. Hello. NEXT.
VIVIAN hesitantly makes her way onto the dark stage.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE What's your name, Sweetheart?
VIVIAN My name is —
OFFSTAGE VOICE More light, Sonny. I can't see her face.
A spotlight appears on stage.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE That's better. Step into the light for me, will yah?
VIVIAN steps into the light. She wears an unremarkable dress with wrinkles in it.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE What's your name?
VIVIAN Vivian. Cooper.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Use the mic, honey. Or speak up. I can't hear you. And don't cover up your face.
VIVIAN VIVIAN. COOPER.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Nice name ... Whattya have to show us, Vivian?
VIVIAN I typed up a résumé. Would you like to look at it first?
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Thanks a ton but I don't need it.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Okay, then. You got an act?
VIVIAN I came to sing. I can sing "Why Was I Born?" I sing real nice. I can play it on the piano, too.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE That's, uh ... that's cute. Sorry but, uh, we don't have a piano.
VIVIAN That's fine. I can sing it straight —
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Hey, Vivian. How'd you hear about Micky's?
VIVIAN The ad in the paper? It said you're lookin' for female performers?
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Performers. Right. Listen, uh, I'm sorry about the confusion, but we're not lookin' for, uh ... singers. We're lookin' for girls who can sell tickets. Hold a man's attention in between movies.
VIVIAN Movies ...?
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Movies, yeah. The fun kind.
VIVIAN I — I think I'm in the wrong ... The ad I read said —
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Yeah we got these restrictions ... The ad's a little wishy washy ... The point is, Vivian, we're lookin' for showgirls. Women with physical ... you know. Charisma. Sexy.
Do you dance?
She remains still.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Yes?
From what I can see ... I don't know if you have the, uh, you know ... the bang.
She just stands there.
What am I? Mute?
VIVIAN Go to hell.
She goes to walk away but stops herself.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE I'm not your husband, sweetheart. Go home to someone who cares.
VIVIAN I don't have —
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Speak up.
VIVIAN I don't have a ... man. At home. I've never been married.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Oh yeah? Wonder why that is.
VIVIAN Just give me one more chance. Please. I ... look good ... underneath.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Oh yeah? You wanna show me?
VIVIAN The ad ... the pay. Is it really that much?
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE You get 40 percent of the box office, and the tips are yours. All under the table ... That sound interesting to you?
VIVIAN I need the money. I've had a hard year.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Hard year, huh? Show me how hard it's been ... take off your clothes.
VIVIAN just stands there.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Sonny. Give her some music.
Ohio Players "Skin Tight" blares loudly. It startles VIVIAN.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Just move for me. She starts to unbutton her dress. She closes her eyes.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Don't close your eyes. Look out. Captivate us.
She tries to move. She can't get into it.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE All right. CUT THE MUSIC.
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE You're not sexy. You can't keep a man's attention.
VIVIAN Please. Just give me one ... more —
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE You're wasting my time.
VIVIAN I can.
Be the woman you want.
I can. I just —
MALE OFFSTAGE VOICE Next!
VIVIAN fades away into the darkness.
* * *
A school. Somewhere else.
LATOYA lies on the floor and does her homework. She wears a nicely ironed school uniform. She is not only beautiful but also immaculate. A WHITE BOY (JIMMY) enters. He too wears a school uniform.
The boy watches LATOYA.
LATOYA You're not supposed to be in here.
JIMMY Says who?
LATOYA Headmistress Campbell.
JIMMY It's noon.
JIMMY So it's school hours. I have permission to be in here. That's so.
JIMMY opens a book and reads it ... sort of. LATOYA finishes up her homework and turns to walk past the boy when: He drops his book on the floor in front of her. She stops.
JIMMY Is it true?
LATOYA Is what true?
JIMMY I can ... watch.
JIMMY Pick it up.
LATOYA (sucks her teeth)
JIMMY So it's not true ...
JIMMY Maybe it is or maybe —?
LATOYA Nunya business.
JIMMY I hear you do it all the time for the older boys here.
JIMMY You know what else people say about you?
LATOYA That I hate it here? That's nothing new.
She goes to open the door. He steps in front of it.
JIMMY People say your mom's poor. Like real poor ...
LATOYA Shut up.
JIMMY How'd you end up at a school like this anyway?
LATOYA Shut up.
JIMMY "La-toy-a" — that's a funny name for a pretty girl.
JIMMY I have money.
JIMMY So. Can I watch?
LATOYA Let me see it.
He pulls out a five-dollar bill.
LATOYA You really think you're dynamite? Cus you carry money around like it's nothin'?
JIMMY I have more.
She snatches it out of his hands.
Are the other rumors true?
JIMMY You're a halfie? Your daddy's white?
She nods her head proudly.
JIMMY You don't look like the black folks I've seen. Look like one of those tan girls in the magazines.
LATOYA I know.
JIMMY Is your hair nappy underneath?
LATOYA See for yourself.
He hesitates but touches her hair.
JIMMY I've never touched hair like yours before.
LATOYA It's no different from the white girls here. It's real silky.
JIMMY It's a little different.
JIMMY Is it true you dance?
LATOYA Yes. But if you want to watch you have to call me by my name first.
JIMMY What? Latoya?
LATOYA No, stupid. Lottie. That's the name I like to be called.
LATOYA starts to dance. She moves like a woman.
JIMMY Take off your clothes.
LATOYA Say it. My name.
She unbuttons her uniform.
She starts to take it off. Lights begin to fade.
* * *
The changing room of a drive-in diner. Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me" plays off in the distance. DAMITA and GLADYS are half-naked and changing out of their drive-in uniforms and into their street clothes.
DAMITA We went to the movies. One of those scary flicks.
GLADYS Which one?
DAMITA The new one. 'Bout that family on Long Island. Amity somethin'.
GLADYS You'd have to knock me out and drag my ass. That's the crazy one right? Where the white people get sliced up and they guts is hangin' out all over the place?
DAMITA That's that other flick. This be the one with white folks being chased by ghosts.
GLADYS makes a dismissive grunt.
DAMITA He held me during the scary parts. It was sweet.
GLADYS Must be out of your damn mind.
DAMITA Don't get smart, heffa. He took me to dinner too. The Hilton Hotel.
GLADYS You fucked him, didn't you?
DAMITA Bitch, please. Like I'd tell you.
VIVIAN enters wearing the same clothes we last saw her in.
GLADYS Mmmhmmm. You fucked him real good.
DAMITA/GLADYS (giggle fit ... they are home girls)
The girls finally notice VIV. A cold silence. VIVIAN starts to change and sees the girls looking at her. VIVIAN takes her work clothes and exits.
GLADYS She's always so shy. We all got titties. Who the fuck cares?
DAMITA I feel sorry for her.
GLADYS Why? Cus she's ugly?
GLADYS WHAT, BITCH?
DAMITA STOP BEING MEAN.
GLADYS FINE. SHIT.
A moment. They continue to dress.
DAMITA Poor thing. You know her son's still missing.
GLADYS They ain't found that boy yet?
DAMITA Been damn near four months.
DAMITA Girl YES.
They stop and watch the room where VIVIAN disappeared.
GLADYS Where the fuck have the police been?
DAMITA Heads up their ASSES. I heard last week she showed up drunk at the police station. Just crying. Just screaming at them all.
GLADYS You lyin'!
DAMITA Something strange is going on around here.
You know they found a little black girl in a ditch a couple days ago?
GLADYS What girl?
DAMITA From Mechanicsville. Hello. She went missing last week. Heard her neck was ...
She makes a cutting gesture with her lipstick, then puts it on.
GLADYS A black girl? In a ditch? Her neck was like what? Like she was murdered?
DAMITA Gladys, turn on a TV. Shit.
GLADYS You watch too many slasher movies.
DAMITA Bitch they're informative. Anyone in their right mind knows some crazy person killed that girl.
GLADYS You stupid.
DAMITA Okay, okay. Keep talkin' your shit. Best believe you won't find my ass in any ditch.
GLADYS GIRL, those movies are not geared toward sistas and brothas, okay? Michael Myers don't give a fuck about my jheri-curled ass. The people that get killed in slasher films are always skinny little Barbie bitches with jellybean titties.
You better stop dating that white boy.
DAMITA Hilton Hotel? WHY? He treats me real good. Better than those triflin' niggas you be foolin' with.
GLADYS Whatever you say, Princess.
They continue with their makeup.
One thing I do know? The killers in slasher movies are always someone you know but least suspect and they are always always white.
VIVIAN reenters, wearing work attire. She sits to put on roller skates.
DAMITA Hey, girl.
GLADYS Good to see you, girl.
VIVIAN Hey. It slow tonight?
DAMITA It ain't that slow. You'll make a few dollars.
GLADYS Negro, please. It's slow as hell.
DAMITA Say, Viv. You wanna take my shift? I got this thing on Saturday night.
GLADYS What thing you got??
DAMITA gives GLADYS the stank-eye.
GLADYS Don't tell me you're goin' out with Mr. Hilton Hotel again? You already fucked him on the first date. Be lucky if he takes your ass to Kentucky Fried Chicken.
DAMITA For your information, I got a callback.
GLADYS A what?
DAMITA New joint in town called Mickey's. Pays real big, too. If the owner likes you, you start right on the spot. He's lookin' for pretty women who can strut. Showgirls.
GLADYS Sounds like you gotta show cootch ... How much it pay?
DAMITA Bitch. Find out for your damn self.
Turns to VIVIAN:
Say, Viv. You audition?
DAMITA smirks. GLADYS snorts.
VIVIAN Never heard of the place ... You need somebody to pick up your shift on Saturday?
DAMITA Be my guest.
GLADYS Keep working as much as you do you're gonna give yourself a heart attack. Don't you ever take a vacation?
VIVIAN No time for one. I'll just sleep when I'm dead.
GLADYS spies on the drive-in as "Betcha by Golly, Wow" by the Stylistics plays.
GLADYS Ooooo weee. Look out now.
GLADYS The Man with the Face is back.
GLADYS Talkin' to a pretty little white thing, too.
DAMITA Let me see.
THE MAN WITH THE FACE appears under a ghostlike ray. He is so handsome it's startling.
DAMITA That girl is not white.
GLADYS Shit. She white enough ... too bad my shift is over. I sure would roller-skate over there and hop on his dick. He wouldn't know WHAT to do with me.
DAMITA Go talk to him.
GLADYS YOU go talk to him.
DAMITA Never seen anyone with a face like that in a place like this ... and then he shows up twice in one week. Like he's an apparition. Like he's a man made out of air and dust.
VIVIAN sits by herself ... lost in her own world. She stares into space.
DAMITA What do you think his name is?
GLADYS Somethin' sweet on the lips. Somethin' biblical.
GLADYS nudges DAMITA and they both look at the somber VIVIAN.
DAMITA Say, Viv. Your shift just got easy on the eyes.
VIVIAN wakes up.
VIVIAN What's that?
GLADYS Lucky, girl. Your night just got lucky as hell.
VIVIAN That's nice. I could use some luck.
DAMITA He's sitting in your section. Don't keep him waiting.
DAMITA pulls VIVIAN up.
DAMITA Smile. And push up your tits.
GLADYS Don't wear your hair up. It makes you look old.
DAMITA And fix your face.
GLADYS takes VIVIAN'S hair down. DAMITA puts lipstick on VIVIAN'S lips. GLADYS pushes VIVIAN'S boobs up. DAMITA pinches VIVIAN'S cheeks. They both stand back and examine VIVIAN. It's clear that despite their help, VIVIAN is still very homely.
VIVIAN I know I need it bad, but I hate the way makeup feels against my skin. Feels like I'm covered in wax or something.
GLADYS It's good for you. It brings out your glow.
VIVIAN My glow. I didn't know I had one.
GLADYS Don't you ever get dressed up? Make yourself feel pretty?
VIVIAN I did when I had ... someone. Not anymore.
DAMITA Girl, please. Don't need a man to treat yourself. Here.
DAMITA hands out her lipstick. The color don't look right on me anyway.
VIVIAN takes it.
VIVIAN I should clock in ... but thanks ... I mean.
GLADYS and DAMITA exit. After a moment VIVIAN puts her hair back up and wipes the lipstick off her face. Lights shift and the drive-in is illuminated. VIVIAN skates awkwardly around the stage and carries a tray of food. As she skates she sees a newspaper being held that says:
BLACK GIRL FOUND DEAD. VIVIAN drops her tray of food on the floor.
THE MAN WITH THE FACE is behind the newspaper. He puts it down and stares at the mess at his feet.
VIVIAN I'm sorry. I didn't —
VIVIAN notices THE MAN'S beautiful face.
VIVIAN See. Um.
HUGH That's not my order.
VIVIAN Excuse me?
HUGH The stuff. On the floor. I didn't order that.
HUGH And I'm thirsty. I've been waiting for almost twenty minutes.
VIVIAN I'm sorry.
She picks up the food with her hands and puts it back on the tray.
VIVIAN If you give me your order I can have it to you real quick.
HUGH Last time I was here I ordered with Becky.
HUGH Light-skinned. Legs.
VIVIAN Oh. Her shift hasn't started yet.
HUGH I guess I'll wait for her then.
HUGH goes back to reading ... VIVIAN snatches the newspaper out of his hands.
VIVIAN Some nerve you got. Reading something so disgusting in front of people with food in their mouths. You wanna read about sick things then take it with you. But you can't read it here.
Now you either order with me or leave.
She realizes she's made a scene. THE MAN rises from the table.
VIVIAN Wait. I. I don't know what just came ...
THE MAN clears his throat. He rubs his face.
Let me feed you. Please. Sit.
He takes off his hat. He is covered in sweat.
HUGH I can't. I can't feel my —
HUGH Face. I can't. Feel. My — He collapses at VIVIAN'S feet.
* * *
VIVIAN'S bedroom. Light rays shine onto the sleeping body of HUGH. He's in his underwear. The sound of kids giggling from off can be heard.
OFFSTAGE KID 1 I DID TOO! I SAW HIS JUNK!
OFFSTAGE KID 2, OFFSTAGE KID 3 MOVE!! EWWW. YA'LL NASTY! LET ME SEE! IMMA TELL YOUR MAMA!
OFFSTAGE KID 1 SHUT UP! SHUT UP! LOOK!
A tiny rock is thrown onto the sleeping body of HUGH. HUGH turns over onto his bare stomach. An insane roar of laughter and disgust from the OFFSTAGE KIDS. VIVIAN runs into the room.
Excerpted from Serial Black Face by Janine Nabers. Copyright © 2015 Janine Nabers. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword, by Marsha Norman, vii,
Serial Black Face, 1,