In the face of tired slave narratives that perpetually underline the trauma, hardships, and misfortune that comprise forced labor, classical playwright Terence and his present-day counterpart Branden Jacobs-Jenkins construct literary worlds that provide humanistic dimension to the lives of enslaved people.
I can’t take another slave sob story.
Now don’t get me wrong: it is certainly important to learn about the devastating history of our people in this country, and that includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. But is it false to say that our media harps on the ugly a bit too often? I mean—whether it be Lincoln, Freedom, or even 12 Years a Slave, it is a routine in our art, and especially the theater, to have tunnel vision in the discussion of slavery. However, this perspective of ‘enslaved people’ accentuates the former while paying dust to the latter, ironically hindering the ability to recognize the humanity within these populations. In recent readings of these types of stories, I’ve begun to wonder: how would our understanding of enslaved life change if we were to add dimension to these narratives?
In order to effectively reflect upon slave narratives, playwrights must acknowledge the ‘people’ in the term enslaved people. Reducing these populations to their misfortune creates this monolithic understanding of what being a slave was and is; it undermines the broad spectrum of diversity, identity, and personhood that they possessed and, in turn, contributes to an irresolute picture of enslaved life. The normalization of observing Black trauma goes further than our art. One beautiful review of the film Till speaks to the way that media has facilitated the routine viewing of Black life as a “noxious battle”, citing the recent exploitations of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths as pertinent examples. As a society, we must strike a balance that acknowledges the heartwrenching consequences of institutional racism while still taking Black people for what they are—people. In my own interaction with art forms that speak on these topics, I’ve found only a handful that effectively make strides to shed light on this tension.
Take An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (BJJ), for example, an adaptation of The Octoroon that boldly critiques Dion Boucicault’s original work in a bizarre yet brilliant manner. In the construction of this inventive world, BJJ makes it a point to use language as a way to bring life to his enslaved characters. The playwright implements African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) throughout the speech of Dido and Minnie, two enslaved characters on a Southern plantation, as they engage in a playful dynamic that goes beyond their daily labor. From quarreling with the “bunch of selfish field hands” outside the house to eyeing the “fine-ass white man who own [the] steamboat”, BJJ uses the duo to remind us that, just as anyone does, enslaved people lived beyond their work. Notably, the use of contemporary language in these dialogues allows the characters to transcend the limits of their era. BJJ connects these conversations to those of the present-day Black community, underlining how it is only time, not some stark difference in disposition, that separates these populations. This refreshing take inspires us to ponder why we so rarely see these communities explored in humanistic contexts.
BJJ takes his exploration a step further with the diction he uses in the play’s conclusion. In a powerful scene depicting Dido’s plea for a simpler existence, Minnie responds by explaining to her that she is “not [her] job” and that she has to “take time out of [her] day to live life”. This conversation becomes more interesting when I look past the standard denotation of “life” toward one describing it as “the active or practical part of human existence” involving “the business, active pleasures, or pursuits of the world”. BJJ so attentively writes his monologue from one enslaved character to another to emphasize that they had ownership over their imaginations, and those imaginations could be distinct from their labor. It’s almost as if Dido is speaking from a place that our standard depictions of enslaved life have forced her to be, and Minnie points out the roundness their lives should entail. In this sense, the word “life” serves as a direct wake-up call for Dido, but even more so as a call out to the literary world to not overlook the depth of her community’s experience. Because she, like anyone else, has business, active pleasures, and pursuits.
Is it possible that BJJ is just too close to our faces for this message to be heard? One theater review from Vulture argues that in a work that “repeatedly pulls the rug out from under itself,” BJJ “miscalculates, or perhaps just doesn’t care enough about, the audience’s tolerance for provocation.” Like Jesse Green, the seasoned theater critic who crafted the cautionary evaluation, many reviewers bring focus to the absurdity, racial stereotypes, and political incorrectness that decorate the surface of An Octoroon. While the play is full of overt ridiculousness from the racial damnation of Zoe (the octoroon) to the whiteface used to portray white characters like M’Closky, I was disappointed to find so little conversation about the social dynamics of the enslaved characters. Sure, even I myself had to read through certain sections several times to dig into what BJJ might be trying to tell us. But the moments of stillness between the storm of BJJ’s prose teach us just as much as the chaos. BJJ is pushing us and, in turn, seeing who is really ready to listen to a piece challenging what society thinks it knows.
Roman playwright Terence is able to create a similar effect in The Eunuch, a story about young Athenian love, through a slightly different means. Interestingly, Terence is intentional in his characterization, constructing a social dynamic in which the enslaved characters are his roundest and wittiest, with their white counterparts being flat and ignorant. Take Parmeno, a servant in the household of Phaedria and Chaerea, who wields dry humor to emphasize how ridiculous his white counterparts are. In response Phaedria’s foolish scheme to win over Thias, he describes how silly it is “that men can be so changed by love” as to lose their self-identity. Likewise, it is Parmeno’s suggestions that provide the story its momentum toward the climax; it is he, for example, who plots the idea that Chaera could “pass [himself] off as a eunuch” to pursue Phamphila. Rather than being ridiculed or punished for offering his opinions on the situation like we’d expect in a typical master-laborer dynamic, Chaera gladly receives the suggestions, exclaiming that he’s “never seen better advice given”. Moments like these provide a didactic social framework that reverses the status quo, centering enslaved opinions, actions, and sentiments in a space where these components often go unrecognized.
One theater review published at the turn of the 20th century makes a comparable argument, showing how Pythias, a seemingly minor enslaved character, is essential due to her distinguished speech and ability to provide the plot its momentum. In a manner that parallels that of Parmeno, Pythias plays a central role in ensuring the meeting between Thias, the female protagonist, and Chremes, the brother of Pamphila. The union of these two characters is necessary for establishing proof of Pamphila’s Athenian citizenship, but also works to give Pythias purpose. Notably, she is absent from most scenes of the play which better emphasizes her ability to make a difference in the plotline during such a pivotal moment. The technique that Terence uses throughout The Eunuch, which I see as a decentering of white power in narrative flow, is a subtle but significant way of retelling how we view enslaved characters in the theater. With this, Terence allows us to recognize that although these communities were disenfranchised within their social hierarchy, they still had interactions and subsequent influence in their worlds.
It is evident that An Octoroon and The Eunuch both counter how enslaved narratives are commonly presented. Maybe playwrights tend to defer to such tragic depictions of enslaved life because it’s what sells. The theater is, has always been, and will probably always be a place of privilege. When imagining their theatrical worlds, writers would be remiss if they did not acknowledge that their audiences will mostly be rich, white patrons who expect to experience an “enriching” moment of entertainment. Patrons who want to feel like they’re doing something right, like they’re broadening their social horizons, like they’re good. In my eyes, depicting solely the sorrow of enslaved life gives white theater-goers the space to do their duty, supposedly resonate with Black trauma, shed a neoliberal tear, and pat themselves on the back on the drive back to their plantation homes. In this roundabout way, what is meant to spark progressive discussion ends up upholding the violent structures it hopes to critique. So what would it mean to construct enslaved narratives without the consideration of a white audience?
Cuban-American thinker José Esteban Muñoz is well-known for his conception of a Queer Utopia, an idea that beautifully extrapolates to this discussion, just with a different lens. In his book Cruising Utopia, Muñoz elucidates how in a world in which heterosexual perspectives are inherently involved in every aspect of our social world, it is impossible to truly envision queerness in a manner that is unconnected to these oppressive institutions. In a similar vein, perhaps it is impossible to remove discussions of slavery and Blackness in general from white conceptions. How can we even theorize what such a world might look like when whiteness bleeds into how we even carry such discussions? The idea is daunting, and suggests that an outlook like this could never happen. BJJ and Terence give me hope though. They have the courage to uproot the status quo of the theater and, in their own way, allude to what a racial utopia might look like—one that pays homage to our dark history while incorporating equitable characterization.
Personally, I find that there is power in the way art is told, and how we do so shapes the histories we are bringing to life. The theater is a place to challenge the views of our world through empathy, imagination, and absurdity. By displacing literary standards, playwrights BJJ and Terence encourage us to challenge our half-baked vision of what it was to be subjected to slavery. They take the space to imagine what the worlds of enslaved communities might look like if we disentangle them from the gaze of the contemporary white audience. The playwrights’ work gives me hope, and provides a glimpse into what a racial utopia could offer in the face of our reality’s limitations.
So duh—enslaved people labored, suffered, struggled, and cried. This is something we know and continue to repeat. But it is our duty to remember that they also laughed, connected, dreamed, and loved. We must tell both sides of their stories if we mean not to erase their humanity.
Carlos Noel is a senior at William & Mary, where he is completing a self-designed major titled “Social Justice in Medicine.” He is a part of the 1693 Scholars program, as well as the Monroe Scholars and William & Mary Scholars programs.