I’m not sure where I first heard someone say, “Sometimes, it is best that when discussing race, whites should take a listening position.” It has, however, stuck and stayed with me, perhaps because I see the simple logic of the idea, or perhaps because most “whites” (and, like one of the playwrights in Hands Up, I distinguish Caucasian from white) avoid the subject. Let’s face it, the most obvious sign of white privilege is the luxury of not having to be concerned about race.
In the stirring and often raw compilation, Hands Up: 6 Playwrights, 6 Testaments, the authors convey their testaments of what it means to be black men in America today. The monologues, with titles like Superiority Fantasy, Holes in My Identity, and Abortion, tell of the triumphant highs and overwhelming lows as the audience sits, listens, and comprehends the impact of an internalized chasm of historical mistrust and inequality bubbling forth like hot lava from an erupting volcano.
There is something very DuBoisian, double-consciousness laden, about the work as the authors look in, out, and through themselves to understand the society in which they try to live as free men. That double consciousness is refracted through the audience’s experience of floating in the black box space with glaring white stage lights beaming out from various points in the house, while a bright, sun-filled Father’s Day glared in through large windows overlooking Center City.
Close encounters with racism
The six testaments, commissioned by the New Black Fest, examine the historical impact of cultural misconceptions, stereotyping, racial profiling, and the overall Jim Crow, apartheid-like conditions many black men live under. Their stories differ because they are framed as the personal stories of close encounters with latent and overt racism — mostly manifested by the police — and the negative reactions to those encounters.
The cast, under the direction of Joanna Settle, is phenomenal; they represent African-American men varying in age, complexion, and sexual orientation. The pieces’ playing style alludes to the connective theme of uncertainty, with each character revealing his particular stain. The actors handle the language as well-trained thespians with a fondness for the Last Poets and Shakespeare. The musicality of the poetry is accented by live music, provided by Ill Doots, that is a fusion between urban, jazz, and blues. All combine and entwine as the artists weave in and out of the audience and the playing area.
They want us to feel a part of their experiences; they want us to think about the current state of racial America; they want us know that Black Lives Matter.