New York

Imperceptible Mutabilities In The Third Kingdom

Baca Downtown

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks calls Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom “an African-American experience in the shadow of the photographic image.” In four scenes connected by a dreamlike logic rather than a developing narrative, characters struggle to find themselves in that shadow—the representations and definitions made by white folks. A white male scientist in the first scene, called “Snails,” studies three black women (Mona, Jonah, and Verona) through a camera planted in a cockroach. The roach sits in the living room; at two feet long, it’s too big to kill. They refer to it as their “infestation problem.” Of course, what’s really infested in this allegory are their identities. The women are almost “other” to themselves. “Once there was a woman named Mona,” says Mona, “who wondered what she’d talk like if no one was listening.” Would she say “ask” then? Or “ax”? Mona’s been expelled from school and several times during the scene she repeats, mantralike a line about the “-sk” sound in “ask.” Verona watches the television show Wild Kingdom, and her hero, the naturalist/narrator Marlin Perkins. But in the rerun she’s watching, Perkins suddenly appears carrying a gun, although he has never had one before. Throughout Mutabilities, identities mutate, and those who witness the story rarely control its telling.

“Open House” braids several parallel but disjointed stories into one image of slavery. A woman on a tilted hospital bed holds Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. She is told that she may not officially exist, since her name isn’t in the white man’s book. As she awaits visitors, a sadistic nun (played by a black man) describes the size of a slave ship’s hold. Images of the hospital room and the ship merge in their conversation. Two of the children she’s raised (played by black women in whiteface) appear and begin to issue orders; they reappear later to take her room. The nun begins to extract the woman’s teeth, the last evidence of her identity. Parks’ writing underlines the nightmare through absurdity, rather than pathos. The spare and precise direction (Liz Diamond) and design (Alan Glovsky, Pat Dignan, Laura Drawbaugh) keep Mutabilities’ wildly poetic situations in focus.

The most moving section in the play, called “Greeks,” comes closest to real life. Sergeant Smith is a career soldier, always separated from his family; they are forever planning visits to him. The bus trips, the brown and white outfits they wear because he likes them, and the sergeant’s oft-repeated goal to “get his distinction” begin to seem mythic and ritualistic. In the end, the weight of Western mythology literally crushes the sergeant, even as he makes it in the white man’s world. He gets his “distinction” by losing his legs. The newspapers say it was a land mine, but the sergeant says he caught Icarus. He broke Icarus’ fall and saved his life, and hasn’t seen him since.

Images of jumping and falling recur throughout the play. (As it begins, in fact, Mona is trying to decide if she should jump out the window.) Without a hint of political dogma, Mutabilities evokes the everyday surreality of life for African-Americans—always in middle passage, neither here nor there. “Should I jump?” asks another woman in the second scene. Someone argues, “But we’re not in a boat,” and she replies, “But we is. We is.”

—C. Carr