New York

Laurie Carlos

P.S. 122

Notably small in scale, Laurie Carlos’ theater drew its listeners into a storyteller’s circle, up close, within touching distance of the players. Each character was written and portrayed as if it were a “found” miniature in an air-tight Joseph Cornell box: given just enough detail to suggest the authenticity of autobiography.

In White Chocolate for my Father, created in collaboration with Urban Bush Women’s artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and musician Don Meissner, Carlos directed seven women (including herself) in an exuberant and fast paced 80-minute work. Close to caricature, each of the women represented an exaggerated and recognizable slice of African-American female life: school-girl with pig tails, ‘southern mammy’ in apron and head scarf, matronly floral-hatted church-goer, hot urbanite in spandex pants, while one woman, naked and painted to resemble an African totem sculpture, stood in for a generation of ancestors. The performers recited their lines boldly, as would singers in a chorus, separately and in rounds, gradually building an effective and three-dimensional auditory space.

Like a lullaby, the tone of Carlos’ text was both hypnotic and sad; it conveyed the reassuring sleepiness and intimacy induced by a storyteller on a young listener, as well as the terror of recurring nightmares. Gradually, and in layers that stretched back to an African ancestor, Carlos told an intergenerational story of a slave mother buried in the ground after refusing to submit to her captors, her face eaten by dogs; of her nine-year-old daughter raped repeatedly on a Southern plantation by a slave owner who covered her face with a bag; and of her grandchildren who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side and who denied their own identity in childish chants—“your nose is too flat, your nose is too fat.”

Lost identities, lost fathers, and abominable cruelty are, Carlos says, the legacies of slavery—themes that run frequently through her own writings as well as those of many other African-American women writers (Adrienne Kennedy, Thulani Davis, Ntozake Shange, and Toni Morrison) whose narratives are often culled from the oral stories of women in their own families. Though written in the present, these texts barely touch contemporary EuroAmerican society; the shocking stories of abduction, death, and family ruin seem as remote as Agamemnon’s tribulations with his gods. Or do they?

Carlos is determined to make the bloody roots of African-American culture both immediate and searing, and she uses a fairly traditional format to do so. Based on a nonlinear narrative, supplemented by a theatrical chorus that describes places and events, hers is a didactic theater not unlike agit prop or street theater. With a minimum of stage paraphernalia, such stylized storytelling is designed not only to inform but also to ignite emotion. Essentially an extended one-act play, this work is eminently transportable, like those of theatrical troupes of old.

Carlos has a trouper’s understanding of what happens to words on stage and behind a microphone. Her careful and imaginative arrangement of bodies lent the text itself a three-dimensional shape and afforded the opportunity for some surprising changes in direction. In the end though, it was Carlos the writer that directed this work—with a poet’s ear, and an editor’s eye she created a sparse and poignant production.

RoseLee Goldberg