“What, is it February already?” Those words of Washington City Paper theater critic Bob Mondello resonate in my ears. This was his glib opening line to the reviews of African Continuum Theatre’s Fresh Flavas rep plays Kingdom, by David Emerson Toney, and Draft Day, by Marvin McAllister (“Sales of the Centuries,” 11/18). I want to be clear: I am not writing this as a representative of the African Continuum Theatre or as a retort to his review. We all know there is no point to that. Critics like or dislike what they like or dislike, and the plain fact is when one sees a play that is outside of one’s comfort area or it does not present certain images that one may be accustomed to seeing, what happens, at times, is a nonunderstanding of what one has witnessed and that nonunderstanding manifests itself, at times, as a bad review. Sometimes one gets it and sometimes one doesn’t. But I’m not writing about that. That is a whole other issue.
“What, is it February already?” Why ask that, Mr. Mondello? I will attempt to give you the benefit of the doubt, because often as a black man I have to do that; I have to step back before taking what I deem appropriate action and ask myself: Did he mean that the way it sounded? Nah. He couldn’t have. Surely, Mondello sees that by asking such a question, even as innocuously as I’m guessing the intent was, he implies one of two things: (1) What is going on in D.C. that its stages are covered with so many people of color walking on them? No one is producing August Wilson this month—it ain’t February, so what’s up?! Because stories of African and African-American heritage are fine if contained to the shortest month of the year, which has been designated for such events; or (2) It’s about time! Why has it taken so long for it to be recognized that black history is American history and is a 12-month-a-year event and, man, it’s great to have folks up on those boards telling their stories?
From my perspective, Mr. Mondello, your five-word question raises other, more pertinent and august questions: When there are no black artists nominated for Helen Hayes Awards when that time of year comes around in a town teeming with talented theater artists of color, is the question asked, “What, is it European History Year…again?!” And how often is it that an actor of color, specifically African-American but not necessarily, is the only nonwhite member of a cast, and how often is it reversed? How often is it that an actor of color, specifically African-American but not necessarily, is the only nonwhite MFA candidate, and how often is it reversed? And what are the implications of that? And more to the point, in both cases…wait for it…wait for it…Why?
“What, is it February already?” At best, those words are insensitive to the continual struggle of what it means to be black in this country. At worst, they trivialize the legacies of people like 19th-century classical actors Ira Aldridge, James Hewlett, and countless other lesser-known black artists who were adored and reviled concurrently. At worst, they were considered anomalies, flukes, because they were so regal and “uppity.” Need I remind you that it wasn’t so long ago that an integrated cast in D.C. was unheard of? As was mixed seating in theater houses in D.C.
Please know that this is not a diatribe against Mondello for political correctness. It’s just an attempt at understanding. Words, Mr. Mondello, are the tools of your trade, and mine. Very powerful things, they are. And I, for one, Mr. Mondello, am convinced you subscribe to Notion No. 2 (as mentioned above), and I’m sure of that because after watching Draft Day and Kingdom, certainly, you came a step closer to a better view, however slightly, of what it means to be black in this country. Of course, one will never know until one walks in someone else’s shoes, will one?