Imagine a world where every present action has a historical precursor. Where contemporary behaviors and images hold deep-rooted meanings. Wait, this is the world we live in, and the way social amnesia operates always amazes me. I don't know how many times my ears have rung from the phrases, "This is a new day" or "Stop living in the past." And let's not forget my favorite, "God bless America." As I sat and engaged with Kirsten Greenidge's production, Rust, I found it clever that she illustrated what we so much want to ignore.
Set in an unspecified present, Rust is a bold and abstract story that revolves around Randall Miflin, an African American pro football player whose recent head injury has triggered an awakening. Randall begins taking yoga classes in the forest and demanding that people 'respect' him. He starts collecting artifacts, memorabilia, and posters of stereotypical black imagery (Aunt Jemima cookie jars, for example), which he guards with his life, and begins receiving phone calls from an elderly black woman, Ella Mae Walker, who urges Randall to save his people.
Randall's behavior thoroughly confuses his fellow teammate Chunk-Chunk Adams, his materialistic wife, Jeannie, and Bill and Steve, two hilarious sports casters. They don't understand that Randall's deceased mother is at the center of his mental unraveling. She never approved of his football image. But why?
Football as a form of contemporary blackface minstrelsy was a central theme of Rust. The "respect" that Randall continually demands becomes a response to the commodification that he's endured as a black football player. The process of making sports figures, especially black sports figures into sellable commodities and so-called saviors isn't new; a bed-ridden Mr. Peale calls out to Joe Louis to save him throughout the play, just as Ella Mae Walker repeatedly calls Randall on the phone to save her, so much so that Randall, and the audience, nearly go insane from the phone's constant ringing.
When sportscasters Bill and Steve are interjected into the story, I almost thought I was at home watching Sports Center, but then something else caught my attention: they had plastic hair! You know the kind that shines and looks like it could be in a cartoon?! This made their presence all the more comical but reminded us of the artificial nature of mainstream sports broadcasts.
Though compact, the stage allowed for action and meaning to merge. Ella Mae Walker, adorned in the traditional red head scarf and large dress of the idealized "Aunt Jemima," rocks back and forth in a rocking chair while Randall and Chunk-Chunk sit on bales of cotton in the present, playing video games. Ella Mae serves as the back drop for many of the scenes; even ones where she has no speaking role. As a device, I found her presence haunting, it kept reminding me that history is always behind the present.
All characters in the play evoke different reactions to the racist stereotypes and imagery that Randall "discovers" after his football injury. It is within each character's way of confronting the problematic nature of these images, and of blackness, that the audience is entertained; a strange, yet appealing mixture of social commentary and comedy.
All blackface characters in the play seem to be looking for their family and for "respect." Two male characters wearing tutus and carrying lanterns, one white and one black, are randomly interspersed throughout, as representations of the awkward re-shaping of blackness in the present. When we later see that Mr. Peale, a character based on "Uncle Ben," is their father, the connection is made. These subtle, yet powerful connections of historical repression to contemporary contradictions were some of my favorite elements of the production.
Mikaal Sulaiman's performance as Randall is one of the strongest in the play. Heck, his was one of the strongest performances I have ever seen! His penetrating, seemingly disturbed expressions and throaty, energetic dialogue fully conveyed his character's mental strain.
The production doesn't just explode stereotypes, it expands and analyzes them, and actually makes us think about more than syrup when we see Aunt Jemima, or rice when we put Uncle Ben in the shopping cart.
Rust is at The Magic Theater in San Francisco through April 1, 2007. For tickets and information visit magictheatre.org.