Upscale school revives a satire about race

Student actors confront their fear of offending people, as they depict a 1960s Southern town that can't function when all the black folk disappear

Over the years, schools have celebrated Black History Month in myriad ways, but it's doubtful any staged a play that draws on the controversial genre of minstrel. Until now.

Earlier this month, seventh- and eighth-graders at the exclusive Noble and Greenough School performed Douglas Turner Ward's "Day of Absence." A satire first produced in 1965, the play reverses the tradition of "blackface" minstrel shows. Set in a sleepy Southern town, it puts actors in "whiteface" to show how lost whites would be if a racist fantasy came true and all the blacks suddenly, mysteriously disappeared.

Director Nina Freeman, a black graduate of the school, had hoped her mostly white cast might generate a flurry of discussion about race among playgoers - through their frequent usage of the term "nigra" on stage and depictions of pathetic white people unable to care for themselves. Yet those most changed by this provocative production may have been the provocateurs themselves.

"At our age, all we've done are happy plays like Cinderella, and this is a dark subject," said Caroline Eisenmann, a seventh-grader from Wellesley, Mass., as she took a break from folding programs before a final dress rehearsal.

"At first, we didn't want to do it, didn't want to say the word 'nigra'.... But we learned this is a way to bring a message. I hope [the audience] figures out this isn't a negative message."

Fears lurked near the surface among her fellow thespians-in-training. Maybe blacks in the audience would take offense at references to "darkies" or "jigaboos." Or whites would resent being portrayed as fumblers who couldn't change a diaper or cook an egg without help. Or maybe everyone would sigh impatiently at yet another lecture on the virtues of diversity.

"I'm sure I'll get comments, like, 'Enough of this white-bashing,' " said Ms. Freeman, a 22-year-old English and theater teacher. "Of course, I worry about it, but I'd rather that theater be provocative than predictable."

The students' production of "Day of Absence" opened with actors in white masks - a modified version of the original use of white face paint. Soon they lifted the masks, but they continued to caricature the white characters, whose panic spread with news that their nannies, garbage collectors, delivery persons, and switchboard operators had vanished.

As reality sank in, whites in top business and political positions promised to restore things "as they've always been." But when one attempt after another failed, actors crying out to the lost ones seemed schizophrenic - first pleading for the nigras' return, then fuming with anger at their audacity in leaving.

Tongue-in-cheek humor came with a sharp edge. A police officer, for instance, nicknamed "two-a-day Pete" for his track record of beating blacks daily, got hauled off to an asylum. "He was unable," a friend lamented, "to stand the shock of having his spotless slate sullied by interruption."

Yet for all its satirical bite, "Day of Absence" on the stage at Noble may have reinforced preexisting values more than it sparked any new awareness.

"I watch out for things that make liberal white people feel good but don't advance an enlightenment of things," said Anne Eccles, a Lexington, Mass. mother of three, who watched her daughter perform on opening night. "I wonder if this might belong to that category.... This is an upper-middle-class, liberal environment, so of course, it didn't change any attitudes at all."

With tuition price tags of $22,700 for day students and $28,800 for five-day-per-week boarders, Noble and Greenough caters to children of professionals in Boston's upscale western suburbs. Their world, where just 6 percent of the 535 students are black, seems far removed from the 1960s "Day of Absence" Southern town, where blacks were half the population before they vanished.

This sheltered, comfortable setting compels Bob Henderson, head of the school, to make the challenges of living with diversity a regular topic at assemblies. His hope for "Day of Absence" was to get people talking about something too many on campus might take for granted: interdependence and reciprocal appreciation across racial lines.

"I guess where there's a certain amount of privilege, it's more important to do it here," he said, compared with a setting where interracial harmony may not be the status quo.

After opening night, informal discussion did crop up. Ms. Eccles, for instance, talked with her daughters on the drive home about which types of work would be affected if blacks were to disappear today. Gone would be not only janitors and housekeepers but also doctors and lawyers, she explained, since blacks are no longer limited to blue-collar labor.

Once the curtain had come down for the second and last time, however, those who felt changed by the experience were primarily the ones backstage.

In the audience, Laura Goode, mother of a seventh-grader, felt the play was about people unlike her. "It seemed like a period piece. It wasn't about life in the Boston suburbs," said Ms. Goode, co-owner of an executive search firm. The actors "did a great job," she said, but "it didn't seem real to me."

But for cast members, "Day of Absence" was the most real drama they'd ever done. For two months, tense moments in rehearsals precipitated regular breaks to sit on the floor in a circle with Freeman and discuss matters of race. Even with those talks, though, none of the students wanted to play the one black role, for fear of appearing to mock African-Americans. So Freeman played that role herself.

When it was all over, the students said they'd learned not only about race, but also about the challenges of conveying a message.

"The moral is [whites] need the black community, and without them, the white community will collapse," said seventh-grader Caitlin Cassidy. "We are kind of preaching to them," eighth-grader Katharine Sargeant added. "But I think it's done in a more creative way so they won't really feel it's that message."

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