*[TRIGGER WARNING: both the play and this review address sexual assault and spousal abuse.]
“But please remember, especially in these times of group-think and the right-on chorus, that no person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended.”
– Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker
It’s funny that people still ask me why I refuse to support Drake. Did I say “funny”? I meant “insulting”.
For starters, I haven’t owned a radio since the mid-2000s, so I’m not as up-to-date on popular music as everyone else. Secondly, I’ve never bought a single album of his and if I did dig a song he made, it’s because he was the guest on an album of someone I do dig (I forget he’s even on K-Dot’s “Poetic Justice” because he contributes nothing to the track at all). And third, what little of his work I have heard makes it hard for me to equate the “so sensitive” guy loved by Black women with the guy whose songs (that I’ve heard) have insisted that women should be dropped like a bad habit (listen to “Hotline Bling” or “Forever” again).
Added to that, he refuses to show any backbone or take any political stance, opting for the Tiger Woods approach of being the Black celeb White America loves because he’s never one of “the angry Blacks”. And don’t get me started on how he uses the same excuses for cultural appropriation used by white folks who wear blackface. Then there’s the secret baby he hid away, but somehow faulted Pusha T for revealing.
But if I had to sum up my disdain for Drake in a single term, that term would be “Chris Brown”.
I may not follow popular music, but even I know of Drake’s public obsession with Rihanna, something that has often put him at odds with his good pal Chris Brown. My antagony toward the Canadian was solidified last year when he not only reunited with Brown for new music, but said that he had “kind of a moment of hesitation” about working with Brown because of his history with Rihanna. A moment of hesitation. About working with the alleged rapist and serial spouse-beater whose most infamous spouse-beating was against the very woman Drake claims to love.
I won’t pretend my playlists are “all Solange, all the time”, but don’t ask me again why I refuse to support to Drake.
Aubrey-from-Canada is mentioned by name during Loy A. Webb’s The Flight. Rashad, our male lead, is attempting to be romantic when Genesis, his girlfriend and the play’s female lead, dismisses his corniness as being “one Drake lyric away” from full-blown schmaltz. I’d like to think the moment is Webb’s attempt to call out “Dreezy” for having a largely Black female fanbase thanks to his manipulative, calculating ways, but that’s just my assumption.
This is neither the first nor last time the feelings of Black men are brought up in the play, mostly by Rashad and to the consternation of Genesis.
We find ourselves in Chicago on the 6th of October 2018. The Brett Kavanaugh hearings are topic du jour. Chicago firefighter Rashad is looking forward to celebrating his anniversary with Genesis, the principal of an all-Black Chi-town charter school. Both have a pair of surprises in store for the other.
One of Rashad’s surprises is a pair of tickets and backstage passes to a concert that night. Gen is initially onboard… until she learns who the headliner is. He’s a popular rapper known for his socially conscious politics that let people excuse his sexist lyrics, something that bothers Gen. Actually, something more bothers Gen, but she’s hesitant to discuss it with the starstruck Rashad. He eggs her on until Genesis, who knew the rapper and his social circle during college, finally makes it plain:
“He’s a rapist, Rashad!”
Ideally, that would be the end of the discussion for this loving couple. Instead, it initiates a “he said-she said” debate about the demonization of Black men and the disregard, disrespect, and greater demonization of Black women.
The Light has one of the better uses of symbolism I’ve seen in a modern play: we learn through this extensive talk-fest that our couple met when single-dad Rashad brought his crying daughter, Amaya, to Gen’s school. Through Rashad’s recollection, Gen was taken by his supposedly-irresistible good looks. When Genesis tells it, she explains that it wasn’t Rashad himself that caught her eye so much as the crying Black girl by his side wishing someone would help her.
This information is delivered subtly and in an unpronounced manner so that its importance isn’t realized until the end. That, amateur writers, is foreshadowing done right. The script isn’t perfect, but that part is.
Said script often falls into the trap that plagues any gab-fest (including those I’ve written): the characters begin spouting so much lengthy prose that it’s no longer human speech but an essay read aloud. Though, to Webb’s credit, this isn’t very often and, in one crucial scene near the end, it becomes vital: Rashad’s attempts to apologize by reciting platitudes of “I hear you, I see you” are as purposefully condescending as those of every white person who said it to me this year after the George Floyd protests. It’s a go-to bumper sticker line that doesn’t actually sympathise with the person hearing it, which says a lot about Rashad and Genesis’ relationship at that point.
Speaking of which, the other misstep is also brief, but occurs twice. When the couple’s arguments get really heated, they’re deflated too easily with the offer of a foot-rub or a simple hand on the shoulder. Both times this happens it’s at a point when a simple de-escalation wouldn’t work based on what’s already been said. Granted, they’re soon arguing again, but there’s no real reason for them to stop.
Still, where the script really thrives is capturing the hypocrisy of Black millennial men when called out on their sexism. When Genesis lashes out against the rapper’s misogynist lyrics, Rashad wonders why those lyrics are wrong when, well, every Beyoncé song since “Say My Name” has had (what Rashad thinks are) disparaging lyrics toward men. It’s that sort of detachment from reality that recently Black men rallying to vote against Kamala Harris (and, by extension, Biden) because of her admittedly spotty history of prosecuting Black men… this despite the fact that Trump is actively supported by white supremacists and killer cops.
Rashad and his admiration for a “hotep” superstar are the personification of the brotha who refuses to acknowledge the struggle of Black women unless it’s one he knows personally. He’s more willing to consider the rapper a victim of some campaign to discredit a Black man (something which does have unfortunate historical precedent) than give the slightest credence to Gen’s “friend”, a Black woman pointing the finger.
This is, in part, due to Rashad’s having been falsely (so he claims) accused of beating a former girlfriend, which ruined his reputation and prematurely ended a promising football career. That doesn’t stop Genesis from rightfully challenging him by asking what if the victim were Amaya, a question that so infuriates Rashad that he nearly becomes physical.
And that’s point: only when it becomes personal does it become real. Black women don’t have such time to wait around.
The production is certainly an interesting approach, making cinematic (and therefore literal) what script directions likely just suggested. Under the direction of Nailah Harper-Malveaux (whom I met last year when we both worked on White Noise at Berkeley Rep) and the cinematography & lighting of Ray Oppenheimer, it makes a valiant 360-degree attempt at capturing a live performance without a fourth wall. The images aren’t always perfect – with one actor frequently blocking another from view – but they’re often both in frame. And a late-stage use of split-screen is used to perfection.
In fact, you’d have to be as much of a neurotic tech nerd as I am to notice the audio echoes, the occasional non-synced audio/video, or the webcams otherwise carefully hidden around the apartment, unless you were actively looking for those things. I also noticed an anachronistic “Defund the Police” poster on the wall of a play set in 2018. Yet, those are minor points that don’t take away from Harper-Malveaux’s appropriately delicate staging. Any stage is just that on its own, but Harper-Malveaux makes this particular small apartment comforting, then claustrophobic.
She’s given appropriate aid with Leigh Rondon-Davis as Genesis. Even when the character is in danger of becoming a series of talking points, Rondon-Davis keeps Genesis literally and figuratively grounded and human. Their performance is definitely the highlight of the production. Unfortunately, Kenny Scott’s turn as Rashod is not as strong. I’m not familiar with Scott’s previous work off-hand, but his performance here never feels natural. His voice never leaves its flat monotone, even as the emotions of the characters ebb and flow over and over again. With ripe material and a co-star carefully in-tune with their character, Scott never matches skill of either.
I’ve often said on this site that my feelings of Afrocentrism are closely tied to my feelings of Feminism. This is partly because I’ve noticed that Black men who survive violent encounters with police often face the same victim-blaming questions as a woman who’s been raped:
- “What were you wearing?”
- “Did you say or do anything provocative/incendiary?”
- “What was someone like you doing in that place at that time?”
- “Can anyone corroborate your version of events?”
- “If this has happened to you before, why didn’t you report it?”
- “If this happens as often as you claim to as many victims as you claim, why don’t I hear about it more often?”
It shouldn’t need saying that being a Black woman makes these situations all the more troubling, but this is still a world where white feminists both celebrate and vilify “W.A.P” as they remain silent about its performer, Megan Thee Stallion, being shot by a would-be peer and suitor. It’s a world in which a Black woman runs an unsuccessful presidential campaign, but is expected to be thrilled with the consolation prize of VP. A world in which Black women are credited for “saving” the Democratic Party during last month’s election, but Breonna Taylor’s killers still walk free.
This show is certainly an improved choice for Shotgun after their almost naïvely optimistic last show and their infamous entry on the “Living Document”. (It’s also worth noting that this part of the season was originally reserved for their production of Passing Strange.) Webb’s play may take place two years ago, but the scenario is, unfortunately, timeless.
The Light is scheduled to perform live online until the 13th of December through the Shotgun website.
The show runs roughly 70-80 minutes with no intermission.
Be advised that this play revolves around the topics of sexual assault and spousal abuse.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.