“An Octoroon” and the Modern Black and Green Atlantic

As both the most recent text of the course as well as our last, I think Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “An Octoroon” points to the complex hope of a world in which black artists can create works which are separate from the recycling of previous black narratives in America.  His prologue perfectly shows how Jacobs-Jenkins feels trapped by his works being put into a different box because he is a “black playwright” although he “[doesn’t] know exactly what that means,” and he just wants to create works to tell human stories, not necessarily always dealing with the race issue in America.  His aggression that people always try to place these bigger cultural burdens, such as the adaptation of African folklore when he merely uses animals to illustrate his own point, shows that he wants for his work to speak for itself and not be as tied down to one specific meaning.

This wish to use preexisting material to simultaneously move past these experiences because of the multiple levels of the play’s presentation and humor.  Most notably with its racially swapped casting, Jacobs-Jenkins uses this practice as a means to show that race is somewhat arbitrary and a social construct.  This point goes all the way back to our early readings of Gilroy and theory, so Jacobs-Jenkins uses these well known texts as his foundation for “An Octoroon,” while also moving drastically past these notions.  Even the title shows this sense of exhaustion with the abundance of the race question and critics viewing his work through a racial lens.  Moving from “The Octoroon” to “An,” Jenkins suggests that despite the incredibly modern and subversive elements which Jacobs-Jenkins adds to Boucicault’s original, this is just another play and that the novelty of racial mixing has worn off and become common now.  His use of humor during the play most clearly shows Jacobs-Jenkins’s belief that there is now enough time passed between the days of “The Octoroon” and his own time that not only can he adapt and deconstruct the themes of the original play and its context, he can laugh at it.  Although this concept for a play sounds controversial on paper, I don’t think that he explicitly makes these changes just to make an audience for his work because of mere curiosity.  Jacobs-Jenkins has clearly done his research, and makes a hard case for the reader that we still have to talk in certain ways about certain topics.  The fact that has the audience laughs at slavery and BJJ even encourages that laughter shows his belief that not only can these experiences can be joked about, they can also stop overshadowing African-American art to allow new black artistic forms to come into being.

Looking back over the semester, I thought it was only fitting to end on “An Octoroon.”  Not only does it apply multiple themes from across the class, even going all the way back to January, but it brings all this history together to put his own spin on it, making parts of the play nearly incomprehensible without the proper context of these older texts and plays.

4/27 Discussion Questions

  1.  How does the inclusion of BJJ and the playwright interjecting the story affect the reception of the story?  In his explanation of Act IV to the audience, does Jacobs-Jenkins suggest that these sorts of works are played out?
  2. How does the use of whiteface tie into our previous mentions of reclaimations of minstrelsy?  Is this genuine colorblind casting, or is Jenkins suggesting something else?
  3. In his desire to make art without analysis of the race problem, does Jacobs-Jenkins’s inclusion of the racialized stereotype imply that racism is nearly inevitable in America, especially in a space with meetings of peoples of different backgrounds like in Terrebonne?
  4. In the slight title shift from “The” to “An,” is this a suggestion from Jenkins that these sorts of stories of oppression have become too common, seen in his frustration with others analyzing his work as tackling the race problem, and that this sort of mistreatment has become so widespread that this tale is just one of many?

Costumes of Identity in “The Commitments”

Beyond just the music played by the titular band, The Commitments also shows the variety of other ways in which the group adopts black identity, which can lead to issues of appropriation and misinterpretation of African-American culture.   In Joey the Lips’ insistence that the female back-up singers wear black when they perform, this literal costume shows both the band’s donning of the cultural facade of African-American identity and culture and hints towards Joey’s deep desire to possess and fetishize black bodies.   He constantly attempts to take leadership of the band because of the persona he creates for himself as a session player for countless blues and soul acts.  His sort of artificial blackness which he uses to gain the position of de facto leader is later revealed as a possible sham, touring with a dead musician in America. His seduction of the Commitmentettes despte their considerable age difference shows what lengths he will go to posses the image of blackness, both sexually and in his knowledge of soul music.

His criticism of Charlie Parker also shows Joey’s deep envy of “blackness,” feeling that Parker wastes his race and identity creating jazz music, whichb Joey feels is inauthentic to black culture and art because it is not simple enough.  This effectively exposes Joey’s love for “blackness” as superficial, without much concern for the artists themselves and only focusing upon how he can take what they have created and make it his own.  This performance acts as a kind of microcosm of Doyle’s subtext of the novel, in which these Irish characters can find connections to African-American art and expression but soon their wish to possess it more fully and place their own troubles upon the same level as that of African-American leads to failure, seen in the band’s quick ascent and later dissolution.

When Jimmy first starts working with the Commitmentettes, he also shows  desire to put on an authentic portrayal of soul music, even to the extent that he strips the girls of their distinct Irishness.  As he insists “An’ yis shouldn’t be usin’ your ordin’y accents either.  It’s Walking in the Rain, not Walkin’ In De Rayen,” this push for artistic authenticity poses threats to both the band’s Irish background and also the African-American songs which they perform.  By consciously switching their voices in order to fit the appropriate form for the song, they strop themselves of their Irish background for the sake of adopting another culture for their own.  Likewise, their goal to repurpose these songs for their own artistic performance suggests that black identity is something that can merely be switched on or off if you practice and learn it, which also severely undercuts the racial burdens of African-Americans.  Despite the clear love and admiration Doyle has for this culture, he shows in The Commitments that trying to quickly and effectively adapt a foreign identity and experiences has many problems, approaching the territory of appropriation.

Even though Doyle approaches this comparison from an economic and political lens, as African-Americans and Irish both suffer from broad societal issues of poverty and oppression, his use of the band’s efforts to bridge this transatlantic gap show that despite the great connections brought about the exchange of ideas, commodities, and identities, it opens up even more room for differences and inappropriate comparisons.

4/22 Discussion Questions

  1.  Briefly throughout the film, especially in the beginning, we see other forms of music played which appear to be more authentically Irish.  Does the inclusion of other types of music mixed within scenes of The Commitments playing add dimensions to the culture of Ireland seeking definition at this time?
  2.   How do the articles approach the ideas of “readiness”? Does the blunt statement that “The Irish , when all is said and done, are no black” show that their apparent ability to at some point be ready to enter modernity exclude them from any comparison with non-white oppressed peoples?
  3. How does Onkey’s article directly show the issues of representation seen in both The Commitments as a novel and film?  Does the issue of minstrelsy, often adopted by Irish immigrants to America, complicate the broader social contexts of The Commitments and what it is trying to say about the potential to adopt an identity?

4/20 Discussion Questions

  1.  By placing American cities alongside Irish towns in “Night Train,” how does Deco’s lyrical improvisation notion towards a broader Transatlantic community? Does the audience’s cheers at the Irish entrance into the sphere of African-American identity validate the authenticity of participation in the transatlantic community?
  2. What does Joey the Lips’s resentment towards jazz say about the Commitments’ mission to replicate and relate to authentic African-American experience and music?  When Joey criticizes Dean for trying to branch out into music which he deems to be too “thoughtful,” does he imply that soul is the only way to properly express the African-American experience?
  3.   What does the band’s quick dissolution have to say about their attempts to don the cultural persona of an African-American soul band?  If “soul is community,” as Joey the Lips claims, does the Commitments’ constant infighting and implosion negate the claims that their style is authentic Dublin soul?

Imperialism and the “White Savior” Complex in “A Tempest”

While Caliban stands out as the figure most associated with Cesaire’s adaptation of Shakespeare, I found his use of Prospero and a conqueror and slave master equally fascinating.  In his opening scene, Prospero finds comfort in his “books and instruments,” clear signs of European civilization or “whiteness,” in the “disgusting place,” which he nevertheless wishes to own and possess for his own sake.  Even when Prospero openly criticizes the land and calls its natives beasts, he feels compelled to bring his white perspective and bring it out of what he supposes to be filth, according to his own conceptions of civility.   His claims to Ariel that he’ll have his desired freedom “when I’m good and ready” also show this extreme narcissism and self-importance seen in our previous discussions of colorism and “readiness.”  Because Ariel is lighter skinned and does not wish to resort to violence as Caliban does, Prospero looks slightly more kindly upon Ariel, despite his continued efforts to form them to his own conceptions of humanity and proper behavior, acting as a “white savior” to these people he deems to be sub-human until he can correct them or wipe them out.

Once Caliban enters the scene, Prospero’s instincts truly emerge, feeling threatened by Caliban because of his darker skin suggesting his “never-readiness” to enter the world of Prospero and his preference of violence and direct activism to counteract the oppressive tactics of the white slaver.  Prospero again shows his need to impart his white ways upon the black natives when he criticizes Caliban “mumbling his native language again,” as if he can no longer act as he is accustomed to in his own land after Prospero has come in with the intent to whitewash or destroy the natives and their culture to promote the spreading of his own perceived civility.  And even when Prospero does pass on pieces of knowledge and culture, Caliban points out that they are only things which can barely harm the authority of the white imperialist, keeping science and higher ideals deliberately from the natives so as to maintain his own dominance over them.  As a result, Caliban effectively weaponizes the English language, one of the few things Prospero has passed to him besides instruction on slavery, to use it against his captor.  Yet, Prospero disregards this clear sign of humanity and intelligence in Caliban, who even knows more languages than his colonizer, and resorts to the use of violence to keep Caliban under his thumb, subtly indicating to the audience that perhaps these harsh practices reveal the beast within Prospero and Caliban’s rejection and embracing of humanity show his higher status.

In the ending scene of the play, Prospero has this status ripped from him, as he decides to stay with Caliban, valuing his apparent imperialism over leaving the island.  In this way, Prospero has allowed imperialism to corrupt him, as he is consumed by the desire to control and rule over others in  a foreign land than to return to his own.  With the script flipped. Caliban now becomes the master in a sense, gaining his land back for himself where he can thrive, while Prospero struggles to maintain his crumbling “civilization” on the island.   Once he must fend for himself, Prospero realizes he is doomed, “Have to think about making a fire,” at which point he finally begins to think of Caliban as his companion and equal when he cannot live on his own.  Unable to “let [his] work perish,” Prospero loses his power when his illusion of empire fails, while Caliban is able to survive by his own means, showing that native peoples, both within the work and the real world, are able to persist and survive without the interference and “advancements” of white civilization.  As Caliban ends the work celebrating his freedom, Cesaire delegitimizes any notion of the “white savior” while the former conqueror Prospero freezes and starves and the native Caliban is able to reclaim his former way of life.

4/8 Discussion

  1.   Is Prospero’s condescending tone towards Caliban, despite his intelligence and clear ability to speak well, a sign of imperialist attitudes, as he treats the native Caliban as a lesser being, even one he might consider “never ready” for modernity?
  2.  How do Ariel and Caliban’s arguments over the right to violent or non violent protest tie back to our discussion of Uptight, considering they came out around the same time?
  3. What is Cesaire’s attitude about the play’s ending? How does he intend for Caliban’s “freedom” to read for the audience?

4/6 Discussion Questions

  1.  How does the presence of the Caribbean in The Sea at Dauphin tie back to previous descriptions of the ocean as a place of danger, such as Riders to the Sea or John Redding Heads to Sea?
  2. How does Walcott’s status as a Caribbean writer, made up of several diverse backgrounds, echo the searches for identity, such as in the Harlem Renaissance?
  3. Does Walcott’s critique of religion get across the same critiques as Hurston’s, or are the two different?

“I Forgot Something”: Community and Survival in “Uptight”

In The Informer and Uptight, both main characters display great guilt at their respective betrayals of friends and subsequent destruction of community.  Yet, The Informer’s ending of religious absolution and penitence is changed significantly in the ending of Uptight in which Tank receives no absolution and symbolically dies where he stood up to white oppression.  This major change is an important adaptation in the meta-narratives of both films; whereas The Informer ends with Gypo dying, but achieving forgiveness and exclaiming Frankie’s name in joy, suggesting a kind of mend between the two and the community, Uptight ends with Tank being shot, falling, and symbolically being downtrodden by the rubble he used to work with, suggesting an unresolved break in the community, as well as the continued debates of violence or peaceful means of protest.  With its nihilistic, more dour ending, Uptight shows that while there are similarities between the two films and they reference towards movements and events across the Atlantic, each group cannot compare itself to the other, also seen in Transatlantic.

Even thought Gypo mentions several times that he has fallen on hard times and doesn’t have much money, “Uptight” makes a point to show the desperation of Tank as well as other members of his community, most notably Laurie played  by Ruby Dee.  By piling up these external pressures upon Tank, Dassin and the writers suggest that Tank’s betrayal is the only way for him to attempt to get by, although it means separating himself from his community by killing Johnny.  The character of Daisy also represents this breaking of community, whose work as a police informant splits himself between membership with Johnny, Tank, and their community and the police force, as well as first introducing the idea of ratting out Johnny to the police.  This dilemma haunts Tank throughout the film, as he is already fighting to survive before he must hide from his own community because of his betrayal.  Once he turns Johnny in and he is murdered by the police, Tank goes on a quick downward spiral, tortured by his treason against his people and his quest for survival.  His own search for refuge and forgiveness echoes broader black concerns at the time, such as social belonging and upward progress.  The scene of the black Vietnam veterans echoes the growing tension of the black community, both against the oppressive white majority and also among themselves in their desire for successful protest.  Tank’s later scene with BG also refers back to this impossibility for the black man to survive in this increasingly hostile world.  When Tank begs “I got no place to go,” and BG only responds, “Then die!” this both foreshadows Tank’s own death after his betrayal excises him from the black community and also shows that it is perhaps preferable to die than to live within the place under the oppression of the white majority forces.  Once Tank is finally confronted in the steel mill, he is shot and killed in the same place where he worked for years, trapped toiling away and unable to resist prejudice and mistreatment.  Even when he did originally lash out, it caused him to get in trouble with the police, leading him to alcoholism, preventing him from helping Johnny.  This endless circle of oppression shows the bleak determinism of the black experience in the 1960’s: one can live in a system of oppression or die trying to escape.

Despite its basic description as a remake of reimagining of “The Informer,” “Uptight” and its world show a much more complex social setting, with the inner community of African Americans in the film already split early within the film on issues such as the most effective way to protest.  The more depressing ending of Dassin’s film captures the difficulty of black life immediately after the assassination of MLK and the idea of peaceful protest: either suffering or dying trying to function outside the system, Uptight‘s complex and difficult ending shows the fragile ideas of community and the elusive survival of everyday life under oppression.

“The Informer” and “Uptight” Discussion Questions

  1.  How do Gypo’s and Tank’s failures to uphold community and eventual separation from their social groups echo other works which end with a social or physical death?
  2. Are the displays of grief, seen in the reciting of Gaelic prayers and the group of women singing worship songs after Johnny’s death, connected?  Do they suggest a subtext about religion, seen in Hurston’s writing illustrating the problems and shortcomings of religious institutions?
  3. In Gypo’s drunken behavior and tendency to get into fights, does Ford intend to evoke previous stereotypes of the Irish?  If so, why would he do this as a man of Irish descent himself?
  4. In Johnny’s mention of a passport and Gypo’s wish to leave for America with Katie, how do these works treat the possibility of relocating and creating a new identity in comparison with some of our previous works?
  5. Gypo and Tank both scream, “I forgot something!” multiple times when they realize they have let down and outright harmed their communities.  If this choice is deliberate, which I believe it is, what does this quote say about each man’s struggle with his own failure?