Tanya Batson-Savage, Freelance Writer
A dreaded word is spelt out in block capitals in 'The Black That I Am'. - Winston Sill/Freelance Photographer
THE QUESTION of colour continues to shade relations in Jamaica. Whether it is the question of bleaching, blackness or brownin', how dark, how light or even how white you are (or think you are) can still come into play.
Even as children, we are exposed to it when, either in self-defence or as a form of attack, we say "Black is beauty, red is corruption and white is trash." Yet, many of us never really try to define blackness, though we may think we understand it.
Of course, the idea of blackness goes further than skin deep, because it is not merely about colour. Sometimes it can be about your musical tastes, your sexuality, your sexual partners, what you eat, what you wear and even how you wear them. Those are the things that go into deciding whether or not one is a 'roast breadfruit'.
Some of these very questions are being played with and explored on the stage of the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona. Blackness is strutting itself in the form of the experimental play The Black That I Am.
The Black That I Am is written by Karl Williams, directed by Brian Heap and performed by the University Players. While it could not be described as an intense meditation on blackness, it presents an interesting take on many of the aspects that modern Jamaicans have to deal with.
Based on a poem of the same name, The Black That I Am is largely an exploration of the playwright's definition of his blackness through music, movement and monologues.
Of course, many would quickly tell the playwright that the black that he is is brown. So, not surprisingly, the question of how black brown people are also figures in the production and is beautifully portrayed by Nadia Kahn in 'Brown'. Her monologue has her waiting on a flight on Air Jamaica, which will not come to rescue her from her state of not being neither kettle nor pot. She declares that she is brown most of the time, red occasionally and rarely "near white".
The monologue beautifully explores that Jamaican tendency to trace every non-African aspect of ancestry, poking fun at anyone who had ever declared themselves to be anything like a Irish-Indian-Scottish person, a full-time 'mongrel', as the monologue puts it. The monologue highlights that there is a degree to which Jamaicans celebrate being mixed, which tends to indicate an appreciation for having our blackness watered down, putting a sinister spin to being out of many one.
The issue is then given a more hilarious, though darker, take in 'Church Lady', where a church woman blatantly reveals her anti-African prejudices. Through this piece, the production explores how perceptions of hair and dress reveal our being uncomfortable in our skin. Though it may have been an accidental choice that Nicosia Shakes, who plays the prejudicial church woman, is brown, makes it even more relevant.
Her declaration that she would charge to cream a woman's hair "per strand" echoes Joan Andrea Hutchinson's 'Rapunzel', where a young girl is upset by her doll's refusal to have nice flowing hair.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was 'Me and My White Boy'. Often, marrying outside of the black line is seen as a betrayal. Interestingly, it is a betrayal black men are more often accused of committing, with the white woman becoming the black woman's burden.
In this case, Monique Caesar has the task of explaining why she has chosen a white lover. She does so while donning herself in white (she is getting married).
After years of being "the one with the personality" she has found a love and has decided to go for it ,despite his colour. "I honestly prefer to be the pretty bitch than the ugly girl with personality" she complains.
That complaint is one which crosses colour barriers. In the children's classic Anne of Green Gables, Anne complains about the same thing, taking being dubbed 'bright' by a boy as an indictment on her looks.
Black male sexuality is also explored. One need to go no further than the nearest Vybez Kartel lyric to see how much the black Jamaican man remains trapped in stereotype of blackness.
In 'I Do Women', Canute Fagan does an interesting take on men in serial relationships. He goes on about his love for women and his desire to please them in much the same way we expect men to, whether they mean it or not. This sets him up as a very manly man, a sexually prolific one. However, at the end of the sketch it is revealed that he is a hairdresser, which under the laws of stereotyping is extremely unmanly.
One thing the play highlights is that what it means to be black is a very complex thing. Though we have long passed the days of black militancy, which is in some ways quite tragic, we have yet to fully define ourselves. Far too many of the clichés remain appropriate.
Indeed, with so many Jamaicans walking around in white face, emboldened by the cultural acceptance of the bleaching phenomenon, it is as good a time as any to define blackness.