Ward’s award-winning satirical fantasy, a hit when it premiered in 1965, imagines what happens in a Southern town when all the African American residents mysteriously disappear. A co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Company, Ward conceived the play as a “reverse minstrel show” in which African American actors in whiteface would portray the white townspeople, who are outraged and befuddled by the loss of the workers they had exploited.
In the Theater Alliance production, directors Raymond O. Caldwell and Angelisa Gillyard audaciously seize on Ward’s concept to position “Day of Absence” within the traditional structure of a minstrel show. Starting in the early 19th century, minstrel shows — which trafficked in stereotypes that demeaned and lampooned African Americans — were an enormously popular form of American entertainment. Regularly performed by white artists in blackface (though black artists also engaged in the genre), minstrel shows typically featured an “olio,” or variety-act section, and a playlet “afterpiece,” as well as much music.
Recalling and subverting the painful tradition of minstrelsy, Caldwell (Theater Alliance’s producing artistic director) and Gillyard have turned Ward’s one-act into an afterpiece, preceding it with music and variety acts that not only ponder the legacy of racism but also force theatergoers to examine their own biases. A magic trick involves a repurposed hand-picked-cotton crate. A game show asks questions about African American history, promising 40 acres and a mule as the prize. Clowns in a tug of war find their rope morphing into a noose.
On a technical level, the magic tricks and music (including a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”) are underwhelming, but the clowning is serviceable, and Jared Shamberger delivers a poignant if wispy monologue about dispossession. (The actors researched and wrote their olio scripts.) All in all, the adapted-minstrel-show format reinforces the themes of Ward’s play, adding a sobering reminder about bigotry in America.
It’s in the delivery of Ward’s play that the problem arises. The production’s all-black cast performs this section in whiteface, employing ultrastylized buffoonish movement and diction that emphasize the characters’ stupidity and cravenness, with a nod to the dehumanizing stereotypes of minstrelsy. The approach accords with Ward’s intent, but the shtick never varies in degree or timbre, becoming extremely monotonous. Incorporating nuance would not have undermined the message.
On a positive note, Shamberger and Dylan Fleming are quite funny as a mayor and a dimwitted lazybones named Luke, respectively. The show’s visuals — including a deliberately stagey-looking small-town set, the historic minstrel show posters decorating the theater, the arch retro costumes — contribute to the provocative voltage. (Jonathan Dahm Robertson is the scenic designer; Jeannette Christensen devised the costumes.)
The show is billed as the first professional production of Ward’s play in Washington. It arrives at an opportune time: A new group of African American dramatists has been invigorating the theater scene with intrepid, innovative plays that explore race while deliberately vaporizing audience comfort zones. Ward’s drama is a precursor to this bracing trend.
Day of Absence, by Douglas Turner Ward. Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell and Angelisa Gillyard; assistant director, Douglas Robinson; music director, Iyona Blake; lighting design, Alberto Segarra; sound, Kevin Alexander; props, Amy Kellett. With Damondre Green, Kaisheem Fowler Bryant, Jonathan Del Palmer, Nia Savoy and others. 100 minutes. $25-$40. Through Nov. 3 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. 202-241-2539. theateralliance.com.