When I first saw Daniel Beaty’s Emergency at ArtsEmerson, I didn’t really know what I thought about it. I found some parts of it difficult to sit through, but didn’t want to jump to any vast conclusions about why I felt that way. I went searching for responses to the production and I kept finding glowing reviews and really second-guessed why I felt so off-put by the production. It reminded me of the scene from Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 where the actors are trying to figure out who will play the black grandmother and it ends up being one of the male white actors. Characters became extremely uncomfortable with the impersonation, but they still continued on with it. The situation is vastly different from that of Emergency, but it brings me back to the notion of impersonation and the stereotypes that strike discomfort because their validity cannot be denied. All of the characters were vastly different from each other, and the preciseness and depth of them all gave even more strength to stereotypes associated with it, whether they were true or not. It reminded me of We Are Proud…because when I first felt uncomfortable reading that part about the grandmother, I thought the main reason why I was feeling so uneasy was the fact that it was, a white man portraying a black female. Not saying that I think we should construct barriers around us as artists to what and whom we can or cannot create because of our ethnicity, heritage, religion and any other of the thousands of differences that exist in humanity. But I was so uncomfortable when Beaty first started portraying different characters so sharply, but I could so clearly recognize all of them, and it brought up a tinge of guilt for me. I felt like I shouldn’t be watching and I wondered if it was embedded in the recent discrepancies that were brought up by “We Are Proud…” that unconsciously had more of an impact of me than I gave it credit for.
I also don’t know how I felt about the actual structure of the piece. I thought there were so many forms that were being incorporated with the piece that I never felt I could hold on to the story. There was music, over 25 characters, the presence of the super-natural, and slam poetry. There were times when the slam poetry, which stood so strongly by itself after researching his performances, verged on becoming pedantic when paired with the multiple different forms of storytelling. I was always waiting for the “lesson”, waiting to hear what I needed to be taught and couldn’t fully catch the flow of the entire piece. I thought that each form of storytelling was incredibly strong though; his voice was so full and resonate, his poetry sharp and fierce, and his characters shockingly transformative. The plot was relatively very simple, and I think if I was anymore complex it would have gotten completely lost in all of the other vibrant aspects of the piece.
I recently did a dramaturgical dossier on Eric Bogosian’s SubUrbia and he talks a lot about his use of laughter in his pieces, especially those that deal with material that could be considered more controversial. Looking back on Emergency I remembered the moments where I found myself laughing at something that was actually at the heart of it, bereft of any comedy whatsoever. I started second-guessing every moment that I laughed out loud while watching the performance, even though I don’t think that Bogosian’s use of humor and Beaty’s use are the same whatsoever, I couldn’t help but ponder about it now. And if it was a tool that he was trying to use in breaking down barriers, what did I learn from it? What did I take from it? I remember my favorite moment was absent of any humor, but was full of this surreal sense of hope and understanding. It happened towards the end of the play when Clarissa’s grandmother told the story about the village in west Africa,
I been here with my grandbaby Clarissa all day, since this morning when this slave ship first arised and there’s this one particular story that keeps comin’ to my mind about a village in west Africa with very little conflict and even less crime. You know why? When a person in this village commits a crime—steals or lies, harms his neighbor—the entire village forms a circle around this single man and reminds him of the good deeds he’s done in the past. The entire village reminds this single fallen man of the moments when he was most beautiful. America is one big messy village and we goin’ have to love each other back to wholeness.
This was the most influential moment of the entire piece for me. I was blown away by the compassion in this story and it refocused my understanding of the play in its entirety. I turned the scope of the story out to all of us, and how we all have to work on loving each other, forgiving each other and especially remembering our pasts. Then everything in the piece made sense to me, all of the character’s struggles, all of the slam poetry, all of the youth’s questions and the reason why the slave ship was summoned to the surface of not only the sea, but to the surface of our hearts.