Identity is a tricky, complicated thing. That was the main idea I pondered as I left the theatre after Karl O'Brian Williams’ The Black That I Am: a pastiche of monologues, scenes, and movement that traces some of the struggles inherent in being Black in America. Directed by Will Brown, the production—which began life as an extended poem—now takes the form of an ensemble play presented by Braata Productions at HERE.
The show opens with each of the ensemble (in t-shirts of different primary colors, a la For Colored Girls) swearing allegiance to one country or another: the Caribbean, Spain, Africa, America. It’s clear some are more enthusiastic than others, some even seem to have doubts. On the heels of these declarations, they move into an expression of what their individual Blackness looks and feels like: explicit, cowardly, sexual, creative. What becomes clear throughout the piece is that there’s no single definition of Blackness or what it means to be Black, especially when you come from mixed heritage.
“I fear me,” two characters realize simultaneously in one of the show’s best scenes. But who or what is “me?” “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” In a country and era that are both melting pots, claiming one’s identity isn’t quite as easy as simply tracing your genealogy to one tradition or another. This is especially prevalent in a scene in which a man of mixed race from the Caribbean ponders the uncomfortable conversations that inevitably ensue whenever he tries to explain his heritage.
Of course, identity is further complicated by things like sexuality, which is the theme of another scene that expresses the painful associations of being Black and LGBTQ in a society that values heteronormative white masculinity. Elsewhere, two Black women discuss the problem of dating white men, with all the judgment and cultural baggage it brings.
That cultural baggage takes literal, physical center stage in the show’s most uncomfortable (read: most hard-hitting) scene, which places a man and woman on the auction block. While the other ensemble members position and dress them, the auctioneer’s voice encourages interested buyers to step up and take a look. The ensuing scene, which deals with the challenges of trying to enter the professional world as a POC, asks: in the face of centuries of that cultural baggage, is it wrong to want to leave all that behind? To try and conform? And is it really possible to succeed in the professional world, or were the cards simply stacked from the beginning?
A program note hints that this show may continue to develop, just like individual identities, and it does feel at times like a work still in progress. But regardless, The Black That I Am is a thoughtful, and at times very powerful, look at many of the often overlooked nuances of the Black experience in America, as well as the challenge of struggling to pin down and remain true to a single identity.
'The Black That I Am' runs through April 2 at HERE Arts Center (145 Sixth Ave). Tickets are available at braataproductions.org/tbtia.