The African spiritual entities—“gods,” if you will, or “orishas”—are dismayed and enraged at the state of the world, especially upset by the ongoing slaughter of unarmed African Americans, and wonder what can be done. So they convene the ghosts of a dozen iconic Black American figures (including one Jamaican), to address the issue. Surely the collective wisdom of our secular forebear saints can come up with some viable solutions. Being dead already, their agency is limited. Perhaps only in the ascendancy of the ideas they promulgated in life will living people find these solutions.
The three female orishas are Yamaya (Tori-Ann Hampton), Oya (Ayanna Michele), and Oshun (Charyse Monet), all speaking in commanding African-accented voices and referring to their male leader Changó (Ben Guillory). Changó appears late in the play as a military hero of many past wars, starting with the Haitians defeating the French, with the authority of a kind of Colin Powell as a deus ex machina to resolve the conundrum.
They have invited their guests to an enchanted forest of trees, brush and overhanging vines of various earth colors, with a spread of drink and delicacies to lubricate the conversation.
The gathering includes (in no particular order) Maya Angelou (Kimberly Bailey), Ida B. Wells (Quonta Beasley), Richard Pryor (PhiL Bell), Malcolm X (David Bollar), Bob Marley (Alex W.S.T. Chumley), Lorraine Hansberry (Tiffany Coty), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Garret Davis), James Baldwin (Julio Hanson), Dr. Frances Cress Welsing (Rosie Lee Hooks), Nina Simone (LaShada Jackson), Zora Neale Hurston (Vanja Renee), and Tupac Shakur (Kyle Sparks). I wish I had the space to cite the magnificent achievements of these accomplished actors as listed in their bios. Some I have seen in previous Robey productions. Most have internet websites.
Levy Lee Simon wrote A Heated Discussion as the culmination of more than two years of nurturing and development from idea to stage. It was first commissioned in 2019 to launch the Robey Theatre Company’s Community Creatives Project, which offers the larger community an up-close and personal model of the company’s developmental theatre process. The project engaged more than 45 participants with varying interests and experience in facilitated discussions on Zoom and in person with Guillory and the playwright. Participants responded to the characters and suggested improvements to the dialogue.
As could be anticipated from its cast of characters, A Heated Discussion is a sprawling counterpoint of views, counterarguments and experiences, not to mention solutions, as vastly diverse as the individuals comprising this combustible mix of personalities. By the end of the long first act I had to wonder how is this all going to resolve, not just policy-wise but theatrically. And I do say “long” because some of the personal conflicts, such as between Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry come across as an irrelevant, decades-old catfight between two competitive women that fails to bring out the most important aspects of either of their careers—Hurston as a pioneering anthropologist who documented slavery times apart from her literary endeavors, and Hansberry as a Black American activist on a worldwide stage of anti-colonial liberation movements, again apart from her groundbreaking dramatic success, and in the end probably more important than what is brought out to great lengths, her lesbianism. In other cases, spilling over into Act 2, such as the to-be-expected contrast between the nonviolent advocates of love and peacemaking in the world (MLK, Angelou) and the more militant rebels (Shakur, Malcolm X), the arguments are reiterated far too many times. The whole play could have been at least half an hour shorter and more effective.
The cast includes a number of overlaps in career and interest, for example, three singers (Simone, Shakur, Marley, and Angelou too, if you want to count her early career), plus a comedian (Pryor), though I believe Dick Gregory would have had much more of interest to say. While the name Paul Robeson does come up (the man for whom the Robey Theatre is named)—only as an aside in reminding us that Hansberry had been a writer and editor at Robeson’s Freedom magazine—as well as that of W.E.B. DuBois, a few lines of whose writings are quoted, about “the color line,” for example, the seminal role each of these played is significantly diminished if there could only be 12 guests. Either of them less important, with less to contribute, than Pryor or Marley or Dr. Welsing? (The director Ben Guillory, incidentally, has portrayed Robeson in at least two different plays.)
I mention Robeson and DuBois for a specific reason: Because these cosmopolitan men lived parts of their lives outside the U.S., in either socialist or socialist-leaning countries at the time (USSR and Ghana), and they could well have brought a greater internationalist perspective, even a Pan-Africanist one, to show that the economic and political organization of any given society could produce radically different results in terms of opportunity, tolerance and equality, not to mention the lawlessness and killing that are the focus of this symposium. Marley, from Jamaica, has nothing to say about the brief period of his nation’s history when a turn away from the global capitalist market was tried. And James Baldwin, who lived in France for many years in flight from U.S. racism, also might have had more to say about what alternatives exist in plain sight in other places. So far as I could tell, no mention was made of nearby Cuba, where people of African descent have been perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of socialism, nor of the widespread campaign against apartheid in South Africa, which brought together many social groups besides African-Americans, including dockworkers who refused to load ships headed there.
Even MLK himself: He is represented by a robotic flow of oft-cited pacifist quotations, but in fact he was a pro-labor, democratic socialist, anti-militarist, anti-materialist and anti-imperialist (he died in the throes of a militant labor struggle). He did not find distinction in the role the U.S. military played, especially not in Vietnam, the central conflict of his time. The quote I was waiting for that I never heard was the one about the U.S. being the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
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Black Marxist writers have greatly deepened the understanding of race issues in the modern capitalist world, yet it does not seem that any of the characters in the play had read them. Just for the sake of saying a few names out loud, how about major figures such as C.L.R. James, Eric Williams, Frantz Fanon, William Patterson, W. Alphaeus Hunton, Henry Winston, Cedric Robinson, Walter Rodney, and to make sure we include at least one woman, Claudia Jones.
There is much about forgiveness, love and mercy, and deep despair about the ability of politicians to rein in the police or really do anything helpful. Missing from the cast of characters are any labor leaders, who might have spoken about the role the organized labor movement has played (the greatest role ever in this country) in bringing together people of different races and backgrounds in common cause—Bayard Rustin, perhaps, or A. Philip Randolph. There’s no representative of the radical Black Panther Party, like Huey Newton, for example, which affected and revolutionized millions of Black Americans and their supporters in the wider population. The labor movement and the multi-ethnic progressive movement have been the Black nation’s strongest allies. If both have at times failed the Black community—as they have—the Black community itself, as the play demonstrates, is itself not monolithic.
Absent too are the politicians, people such as Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, or mayors Harold Washington or Tom Bradley, who were at least temporarily successful at building multicultural support for progressive policies in their cities. Surely these folks would have something more useful to say than the endless idiotic, paranoid blather of Dr. Welsing, whose work I admit I had not known, though I understand she still commands a following on the extreme Black supremacy side, and she does make a few intermittently valid observations.
Black Americans have shown time and time again that they continue casting their fate in with the great American people. Black people alone will not solve the problem of racism. In that sense, the play takes what I might call a “nationalist” as opposed to a “class” approach. Even the ending, a militia-based solution—or a proposal, at least—that is imposed by Changó, is unconvincing, hardly a consensus of views, and destined to fail, heroically if uselessly, unless tied to a greater working-class and democratic movement of self-defense against white supremacy, monopoly capital and fascism that includes far more sectors than the 14% of the U.S. population that is Black. Without any more fundamental, programmatic agreement at the end than there was at the beginning, the theatrical catharsis is denied us, and maybe even the hope. Perhaps, riffing off the play’s title, there is indeed more heat than light.
There is still much to be said for the play, primarily in its inspired original conceit and in the opportunity for an audience to familiarize themselves or be reminded of this pageant of historical figures. It would be especially good for school groups to see, but at this point perhaps it will be only by a recorded version. The video components are graphic, strong and artfully presented.
There are also a number of standout scenes and individual performances. Ida Wells has a highly emotional scene in which she recalls witnessing the Georgia lynching of a pregnant Black woman, Nina Simone rising in song to comfort Wells, and the scenes with James Baldwin, who is among the most palpably drawn of all the characters. Too many of the others, alas, are caricatures.
The Robey has done excellent work for decades, and I have made it a point to review their productions frequently. If I as a white reviewer offer my criticisms here, they are intended as entirely collegial, comradely and constructive—perhaps needless to say, but also perhaps better to be said. I finished writing this review in the wake of last Saturday’s horrific shooting spree in Buffalo aimed at ordinary Black shoppers at a market. The problems raised in the play, as in the shared national outrage over yet another incident of racist mass murder, are urgent and need to be addressed. Upcoming midterm elections, which will reconfigure both houses of Congress, will speak to whether or not the American people choose more democracy or more fascism.
The world premiere play ran from April 9 to May 15 (seen May 12) at and in association with the Los Angeles Theatre Center in downtown L.A. At press time there were no plans announced for an extension or a new staging. Ben Guillory, cofounder of the Robey Theatre Company with actor Danny Glover, produced and directed.
Aside from Ben Guillory as producer, director and actor, other creatives include Associate Producer JC Cadena, Video Production/Associate Producer Jermaine Alexander, Stage Manager Crystal Nix, Assistant Stage Manager Christina Childress, Music Director/Composer Cydney Wayne Davis, Music Production/Engineer/Musician James Manning, Sound Designer Dave Iwataki, Graphic Designer Jason Mimms, Costume Designer Naila Aladdin Sanders, Assistant Costume Designer Natalya Shahinyan, Lighting Designer Benedict Conran, Set Designer Evan A. Bartoletti, Scenic Crew James Museitif and Joe Seely, Associate Designer Lisa Lechuga, and Choreographer Jan Bouldin Blunt.
Crossposted with permission from People's World.