It’s hard to be interested in anything right now except what’s going on right now. How are we supposed to care about dance shows in the shadow of current politics? The answer is in seeking out relevant work, and It’s Not Too Late, directed by Markeith Wiley and Hatlo, is a container for the current. Even though it’s been years in the making, the script of one-liners and casual monologuing that make the bulk of the show prove amazingly adaptable, including content from up to last week.
The premise of the performance is that the audience is there to witness the live taping of a talk show featuring the affable host, Dushawn Brown. Played by Wiley, he jokingly introduces himself as the #1 Black Friend in the Pacific Northwest, our first hint that the well-known black artist may not be completely distinct from his onstage character. While the talk show content deals explicitly with race in a sort of grab bag of stand-up material mixed with off-the-cuff cultural commentary, it is what happens “between takes” that speak most poignantly.
The lights go dim, the commercials roll, and the white-skinned stage crew enter to reset the space. The stage manager Jodie, played by LoraBeth Barr, and stagehand Jimmy, played by Nikolai Lesnikov, at first appear to eagerly support Dushawn but progressively create a more and more hostile environment. Jimmy begins to show his resentment after carefully sweeping a pile of broken glass and then suddenly shoving it under Dushawn’s desk. Later he walks smack into Dushawn as if the black man were invisible. Jodie’s assault is more subtle. She berates Dushawn for talking too long, for not following directions—her power to cancel the show at any moment means she sets the tone. It quickly becomes clear that she cares more for the show, for order, than she does for the person who is the show. Any action that undermines Dushawn conveniently falls under that most banal form of evil: just “doing her job.”
Dushawn’s self-control also progressively slips. Just after declaring amicably that he’s not a PCP-driven menace, after he insists we don’t need to call the cops on him, his coffee cup shatters in his hand, gripped just a little too tight. The brilliance of this moment is that it frames an honest mistake—a moment of clumsy strength—within the stereotype that is always lying in wait, even in the minds of “good” white people: for a split second we think he broke a coffee cup…maybe he is a monster.
In contrast to the building tensions is Dushawn’s relationship with his embodied shadow, played by Chloe Albin completely concealed in black clothing. The shadow slips on and off of the stage, unacknowledged by the characters but often offering a gesture of caring to Dushawn—bandaging his hand when it’s cut and leaving a banana for him, set gently on the desk. When Brown sits to watch musical guest Donte ‘DaQueen’ Johnson, brought to tears by the music, the shadow is there with a comforting hand on his shoulder. The shadow speaks symbolically—some kind of Black soul, some kind of self-love, some kind of dignity.
Dushawn’s shadow is notably absent in the evening’s climax, when, following a disagreement with Jodie, a noticeably disheveled Dushawn stops sugar-coating race with humor and understanding. “All you do is sit there just like you’re doing now—what do I have to do?” he yells, coming into the audience. It’s a powerful moment because the tension of the pointedly directed demands begins to break through the agreed-upon fantasy of the art piece. Is this all part of the show? Or is this person asking me to actually stand up right now, leave this theater, and take action? It’s paralyzing, but the people behind me actually begin to stand, and then a white man we’ve never seen before enters the space.
The white man engages Wiley in a duet that keeps flipping back and forth between brutally convincing stage combat and light-hearted dancing. One moment he’s slamming Dushawn’s head against the desk; the next they’re two-stepping with genuine smiles. It’s as heartbreaking as it is telling. It’s the relationship with white culture that people of color know all too well: a tenuous acceptance that can turn at any moment, an insistence that there isn’t a race problem, that “some of my best friends are black,” while turning a blind eye to the institutions that perpetuate racism. It’s liberal white Seattleites finally feeling fear and outrage because the Trump election has revealed to them something communities of color have known forever. With this work Wiley delivers a punch in the gut to white people—your caring is too little, too late.
It’s Not Too Late ran November 16-20, 2016 at the On the Boards Studio Theatre. More information at ontheboards.com.