Why Douglas Turner Ward’s ‘Day of Absence’ Play Disappointed.

By Hume Johnson, PhD

This weekend I was in Pawtucket, Rhode Island at the Mixed Magic Theatre to watch a play I’d heard about on National Public Radio, recently.  Usually, I do not rush to go see plays or films or sundry creative works tackling racial themes. They always manage to leave me angry and upset on behalf of black collective. But when I heard of “Day of Absence”, a play, first written in 1965, by acclaimed playwright, Douglas Turner Ward, and directed by Ricardo Pitts-Riley, and its intriguing take on race, I felt compelled to see it. I brought along a close friend, a white young white American young woman with lots of opinion and a news journalist in the making. I am always curious about how our perspectives might differ or coalesce, as we consume these narratives on such a controversial topic.

‘Day of Absence’ is set in 1965 in the American south. Blacks are struggling to find their place in a society that relegates them to helpers, janitors, street cleaners, shoe wipers, nannies. Yet these roles are crucial to the economy of the south and its very way of life. This fact emerges in the play when suddenly one day, blacks disappeared – didn’t show for work, were no where to be seen. This set about a panic among the white community who suddenly realized how dependent they were on the Negroes. Despite numerous interventions led by the Mayor, played superbly by Jay Walker, the Negroes had simply vanished.

See a clip from the ‘Day of Absence’ here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ro5YMXzhiY

The play’s discourse is important, and represents a refreshing and comedic perspective on racial matters. Yet beneath the comedy is a deeper, more troubling discourse. While the play articulates very well the value of blacks to white society (in the 1960s) by showing that it is this sector which did all the menial tasks such as cleaning, and taking care of babies, and general housekeeping, it sought to show the systems in place to keep blacks at the bottom end of the society. In this regard, the play reinforces the menial positions of blacks and the lack of opportunity that would rendered Negroes the permanent American underclass.

This is especially disappointing because this play has had several iterations, written for the first time in 1965. Within the context of the new civil rights movement, and the need for new narratives about the black community, the play could’ve – in my view- helped to advance that conversation.

For my close pal, a bit of over acting and shouting drowned out some of the important messages the play is trying to disseminate. I agreed. See it for yourself. ‘Day of Absence’ is on at the Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket.

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