In light of ongoing discussions about diversity and inclusivity in the film and TV industries… a thought exercise.
Some of you have probably heard of, or read Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 one act play “Day of Absence.” As a refresher (and an introduction to those who don’t know the work) “Day of Absence” is set in a southern town where one day the white residents, to their shock and utter horror, wake to find that most of the town’s black people have vanished. The only remaining black people are in comas; and some of the folks they thought were white, it turns out they’ve vanished too. Panic ensues as the whites realize that there’s no one to shine shoes, raise their kids, and clean their houses (among other things). The town mayor makes a national plea for the return of the black people, and if he can’t have them back, well maybe some other blacks will do just fine. By the end of the play (which was written for and performed by black actors in “white face”), all of the black residents return in the same inexplicable way in which they disappeared, and the audience is left with a sense that life goes on—perhaps the same way it always had.
After the first few productions of the play, it received mix reviews, even within the black community, for its technical and contextual shortcomings. Nevertheless, the idea was bold, inciting, and intriguing, piling the audience’s plate high with food for thought.
Ward’s vision was clear, no matter how it was executed, and it was a timely classic. The question remains though, was the play a timeless classic?
I’m not sure “Day of Absence” would have the same impact today, on the stage, or adapted to film or television.
As recently as 2004, director Sergio Arau gave us “A Day without a Mexican.” It has almost an identical premise (without attributing any credit to Ward), except this film is about modern day Mexican residents of California, instead of black people in the south.
The social and political shift here is palpable.
And in real life, we most recently experienced timely movements in A Day Without Immigrants (which took place on February 16, 2017, to demonstrate the importance of immigration, and to protest President Donald Trump’s plans to build a border wall and to potentially deport millions of undocumented immigrants), and A Day Without Women (on International Women’s Day, March 8th, recognizing the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system, inspired by other recent protests like the “Bodega strike” lead by Yemeni immigrant store owners in New York City, and the aforementioned Day Without Immigrants).
Nevertheless, while black people’s role in society has shifted considerably since the 1960s—and to be fair the breadth of our influence, even then, went farther than Ward suggested—it’s the kind of shift I’d like to focus on here.
As an exercise, let’s imagine another form of absence, a more extreme form—let’s just completely erase people from our history. Now, this could easily turn into a complicated exercise if I included all areas of society, so let’s concentrate on film and TV (this is Shadow and Act after all). The impact can be purely artistic, it could be technological, or it could be in the area of organization (including entrepreneurial) and activism. Submit a comment with the name of a black person in TV and film. Erase them completely from history and describe the impact it would have on the industry as a whole (and not just for black people).
For example, what if Oscar Micheaux was erased from history? One could argue that the existing model for DIY filmmaking and distribution may not be; potentially no “Race Films” for scholars to analyze; also Paul Robeson may have never made his film debut because Micheaux wouldn’t have been around to cast him in “Body & Soul”; and Gregory, South Dakota wouldn’t have its annual Oscar Micheaux Film Festival.
Or take away Spike Lee and a whole generation of black actors, as well as writers, directors, and editors that essentially owe their industry starts to him, or were influenced by his work, would be drastically affected.
And while he directed mostly theater, without the great Lloyd Richards, August Wilson may have never entered the mainstream cannon, and we may not be talking about a “Fences” movie, or upcoming HBO adaptations of his work, today.
Broadly, it’s clear that if you eliminated black people and their contributions in all aspects of entertainment, film, TV and music wouldn’t be anywhere as great, inspiring or rich, as it is today. In sum, when it comes to entertainment, whites have co-opted so much from blacks that one wonders what the world would look like today without the pioneering work of countless black artists and technicians – some who still remain unsung.
Let’s try to not repeat names, so if someone already submitted your first choice, try and submit another.
Does Ward’s vision (of the black community as an anchor in American society) still have the same relevance today as it did 50+ years ago? Part of that answer might just be found here, so weigh in.