The arts present opportunities for us to be deeply uncomfortable and yet totally safe. And for me they have become a space for radical transformation. Most recently I was reminded of this during Lupita Nyongo’s performance in Eclipsed, a story of the women of the Liberian civil war, at the Public Theater. The moment she stepped on stage I felt an incredibly familiar dread. Her hair — unkempt and knotty — splayed around the top of her face like a crown of a displaced queen. Her clothes, dirt-caked, torn rags, dingy and barely covering a pair of bony knees. My heart ached and my breathing became shallow and she spoke to a pair of women, one young and pregnant, the other solid and braiding her hair inside a structure that could barely be called a building. I wanted to get out of my seat and leave the room. I wondered how could they have agreed to be in this place, to be so wrong in front of an audience. Especially this audience.When I was in the lobby I played my favorite game, “count the black people,” and came up with a number that fit on two hands. This was a primarily white audience and the thought that they, too, could were watching these women in such a state felt like too much. When black bodies are on display like this I experience a genuine fear that these white people will forget that this is a story and it will reinforce their thoughts that we are only worthy of their pity and compassion, rather than equality.But what does it say about me, that my immediate reaction to these characters was a desire to cover them up, to present them as clean, more refined and genteel?
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