In Character

In Character : Gloss

The lobby is a locker room. Individual cubbies await each audience member. GUIDE—later CAPTAIN, later MASTER, later SHERIFF—enters.



Please silence your cell phones and unwrap any candies, cough drops. Today, we’re going on an adventure. We’ll explore foreign countries, sail across rough waters, meet a few interesting characters, and, perhaps, experience the fullness of life. You have a role to play. In fact, we cannot begin until you are in character. In each cubby, there is a costume. One size. It stretches. Slip it on. Over your clothes. Ask a neighbor to zip you in. You have 5 minutes. (GUIDE exits.)


In each cubby, a neatly folded brown, leathery clump, “the costume,” sits on a shelf. Nearby, an audible gasp. Someone just realized that the clump is the skin of a black person minus the bones and innards. The body is intact, head to toes, fingernails, hair. A flesh costume. Most audience members are not fazed. This is theatre—and the skin probably isn’t really real (but it is!). They get dressed—putting on black skin, zipping each other up, delighting in their blackness—their saggy, misfitting blackness. A spectator tries on a faux dialect, “Jive turkey” or something along those lines. Another shushes. One of the two has brown skin under the costume. GUIDE, now CAPTAIN, enters with a whip.



In line! In line! Faster Negroes! Yes, you, faster!

(CAPTAIN cracks the whip. Maybe someone gets hit, maybe the skin costume rips, maybe blood appears)


Shit just got real. And audience members are loving it: the immersion into blackness and the world of the play. A line forms. CAPTAIN spews increasingly offensive racist epithets before settling on the N-word, which gets repeated a few dozen times, and clasps a chain around the ankles of a few audience members. Most won’t get shackled. They feel disappointed. CAPTAIN marches the audience through a doorway, into a dark “theatre.” Maybe CAPTAIN makes an offhand comment, perhaps pointing to the entranceway and declaring “The Door of No Return.” Maybe not. The sound of rattling shackles. The “theatre” smells like a latrine. It stinks. The floor moves. It rocks.



The journey begins.


The play continues

About the Author

Harvey Young is Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University. Prior to this position, he was Chair of the Department of Theatre at Northwestern University, and Professor of African American Studies, Performance Studies and Radio/Television/Film. His books include Embodying Black Experience (Michigan, 2010), Theatre & Race (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre (Cambridge, 2012).