College drama embodies issues of race relations

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

September 03, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

I managed to intercept the playwright, J. Annette Barnes, before she could disappear backstage.

This was Monday at Catonsville Community College, where a workshop on race relations on college campuses was geared to high school and college counselors and administrators and community groups that work with young people. Barnes' play, "Watcha Gonna Do?" was to be the focal point of the workshop and a discussion group that followed.

She was directing. Curtain time was minutes away.

"There aren't going to be any answers to the problem of race relations in this play because I don't know what the answers are," said Barnes. "I just wanted to get students talking about it, raise their consciousness to the issues, get them to hear each other and see each other through the others' eyes."

Curtain time was getting closer. Barnes began to fidget.

"You know, everybody says they want a multicultural campus, but it just isn't happening," continued Barnes, an assistant professor of English at Catonsville.

"I find that the students are courteous to each other, but each group moves along parallel lines with very little interaction. And then, I got tired of hearing one group say something about the other group and vice versa. My goal [in writing the play] was to break through those barriers."

Then she rushed off.

Minutes later, the lights dimmed and an intense and discomfiting 40-minute drama about a racial dispute at a predominantly white college began.

The plot line seems simple enough: A black student, Rashaan, auditions for a campus production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and wins the part of Judas. Rashaan, however, believes he deserved the lead role of Jesus Christ. Judas, as you recall, has traditionally been cast as a black man.

"I'm gonna do what any self-respecting black man would do -- shut the play down," proclaims Rashaan after brooding on this "slight" with his girlfriend. "What they're doing is wrong. They're telling me I can't do something I know I can do."

Rashaan rushes off to recruit an "army" from the other black students on campus.

Resentment to their protests builds among white students. "You guys don't even try to get along," complains the president of the student council. "Newsflash: Slavery ended long ago with the Civil War."

Eventually the tension explodes into a fistfight. At this point, way after the fact, campus administrators rush into the fray to declare before the television cameras that "our school is a good school."

As simple as this story is, it illustrates the great complexity of race relations today, where both sides are a little bit right and a little bit wrong, where their anger is as much a part of the baggage of history as the comparatively minor issues at hand.

Most striking was the absence of adult guidance during the dispute. There were no teachers or counselors present to help Rashaan and the other black students deal constructively with their anger at being wronged, no one to help their white counterparts understand the issues behind the issues.

And how could there be? For the most part, these disputes are identical to the disputes that engulfed teachers and administrators and counselors when they were students, that periodically engulf them today in the workplace.

How can the adults on any college campus instruct the young when they have yet to resolve the dispute for themselves?

After the drama ended, the students who acted in the play told workshop participants that the story was very close to what they experienced in their own lives, on their own campuses.

Platitudes were exchanged about the need for blacks and whites to learn more about each other, to communicate. The workshop pretty much ended on that note.

Personally, I found this solution pretty unsatisfactory. Surely, I thought, there are more profound solutions to the problem than that.

But I have pondered the question since Monday.

And at this point in our history, I am afraid that communication is about as immediate and practical a solution to race relations as anyone is likely to come up with.

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