… race ya to the bottom …

At first it seems The Bereaved is going to be a superficial play, a sitcom, at best a comedy of manners and it does keep the audience laughing, but one comes to realize it’s a dead serious, carefully constructed and politically radical play, written by a Black playwright, about race — specifically about which race or races will come out on top and which at the bottom.

Waiting for the play to begin one can study the domestic set, the kitchen with an ordinary commercial but matching table and chairs, and a bedroom with a teen boy’s posters and paraphernalia.  Michael, a stay-at-home husband and low-paid adjunct college Professor is working at his computer on his book about Mao and sipping booze when Carol, his high salaried lawyer wife enters and berates him for not taking out the garbage — after all, he’s home all day.  They reconcile and chatter brightly about where it is or isn’t OK to masturbate.  I saw a fairly good play by this author recently, Dawn at the Flea Theater last November, so I held off at this point on deciding that this was going to be totally idiotic.  Teddy, the 15-year old son comes in and the family decides to go to Bouley for dinner, a restaurant for which one needs to make reservations a month in advance:  on the phone, Carol gets one immediately, i.e., this woman is at the top of the pecking order.

But (no dinner tonight) Carol suddenly keels over with a heart attack, is hospitalized and suffers acute medical complications.  Near death, she exacts a promise from Michael and her friend Katy, an “Oriental” Psychologist (Carol and Michael are White) that when she dies they marry each other, to ensure her son won’t suffer from some wicked stepmother.  Though they both love Carol, Katy and Michael waste no time making out robustly in the apartment while Carol’s still alive.  Their humorously viewed, racially tinged and graphically acted sex (there’s a lot of nakedness and acting out of sexual fantasies in this play), along with their casual coke sniffing, the trope of the kid, Teddy, glued to his blackberry screen in the direst moments, and Teddy’s sex with the totally wise-to-it-all 15-year old girlfriend Melissa make it seem it’s a play that laughs at contemporary superficial emotions or something along those lines.

Enter Jamal, the Black coke dealer.  Or rather, he doesn’t enter — the White kids Teddy and Melissa go to Harlem to find him.  But he soon becomes part of all their lives — except Carol’s who’s dead by now — and his presence makes a hash of her careful plans.  The play unfolds through the playwright’s disciplined logic.  More I cannot say except — there’s a new pecking order at the end and — it’s not the Whites who are on top. And who’s responsible for that?  Bradshaw makes the case that in different ways, the Whites bring it on themselves.  They ask for it, as Carol asks Michael to marry Katy, the move that brings the house tumbling down.  But things are already askew at the start because of Carol and Michael’s male/female role reversal, which the playwright carefully swings back to conventional (how quaint) by the end when they’re both out of the picture and the new guys are on top.  Beyond the personal, the economic values of the White dominated society are askew:  the Professor makes $6,000 a year, the Psychologist $60,000 which, it’s made clear, is not enough, the Lawyer makes a huge amount but is burdened with student loans, and who takes in the most? The drug dealer.

Played before a mostly White audience, The Bereaved brings to mind the aristocrats watching Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro in the years leading up the the French Revolution.  The play made the aristocrats look ridiculous, and directly challenged their position at the top of the pecking order (the King and the censors tried to ban it).  Those well educated, sophisticated aristocrats understood perfectly well that it was revolutionary but — radical chique — they went anyhow, and enjoyed the comedy immensely.

The Bereaved runs at The Wild Project in NYC’s East Village, through September 26.

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