By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
In 1851, in an article written for DeBow’s Review that was published in New Orleans, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a physician, created a pseudoscientific term he called “drapetomania.” He crafted drapetomania, from two Greek words drapetes (“runaway slaves”) and mania (madness) to explain the reason why Southern slaves felt the need to flee the safety of their masters’ hearths and servitude.
His explanation was anecdotal at best, derived from his own tainted observations rather than based on accepted scientific theory. Slaves most often ran away, he posited, when their owners deigned to treat them as equals or tried to raise them up to a position in life they were not divinely intended, to wit, a “submissive knee-bender.”
It is easy to see the folly of such dehumanizing and objectifying language using modern reason and compassion as countermeasures to racist theories like Carpenter’s. But given the rampant illiteracy of the antebellum era that frowned on women and slaves being educated, such balderdash might be accepted as based on solid scientific fact rather than on white supremacy.
Playwright M.D. Schaffer ran across Cartwright’s preposterous theory during the recent COVID pandemic period of isolation and separation. Seizing upon the ludicrousness of the theory, Schaffer elected to write a play about Carpenter’s disproven theory and utilize literal ghosts of the past to prove his points similar to the treatment in A Christmas Carol, hence the title.
The Bard was not above employing the use of ghosts to spin a tale, famously having one prominently featured in Hamlet. But the depiction of ghosts here is one that might be compared more to one gleaned from Beetlejuice than from Shakespeare’s First Folio.
Drapetomania was born out of the solitude and separateness of the pandemic, when so many craved for contact with one another. Schaffer channels his inner self through the character of KMS, self-aware and cocksure, who enters while dancing to hip hop music. He breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly with excesses of the N-word.
“This is a show about N**s,” he tells the audience, specifically noting “it is about healing – about what hurts and harms us.”
Under Schaffer’s theatrical conceit, figures from the past – L.D. Barkley (Justin William Davis), who died at the 1971 Attica Prison riot; Georgiana “Anna” Simpson (Gwendolyn Foxworth), the first former woman slave to receive a doctorate of philosophy; and abolitionist John Brown (Jonas Chartock), who died at Harper’s Ferry prior to the outbreak of hostilities in the Civil War – all return to earth to convince Wayne (Jay Dorsey), a young Black new father, that he is must be “educated” and selected as the next figure to lead his people.
Wayne’s partner is Maggie (JC Domangue), a White millennial. Their baby boy is resting in a nearby basinet throughout the play, a constant reminder of the modern acceptance of interracial relationships. Until Loving v. Virginia, miscegenation had been designated as a felony in many Southern states, that is until the Supreme Court unanimously weighed in on what it held was “invidious racial discrimination.” Dr. Cartwright would certainly not have understood that modern wrinkle.
Wayne echoes the pervasive feeling of the pandemic. “Everything’s just so broken,” he tells his infant son, “But you got me by your side and while I’m still here, daddy’s going to protect you. I promise.”
It’s not long after that, while Maggie is away that he is visited by the first of the ghosts, when L.D. Barkley, knocks on Wayne’s door. But, he alone cannot explain his visitation. He opens the door to welcome “Miss Anna,” the diminutive force of nature, who is fiercely proud of her accomplishments, but convinces Wayne he must take part in the ritual that will install him as a leader for his people. When John Brown, a White man who died attempting to free the masses of slaves, arrives on the scene, the full complement of ghosts is completed as the first act closes. KMS emerges again to advise that it’s about to hit the fan.
“The education is how you get to the answers,” Miss Anna explains in Act II. The process of this education will connect him closely to these other heroes, but it does have a cost, they inform him. Reluctantly, Wayne agrees to take part.
While Miss Anna serves as a witness, L.D. Barkley and John Brown tag team Wayne in a ceremony that is designed to more closely connect him to the spirit of his people and provide him the eventual insight that will forge him as the leader of his times.
Of course, they let it slip, there was that religious fellow named James, who went off the rails after he received the education. LD. and John begin to describe a religious zealot who moved his flock to South America and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that the James they reference is Jim Jones of the People’s Temple.
Wayne begins to have severe doubts, but the trio insists he continue. They summon forth the old spiritual hymn “Oh Freedom” and its defiant stance, written shortly after the Civil War had ended:
Oh, freedom, Oh, freedomOh freedom over me And before I’d be a slave I’d be buried in my grave And go home to my Lord and be free
The second act finds the trajectory of the play losing momentum and KMS, as the playwright returns in the guise of our favorite antebellum pseudoscientist doctor to put the finishing touches on a work that spins out of control. But the question remains: did anyone ever fully have control over this one? The fourth wall is broken again as we are left to consider if there ever was an ending that would elevate this piece properly. Like Dr. Samuel Carter’s treatise, this play is a farce that attempts to broach some very serious topics.
Drapetomania is well-directed by David Koté, an award-winning director who hails from Atlanta. The sound design by Amara Skinner is excellent and gives emotional lifting to several of the scenes and sometimes a dash of comedy. Adachi Pimentel, who designed the set to work with the two plays being staged on the main stage – Draptetomania and Where the Suga Still Sweet – had very effective lighting and a very functional execution. Costumes, especially for the historic ghost characters, were well done by Afri Modiste LLC.
Drapetomania: A Negro Carol by M.D. Schaffer continues its run at the André Calloux Center for Performing Arts and Cultural Justice, 2542 Bayou Road in New Orleans, LA., as part of the We Will Dream New Works Festival through April 30. For tickets and more information click here.