Pudd’nhead Wilson: a Botched Opportunity to Engage Our Community in a Meaningful Race Dialogue
By Karen M. Turner, Associate Professor of Journalism
On Sunday February 19, 2012 I saw the final performance of the Temple Theater Department ‘s "Pudd'nhead Wilson." I was familiar with the Mark Twain story and looked forward to my afternoon theater experience. I learned the production had been adapted for the stage by African American playwright Charles Smith. I would soon be reminded that not every black playwright is an African American conscious writer. Using such material by a playwright of color does not provide cover. The racially charged production I sat through was outrageous, insulting and embarrassing. Let me explain.
To my surprise and disappointment, I was uneasy throughout the performance - from the moment the white banjo-playing minstrel in black face walked on stage to “entertain” the audience before the play began, through the final curtain call. I heard some murmurs among the audience when the white black-faced minstrel first took the stage. I’d like to think I wasn’t alone in my discomfort and recognition that this is an offensive form of “entertainment.” The white black-faced minstrel sang and played his banjo throughout the performance, including the intermission and at the end of the play, as the audience filed out.
When the show finally began – relief! – I felt I could exhale a bit – but no! The first black female actor could have walked off the pages of “Gone with the Wind.” The play went from the “Mammy” character to “Roxy” the child abuser. And let me not forget the two I-talian twins who briefly appeared in black face – one white actor and one black, while singing a chorus from the popular southern hit, “Old Black Joe.” At some point during the performance, the white black-faced minstrel sang the entire song. There was the slave “Chambers” played by a white actor as if he was a cross between Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” and “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” At the end of the play when Chambers learned he was white and rich and therefore not a slave, his heart wrenching – “but I’se a nigga” was almost too much to bear.
Throughout, I was waiting for some character – someone - to offer an explanation – put my discomfort in context. Perhaps someone who would talk to the audience, as Pudd’nhead Wilson had done throughout, providing the back-story. Oh yes. The white black-faced minstrel also spoke to the audience encouraging us to “sing along.” In the alternative, the performers and staff could have taken a few minutes at the conclusion of every performance to talk with the audience. Why was there a blatant use of stereo-types and offensive language? Why was the “entertainment” a minstrel who didn’t have a discernible role in the play? Why were we exposed to the over usage by black and white characters alike to the racially charged period word “nigga?” Why was it okay at the “diversity university” to mount such a production? No explanation came. It’s been years since I’ve had a visceral reaction to such an event. I experienced a range of emotions sitting in my seat. I’m grateful I was in the dark. I’m not going to argue this production was inappropriate for Black History Month. As produced, it was inappropriate – period. •