Revolutionary Theatre is Child’s Play
by Zhailon Levingston
When I was a little kid, I tortured the family that babysat me. I would lock them out of the living room for hours while I hung up sheets like curtains, used the last of the ink to print out homemade programs from the computer, and, when I did allow them back in, I’d perform a one-child show to a family that looked like me. Despite the inconvenience of me taking up their space, they let me express my full humanity just because even at seven, I carried in me unseen worlds of imagination that they validated without needing to fully understand them. This was my first experience with theatre-making.
But I wasn’t just putting on a show. My child’s play as a little Black boy, through mechanisms of my own creation, was able to create space for my humanity at no cost to my own flesh. Upon reflection, it is this quality that made what I was doing Black revolutionary theatre. Though I did not yet know it then, my child’s play held within it the ingredients to disrupt, dismantle, and reconstruct the commercial world I would eventually enter. And I was just doing it for fun.
It is important to center joy, fun, and pleasure as a means to tell stories—even hard ones. I found this to be especially true as I entered professional life. Theatre is an industry that turns storytelling into merely a way to pass the time for people with money by hearing stories that they have the option to care about from storytellers who are trying their best to change the minds of mostly white ticket holders. The work of changing the minds of an audience that believes the cause of empathy is the whole of the work. I see empathy here as the process of connecting with a character, actor, or piece of work wherein that which was perceived as non-human, through personal connection and new understanding, is revealed to be human after all.
"The theatrical space must be the place where Black humanity is free to express itself physically, mentally, and spiritually without fear of violence."
Empathy is this lowest common denominator of audience engagement. There are institutions that parade themselves as liberal hubs of empathy. They are happy with the idea that they’re serving an audience that comes into the theatre thinking the Black body they might see on stage is, upon first glance, non-human, and in 90 minutes, their worth will be proven. This becomes very dangerous if you are Black in this country, because when we serve the end goal of empathy, we can’t escape the crack cocaine of explaining how, we too, “sing America”. So the stage becomes a glorified auction block. This is primarily how the Black body functions in America and, so too, in the American theatre.
For this reason, Black revolutionary theatre can’t be a reflection of life. It must be a correction of life. The theatrical space must be the place where Black humanity is free to express itself physically, mentally, and spiritually without fear of violence. Because outside of living rooms where children play make-believe, the theatre may be the only public space in America where Black folks can create a proof of concept that we are indeed human and not merely “othered” bodies to be consumed.
When we touch that space, we re-enter a kind of childlike imaginative energy that allows us to create refuge for Black bodies, as was the goal of a play I directed: NEPTUNE by Timothy Duwhite. One of the first questions Timothy asked me was: How would I create a new world on stage? At that point, I didn’t know. So I said so. More than that, I centered the unknowns and hopefully normalized in our process the embrace of big questions. I’m developing a show with playwright Nathan Yungerberg called THEA, that allows us to live in a story wherein multiple lineages of Black people connect through astral projection and song. The show is written in an African storytelling tradition and isn’t bound by traditional conflict structure but instead centers desire and world building.
When a piece of theatre centers the voices of Black women in its creation, like the production of RECONSTRUCTION I’m co-directing with Rachel Chavkin, it proves Black revolutionary theatre is also a process and not just a product. We are finding new, interesting, ways to create systems within the rehearsal room to make sure that the weight Black women come into the room with does not get heavier throughout the process and, conversely, is distributed within the room in an equitable way. We’re doing this by challenging white silence in the face of hearing vulnerable stories from Black people, making sure we have spaces of infinity, and bringing into the room a woman of color who works specifically in decolonizing spaces.
"Theatre at its most revolutionary is not a glorified consent form or a 90 minute crash course in why my body deserves to be elevated to the height of the lit stage."
Black revolutionary theatre should be an inviting wilderness of free Black expression, unrestricted in its ability to imagine more humane ways of being together. In America, Blackness is the truth. Period. Anything else is drag. So the theatre must center unapologetic Blackness if it wants to tell the truth. This means shows written to Black people, for Black people, and despite Black people. Some shows are catered to Black audiences and still spend time explaining why being gay, or poor, or trans or non-American are all valid Black expressions as well. Black revolutionary theatre understands that any over explanation of humanity in exchange for silent consideration is whiteness at play, even if the audience looks like me. Albums like Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. avoid this, as do books like Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon, and the glorious writing of Alexis Pauline Gumbs. They certainly avoid the consideration of white folks. More abstract examples can be found in creative memes and tweets found in the cyber world of Black Twitter. A revolutionary theatre is just as informed by these works.
I want to advocate for a theatrical landscape that does not depend on an audience being more humane to give it its legitimacy. Revolutionary theatre should be an invitation to participate in an event happening in time and space that goes on with or without the validation, understanding, or commitment from white folks or anyone else to do better. Theatre at its most revolutionary is not a glorified consent form or a 90 minute crash course in why my body deserves to be elevated to the height of the lit stage. It is where the Black body can be free, where it doesn’t work to prove why it isn’t “other”, and where ultimately, the spirit of a child playing dress-up in the living room is the ultimate labor required as proof of concept that Black lives matter.
For me, theatre is the space by which all that is ethereal can be made material. It is the artistic space by which concepts like hope, freedom, despair, love, and humanity are delivered to an audience in a way that makes it real and allows them to carry it outside the walls of the theatre and into the streets of the outside world. One of the reasons I love being a director is because theatre proposes answers to impossible questions and focuses a room of strangers to imagine new ways of being together through the shared experience of an event that is both illuminated by stage lights and cloaked in the darkness of a “house to half” call that slowly starts to dim into blackness. Every time I tell a story, this is the magic I’m hoping to channel. This is the magic of theatre I was initially attracted to. This is the theatre I was trying to mimic as a child.