Courtesy of eta Creative Arts Foundation

Rotten Memory

Repairing a Nation brings historical trauma back to life

Nikkole Salter’s original play Repairing a Nation offers a close-up walking tour of an evil in society: the ongoing dispossession of black families. Making its Chicago premiere at eta Creative Arts, Repairing a Nation makes the present-day reverberations of the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma race riots the point of departure for a withering household feud that culminates on one unhappy Christmas in 2001.

The play’s theme is straightforward enough when restated: historical traumas still haunt black families, and threaten their dissolution. But Repairing a Nation literalizes this idea, boldly wearing it on its sleeve. The action sanctifies a twenty-something-year-old as a living cultural legacy to be fought over and claimed; characters dive into the details of class-action litigation while wrapping presents. Events and dialogue weirdly fluctuate between the personal and political, and the sheer directness of Salter’s message might take a grain of salt to get down.

Salter’s play runs a little over two hours in two parts. In broad strokes, Anna and Chuck (Candice Jeanine and Darren Jones) are a childless and heinously posh couple. They self-servingly fostered Seth (Juwan Lockett), the only son of Chuck’s cousin Lois (Felisha McNeal), and put him through high school after Lois’s husband mysteriously lost his job. The grown Seth is now back, on vacation from law school. Anna and Chuck have invited Lois and Seth’s hometown flame Debbie (LaQuis Harkins) to spend the holiday at their house.

Salter brackets this setup inside Debbie’s work at Tulsa’s Greenwood Cultural Center. The Center is about to unveil a memorial to the destruction of the Greenwood district’s “Black Wall Street”—an act of racial violence that killed well over 100, and possibly as many as 300 men and women and shuttered the all-black commercial strip. Lois and Debbie partner in an act of ancestral archeology and righteous self-healing, contributing to a campaign for long overdue riot reparations.

During their research, Debbie discovers archival photographs that incriminate Chuck in the corporate theft of Lois’s family janitorial firm and—by extension—Seth’s stable and happy upbringing. Lois unveils this discovery on Christmas Eve, and the play’s second half follows the holiday’s agonizing self-destruction.

Debbie’s docent tour through the Greenwood Center serves as the play’s prologue and epilogue and is key to getting past Salter’s heavy-handedness. Debbie’s presentation is highly stylized—bad teaching but disturbing theater. Harkins wears Debbie’s grade-school friendliness like a cracked mask. She alternates between a high-voltage description of the firebombs falling on shop buildings from redneck biplanes, and angry, unfiltered disbelief that the jazz exhibit next door gets more visitors. She punctuates each dizzying whistle-stop with cute classroom etiquette.

The point of docent Debbie’s tart, amped-up, and fractured tour is to warn the audience up front that if Repairing a Nation is going to teach us anything, it will be at the top of its voice. You might wrinkle your brow when Seth and Debbie transform a lovers’ spat into a debate about the legitimacy of direct action, but this seemingly kitsch substitution actually reflects reality. If the first thing that recently reunited friends talk about is the effective force of a judicial recommendation, this quirk is just part of the play’s front-and-center presentation. The presence of the Tulsa riots at Christmas 2001 is not intrusive—that’s how it’s always been.

Lois’s monologue at the end of the play’s first act crystalizes this claim. She tells the story of her financial insolvency, her husband’s death by drinking, her homelessness, how she finally came around to cede the care of Seth to Anna and Chuck. She then makes the point that if her ancestors had been left alone in Tulsa’s Greenwood, her material conditions might have been more secure—she would have been able raise Seth as a mother ought to. History bears on practical life in urgent ways.

“The mind is like a refrigerator,” Lois concludes. “It keeps memories fresher, longer. A woman could feed her kids on that memory.”

In the case of Chuck and Anna, we see how an internally divided, opportunistic bourgeoisie rose from the ruins of a black business community targeted precisely because of its solidarity and unity. Chuck likens his family to a nation, and styles himself its American president; he believes his material charity confers on him a right to deprive Lois of her son and her future. Seth has since been taught to crave Western individuality and lack of accountability. He renounces his heritage and disavows any larger commitment to other human beings.

“I don’t want to stand for nothing, be nothing,” he tells Debbie. “I just want to be me!”

The play’s dramatic irony confirms Lois’s suspicion: the shakeup after the Tulsa riots really did let Chuck litigate her out of a stable family. White racism broke up a black community, encouraging it to turn upon itself. The convincingly awful domestic abuse that erupts in the second half has its roots in a larger social conflict.

But Repairing a Nation necessarily repairs nothing, and resolves nothing. Our happy ending is instead the bittersweet start of a long, arduous healing process between Lois and Seth. This process is made possible by experiencing, firsthand, the latent violence in Seth’s apparently happy, productive status quo.

After witnessing Chuck forcibly evict Lois from his house—even pitching her late husband’s urn of ashes out the front door—Seth can only see Lois’s martyrdom for what it’s been. Everybody but an enraged Chuck curls up, buries their faces in their hands, and cries. Enlightened by way of suffering, Seth and Debbie promptly grab their bags, fleeing Chuck’s kingdom. The anger and deception that underwrite Seth’s foster family, revealed through the play’s action, drive Seth back into the rightful arms of his true mother Lois. He returns to his literal and figurative roots.

The purpose of theater in Repairing a Nation is to highlight the ghastly damages concealed by an elite, privileged interpretation of history. The terror onstage isn’t gratuitous: its realism has a civically critical function. Darren Jones’s uncompromising portrayal of Chuck’s rage causes the audience itself to recoil and follow Seth towards correctness and truth.

We can’t seriously believe the Tulsa riots—or, for that matter, slavery and diaspora—are somehow disconnected from the dire situation of this family, or our country. Certainly not just having listened to Lois sobbing for fifteen extra seconds after lights-down, prone on the ground where she fell, heaved behind the set’s doorframe. The two traumas are coextensive. Christmas 2001 is Tulsa 1921 in microcosm.

Catharsis isn’t just emotionally restorative, here, but part of reconciliation and reform. We have to get the suffering out, and into the open, to move ahead. Repairing a Nation might be overly didactic, and maybe even a little one-track, but it makes a convincing case that pain far outlives our ancestors. If unaddressed, their sorrows are incorporated into the very structures we take for granted, feeding the future on a rotten memory.

eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. Chicago Ave. November 13–January 3. Friday and Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 3pm. $35, discounts available for seniors and students. (773) 752-3955. etacreativearts.org

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