Panelist Lynn Nottage, Producer Voza Rivers, Esther Armah
Pulling the Covers off Liberal Racism
Witnessing Esther Armah’s new and timely play “Savior” reminds us why the theater is still relevant. Of the myriad virtues of independent black theater is the fact that it is the only dramatic forum in which black folk actually control their image. And when good actors get a worthy scrip something magical can happen. In Ms. Armah’s play we are treated to an embarrassment of riches. Possessed with the sharp eye of the good reporter, the language of a poet and a skilled sophisticated playwright’s understanding of the role of conflict as the engine of drama, Ms. Armah is well suited to her chosen craft.
Savior’s appeal partly lies in it’s wit and humor and in the insightful way in which the play handles a variety of complex issues involving race, class and gender that allow Ms. Armah to give full reign to both her irreverent imagination –in that she dares to imagine the unimaginable – sharp intellect, and wide ranging knowledge of the world. The lady is a true cosmopolite. This is clearly apparent from her elegantly written memoir “Can I Be Me?”
A Black Brit of Ghanaian parentage, Ms. Armah is a world traveler and has observed race relations between whites and blacks in Africa, Europe and the Americas. And she has developed a fine eye for all the ways in which the melanin deprived sector of humanity exercise power and privilege based on nothing more than melanin deprivation. Most of these observations were made when she was working as a journalist and was therefore in position to get a bird’s eye view of human relations in various societies. All the things she has learned from her journalistic experiences have found their way into this play.
This is clearly evident in both her choice of subject and the manner in which she explored it. The play centers around a the struggle of a well know white male liberal who has been very active in causes for racial and economic justice. It has become his life’s work as an executive in community organizations, but he has just been passed over for the CEO position in favor of a black woman. In his mind the white male is certain that there is no way the black woman could be better qualified than him and was not awarded the position on merit; hence he views himself as a victim of reverse discrimination and decides to hire a lawyer to sue the organization.
Unable to get the high powered white lawyer he wanted he is assigned a black male lawyer who appears anxious to get the case because it is the kind of case that could make him famous. He reasoned that although he has been doing brilliant legal work for years as a supporting player, white lawyers with less talent are always appointed to argue the cases in court. He does the work but they take the bows. At first the aggrieved white male doesn’t want the black lawyer, and only reluctantly accepts him as counsel after the lawyer convinces him that he is willing to resort to unprincipled gutter tactics to win.
The Cast and Director
The story is told with two actors Michael Green and Jimmy Aquino; who play Billy Hall the white plaintiff and Michael Jamal Williams III his black lawyer. The brilliantly written dialogue between the two men explores all of the issues of sex, race and power in the contemporary American workplace in the age of our first black President. Which many believe has moved US society into a post black phase.
The two men eventually hatch a diabolical plot to bring down the black female CEO by attacking her judgment in hiring another black woman as her assistant who is a deranged home wrecking ho, that is trying to break up the white male’s family with bogus charges of sexual harassment after he rejected her advances. At first the white male is reluctant to pursue this course of action because, as it turns out, he and the woman he is about to attack has had a serious affair that ended badly.
The truth is that he has been stalking her to the extent of showing up at her house uninvited. The white male is obsessed with her but his estranged lover broke off the affair when she learned that he had lied to her about getting a divorce from his white wife, which he explains he had no intention of doing. When he continues to stalk her she calls the cops and it gets in the press.
The white male finally agrees to throw his former lover under the bus when the black lawyer convinces him that this is a sure path to victory. The upshot is that upon the direction of a callous overly ambitious black male lawyer they devise a plan to destroy the hard won success and wreck the careers of two highly qualified black women in order to maintain the structure of white male privilege.
During the course of the play we are confronted with all of the issues of racial and gender equity in the work place that presently plague American society but nobody wants to speak about frankly. It is the white elephant in the room that everybody pretends not to see. What makes this play so explosive is that Ms. Armah does not present the typical white bigot who is the usual whipping boy in creative works about racism. Rather Ms. Armah’s character is the kind of professional white liberal who is dedicated to eradicating racial inequality in America; the kind of know-it-all white guy who views himself as the Savior of black people.
Yet in the end the he is willing to destroy the careers of a longtime colleague and a former lover in order to preserve his privileged status as the boss. The thought of working for a black woman was unbearable. Yet he refused to see that his attitude was just as racist, and far more dangerous, as any redneck. It is no accident that Ms. Armah chose such a character to tell this tale of racism, sexism, power and privilege; in fact her personal experience with liberal white males working as a journalist provided a unique perspective on the problem.
In her poignantly written memoir “Can I be Me” she reflects on her tenure as an Assistant Producer on “Panorama,” a current affairs program on the BBC in London. When the question of racial equity in terms of hiring and promotion was broached a “senior colleague” who was white and male offered the following response. “No one can accuse us of being racist, just look at the number of programs we’ve done on the far right.”
Ms. Armah was shocked that her white male colleague saw racism “solely in crude and extreme terms. A truth dawned.” She recalls. “So many white, middle class liberals defined racism in this fashion. Their intention, it struck me, was to distance themselves from any possibility of being accused of displaying racism by defining it in such extreme terms.” But, she concludes that their kind of racism was “far more poisonous, it had become a subtle, cancerous cloak that hovered and sheltered institutions: complex, dangerous, destroyer of dreams and much, much more difficult to actively fight.”
It is clear that the weapon Ms. Armah has chosen to fight this class of phenomenon – which she has observed in Africa and the US also – is the dramatist’s art. She has put the whole mess on stage in a well-crafted highly intelligent play, and through the agency of two fine actors in a bravura performance engaged the audience, made us think about unpleasant problems some would rather avoid, held us in suspense, and completely fooled most of the audience – this writer included – with her surprise ending.
One of the surprising treats in this lay is the deep insight she provides into the machinations of the trained legal mind. It is a unique view of how justice is arrived at in our legal system…or the appearance of justice. One of the ways she achieves this is by her expert use of legal language and explanations of what they mean through the arguments of the lawyer. This expertise, we would later learn in the panel discussion that followed the play, is because she grew up in a family of lawyers. Under the insightful direction of Passion this is a splendid evening of theater at the Dwyer Cultural Center – a venue where cultural treasures are common fare. Esther Armah’s Savior is at once an education and catharsis. Bravo!
Director, Actor, Playwright
Passion, Michael Green and Esther Armah
Harlem, New York