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Politicizing the Mainstage

By Brianna J. Suslovic, Contributing Writer

There’s something revolutionary happening at the Loeb this week: BlackC.A.S.T.’s “Black Magic.” When else have audiences at the Loeb Mainstage been treated to the sounds of Rihanna’s new album, a cheeky spin on the trope of the “black table” in the cafeteria, and multiple representations of queer couples of color, all in one production?

With a cast comprised entirely of black students and a production team comprised primarily of people of color, “Black Magic” shakes up the theater scene at Harvard simply by existing. In a predominantly white theater culture where black actors and characters are often only present in BlackC.A.S.T. productions, getting a show centered around the experiences of people of color onto the Loeb Mainstage is a radical feat in and of itself.

Think about the face of theater at Harvard—that face is probably white. On a campus where people of color often go unseen onstage, “Black Magic” represents a reclaiming of narrative and creative capacity, proving that black and brown students can and do create dramatic art worthy of our attention. The norms of Harvard theater restrictively dictate where and how actors and characters of color can exist; as unintentional as it may be, the theater community at Harvard oversamples and over-represents whiteness.

Though people of color do participate in Harvard’s theater scene, theater can nevertheless be an alienating experience for students of color who aren’t sure whether shows will feature people who look like them onstage. After all, each semester, the Harvard undergraduate theater world produces a barrage of high-quality plays and musicals that are severely lacking in terms of diversity onstage. “Black Magic” is a direct response to these predominantly white norms.

The most norm-shattering aspect of the show lies in its honest portrayal of the black community on campus—not as a monolith or singular force but instead as a diverse array of experiences, opinions, and emotions. “Black Magic” chronicles the lives of fictional students Amari, Eli, CJ, Syd, and Anika, interspersing their narratives with conversational episodes from “The Black Table,” five students who sit at a dining hall table underneath portraits of the white men of Harvard.

Through these glimpses of life at Harvard, the play illustrates the trying moments that black students experience on a day-to-day basis attending this predominantly white institution. There is no overarching crisis or conflict other than the struggle of living in a society where black people are brutally killed and their white killers often go unpunished. In the play, morning routines are set to the backdrop of images of Black Lives Matter protests and a sound-byte of a reporter claiming that “there just wasn’t enough evidence” to convict the killer of Eric Garner; a writer for the school newspaper is badgered by white members of the newspaper staff to lead the “diversity committee”; members of “The Black Table” describing their frustrating experiences with a diversity dean who can’t tell students of color apart.

Additionally, “Black Magic” shines as a more accurate depiction of queer black life—one that humanizes them through themes of acceptance and struggle, in contrast to the usual tragic representation of queer people of color on stage. One character comfortably uses gender neutral pronouns whereas another struggles to avoid outing himself to family. In this way, “Black Magic” affords its queer characters the same dignity that is granted to white queer characters. It recognizes the ways that blackness and queerness often interact positively instead of falling into incorrect, misleading tropes about homophobia in the black community.

At its core, though, “Black Magic” challenges its audience to be self-critical, to think about the ways that we do or don’t affirm black students on this campus. It functions as a biting critique of our peers, our organizations, and our administration, by pushing the narrative beyond “dialogue” and “diversity” towards a gospel of black self-love.

In "Black Looks: Race and Representation," feminist theorist and cultural critic bell hooks writes, “We cannot value ourselves rightly without first breaking through the walls of denial which hide the depth of black self-hatred, inner anguish, and unreconciled pain.” The play certainly grapples with questions of black love—it is an artistic creation by and for black people at Harvard. As director Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence writes in the program, “we wrote this play for ourselves.”

The effects of uplifting people of color as actors, crew, and characters cannot be underscored enough. This production proves that black narratives are nuanced, compelling, and worth theatrical exploration. This is an inherently political act: To claim Harvard’s theater space, to implicate students and administrators in the reality-based narrative, and to represent black voices of Harvard.

However, the intentionality of this vision should not deter non-black audiences. To the contrary, all members of the campus community have something to learn from this production, whether that lesson lies in eliminating complicity or initiating resistance. This week’s revolutionary all-black theatrical experience of “Black Magic” encourages us to imagine Harvard at its most inclusive. “Black Magic” politicizes the Loeb Mainstage through imaginings of black joy, black love, and, most notably, black humanity at Harvard.

Brianna J. Suslovic ’16 is a joint social anthropology and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Winthrop House.

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