clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A Chicago play makes us laugh while exploring the wisdom of reparations

Ericka Ratcliff (lback, left) and Louise Lamson, with Grace Smith (front) Tamberla Perry and Lily Mojekwu, in a scene from "Plantation!" at Lookingglass Theatre. | Liz Lauren Photo

I never expected to find humor in reparations.

A play at Lookingglass Theatre Company daringly uses farce to explore slavery, atonement, capitalism and race.

In “Plantation,” a Texas matriarch discovers slave labor built the Wright family fortunes. She finds the descendants of one of the enslaved women and invites those three black sisters from Chicago to the home. And offers them the plantation as a gesture of reparations. The three white sisters — on a spectrum from racially clueless to downright racist — are mortified and try to thwart their mother’s plan.

OPINION

Cue up the comedy in the all-female cast — dancing to rapper Cardi B, antebellum dresses and quips galore. For some, the slight slapstick doesn’t work and for others engaging in comedy to brave a serious topic like reparations falls flat.

I’m not one of those people. I laughed. A lot. I saw “Plantation” during a Sunday matinee and the audience had a fair number of black theatergoers – more than what one typically sees in the downtown theater scene. Much of the howling laughter echoed from the black folk who came as part of an Englewood workers collective. That altered the theater experience in a way I found promising when thinking about access and barriers to “high art.”

It also speaks to the sense of humor African Americans have culled in the face of discrimination. That adage laugh to keep from crying is not a platitude.

Not all of the “Plantation” dialogue borrows from a sitcom. One of my favorite scenes exemplifies how whites can be oblivious to race. The slave-owning patriarch’s portrait hangs over the mantle in the Texas home. The black women point out the slaves in the background toiling in the cotton fields. All this time, the white women believed the figures were black dots.

I caught up with “Plantation” author Kevin Douglas, a young black playwright. He said comedy is his wheelhouse. “People are able to receive the story better. Comedy is less preachy,” Douglas said.

To prepare writing the script, Douglas said he read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ famous 2014 piece on the case for reparations in which he argues 20th century housing segregation policies in the United States – drawing off Chicago’s West Side – should be the basis for having formal discussions around reparations. Douglas also read about Georgetown University. The school recently revealed it sold enslaved people in 1838 to save itself from financial ruin. Descendants want more restitution from Georgetown.

But look no further than Chicago for examples of redress. A reparations working group at the University of Chicago is examining the institution’s financial ties to slavery. The city of Chicago is the only place in the nation that’s given reparations to survivors of police torture. For 20 years Jon Burge and his fellow white officers tortured black suspects into giving false confessions. In 2015, lawyers and activists negotiated a landmark reparations package in which money is a small part. The city formally apologized, the Burge scandal is now taught in Chicago Public Schools, a counseling center for survivors and their families is open in Englewood, free city college tuition is offered and a public memorial will be erected.

Reparations is about atonement, an apology and making amends. Examples abound around the world, especially post-war. The U.S. has made no effort toward redress for slavery or Jim Crow. We don’t even discuss the topic in meaningful way. The Southern Poverty Law Center put out a report last month that looks at how schools fail to adequately teach slavery. The false narrative about “state’s rights” lives on. Confederate statues in Southern and non-Southern states still exist.

The reparations responsibility should be collective, not individual. This country has yet to have a serious reckoning about its racial past.

Douglas knows that.

“I would love it if it were the government. But that’s why I chose individual white people checking their legacy. It has to start with the person,” Douglas said. No, he said he’s not looking for white people to start handing over the deeds of their homes to black people. The play is a meditation for white people to think about what individual efforts they can do to end racism.

“We all know the issues. What can we do to fix it? A very simple task is if family or friends say something ignorant, speak up. Be an ally,” Douglas said.

Art is a vehicle to interrogate and challenge people. “Plantation” may not be a clarion call for the nation, but Douglas’ contribution keeps the idea of reparations in the public sphere.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.