Playwright Phillip Howze's site-driven multimedia play Self Portraits will premiere at Brooklyn's BRIC April 23-27. The following essay was written for American Theatre magazine.
I have a tendency to forget. Mine is an unreliable memory. I’m not generalizing—I’m being for real. And this absent-mindedness has little loyalty to time; I could just as easily forget the day Columbus sailed the ocean blue as I could what happened to me between the time I left rehearsal today and arrived back home. It seems my mind has a mind of its own. It prefers to meander free, unfettered, and fickle.
Make no mistake, my failed attempts to recollect aren’t for lack of trying. I’ve tried and I try. With great effort I try to recount the stories my grandmother told me to keep me safe—the grim tales of a boy lost in the woodland and trying desperately to make his way back home. But I stop right before I arrive at the harrowing moments. Anticipating being uncomfortable makes me anxious. Pain isn’t pleasurable.
I suppose my forgetfulness might be a way of refusing the heartache of the past. If I can forget, then maybe that terrible thing I half-remember didn’t really happen. When reminded, I’m forced to squint my eyes and concentrate very deeply in order to conjure the face of my torment.
But for writers, the pen is unconcerned with your apprehension. The pen, if truly commanded, can unshackle an archive of memory. The pen will remind you: History is an inheritance you can’t outrun.
In the late 18th- and mid-19th century, former African slaves wrote firsthand narratives to describe the struggles they experienced as enslaved persons in America. Among the first of these is The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself, followed thereafter by the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, among others. These writers wrote about the experience of their contemporary lives. These texts, written as direct address, formally compel the reader to pay attention.
The American readership at that time, nearly exclusively white, were so horrified by the descriptive realities of enslaved life that not only did they pay attention, they took action. The stories of Harriet Jacobs and others who escaped to freedom helped to lay the groundwork for the humanization of enslaved peoples, and later the American movement for abolition.
A lot has been said and written about the theatre as a place of escape, a metaphysical holiday from the woes of the material world, a respite from the past. Certainly the theatre can and will continue to hold space for reverie, scenes of whimsy and aspiration, virtuosic song and dance, and the suspension of disbelief. And I for one look forward to witnessing these aspirational stories.
But I also need to be reminded of other images, weightier reflections. Portraits that show me what has always been there, but perhaps I had forgotten. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes that “photographs of the victims of war are themselves a rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.”
I’m not one to revel in reminiscence. Too much nostalgia makes me nervous. Perhaps that’s why I’m likely to forget things. Some folks need to write stuff down in order to hold onto it for later. Others can only recall memories when they’re reminded. Still, some live daily with the pain of memory, rote, across their bodies, inscribed along their gait, written in the blood.
I exist and have existed. My survival isn’t in dispute, but history hasn’t made it easy. There’s something manic, and a bit comic and a bit tragic, about having to remind another person of your shared humanity. Much of my writing lives in this liminal place, what Samuel Beckett called a “form that accommodates the mess.” This seems like an apt metaphor for history. Also for America. Always reconfiguring to remember ourselves.
The poet Audre Lorde wrote in lucid prose about the master’s tools and the master’s house and of the creative ways that women, poor people, queer people, and people of color in this country have historically worked to dismantle the structures that were built to exclude us.
Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass also wrote about themselves to reflect the circumstance of their fellow citizens—the ones who hadn’t yet made it to freedom. The stories of these Black men and women lurch from the specificity of one world into another, unsteadying the reader. The tools these writers used destabilized the frames of slavery, eventually toppling the house to the ground.
I imagine these writers—my forefathers and foremothers of Black American literature—would flip out to see us here in the 21st century. The freedom won by the images they drew in graphic, self-evident black ink. The literary legacy they continue to inspire. The generations of writers, our diverse variety of forms and narratives, a chorus of individual voices.
I write to sing and dance alongside them. I want the theatre to be a site of abolition and wonder and invention and curiosity and revelation. I want to bear witness. I want not to forget.