A version of this essay appears on the website of Playwrights Horizons and as part of Playwrights Horizons’ Almanac, where Dave Harris’s play Tambo & Bones is running through Feb. 27.
When I was in the first grade, my friend next door was killed by a bullet that was not meant for him. When I was in college, I tried to write a poem about my friend. But it had happened so long ago, I did not remember his name. So I made up a name. Called him “John.” I finished the poem about John. And then I won a poetry slam with that poem about John.
This was my game. I would travel around the country performing gigs and reciting poems, rehearsed to the second, in front of mostly white audiences. Here’s my sad poem about John. Here’s my sad poem about my deadbeat dad. Here’s my sad poem about my sad Black existence. I’d win the poetry slam. Win the audience’s love. Win the prize money. Audiences would snap and weep and I would feel tremendous. My master magic trick: deceiving someone into believing I’m being vulnerable.
It’s quite easy to write poorly and have a white person call you powerful. Important. Necessary. Raw. Vital.
Let me not let us off the hook: Black folks say it too. Maybe they believe it. Maybe you do too.
The scary part is when I believed it. That I was telling the truth. That I was doing something important. High off my own shit. Prophet to no one. Trigger fingers turned Twitter fingers. It made me a worse writer. But it garnered me hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. It started my career. Abracadabra, then I appeared.
Why am I doing this over and over? Is my pain the extent of my imagination? Is other Black writers’ language the extent of my pain? How am I seeing the same commercial police brutality story make so much money again and again?
The most fun part about writing is that every writer I know is a fucking liar. Some think this is radical political work. Some think that to write is to channel the ancestors and the woo-woos to put voice to page. But all of these are just tactics. This was the realization that made me stop doing poetry slams and start to focus on theatre. I wasn’t growing as an artist; I was growing as someone who could perform identity. Spoken word capitalizes on an idea of the authentic identity. The real person. But here, in the theatre, all of us know that every second of this experience is fake. There is infinite possibility in that reality. And the pleasure is in the possibility.
Because there must be pleasure. Art is a choice. Theatre is a choice. If I am going to inflict fake-ass theatre suffering on myself, my characters, my audience, in the realm of language, it is a choice. I have the agency to create anything on the page. Why am I recreating the circumstances of my oppression? What void in myself am I trying to fill with my words and your applause?
I came to this essay on Tambo & Bones to write about the Black American literary imagination, and how Black American artistic capitalism perhaps begins with minstrelsy. And there’s a beauty in that. There was a kind of freedom I never knew until I was on a stage. I can imagine that feeling for my imaginary ancestors too, no matter the stage. The selfish pleasure of the lie.
But then, of course, freedom was never freedom. It was just a spotlight.
I no longer live in poverty because of what I can do in front of an audience. I began with a dead boy and ended in the ars poetica. There’s money to be made in a well told lie. You can form a collective identity around a well told lie. Memory, too, can be the well told lie.
Here’s a true story about real emotion: When I was in sixth grade, I attended a school that was a 90-minute train commute from where I lived. Play practice ended at 9 p.m. If I missed the 9:27 p.m. train, I would be stranded in the suburbs with no way home. One night, I realized I didn’t have bus fare. I didn’t know how I would get back home that night. I was terrified as I sat at that train station not knowing what to do. Then, somehow, I looked down under my seat at the train stop and there was a single token, just sitting there on the ground. One single coin. I don’t know what I can say to make you understand that this was a peak of joy for me at that time. I almost feel nostalgia for that—for the way a coin can feel like it changed your life. Nostalgia, originating from the Latin for “to want an old death.”
The first time I performed that poem about John, I cried more than I thought I would. I cried so hard I could barely speak. The microphone was muffled by tears. I don’t know what the audience heard.
I don’t know what I was remembering.
Dave Harris (he/him) is a poet and playwright from West Philly.
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