October 29, 2020
Communication: Essays from the Riff
By Carletta Joy Walker
The Unsatisfactory Supper
I am to enact Baby Doll, one of the three characters in The Unsatisfactory Supper by Tennessee Williams. It is one of several plays being produced that preceded A Streetcar Named Desire containing a Sketch of Blanche Dubois. For weeks we talk about Tennessee Williams, read not only his early plays but also see film excerpts, read his poems and his essays. We’re reading these earlier plays and looking at prototypes that become the quintessential Blanche Dubois.
Williams explores and exposes the family. He writes, to my reading, not to shock or titillate, though both can result from reading his work. His work is seeking an understanding of relationships and the substance that binds one to one’s self or to another and the lack of glue that allows freedom or disintegration of relationship. The lack of some adhesive in the family can cause individuals, mainly women, to literally become unglued as many do in Williams’ plays. The characters become insane and are taken to mental institutions; they walk into death as alternative to other no exit situations or they wax in slow grimness. Freedom is generally ambiguous but it usually involves the sacrifice of another, i.e. Blanche for Stella; Tom for Laura in The Glass Menagerie; Aunt Rose for Baby Doll; the entire family for first Big Daddy, then Brick in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.
Williams doesn’t set the characters up as bad or ugly but if you spend any time in someone else’s house (or your own) you see the bad and the ugly, whether they see it as such or not. Williams peers beyond polite company behavior so we see that brother may be sexually intimate with sister, we see that mommy is competing for sexual favors, we see daddy too drunk to notice much, we see sister in another world. We also hear yearning that accompanies repressive families and societies – the freedom to think, the freedom to explore sexually, the freedom to be homosexual, the freedom to leave the family. We see the constraints in effect with the rich and the poor. Poverty, material deprivation is an additional constraint and always somewhere, often front and center, in Williams’ work.
Most of Williams’ plays are set in the South. Williams was from Mississippi; part of his fame is bringing aspects of southern life to the Broadway stage. Nigger is ubiquitous in America, casually and often unashamedly so in the South. For him to have omitted the word would have lent, regardless of his personal usage or lack thereof, dishonesty to his work. To me it would have placed a large question mark about the veracity of his entire depiction. No nigger no truth.
When we reproduce an author’s work, some changes (some might think any changes) significantly change the work. Words are easy to change. Now with computers using Photoshop and other such tools we can do to photos, pictures and painting what we can so easily do to words. Should we do any of it? If so what can we change and why can we do it? Would we recolor a Picasso? Or, take the growling, teeth baring dog being used by a white sheriff to attack a black demonstrator out of the picture? When is the new production merely derivative?
In The Unsatisfactory Supper Baby Doll in response to her husband Archie Lee’s suggestion that she keep the old lady [her aunt] out of the kitchen replies, “You get me a nigger and I’ll keep her out of the kitchen.”
The white director of the production wants nigger replaced with maid.* Human being, African American/ black/Negro/Colored/negra/nigger me enacting Baby Doll and being in that moment Baby Doll wants it to remain nigger because, that is what I says and it’s who I am until I learn something different. Stepping out to speak in aside she might say, I’m not a bad person. I live with my husband. I do the best I can. I haven’t been comfortable on this mountain for a long time. This ugly fat takes care of me but I can’t run through the mountains any more. It’s also padding between me and Archie Lee on top of me. I love Aunt Rose but Archie Lee pays the bills. Maybe I do lack courage. Maybe it was taken away by brother or father or mother. I’m uncomfortably dark myself, not odd here in Mississippi but uncomfortable never the less. I’m goin back to my porch now, wait for somthin to change.
“Nigger” is still ever present in America and now we have exported it around the world. Some blacks have owned “nigger” so thoroughly some other blacks, i.e. the Diaspora of colored folks, and some whites, have appropriated it as culture. What is a “nigger?” For Baby Doll it was someone to be better than. The one someone whose worse life, and believe me it, for Baby Doll, had to be a worse life to make hers tolerable. However horrible her life, she could thank God she wasn’t a “nigger.” This is one of the ways Family and Society get us to shut up, it could be worse. “Nigger” was all she had. A maid gets paid. A maid can change jobs. A “nigger” stays a “nigger.”
In reading the Williams’ plays my first encounter with the casual use of “nigger” is jarring. When I’m reading them in character I have to remember I’m in character. Theater is the enactment of roles. I Carletta in becoming whomever I’m enacting stop being me. I act the other so well that I Carletta am lost before the audience’s eyes and ears. I don’t want a maid, “you get me a nigger” is not jarring.
As I Carletta know Baby Doll, somewhere, now Baby Doll knows me. In this intimacy lies the seed to address the word “nigger” and more importantly the concept of “nigger.” Tennessee Williams has provided the material for the exploring and exposing of this family society to continue. I Carletta Joy Walker am thankful.
*Note: As a courtesy I shared this essay with the director before it was to be aired on a weekly radio program I produced. In addition to leaving the word “nigger” in the play, he included this essay as part of the program.
England: Border Crossing Customs
With the 2017 scent of USA xenophobic nationalism in the air, I finally renewed my passport. This providing me with the possibility to leave the country, with the full awareness that I can’t run from attitudes which can exist everywhere; and in truth, I don’t want to run. I do always want, hope for, and work toward community where we see the beauty of all we are when we look at each other. My hope is for all of us to see that we share our one planet, and need act from a mindset of kindness and understanding. For me this helps each of us maintain our wholeness and our decency.
I went to England spring 1990, the year my mother died; a physical demise was occurring, was evident when I left. I was invited to participate in facilitating a workshop. I had my journal, other writings, spiritual reading—the Daily Word, I think also Louise L. Hay. My skin color, the nature of my hair, my state of minimal economics alarmed the people at immigration: I was flagged. A white male had me follow him. I was passed to an Asian male. He opened and started to go through my carefully folded shirts, socks, panties. I watched his fingers touch me; a chill of violation creeps through me. I said nothing. This Asian man, originated in some country that allowed a British Empire to exist and boast that the sun never set on it looked into me, said, “I’m only doing my job.” Looking at his regret, sadness, I reply, “I’m only having my feelings.” I neither smiled or raged; I hurt.
Finished, the Asian man replaced my things; the white man returned, took my journal, another book of writings, some things I’d brought to read, and left me to sit in a lounge. My books were filled with love and affirmation. I read my Daily Word, which was a perfect word for the day and moment: Friday April 6, 1990, the word for the day, “Relax.” The title introducing the day’s thoughts was “Because My Trust Is In God, I Am Relaxed And At Peace.” The reading began, “If the events of my life seem to be unfolding in ways that are not for my highest good, I do not get upset or anxious. Instead, I quiet myself, relax, and turn to the presence of God within me in complete trust.” I read on smiling that I was so provided for and tickled at the subversive passages on love and the power of transformation that were throughout my journal, my novel, and other writings.
The white man returned; he offered reasons for their search, was as conciliatory as, I suppose, a man with empire legacy could be. An apology seemed an impossibility for him, would cause a rent in his life that would be beyond repair. I thought about the Asian man, forgave him, hoped he didn’t commit suicide. I search through my journals, looking for that April 6 day many years past. I’d written, “I’m glad I didn’t trivialize what I felt.” In response to their taking the words that surrounded me I wrote, “There is only beauty & hope & me in them. What are you looking for? I don’t make sense in your world. I do understand what is happening. My left knee is paining me as I write, a bit of pain in my left hip, my left ovary. The Asian man does not like what he did. Fortunately his discomfort did not turn outward, did not make him brutal toward me.”
My Celestial Guide 1990, week at a glance calendar has a picture of my godchild. He’s not quite one; he’s looking upward with bright eyes, his smile is radiant—there are only the beginnings of teeth.
Did they look at him? What did they see? I’d forgotten the Black woman. She was at the beginning of this process, the initial yea or nay. Brief, her part was brief. What did she see: skin color—her skin color, not her skin color; hair—her hair, not her hair? I don’t remember her and I resist the image that comes to me now. She did stop me, and we did not look into each other’s eyes and declare our love.
I am finally released back to the beginning port of entry; as I walk through, a white Woman flags me. Is it my skin color, the nature of my hair, does she want to experience my aura? The Asian man is there; he stops her quickly, completely. I enter Gatwick. I’m in England, for the second time in my life.