Oregon Shakespeare Festival convened its annual Juneteenth celebration on the festival campus Monday (the 18th, but also a day the festival is otherwise shut) with a series of events and celebrations, including a full reading of Kevin Douglas’s “Plantation!,” a compelling play that attempts to tackle the horrifying history of the American slave trade through a comedic lens.
Lillian (Bobbi Charlton) is the aging matriarch of a Texas cotton-growing family who has sprouted a conscience in her old age, deciding to give away her massive farming property to the descendants of slaves — specifically, slaves who may be related to her family by blood in a Sally Hemings-style scenario — in an attempt to make amends for past injustices. This does not sit at all well with her three obnoxiously prejudiced Southern daughters, Kimberly (Sara Bruner), Kara (Annie Paul), and Kayley (Royer Bockus), themselves the epitome of blind white privileged and conspicuous entitlement, made all the more insidious as a result of significant family wealth.
Throw into the mix three black women from Chicago named London (Kamilah Long), Sydney (TaiReicka Glover L.A.), and Madison (Whitney Reed), who have been located by Lillian and brought to the South for a family pow-wow, and you have a potent recipe for disaster. Misunderstandings ensue and the expected assumptions about race are made by both sides, as initial politeness deteriorates into a slightly absurd but theoretically viable outcome — one that shows how the excellent premise and idea of “reparation” can quickly deteriorate into fresh new approaches to racism and disenfranchisement when that subject is abstractly or improperly handled.
White privilege literally runs amuck in the play. Douglas is adept at using humor as a somewhat effective anesthetic for a painful conversation that must be had, and should continue to be had.
The play is a good one on many levels, but it seems as though much of what is put to paper here is too easy on white folks. There are brief flashes of pain, pride and real passion, but for the most part, the piece seems designed to provide just enough information to Caucasians of a certain age so as to make them uncomfortable, but not painfully so, giving them an opportunity to laugh off the true implications of their crimes. For example, Lillian’s decision to give over her property to her distant relatives, while noble on the face of things, is not substantially examined. Moments of truth are quickly buried under laugh lines. On balance, it’s an appeasement piece, and that’s not funny at all.
One can understand Mr. Douglas’s approach in a country where racism is so pervasive and rampantly expressed across the board on a daily basis that it continues to be normalized. It comes in the form of the sort of passive, patrician, happy-bubble liberal clothing that is so constant in towns like Ashland and elsewhere, but let’s not forget that there are also Klan pamphleteers at work in the community. The white woman sitting two seats down from me at the show asked — perhaps told — a young black man in front of her to remove his hat so that she could see the stage, then winced visibly when the departure of the offending garment revealed an Afro that was taller than the headgear. Microaggressions like this are all too familiar to people of color in any community. It’s not enough these days for an advantaged class to be permitted to laugh uncomfortably. In the current climate, art should be more of a weapon, less of an entertainment.
The play was directed by Christiana Clark, with stage direction by Meg Chambers. Afterwards, a small showing of photographs honored the legacy of G. Valmont Thomas, the prolific and excellent OSF company member who died of cancer in late 2017. Photos of Mr. Thomas in productions from 1998 onward were on view.
“Plantation!” by Kevin Douglas and the ensuing photo display were available to audiences for one day only on Monday, June 18, at the Black Swan Theatre, South Pioneer Street in Ashland.
Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at email@example.com.