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This article by Cynthia Yoder was prepared for the April 7, 2004

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Play Turns Minstrel Comedy Inside Out

A young playwright at Princeton University has put a new twist on an old theatrical form. "Playing in the Dark," a "multi-media, minstrel dramedy," written and directed by Khalil Sullivan, will be performed at the Berlind Theater at McCarter, April 16, 17, 22, 23, and 24, at 8 p.m.

While the minstrel shows of 150 years ago had white characters wearing blackface to portray – and deride – African-American culture, "Playing in the Dark’s" minstrel characters are white. The play is moving as a love story and father-son story, while throwing aspects of white culture and interracial relationships into comic relief.

At the core of "Playing in the Dark" is a love story between two young men. Justin, a white student, plans to come out to his father over dinner at a restaurant. On the way, he meets Solomon, an African-American, who is determined to keep that door to his identity tightly shut. The play follows the young men’s relationship and how they try to make it work despite the obstacles.

Three comedic minstrel characters are Solomon’s roommates – who think Solomon is straight – and are exaggerated as female-obsessed, beer-guzzling, straight boys. Also in the mix is Justin’s father, who is indifferent toward his son.

"Playing in the Dark" takes its name from Toni Morrison’s collection of critical essays of that title. The playwright says he was also heavily influenced by the writings of W.E.B. Dubois.

"The main character points to theories by Dubois regarding double consciousness," says Sullivan. Dubois suggested that an African-Americans sees himself as "I" – I think therefore I am – and also as other people see him.

The show is multi-media, with live video feed and original, pre-recorded music. Video is used to represent Dubois’ "second consciousness," portayed by another actor who appears on film via live video feed from back stage. "The film is meant to represent the voice in the back of Solomon’s head – the voice of his mind," Sullivan says. A composer as well as a writer, Sullivan’s own music compositions, recorded prior to the performance, are played "canned" during the show.

Minstrel shows in the United States originated before the Civil War, in the 1830s and ’40s. White, working-class men dressed up as slaves, slathered on blackface, and brought ersatz black music, dance, and comedy to the stage for the first time. Unfortunately, their portraits were coarse and stereotypically ignorant, compounding negative perceptions of black Americans.

"They were sketch pieces, typically comical," says Sullivan. "But the stereotypical black characters weren’t quite like African Americans at all. They were white perceptions put onto a black body."

Sullivan says he was inspired to write the play after studying the history of African-Americans on stage.

"From the very beginning," Sullivan notes, "the black body was forced into the limelight, placed on a pedestal for spectacle and amusement. It became a canvas onto which America mapped its horrors and achievements. It became a puppet in a show in which it had no power."

Sullivan says that in his studies at Princeton, he re-traced the movements of the past 150 years and "re-evaluated them as revolutions for control of the body, of the image, of the ability to control representation and perception."

"I could not change who looked at me," he says, "but could I change what and how the hegemonic American public viewed my body?"

And while he was scouring history, Sullivan that found present-day representations of black Americans also leave much to be desired. African-Americans are still lacking fair media representation, he notes.

"Black films are overlooked by the Academy and if any black artists win Grammy Awards, it’s oftentimes to popularized, negatively stereotyped figures, who only further inappropriate black stereotypes," he says. "There’s a systemic culture that promotes image in our culture. Anything counter to that accepted image is seen as counter-revolutionary, odd, strange, unfamiliar. I’m not sure if it’s an American phenomenon or a human phenomenon, but it happens."

A senior from New Carrollton, Maryland, Sullivan is the son of two microbiologists. At Princeton, he is earning a degree in English and a certificate in the Program in Theater and Dance. He has already directed three of his works on stage, including, "Healing Jude," "My Brother’s Keeper," and "The Fishbowl." In May, 2002, he composed a short operetta with librettist Thurston Drake (Class of ’02), titled "When the Morning Stars Sang."

Sullivan has worked under the direction of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, acclaimed choreographer and dancer Aleta Hayes, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and the celebrated American composer William Banfield. Most recently he collaborated and composed music for a short dance piece choreographed by Aleta Hayes at the Williamsburg Art Nexus and Brooklyn Museum of Art.

"Playing in the Dark" will be performed in the Berlind Theatre at McCarter, where Sullivan was mentored by Liz Engelman, McCarter Theater’s former literary director.

After graduation, Sullivan says he is heading for New York City’s theater scene. He also wants to attend graduate school and continue playwriting. Whatever the path, this is a young artist with vision and a voice.

– Cynthia Yoder

Playing in the Dark, Princeton University Theater & Dance Program, Berlind Theater, University Place, 609-258-2787. A new play by Khalil Sullivan ’04. $10. Friday, April 16; also April 17, 22, 23, and 24 at 8 p.m.


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