By Bonnie Gordon
For almost two years, Charlottesville has felt like Act IV, Scene 1 of Macbeth. So when I saw Black Mac, a radically black take on Shakespeare’s play about the violent hauntings of the past, it felt like a staging of collective memory, trauma, power, and space.
Directed by 23-year-old black Oberlin student Ti Ames, the production, with 11 black actors and actresses, put in counterpoint black vernacular and Shakespearean language.
Here in #Charlottesville, before the anniversary of the violent Unite the Right rally, it was impossible not to witness Black Mac and think that, for all his theatrical and operatic knowledge, Richard Spencer (a music major during his time at UVA who worked in German opera houses) could only borrow props, words, and gestures from the distant past. His attempt at staging Charlottesville was hollow and unoriginal. Black Mac’s mostly very young cast and their audience have, indeed, replaced you.
And it was hard not to think that Jason Kessler sounds like Macbeth with a life that is a “tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / signifying nothing.”
Missing, all too often from national media photos and stories about Charlottesville and of bigotry and evil (because that’s what it is) are stories of resistance, of powerful black institutions, and of creative power.
That’s the story of this production, and especially the place where it occurred, which insists that history matters not just when it’s violent and familiar, but also when it’s quiet and sustained—a long tone.
Black Mac occurred in the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, a space that has been a spiritual center for the African American community here for more than 125 years and is one of the few buildings that remained standing after the city demolished a thriving black community called Vinegar Hill.
It’s easy these days to know that in 1924 the Robert E. Lee statue (which last year’s rally was never about) was dedicated in a ceremony to the Confederate Lost Cause, photographs of which eerily resemble the assemblages of white nationalists we saw here last year. But more importantly in 1924, black Charlottesville parents petitioned the school board for a black high school.
While the Jefferson School had had a theater program from 1895 through the 1950s, the arts in Charlottesville remain a devastatingly segregated arena, and it starts with our children.
The night I saw Black Mac, the audience was small—38 people. But many of those people have worked to make sure all kids in this racist town have access to creative practice. These people and the institutions they run may not make the national news, but they matter.
“Something wicked this way comes.” If wicked means bad and violent, then the wicked something comes from the horrific hate unleashed by Donald Trump. Many writers have already had fun with Trump as Macbeth, a guy whose heinous narcissistic ambitions never let him admit defeat or fear even when the evidence shows otherwise. “I cannot taint with fear,” says MacTrump.
Macbeth takes advice from witches who stir up a mixture of paranoia and hate of the other that knows no bounds. Trump stirs up Central American kids in detention centers. He hates and fears the other so much that apparently he doesn’t mind killing its young.
But if “wicked” is something linked to magic, then we can find here and in many other spaces amazing powers of resistance and resilience. We saw that kind of wicked on this surreal anniversary weekend when the white nationalist theater of hate was replaced by a police state theater of the absurd.
Bonnie Gordon is a music professor at UVA.