They’re jumping rope with a noose, hop-scotching that tight rope between death and freedom.
The scene, straight out of “The Black Clown,” now at the American Repertory Theater, isn’t just for the stage.
This dance is the dance of Reginald Andrade, the UMass Amherst employee who was accosted by police Friday for walking to work while black. He regularly practices raising his hands in the air, just in case he’s stopped by police, so that he’s always seen as cooperative.
This dance is the dance of everyday black life and of fighting for the right to live it. This is the dance of “The Black Clown.”
The production, an adaptation of the poem by Langston Hughes, wraps around you like a bittersweet blanket in a cold, racist world.
Because I’m poor and black and funny —
Not the same as you
When Langston Hughes wrote this poem in 1931, he couldn’t know that in 2018, adapter and actor Davóne Tines would sing the words so soulfully our spirits would latch on to each note and claim our humanity. His blues still alive in our DNA.
The show, which closes Sept. 23, has been sold out all month.
“The Black Clown” is a stark reminder of our ongoing struggle to break free of supremacy. When Hughes wrote the poem, he called it “a dramatic monologue to be spoken by a pure-blooded Negro in the white suit and hat of a clown.”
Tines doesn’t wear a white suit. Blackness, the 31-year-old Tines says, has been relegated to something less than human. It doesn’t matter what we wear, he says.
“The Black Clown looks like any person that is black and existing in this country,” Tines says. “Anything that I choose to put on and walk around in the world in is our clown suit. The idea of always needing to cultivate parts of myself to fit into certain places, to have to speak a certain way, dress a certain way, to play a role and put up with more for less hassle because of what the alternative could be.”
Like being labeled “angry,” having the cops called, being falsely arrested or murdered. Even when you do all the right things, your blackness alone is enough to put you at risk.
When the day is through.
I am the fool of the whole world.
Laugh and push me down.
Only in song and laughter
I rise again — a black clown.
Reginald Andrade was walking into his office at UMass Amherst Friday morning in dress pants and work shoes, a gym bag slung over his shoulder — he’d just come from his morning workout at the rec center. Nothing about that should seem out of place.
But Andrade, UMass Amherst’s consumer manager for disability service, was questioned in his office by police detectives. Someone called police and reported an agitated black man carrying a duffle bag on campus.
“It was a good morning,” Andrade told me. “I like that walk, past the chapel, the sun is rising. I wasn’t agitated.”
Even if he were, does he not have the right to have a bad day? For Andrade, who was once a student at UMass Amherst, this was the third time he’d been profiled on campus. He’s been working there for 14 years. His first encounter with campus police came decades ago as a student, sitting in an empty classroom, listening to an audio book.
He was made to validate himself, to show his ID, to account for his existence.
“It feels like when you sprain your ankle,” he says. “The first time, it hurts but you rebound. The second time, there is scar tissue. It takes a little longer. It’s not like it used to be. The third time, it’s harder to get back to yourself. That’s how profiling feels. The psychological aftermath gets deeper and deeper.”
It’s not something you just shake off. You look at police differently. You move through life more carefully.
For Oumou Kanoute, the Smith College sophomore who faced campus police July 31 for simply eating lunch and relaxing while black, the criminalization of blackness is haunting.
“Being black is a beautiful thing,” she said. “I am so proud to be a black woman. It takes a lot of courage, thick skin, and knowing your history and where you want to go because everything in society teaches us not to love ourselves.”
No place to go.
Black — in a white world
Where cold winds blow.
The long struggle for life
“Being black, you are automatically put in this box and expected to fit these stereotypes. You are not expected to succeed,” Kanoute said. “To be out of that box is to be seen as out of place. We have to learn to look beyond differences and humanize people. I should be reviewing for organic chemistry . . . instead, I am out here trying to teach white people about racism.”
But to speak out is to be vilified. Colin Kaepernick hasn’t been employed by the NFL since soon after he took the knee to protest brutality. Officials in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Rhode Island have tried to ban Nike in various ways since the company featured Kaepernick in an ad. To utter the words “Black Lives Matter,” to be black and want equity makes you a threat. Ask Serena Williams. She spoke up, got a game penalty, and Australia’s Herald Sun gave her the Sambo treatment.
But Kanoute, Andrade, Kaepernick, and Williams are still alive. For so many people, living while black can get you killed. Like Botham Jean, the 26-year-old shot to death in his own home when off-duty Officer Amber Guyger broke into his home, claiming she thought it was hers, and mistook him for a burglar.
“Botham Jean was exactly the sort of citizen we want to have in the city of Dallas,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said. “A professional . . . a believer in his church, a neighbor to his friends. A man that always had a smile on his face. And for that reason, this is a terrible, terrible thing that has happened. Not only has he lost his life, but we’ve lost a potential leader for this city.”
Why do we have to be near perfect to be valued as humans? Even then, we’re vilified.
He didn’t listen to her verbal commands, Guyger claimed. There was weed on his counter, a search warrant found. Why is this man on trial for his own unwarranted murder?
Not wanted here; not needed there —
Black — you can die.
Nobody will care —
Yet clinging to the ladder,
Round by round,
Trying to climb up,
Forever pushed down.
In 2016, 70 percent of the nearly 15,000 individuals in Boston that police observed, interrogated, or searched were black, a Globe analysis found. Yet they are only about 25 percent of the city’s population.
In “The Black Clown,” Tines climbs a ladder that goes nowhere, sinking him back to the ground signifying our rise and fall. Yes, things change. But the racism is still the same.
“I thought a lot about the root cause of racialized police brutality,” Tines said. “That very instance when that officer is pointing the gun and making the decision to do something horrendous — in that moment, they are not seeing themselves reflected in the person. It becomes our job to make sure they see us as whole.”
Throughout “The Black Clown,” cast members are seen in front of and behind a white screen. This may be a play inspired by Hughes, but the screen is a reminder of historian W.E.B. Du Bois and his theory of the veil — the color line we live behind, the separation between how we see ourselves, how we are seen by the world, and the fracturing way in which that affects us. The gaze of the supremacist trying its best to displace black people in this country.
The climax of the play is when the cast marches through the audience in a processional, singing “Motherless Child.” Tines says it signifies a lot of things, but most certainly the fact that for African-Americans, this country does not want to be our home or our mother. Yet we still sing.
You can’t keep me down!
Tear off the garments
That make me a clown!
We dance. We love this country and fight for our place in it. It’s an ongoing struggle, but it’s one we won’t give up on.
“Is racism going to be here forever?” Andrade asked redundantly. “Yes. But we’re going to keep sharing our stories. We’re going to keep calling out systemic racism and stereotypes. We’re going to share my story. Some people will still believe stereotypes. But some people will change.”
And then some more after that. Slowly, we continue to tear away at the veil, to destroy the oppressive clothes of the clown so this circus tent might come down.
Look at the stars yonder
Calling through time!
Cry to the world
That all might understand:
I was once a black clown
But now —
I’m a man!
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee