UPDATE Friday, March 13: this event has been canceled. Refunds available at point of purchase.
Day of Absence is a show with one joke and two audiences. The joke is revealed in the title: one day, all the people of color disappear from a Southern town. This provides an occasion for some rather gentle satire of white people’s helplessness and cluelessness once they lose their entire heretofore invisible support structure. For a Black audience, at least the audience at the Congo Square Theatre Company’s press opening of the show, the predictable jokes—white people don’t know how to comfort their own babies; white people can’t drive themselves or throw out their own garbage; white people are confounded by an African American woman’s having short hair today and long hair tomorrow—are riotous. It must be pleasant to see people who’ve ridiculed you be ridiculed in turn; but “pleasant” is not the same as “funny.”
The second audience is white people, for whom the show is intended as a mirror into our own ugliness. White audience members are supposed to be made uncomfortable. Perhaps at its debut in 1965, the show performed its function; but for a reasonably liberal audience in Chicago 55 years later, it’s too easy to dismiss the portraits of white people as well-deserved comeuppance for those other white people—the ones named Clem, with southern accents and MAGA hats—and remain comfortably sure that we are the exception. The play just isn’t harsh enough to evoke anything else.
There’s another layer of joke beyond the central conceit: every white character (that’s all but one in the play) is played by a person of color in whiteface; author Douglas Turner Ward called Day of Absence “a reverse minstrel-show.” But whiteface fails as commentary on the disgrace of blackface: the latter is insulting, and intended to be, a joke played on people who couldn’t defend themselves. This was a point still struggling to be heard in 1965, even after Ralph Ellison’s pivotal 1958 essay “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke” condemned blackface; so the use of whiteface at that time was clever, and even slightly subtle. Today, though, we recognize blackface as a punch in the nose, while whiteface is just makeup. To the extent that it comments on white people at all, it’s a joke played on people who have no need for defense.
The idea of a day of absence remains vibrant. Women in Mexico are currently organizing one to highlight the government’s indifference to violence against women, and it was an annual event for many years at Evergreen State College in Washington, where students of color stayed off campus to discuss issues of equity and inclusion. The tradition came to an end in 2017 when it finally succeeded in its purpose of making white people uncomfortable: the nonwhite organizers announced that to observe the day that year, whites would be excluded from campus. In protesting this decision, one faculty member wrote, “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and underappreciated roles . . . and a group encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness, which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.” The professor did not address what should happen when the “forceful call to consciousness” loses its force.
All the actors, under the direction of Anthony Irons, do a fine job with the agitprop script, which includes significant updating—references to “POCs,” pronounced “pox,” and allusions to Latinos, including jokes about ICE. I would have preferred if Ann Joseph, as the Mayor, had varied her delivery more: when you start out yelling, there’s really no place to go but louder. But her speech to the absentees—including an embarrassing anecdote about her “Mam-nanny”—is a tour de force. And when the white people have a complete meltdown and start picketing, there are two sides to every sign: “Come back and we’ll stop” [reverse] “AND FRISK.” Kudos to Sydney Lynne Thomas for her scenic and property design.
But Day of Absence, at least in this iteration, is less a condemnation of racism than a historical artifact. I’m glad to have seen it, but it hasn’t changed the way I look at the world—and I know it was supposed to. v