Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. —Ta-Nehisi Coates from Between the World and Me
Published last summer and spending its 17th week on the New York Times best-seller list as I write this, Between the World and Me is a book-length letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his teenage son, offering a harsh assessment of what it is to be black in America. Coates explains that black bodies don’t belong to the people living in them, that the American dream is a white fantasy—and a fantasy of whiteness—conjured “at black people’s expense.” Don’t expect to breach the lotus-eater bubble of the Dreamers, Coates advises his son. “Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.”
Thomas Bradshaw‘s new play, Fulfillment, might as well be the stage version of Between the World and Me—a case study comprising scenes from the life of Michael, a 40-year-old black “senior associate” at a heavy-hitting New York law firm.
At first that life looks pretty good. Michael claims to enjoy his 80-hour weeks. He’s closing on a tiny but impressively expensive SoHo condo whose kitchen features a backsplash made of Italian green glass and Tanzanian Anigre wood cabinets. (Google that last phrase and you get what appears to be the real-life apartment Bradshaw had in mind. Sorry, it’s been sold.)
More thrillingly, Michael’s struck up an affair with a white coworker named Sarah, who has a taste for unorthodox sex. Our hero confides to best friend Simon—also white—that their first date ended with a spanking in a stairwell.
But shit is about to hit the fan, and Michael is pathetically unprepared for it, having allowed himself to forget that, for all his success, he’s just a black body living among Dreamers. The greater part of Bradshaw’s 90-minute one-act plays out like an American black man’s stations of the cross, Michael moving from pose to pose in the profane, occasionally pornographic drama of his crowning and crucifixion.
In one pose, Michael plays the rough black buck to Sarah’s willowy white plantation mistress, wrapping his hand around her throat to get her off. When it becomes evident that Michael is an alcoholic in need of a 12-step program, the lovers move on to their next pose: Sarah as missionary, bringing a benighted negro to salvation. (“C’mon, Michael, get down on your knees,” she coaxes. “Repeat after me.”) Michael’s relationships with the other white people in his life follow similarly hoary, fantasy-fulfilling trajectories.
Michael has absorbed these racial scenarios as completely as anyone, and so he performs his roles, failing to understand that he’s got no real influence over the narrative. That he’ll never be, as they say, the hero of his own story. Fulfillment will no doubt be compared to Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, another drama in which a lawyer who thinks he’s earned his way out of a culturally imposed identity (Pakistani Muslim) into the safety of wealth and whiteness discovers that it’s nowhere near that simple. But Bradshaw’s pageantlike succession of scenes put me in mind of an older work about a man gets pummeled by identity: Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, Alban Berg’s opera of which, Wozzeck, is receiving a depressingly powerful production now at Lyric Opera.
Whatever Bradshaw’s inspirations may be, his script suffers an indifferent staging by Ethan McSweeny at American Theater Company—the Chicago half of a world premiere copresented with New York’s the Flea. There’s a lot of comedy in Fulfillment, especially with regard to Michael’s floor-stomping upstairs neighbor, but McSweeny never figures out how to integrate it into the rest of the show. On the other hand, some explicit sex scenes—”choreographed” by Yehuda Duenyas and essential to our understanding of the Michael/Sarah dynamic—work well. Erin Barlow and Stephen Conrad Moore are thoroughly competent as Sarah and Michael respectively, but her wispiness and his impressive muscles play into American racial fantasies when it might’ve been more interesting to see the characters cast against stereotype. The Dream, after all, subsumes reality. v
Correction: This review has been amended to reflect the name of the actor who plays Sarah, Erin Barlow.