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Black to the future: From page to stage

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

LAWRENCE — Nicole Hodges Persley has been busy, submitting one book to her publisher, researching a second and co-editing a special edition of an academic journal. In November, she was named associate dean for diversity, equity & inclusion by the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

And while the University of Kansas associate professor of theatre took a sabbatical from teaching during the spring semester, she used part of that time to mount a new, original play that she says fits in with her research on revolutionary movements in black theatre.

“I can’t just go into archives and look at books all day,” Persley said. “I’m an artist-scholar, and to direct a play like this helps me to write and research differently.”

Persley said she would like to be the Lloyd Richards to Kansas Citian Lewis Morrow’s August Wilson. Richards directed and helped shape Wilson’s groundbreaking plays like “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “Fences” that helped to define black life in America.

In 2016, Persley directed Morrow as an actor in a revival of a century-old anti-lynching play, “Rachel,” staged by KC Melting Pot Theatre, where she serves as associate artistic director. Now, she is directing Morrow in a play he wrote, “Ain’t No Such Thing as Midnight Black.” Melting Pot’s workshop production of Morrow’s three-act drama runs May 25-June 9.

Whereas the NAACP-sponsored “Rachel” amounted to a plea to stop lynching and, ultimately, for an equal and integrated United States, “Midnight Black” is a cry of frustration that morphs into a call for revolutionary resegregation on the part of Morrow’s protagonist, Ellington DeCloud. In this near-future scenario, Ellington plans to lead 1,000 African-Americans to carve out their own racially exclusive enclave within the United States in order to escape a climate of anti-black violence.

Persley said Morrow’s play comes out of “a really arrested time for black people in America” and explores the Martin Luther King Jr. vs. Malcolm X, Black Panther vs. Killmonger dichotomy.

“For black men, the future is always questionable,” Persley said. “What are the guarantees of any black future, because the past inequalities continue to recycle into the present? We are revisiting times we thought were long gone perpetually now on a loop. How can we envision moving forward when we are shackled to a past that has never been addressed?

“This play is an interesting piece to think about what kind of radical social movement can be successful in the 21st century, one that doesn’t repeat the failures of the past. Morrow’s play asks why a group of 20- and 30-something African-Americans feel their only alternative is to remove themselves from this society? They are tired of waiting for behaviors to change and for promises that are never kept. Ultimately, the playwright asks at what point is it insanity to do the same things, expecting different results?”

Persley used part of her sabbatical semester to finish editing the text of her forthcoming book for the University of Michigan Press, “Sampling and Remixing Hip-Hop in Contemporary Theatre and Performance.” It’s expected out in 2019.

Her book focuses on theatre and performance influenced by hip-hop. She had to work in the latest Broadway blockbuster, she said, joking: “I got a little detoured by ‘Hamilton.’”

Persley also has begun researching her following book project, a biography of actress Fredericka “Fredi” Washington, who typified the so-called “tragic mulatto” stereotype in 1930s films like “Imitation of Life.” Though she was light-skinned and was asked to “pass” for white, Persley said, Washington vehemently denied calls to reject her blackness and was an admirably radical activist in both racial and labor endeavors. Persley has tentatively titled the book “Not Tragic.”

Persley has also worked with Baron Kelly, University of Louisville associate professor of theatre, to edit a special edition of the Open Cultural Studies journal from the De Gruyter publishing house titled “B(l)ack Futures: Flat Time in Black Performance.” The editors write that they have sought out submissions that “explore the conditions of future black life in performance.” It is expected to be published in the fall of this year.

Photo: Nicole Hodges Persley directs Lewis Morrow (left) and Brett Nelson (right) in a rehearsal of "Ain't No Such Thing as Midnight Black." Credit: Rick Hellman