"A Free Man of Color"
This interview with Jeffrey Wright is predictably wonderful and thoughtful. And I think this observation, “that’s rare among white writers, white directors that I’ve been involved with, that they’re willing to have a vulnerable conversation about race. I mean, that’s a function of the hackles and defensiveness that all too often get in the way of a real clear and productive communication,” is quite true. It’s what made David Mamet’s Race so bad. Mamet wanted the play to be rawand confrontational, but he forgot somewhere to make it honest, to understand that provocation isn’t the same as empathy.
It’s one of the reasons I think Belize, the role in Angels in America that helped make Wright famous, is so well-done. Belize cares deeply about his white friends, most important among them Prior, but Kushner isn’t afraid to have him deliver devastating set-downs to white characters who cannot respond to them, and to make it clear that some of his white characters don’t understand Belize at all as a person, much less as a black man. There’s this great scene in Perestroika, the second half of Angels, when Belize tells Louis, the man who walked out on Prior Walter when he learned his lover had AIDS:
Just so’s the record’s straight: I love Prior but I was never in love with him. I have a man, uptown, and I have since long before I first laid my eyes on the sorry-ass sight of you…you never bothered to ask. Up in the air, just like that angel, too far off the earth to pick out the details. Louis and his Big Ideas. Big Ideas are all you love…The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word “free” to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me.
What I love about that scene is Kushner’s refusal to give Louis an opportunity for a comeback, his utter comfort with giving a black man the last word on the matters of race. That scene is not about Louis’s correction and redemption by a saintly black man. It’s a tough, honest conversation between friends, one of whom is finding out that he isn’t nearly as good a friend to the other as he thought he was. What writers of any variety owe the issue of race is honesty.