Oppression gets futuristic in “The Wedding Gift”

A princess gets an unlikely present — a sex-trafficked white dude — in "The Wedding Gift." (Courtesy photo by Joe Moore)
A princess gets an unlikely present — a sex-trafficked white dude — in “The Wedding Gift.” (Courtesy photo by Joe Moore)

I hate slave narratives almost as much as I hate actual slavery.

“Kindred” by Octavia Butler is the last time I actually chose to engage with slavery in any fictional medium. So you can list for yourselves all the movies I have actively chosen not to see and all the books I have chosen not to read, because there are enough terrible things happening in real life without adding in fictional trauma.

That being said, from the moment I saw the promotional image for the play “The Wedding Gift,” playing now until October 8th at Gay City Arts, it sparked in me a deep curiosity. I knew I had to see it. Now I feel like everyone else should see it just so we can process it together.

“Set in a world so far in the future it’s stupid, an ordinary dude named Doug suddenly finds himself intergalactically sex-trafficked and gifted to the princess of a strange world on her wedding day.”

I pretty much stopped reading after the first sentence of the blurb because my imagination exploded into a kaleidoscope of how this could play out.

Picture it: The future. The lights come up on an all white back drop then out walks the jaw-droppingly gorgeous, predominantly POC cast, dressed for a wedding in gender fluid intergalactic bling. Adorned in gold glitter skirts, beads, jewels, tricked out tiaras, capes, dangerously high heels, and turquoise, each and every actor slayed collectively and individually. The costumes and the ritual of the wedding itself were giving me so much life that it took me a moment to realize no one was actually speaking.

And then they did, and I was like wait…what language is that? Are they going to act this entire play in a language I don’t understand. Flashing back to the two years I lived in Japan, I thought “okay so it’s mental subtitle time.” This could be fun.

And then it came time to open the wedding gifts. Enter “ordinary dude” (read: white…because even in a predominantly POC fictional paradigm, white still the norm) Doug, played by Andrew Shanks. Chained and visibly distressed, Doug speaks English. My first thought was, “hold up, is this the only character that has a speaking role in a language I’m going to understand?”

Will there always be oppression? Will there always be slavery? Will there always be violence?

I removed myself from award winning playwright Chisa Hutchinson’s imagination for a moment to roll my eyes and wonder why whiteness needed to be centered in this way. Like “Really? This is happening? Okay.”

So Doug clues us into the fact that he has just been abducted — from where, we’re not sure — stolen away from his daughter Hannah. He wants out. He goes through all the emotions you would expect; fear, anger, confusion, hopelessness, with the occasional moments of levity. His entire performance, including brief nudity, is meant to elicit our empathy. There are two other characters who are bilingual and help to clarify the story more, and they are also cast in more subservient roles.

In the meantime though, the wedding itself was gorgeous, the marriage between the royal couple Princess Nahlis and Prince Beshram is not off to an auspicious beginning. Feeling rejected, the Princess seeks solace and romance in her new pet, Doug.

I cannot tell you how uncomfortable this particular plot line made me — like gut twistingly filled with ick — as it played on the enduring capacity for lust, lack of choice, and power differentials, to be mislabeled as romantic. I didn’t care that it was a black woman exploiting a white man, it’s gross no matter who is fetishizing whom, and though that is a great point to make, I still marveled at the approach.

Nazlah Black, right, and Andrew Shanks, in The Wedding Gift. (Courtesy photo by Joe Moore)
Nazlah Black, right, and Andrew Shanks, in The Wedding Gift. (Courtesy photo by Joe Moore)

As the story spun on, language proved no barrier to getting sucked into the soap opera of royal drama. The acting was impeccable, with standout performances by Nazlah Black as Nahlis and Marquicia Dominquez as Onja. I was deeply impressed by the emotional range of the cast. Their talent cannot be underemphasized because it kept me engaged from start to finish. The costumes, the staging, and the use of ritual provided for an incredibly decadent and nuanced experience.

And yet, I left feeling cheated.

To spend 80 minutes in an audience of mostly people of color, watching a cast of mostly people of color act out a play birthed from the imagination of a black woman, that completely centered the white experience and upheld the constructs of slavery, violence, and oppression, was a total mind-fuck. It was a seductively packaged waking daymare of internalized oppression.

Even though at the end it seemed like Hutchinson was attempting to shift the narrative, without giving any spoilers, I was still left with so many questions about the structures of gender, race, color-ism and class and what liberation could look like in the future. Was this a play meant to deconstruct the white gaze or was it complicit with white bias? And how could I express my reactions publicly without feeling like I was policing the imagination of another black woman?

I realize I have been deeply influenced by Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Marie Brown’s conceptual framework of science fiction as social change.

Though Chisa Hutchinson made no claims to be on that same page, this is the root of my disappointment. It seems like Hutchinson is trying to educate white audiences about the emotional impacts of the slavery experience, or more broadly the experience of being marginalized and oppressed. But this play takes all of the worst practices of human nature and affirms that these things we are actively working to abolish are still present “so far in the future its stupid.”

Maybe it’s unfair to evaluate “The Wedding Gift” based on my deep seated longing to see work that centers people of color and gives me hope for the future. But I did, and I found it wanting.

That said, it was hauntingly beautiful and thought provoking. “The Wedding Gift” forced me to wonder what parts of human nature are actually unavoidable? Will there always be oppression? Will there always be slavery? Will there always be violence? In the same way that I know there will always be love, human kindness and compassion?

Can we ever evolve enough to truly live in a different world?

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2 Comments

  1. I’m learning a lot here:

    1. Seeing that Anglocentrist paradigm we’re all familiar with inverted is not satisfying, substantial, or engaging enough for you as a black audience member. You need to see more than the differences in how a man buttressed by centuries of affirmed and celebrated humanity reacts in a situation of sudden powerlessness (such as still trying to patronize his captor even though he really hasn’t got the status to). It appeals to you maybe from an anthropological perspective, but not emotionally or socio-politically? Is that what you’re saying?

    2. Though Nahlis (the bride) has clear wants and an arc over which she changes (from a self-centered, petulant, entitled brat to a compassionate and broad-minded citizen) you don’t recognize her as a protagonist or relate to her as a person because she doesn’t speak English. Interesting. Makes me wonder what would change if Nahlis and her people spoke English and Doug (the love slave) spoke gibberish. Also makes me want to reframe the language I use to describe this play.

    3. You would not cast a white guy as Doug if you were directing this piece.

    Duly noted. Thanks for your thoughtful response.

  2. Chisa, thank you again for speaking with me on the phone. I only wish we had more time. To point 1. What I am saying actually is that I hate slavery. After years of being force fed slave narratives in school, watching Roots, visiting slave castles in Ghana and Senegal, it doesn’t matter to me what color the slave is. I don’t feel any more empathy for Doug than I did for Kunta Kente…read: I empathized with both to a point of feeling traumatized. So maybe I am not your target audience. Maybe you are trying to reach people that don’t have a gut wrenching reaction…that’s totally valid. But what came up for me while watching this play is the same thing that comes up for me when attending social justice trainings. What is in it for me? If I already have a comprehensive analysis on whiteness, privilege, and power my interest is not in unpacking what I already know, but in learning something new. What if Nahlis had the revelation not only that Doug should be free, but that there should be no slavery and she set about deconstruction systems to make her kingdom equitable? Sign me up to watch that play! Point 2. I do recognize Nahlis as a protagonist, but she is not the center of the play. And even though it ends with her “gifting” Doug his freedom, there is no true liberation for any of the characters. To point 3. No I wouldn’t have…not if I were planning it with a majority POC audience in mind. All of that said…the play was well written, beautifully staged, and acted. And I am curious to see how your work evolves.

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