Saturday, October 31, 2009
Miracle Play - by Joyce Carol Oates
This one is published by Black Sparrow Press. I love their publications. As a high school student I had a few of Bukowski's books that they published with their rough cardboard colored covers. I picked this one up in a used book store pretty much because it was published by them and because I'd never heard of it.
And it's not anything like what I expected. I guess I thought, literary, magical somehow, rooted in emotion and character. Probably. Maybe playing with the form as a writer not typically known for plays might do. I was ready for a surprise.
So, Miracle Play, first performed in 1974, is an urban crime drama. It opens with Titus Skinner (29) getting ready to beat up his sometimes girlfriend, Beattie Roscoe (16) for stealing $500 worth of his product, heroin. The next scene has Titus's brother's face being scalded with boiling sugar water by Beattie's brother and his friend in retaliation. Then Beattie's brother and his friend are burnt alive by Titus. The play is the attempt to make a court case against Titus by the Prosecutor, a white man who promises a conviction if Beattie will testify against Titus. Titus is defended by Kidd, a white man, who uses Titus as a symbol of all that is wrong for blacks in America and fights to have him set free. At one point he is given $100,000 for Titus's defense, he says from gentle white people who want to help. Titus's brother gapes in disbelief, partly that anyone would give that kind of money to help his brother - who he knows is guilty, is a drug dealer, and is a threat to everybody in the neighborhood - but mostly he gapes that anyone would have that kindof money just lying around.
Now I suppose this type of material is used to fuel Law & Order and many other hour long crime dramas. But here, 1974, written by a white woman, writing an urban, black story - I wonder how it was received. I wonder how the conversations were different then. Was it praised for it's unblinking portrayal of black urban america? For her ear for how people talk? It's not sentimental. It's not looking to make heros of any of the characters, there's a tragedy to some - an innocence that doesn't last. And the dealer, Titus, has the last word - about growing up and expecting to end up in the electric chair, but now that states are doing away with that things'll change. Then to win over the jury with an act so impressive they'll have to let him go he sticks a lightbulb on his forehead and lights it up.
It's a play that feels of a particular time, the 70s, New York City - I don't know that it fits now - not that the story it tells doesn't happen anymore - but its not what theatre does, its what TV does. Though I doubt that is for the better - seeing how TV mines those stories for the salaciousness of actions rather than the motivations of the characters bound by themselves and their society.
I was looking for a surprise and I received one, all preconceptions over turned and in that Black Sparrow Press and Ms. Oates did not disappoint.