This week I’ve been gearing up for a new play reading of ‘The Mis-Education of America’ by Rajendra Rahoon Maharaj, incorporating writings by the Letter of Marque Theatre Company Ensemble around metaphorical mask wearing during these times. It’s a timely dissection of self created facades we use around each other to survive, to fit into an inherently racist society, to hide our vulnerabilities.
As a white woman my own emotional masks, simply to hide my hurt feelings, fear of rejection and eccentricities, seem flimsy and disposable compared to the Native American, Asian, Latinx and Black experience that have forced the creation of protective masks made to withstand the onslaught of systemic racism. These masks demand following all rules to a perfection, no cracks and no emotions visible, a forced smile without tears.
Regardless of race, social media is also happily condoning the use of masks of self-enforced perfection, and facades of happiness, that hope to gloss over the conversation of mental health in this country.
This Poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, written in 1896 was a huge jumping off point for the writing.
We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
The play also incorporates the art of Michael Ray Charles, who studied advertising and design before receiving his BFA and plays with the black racial stereotypes in advertising such as Sambo and Golliwogs (in England) that were widely distributed up to the 1960s, and carrying on until today with the Aunt Jemima brand (based on Nancy Green) which is being phased out in September. “Racist commercial objects and advertisements [were and still are] a vicious tool of white supremacy intended to demean and intimidate African Americans and to justify antiblack violence.”***
His paintings are re imaginings of these harmful figures, ” “What I’ve heard is that people are saying the images are so damaging they shouldn’t be used at all,” says Blaffer Gallery director Don Bacigalupi .” * Instead MRC uses them to advertise “Forever Free” the dream that was sold to black people. “This product symbolizes the false promises of freedom made to African Americans by America and particularly also by the consumer market through their false images.” ** ‘In an interview from 1998, Charles said, “I think about so many people whose lives have been affected by these images. A lot of black people have died and many are dying under their weight. That’s motivation enough for me to explore and deal with these things” ‘ ***
They are works that are still unsettling for some, particularity in the Black community, MCR has said, “I’m challenging the idea of what black identity is. And I think some people have a problem when things don’t look the way they would prefer them to look.”* But they are works that demand dialogue, and are unburying racial stereotypes that the white collective would prefer were easily forgotten for an easy absolution. ““We don’t really talk about the things we need to talk about,” he says. “We’re moving farther away from sitting at the table, talking face to face.”” **
For more on Michael Ray Charles, including a published retrospective which came out in April this year see below.
Rajendra Ramoon’s Maharaj’ play ‘The MisEducation of America’ is enforcing this conversation, which contrary to MCR’s conviction “The consequences […] won’t be so much a race war as a retreat into an intensified version of the icy separateness he remembers from his childhood, a society where the “hidden conversation” of racism proceeds with […] vicious undercurrents[,]” is a conversation being had across dinner tables across America thanks to the Black Lives Movement rising up during a pandemic, making it impossible to not talk about Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Walter Wallace Jr., a tiny fraction of the ghosts that are now actively haunting this supposedly free America. Also referenced in the play are Srinivas Kuchibhotla, Matthew Shepherd, Renee Davis – click on their names to see their stories.
A series of Collages inspired from Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj’s play and the LOM ensemble writings.
For more a more personal collection of collaged masks, check out my previous blog, inspired by Kim Gordon.
I’ll leave you with a beautiful spoken piece by Maya Angelou, also inspired by the We Wear the Mask poem