Reviving 'The Taking of Miss Janie'
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Ed Bullins' play, “The Taking of Miss Janie,” centers on the rape of a white woman by her black friend, Monty. When the award-winning piece opened in the mid-1970s, Bullins' described it as a metaphor for American race relations. But how does that metaphor hold up three decades after the play's debut.
A revival of “The Taking of Miss Janie” is currently running at the Abrons Art Center in New York. I recently spoke with Shauneille Perry, director of the current production, and actor Royce Johnson. Johnson explains how his character, Monty, and Janie get to know each other.
Mr. ROYCE JOHNSON (Actor): We have a creative writing class together when we first meet and I invite her to a party. So over - us going to the party, we become friends and we stay friends for about 10 to 13 years. At the end of that 13-year mark, we decide to be alone and I, basically, make moves on her and we sleep together and she has to justify it by calling it rape.
CHIDEYA: Shauneille, how was this play a metaphor for race relations in America in the ‘70s when it opened? And there are questions of perception that's raised throughout the play.
Ms. SHAUNEILLE PERRY (Director, “The Taking of Miss Janie”): It is a question of perception because I'd like to take note that the play is called “The Taking of Miss Janie.” And Mr. Bullins, himself, in various interviews, has said it was a friendly rape, quote/unquote. I'm not exactly sure what that means but I do know that in the play it's quite clear in the lines that Janie does not leave. She's not literally accosted and so on.
In fact, she presents herself at the end. So, I think, Bullins was saying that Janie represents America, Monty represents black America and it was the black America in the taking of white America.
I don't like to speak too much for the author but I think the word, rape, which I supposed is used for publicly purposes to get people in. But I think it's an overstatement of what actually happened and remembering that it's called “The Taking of Miss Janie.”
CHIDEYA: Shauneille, you say that the white actress presents herself, the character presents herself in this sexual situation, what do you mean by that?
Ms. PERRY: I mean that she comes to the party. She acquiesces in or appears to acquiesce in what Monty is offering. And she does not leave. At no time does she leave in the play, at no time in the play, before does she says no.
Remember, this play starts at the end and ends at the beginning. We had a long and difficult time with that, working out what exactly Ed meant and how he wanted it presented. But the conclusion for both the actress and myself was that if she remained, she was using the word rape to justify to herself what her action was.
CHIDEYA: You used the name Monty, which is the character that Royce plays.
Mr. PERRY: Yes. Yes.
CHIDEYA: Can you tell us a little bit more about him?
Ms. PERRY: Monty is a young college boy of the times, who enjoys many women. He's a player. I suppose they call him today. And perhaps in those days it was a little more dangerous and that he was playing with a variety of different kinds of women, ethnic women that is, today.
I mean I noticed from the younger audiences that we have today that these things are no longer new or even different for them. So the times have a lot to do with the perception.
CHIDEYA: Royce, with your character, Monty, first of all, how do people respond to you when you are on stage? What kind of energy do you feel from people as you were in that role?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the opening scene is the taking scene and I feel a negative - a very negative energy when I - when you see a black man about to commit such an act and her being a white lady. But throughout the play I get a chance to prove that this is not exactly what it looks like. I get a chance to win the audience over in a very charming way.
Ms. PERRY: May I say something?
CHIDEYA: Yes, please.
Ms. PERRY: As a member of the twilight generation, I do look and notice that I don't think that the audience has the same kind of horror that Royce thinks or the kind of horror that they might have had some years ago. I think they see two attractive people and are, indeed, somewhat, fascinated and probably would be titillated, if they weren't under the covers. I think it's seen almost in a romantic way today except by people of another generation.
CHIDEYA: Questions of oppression, gender, agency, safety, these are eternal questions, as well as, the question of rape and race, you know. It strikes me that when we have something like O.J. Simpson's recent media debacle over this book, “If I Did It,” questions of black men and white women and how sex is played out in the bedroom and then interpreted by the rest of the world are still very much a part of our discussion.
So do people approach you, I guess, Shauneille, first and then Royce second, do people approach you after the play wanting to talk about it? Do people find that this play gives them a chance to open up about these very weighty issues?
Ms. PERRY: Quite frankly not as much as I thought. Very few people really talk about the rape except to ask or wonder was she really raped and how do we come to that? But usually they talk about other issues.
CHIDEYA: Royce, what has acting in this production done for you as an actor, as a person who also dialogues with an audience?
Mr. JOHNSON: The strong need still for change. I mean, I know it's a period piece that I would call it, and I see a young group of people who want to make their mark in the world - being a poet, being a college student and I just got out of college myself like four years ago and I still see that we - we're still hungry as young people.
CHIDEYA: Shauneille Perry, Royce Johnson, thank you for joining us.
Ms. PERRY: Thank you for having us.
Mr. JOHNSON: Thank very much.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: Director Shauneille Perry and actor Royce Johnson have revived the play, “The Taking of Miss Janie.” It runs through Saturday at the Louis Abrons Art Center in New York.
That's our show for today and thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, just visit NPR.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.