One-Man Play Explores Specter of Slavery In Emergence-See!, a sunken slave ship from the past magically surfaces alongside the Statue of Liberty. Star and author Daniel Beaty portrays the reactions of 43 black characters to this inescapable symbol of slavery.
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One-Man Play Explores Specter of Slavery

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One-Man Play Explores Specter of Slavery

One-Man Play Explores Specter of Slavery

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

A: A sunken slave ship out of the past - a cargo of bones and chains - magically surfaces alongside the Statue of Liberty in present day New York Harbor. An entire community of characters - old, young, male, female, straight, gay, all of them black - make what they can of that puzzling event.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE PLAY "EMERGENCE-SEE!")

DANIEL BEATY: Slave ship, I thought this was the new carnival cruise.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BEATY: This is exactly why I never watched those damned PBS specials or talk about slave with my children. It just pisses me off. And what am I supposed to do with the anger?

SIEGEL: Earlier this year, he won an Obie - the off-Broadway equivalent of a Tony - for "Emergence-See!" During a run of the play here in Washington, he visited our studios and he talked about the conceit of many different characters reacting differently to the suddenly inescapable memory of slavery.

BEATY: I like to think of it as a whole community on stage. There are so many residual feelings and emotions and issues from the experience of slavery. And you can be wealthy, working in corporate America, or you could be living in the projects and still have some of those issues haunting you.

SIEGEL: And you find that in your life?

BEATY: Absolutely. I mean, I've had a very mixed upbringing. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, with a single-parent mother, a father who was a heroin addict and in and out of prison, a brother who was a crack addict and very present in my life, all dealing with that addiction. But I also had wonderful mentors and a wonderful model of my mother and was able to get a scholarship to private high schools and to go to Yale University. And there have been constant conflicts between my upbringing and who I am in the world today.

SIEGEL: When did it begin? When did you start performing? Either informally or formally?

BEATY: That was actually in second grade. And my second grade teacher, Ms. Adams, asked for volunteer to recite James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation" at an assembly. And we gathered in the gymnasium and I had memorized the poem, and I said this poem in front of all my classmates and teachers and parents. And I remember feeling I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, and it took off from there.

SIEGEL: From the second grade?

BEATY: From the second grade. Third grade, I had a teacher, Mavis Jackson(ph), who inspired us to do something third graders didn't usually do. I loved Martin Luther King Jr., and so she helped me write my first speech. And I wrote a speech called "I Think the Best, I Expect the Best." And she called the civic organizations like the Kiwanis and the Optimists. And so they have these third graders written a speech. And it took of from there. And by the time I was in sixth grade, I was traveling the country, giving speeches two weekends out of the month.

SIEGEL: One of the things that happens in "Emergence-See!" is that there is a poetry slam going on, a championship, and you play the part of various different competitors. And one of them recites your poem, "Knock Knock," which we'll just hear a moment of right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM "KNOCK KNOCK")

BEATY: We shared a game, knock knock, to that day when the knock never came. And my momma takes me on a ride past cornfields on this never ending highway, where we reach a place of high, rusty gates. A confused little boy entered the building carried in my momma's arm, knock knock. We reach...

SIEGEL: I saw you on YouTube doing this at the Apollo Theater, and the response from the audience to a story of your father being imprisoned, going to visit him and being absent. There's something visceral happening there with your audience.

BEATY: It begins with the story of this young man whose father's in prison. But in a transition, sort of this young man needing to imagine a father who says the words his father did not, which is I'm sorry, I never came home. And these are the lessons that you need to grow in to be a man. And so I think what people resonate with is the pain, but then the hope inside and out of the pain.

SIEGEL: But along the way in depicting this entire community of different characters, you are hitting up all sorts of different classic characters - stereotypes would be one way of saying it - and you're being a whole of them. I mean, do people ever come up to you and say, wait a minute, now, why do you have to put all these people on this play? Why do you have to be so authentic?

BEATY: You know, I usually win the hearts of my audience by the end. I have had some people say almost jokingly, I can't believe you said that on stage. That's what we say, you know, behind closed doors at, you know, our individual dinner tables. But one of the things that I consciously do is that I play with stereotype. You recognize this characters that you laugh, you feel comfortable, and then I try to go deeper.

SIEGEL: Give an example of that, will you?

BEATY: For example, the drag queen.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE PLAY "EMERGENCE-SEE!")

BEATY: She has our humor and she's being this personality that makes people laugh. That's very big. That's maybe shocking. But in the moment, she drops all of that and says, my demon - who she's been called, this desire to be the woman inside of herself - just wants to be free. She's giving birth to her own Statue of Liberty.

SIEGEL: I watched you on stage depict 43 different characters, you said, men, women, old, young. And then I saw you come out onto the stage and filled questions from the audience. When you come out on to the stage, is that character number 44, when you're - if you're still facing half the audience that's left and you're going to talk about your life and work at that moment?

BEATY: Well, Robert, I would say this to you. I see a wedding ring on your finger. So you're probably one Robert when you come in here to work and you're on the radio, another when you're with your wife. You know, another when you're maybe hanging with some of your best friends. I try to be as "authentic," quote, unquote, as possible.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

BEATY: But I have contradictions like everybody.

SIEGEL: See, I think one effect of the show, like - I hate to say this - a show like yours, because I'm not sure I've ever seen a show like yours before. But when you play that many different characters, I suspect that people who are watching you are seeing the character that's closest to themselves in demeanor and say, well, now, he's being real, you know? That's real right now. The others, he's playing a part. But since we don't get a chance to meet you on neutral ground before the production...

BEATY: Right.

SIEGEL: ...I think we project ourselves on to you and figure, well, that's what - obviously, that's what he's really like.

BEATY: I think that that is a temptation of people sometimes. I think people see people that they recognize also from the community - people that they might have just seen on the street and had an assumption about and then they get to know them a little bit more. Or, they see people who might have been from their family or they went to school with as well.

SIEGEL: Well, Daniel Beaty, author and star of the one-man play "Emergence- See!", thank you very much for talking with us.

BEATY: Thank you so much for having me.

SIEGEL: Daniel Beaty is performing "Emergence-See!" next in Atlanta, Winston- Salem, Edinburgh, Scotland and Seattle. You can find a full schedule of the performances and hear the entire poem "Knock Knock" at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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