Book-It’s version of “Braggsville” — T. Geronimo Johnson’s novel about Berkeley students staging a protest in Georgia with a fake lynching — is an adroit study in ignorance, from all sides of the political spectrum.
My mother is dead. So is her father.
Sometimes you have to wait until a few people die before you tell certain stories.
My grandfather grew up a small-town Southern boy, a World War II veteran whose job was (at times) to sit on the bumper of the first truck rolling through the woods on the German front because he was a country kid who could read the broken branches and twigs for signs of enemy soldiers. That also meant his head was the first in line to be shot by a sniper during a night run — but he never bragged about that.
“Welcome to Braggsville”
Through July 2, Book-It Repertory Theatre, Center Theatre at the Armory, Seattle; $15-$55 (206-216-0833 or book-it.org).
He, a hater of all Nazis, was later part of a secret white-supremacist society (like the Klan, but not exactly), a quasi-literate who helped run a racist newspaper — and, so I’ve been told, his most beloved friends were African Americans who worked with him as a bricklayer. However, he explained patiently to me and my siblings on various occasions, they’d never dare to invite each other’s families over for dinner. In the climate of that small Southern town, he said, “it’d be too awkward for everyone.”
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When one of those friends died, my grandfather broke the town rules and attended his funeral at “the black church,” standing in the back by the door (it would’ve been a more serious transgression on everyone’s part to let him sit in a pew) while weeping openly, as the family lore goes, “like a baby with the colic.”
When I tell those kinds of stories to people who grew up on the West Coast, their brows furrow in confusion: “What …? But …? How could he …? How could all those thoughts coexist in one man’s head? I don’t get it.”
To be honest, neither do I.
But the novel “Welcome to Braggsville” by T. Geronimo Johnson, recently adapted by Book-It Repertory Theatre, elegantly slides a knife into the spine of that condundrum-monster. Both the novel and the play are heirs to Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and Junot Díaz’s “Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” — vehicles that smash head-on into what we think are our fundamental, ironclad convictions about who is who and what is what.
The adaptation, by (white) theater artist Josh Aaseng and (black) poet Daemond Arrindell, features 14 actors in a long, but surprisingly tight and tense production.
A naive, well-meaning white Georgia boy named D’aron (Zack Summers), the first in his family to attend college, shows up at the University of California, Berkeley. His sanctimonious liberal peers treat him like a freak because he’s from the South. But he stumbles into a team of multiethnic friends: the vivacious Malaysian “kung fu comedian” Louis (Justin Huertas); the pensive, furrow-browed black football player Charlie (Dimitri Woods); and the overeager, hyper-liberal, blonde-haired Candice (Sylvie Davidson).
They’re all ostracized by their fellow students when they show up to a student “dot party.” There’s only one rule: “Wear a dot where you want to be touched.” As a joke, D’aron and his three friends put the dots on their foreheads — and are promptly excoriated for being insensitive to Hindu students. So the misfits gleefully dub themselves “The Four Little Indians … each representing a unique tribe.”
One day, D’aron unintentionally sparks a classroom conflagration when he says his town still stages Civil War re-enactments. Encouraged by their peers and professors, who know almost nothing about the complexities of the contemporary South, the misfits head to Braggsville (a fictional town based on Johnson’s experience growing up in the South) to stage a “performative intervention”: a fake, theatrical lynching.
Things, as one might imagine, go very, very poorly.
Only the black football player, plus D’aron’s friends and family in Georgia, who can smell what he’s up to, properly foresee the possible consequences and beg the group to call it off.
“That’s one of the things I love about this story,” Arrindell said about his co-adaptation. “None of us is an angel. None of us is a devil. The story allows us to look at ourselves as complex individuals. And even when we think we’re doing the right thing, we can still mess up and hurt people.”
Arrindell, who grew up in Queens and was an honors student and competitive swimmer — his specialty was the breaststroke — said he was often “the only minority voice in predominantly white spaces.” So the idea of a small-town Southern kid who feels out of place in the liberal environment of Berkeley, plus all the other characters who, in their own ways, feel out of place, seemed like a promising project.
“Braggsville” is brimming with great performances — particularly Naa Akua as “the poet,” a kind of Homeric narrator who hands characters a microphone to let them voice their perspectives on the action, then angrily snatches it away with a countenance that says: “We’ve had enough of you.”
As the misfits have an argument about whether to go through with the plan, Woods’ face is a masterpiece of conflicted expressions. “I’m surprised Charlie ever agreed to this,” Louis says. “They could have a past-life flashback and try to hogtie him and sell him … They might eat him.” Woods looks shocked at the prospect and appalled that Louis would say something like that. “We can’t dig a grave without a spade,” Candice replies. Woods’ expression changes to simultaneously, contradictorily, crushed and murderous. (Woods should win a Tony Award just for that scene, and the way he manages to radiate emotions through silence during the entire production.)
Doug Graham also does excellent work as Quint, D’aron’s cousin, who could have been sketched from one of my own cousins. Quint is a baseball-cap-wearing good-old boy who drinks beer and cracks jokes. Graham plays the character with teasing easiness, lightly baiting D’aron about his friends and lack of girlfriends, then following up with an eloquent shrug as if to say: “Hey, just kidding. What’s your problem?”
That shrug is a Southern specialty.
But Quint, like all the other characters, contains multitudes. Early in the play, D’aron warns his college friends against walking in “the Gully,” where African Americans live, at night. But it turns out that Quint goes there all the time, chats with folks on their porches, and eventually escorts D’aron through the terrain. Quint is like my grandfather was — he knew the African American part of town better than any of his liberal, college-kid relatives, and managed to reconcile that in his mind with being part of a whites-only “secret society.”
Fittingly, Charlie has the last word. “Maybe I’d tell them,” he says about white people, “not to get so red under the collar about Obama, an aberration not soon to be repeated, that a rising tide lifts all boats, but a yacht is still a yacht and a dinghy is still a dinghy. Maybe I’d ask them why they’re so damn restless.”
He goes on to list statistics about the HIV infections, wages, drug use, prison. “Why,” he asks, “can’t you let us die in peace?”
That question seems to be at the heart of Aaseng’s thoughts about “Braggsville.” The co-adapter/director said he was drawn to the project because Book-It’s “audience is largely white and because this book deals with whiteness — and D’aron having to deal with this realization that there is such a thing as whiteness.”
Arrindell said he took on the adaptation because our national conversation about race and privilege has become so simplified and polarized: “The best I can do is make one small chip in that windshield. But that’s all I can do.”
I wish my grandfather were alive for a variety of reasons, but one is that I’d like to drag him to “Braggsville” and hear what he’d have to say afterward.
It might put another chip in the old man’s windshield — it put a chip in mine.