The Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket has begun its season with a play that opened some minds back in 1965. It was called “Day of Absence” and its plot – and its warning – still has something to say.
So, “Day of Absence” begins with two white guys sittin' on a bench in a southern town, talkin’ about what was goin' on. “Not much,” they agree. Things just don't change a whole lot in a sleepy town in a hot climate.
Ah, but this play by a ground-breaking African-American playwright, Douglas Turner Ward, is all about change, all about race-relations in a time when not too many people were worrying about such things.
Ward has come up with a surprise, a new take on an old situation. He's asked whether whites and blacks do not have a certain irrevocable inter-dependence, a need to work and live together. “Day of Absence” speaks to the need for all of us to see our fellow men and women clearly, and with equality.
And wait a minute. Those dudes on the bench aren't really white guys at all. They are African-American actors with their faces painted bright white and their minds on putting across an idea that ought to noted, and remembered.
You see those two “white” guys begin to wonder, where are all the colored folks? The blacks (and yes, the “N” word is used) haven't shown up for work. For goodness sake where's the day help? Who's going to take care of that crying infant? Who's going to make a decent breakfast? Who's going to clean up the place? Where are the black folk? We whites can't handle all this dirty work!
Well, for one day of the absence of blacks in town they are going to have to. The result is chaos and anger and fear. To make its point, “Day of Absence” comically sees the town's white folks as overly inept people who depend almost completely on their black helpers. “Day of Absence” becomes a farcical romp, tinged with anger. It's not a great play. But it does make you think.
At Mixed Magic, director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley has gone all out following, too much I'm afraid, on the plan that shouting and screaming are what will put the idea over. Actors run about without their pants on, They wear Ku Klux Klan dunce caps and generally create chaos about what ought to strong terms and rightful ideas.
This over-cooked version of the play takes away some of its power, of it its rightful position, its ground-breaking effort.
In the end, then, “Day of Absence” could be better as a production. But there's no denying that it's call for freedom and fairness back in '65 is still worth hearing. And that, unfortunately, has not yet been achieved.
“Day of Absence” continues at the Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket through October 3rd. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.