Playwright: Douglas Turner Ward
At: Congo Square Theatre at Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-871-3000; CongoSquareTheatre.org; $40 ( includes service fee ) Runs through: March 22 [suspended because of COVID-19 outbreak]
[NOTE: Performances have been suspended due to COVID-19, but Windy City Times feels this review should run to acknowledge the work of the artists involved.]
Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence was quite controversial in 1965 when it was new, and became the first success of the award winning Negro Ensemble Company. It was a broadly played satire about daily life in a fictional southern town where all the Black residents suddenly disappeared for one day. White folks awoke to find no delivery men, no maids or cooks or nurses, no janitors or drivers, leaving them helpless, discombobulated and at each other's throats.
As specified by Ward, all the white characters were played by Black actors in whiteface makeup, creating exaggerations of white people rather than realistic portrayals. This was exactly what white actors in blackface had done for 80 years in minstrel shows, with stylized and insulting portrayals of Black people.
Both the original story and performance technique have been preserved by Congo Square Theatrenow celebrating its 20th anniversaryin this energetic 75-minute staging, directed by Anthony Irons. Without question Day of Absence remains a funny and prickly bit of theater, but it doesn't seem very controversial any more.
To be sure, Congo Square has substantially updated the script with references to Groupon, bloggers, Ikea, cell phones and building The Wall. This last reference is because Congo Square has expanded the absentees to include Latinx residents along with Blacks, with several Latinx actors joining Congo Square's Black artists in a versatile seven-person ensemble.
But retaining the southern, small-town setting makes Day of Absence much less immediate than it might be. After all, few of us have maids, cooks or drivers. But imagine a northern, urban version of this premise. Withdraw Blacks and latins from Chicago and we'd have no government, no public transit, no restaurants whether fast food or fine dining, no postal delivery, no public schools, no hospitals, no manufacturing, no professional sports except hockey and no newspapers ( not even this one ). Surely that's the play Ward would write, were he writing it now! So Day of Absence today could use a sharper edge, but that's not the fault of this Congo Square production.
Another aspect is that theatre goers who came of age in the 1990s or later may be unaware of the legacy of blackface. In my theater history courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I make a point of discussing blackface and also yellowface, brownface and whiteface. Even when the intent is not comic or insulting, is it ever appropriate for actors to use makeup to play characters of a different race? I challenge students to consider if there can be legitimate social, political, historical or dramatic reasons to use any kind of "face" in theater day. Day of Absence would suggest the answer is "yes."