White lies

The noted multimedia engineer, choreographer and director Lumumba Reynolds had a considerable revelation last August. It struck when he noticed a noticeably dissatisfied-looking woman who'd come to see a production of Passing, the acclaimed play from Detroit-born playwright Dara Frazier-Harper. Inside Marygrove College's intimate theater, a sizable crowd gathered for the true story of of Minerva and Jordon Rouhlac, African-American siblings living in the segregated South, both conflicted because their fairer complexions allow them to pass themselves off as white.

The entire Marygrove audience was engrossed, Reynolds thought, except for one woman.

Was this person put off by the play's rather harsh racial issues?

Turns out she was affected by the Rouhlac situation, and Reynolds learned after the show that this woman has black relatives still living as white people in Canada.

See, Passing confronts hidden issues, addressing the notion that black folks with light skin are (and have been) privy to social and political benefits, and that there's turmoil suffered by those who see themselves as black but aren't perceived as such by the black community, falling victim to cultural marginalization in both communities.

And Passing's stage production is very much a family affair. Minerva Rhoulac was great-grandmother to both Reynolds and Frazier-Harper. Reynolds' wife, dancer-choreographer and educator Mayowa, plays Minerva.

The Minerva character is one Mayowa can easily transform into. The actress' gripping one-woman performance, through tales that span decades, works its way into every aspect of the production and provides an authentic environment. Passing is a good excuse for a Friday night, sure, but it's much more than that — it's a tribute to a monarch.

The story unfolds on a conversation Minerva has with her niece Pearl — whom she had raised — just before sending her off to college. Minerva's brother Jordon (Pearl's dad) lives in Miami as a white man and his darker-skinned daughter would surely "out" him. He chose to give up fatherhood in favor of whitehood. Minerva — who herself was adopted and raised by her Aunt Aggie, a former slave — chose to live life naturally and honestly, as a black woman, and to lead a modest and respectful life as a preacher's wife.

To lessen Pearl's anger at her dad, Minerva tells her the Roulhac family story, which is rich and tragic and requires deft storytelling.

Frazier-Harper's play carefully pieces together Minerva's stories, ones she heard in childhood sitting at her grandmother's feet. And Minerva relays her life story so she can show Pearl that earning her college degree is the only option. She's passionate in articulating the struggles with skin color, that which joins and divides her and her brother.

When, near the opening of the play, she tells Pearl that "having light skin in the Negro race is a blessing and a curse," it's the first twist on a road that winds through her and Jordan's lives.

Through Mayowa's stirring recitation, we get the highs and lows of Minerva's life. She injects buoyancy into her character, a childish bounce even, and a sense of incorruptibility. As Minerva struggles at Florida A&M University, then later makes the decision to marry a pious man instead of an affluent socialite, all the while using faith as her barometer, we are engaged. Mayowa's physical resemblance to the character doesn't hurt.

For Passing to succeed, it requires an intrinsic connection between the character and actor, which is why Mayowa's background is integral to the gravity of the performance. For the show's inaugural run in New York, a white actress was cast to play Minerva. Though the show was received well, some subtle cultural differences got lost in translation.

Now, through Mayowa, when Minerva measures life-changing decisions against her favorite biblical passages, her quips simply resonate.

Passing is a one-woman play, but Reynolds isn't alone on stage, as props — quaint displays of authentic heirlooms — become symbolic of Minerva's family. There's a Bible, handkerchiefs, a tea set, some photos and an old rocking chair, all of which belonged to Minerva. Minerva sits in the rocker to imitate Aunt Aggie, and at a small kitchen table when she speaks to Pearl, leaving our imaginations to bring the rest to life.

Mayowa's performance is also accompanied by her husband's audio-visual additions; these projected images enhance the story's emotional appeal on more than one front. Sonically, the gospel standards, performed a cappella, greet theatergoers, setting the tone and mood. The on-screen flashes of Aunt Aggie, and the pictured reminders of brutal lynchings in the old South, give weight to a play that's filled with moments of true sorrow and beauty.

The Roulhacs lived in a time when light-skinned blacks were considered foolish by some if they didn't pass themselves off as whites. The scene in which Jordon publicly shuns his own sister drives home the magnitude of the issue, and how it's taboo. Though he later explains himself, the lament shows the lingering shame of those who were still willing to exchange identity for lifestyle.

Passing successfully captures the history, social impact and psychosis of ethnic whitewashing, and it's immensely entertaining too.

If there's a shortcoming, it's that one-person shows tend to be shorter than ensemble plays. We are left wanting more: More Minerva, more stories, more of her wise cultural analysis.

As the Canadian woman relayed to director Reynolds last August, the play's power lights up an issue that's both a hard historical pill to swallow, and one that still happens today. I hope the woman with those confused Canadian relatives brings them to Detroit this Sunday when Passing is performed at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History.

At 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday, March 28. For info, visit maah-detroit.org/passing or call 313-494-5800. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History is at 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit; 313-494-5800.

Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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