“River” deep: A dive into historical inaccuracy and cultural disrespect in local college’s recent play
Community Contributor | AfroLA solicits and accepts contributions for publication from community members, professional writers and folks who just have a compelling story to share. Though they may be mission-aligned, contributors’ personal views or perspectives are not endorsed by AfroLA.
In the theater world, there are many conversations that center aesthetics. But, what’s considered beautiful, artistic and/or tasteful are all subjective. That’s why people can experience the same performance and walk away with different opinions. But, in applied theater, which focuses on sparking dialogues and raising awareness, the creative process holds as much weight as the final production. Educational theater is one of the most sacred examples of applied theater in action. The journey, the community’s involvement and ever-evolving artistic perspective are all critical components. Here, the power wielded by those with artistic control and entrusted with the cultivation of emerging artists is a great responsibility. Recently, this responsibility was tragically shirked by Santa Monica College’s theater department.
Race-related controversy surrounding the plot and themes of SMC’s latest production grew in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 20 premiere. On the eve of opening night, the play was canceled following the results of a blind vote of the 20 cast members, nine of whom voted to cancel the show.
“By the River Rivanna” by SMC’s first playwright-in-residence G. Bruce Smith centers a Black man’s exploration of his ancestral past. It seems that Smith, a white man, was attempting to show love, valor and compassion in the peculiar institution of slavery. But, his attempt drowned in a river of insensitivity and misrepresentation.
From a technical standpoint, the play is very weak. The dialogue, characterizations and narrative elements feel disengaged from reality from the script’s first page. The play opens with the Black protagonist, a pedigreed up-and-coming lawyer named Grady, being visited by three “West African/Yoruban women of indeterminate age” in a dream. The ancestors are problematic in their description as “Yoruban.” A person of Yoruba heritage is just that–Yoruba. These ancestors, portrayed by Black student actors, are identified as West African. However, their dialect is a poor rendition of African American Vernacular English mixed of with stereotypical Southern slave speak that’s confusing at best and offensive at worst:
You create da words of reverence and power. Da drums of da
Ancestors announce da arrival of da Ancestors.
Moreover, this ancestral chorus adds nothing to the play. In terms of both culture and theater, Black ancestors are a harbinger of guidance, advice, warnings, blessings, healing…something, anything! Smith’s ancestors function more like a traditional Greek chorus, commenting on what’s happening but not providing any additional information. They have a generic mission to help Grady “understand his roots,” but they do not play an active role in making that happen or add further context to the information that is revealed to him.
The theme of characters with no purpose continues with the appearance of Abigail, Benjamin and Jacob, teenage field hands with no other character description. In an early scene, the trio grow bored hearing about their ancestors and instead decide to “dance to the Ring Shout.” A ring shout is a spiritual experience. It is a ritual performance that survived the Middle Passage and, in a contemporary context, it takes the form of a “praise break” within the Black church. But, Smith’s rendition of the ring shout includes a washboard, a jig and a song about “raising a ruckus tonight.”
As the characters finish their shuckin’ and jivin’, a newly arrived enslaved woman, Lucy, is horrifically whipped. Charlotte, the only enslaved person with any semblance of character development, explains that all of the slaves get whipped upon arrival as a matter of plantation policy, a confusing bit of information that would need to be supported by dramaturgical research. Logically a slave owner would want new laborers to get to work as quickly and efficiently as possible. It is counterproductive for them to be slowed down by physical pain. In other words, the threat of the whip is a more efficient tool than actual whipping.
These characters reappear during a “menacing” dance described in the script as having “cannibalistic” overtones. The dancers encircle and attack Lucy who is once again victimized. Unfortunately for Lucy (and any Black actress forced to play her), she serves no purpose except to be whipped and assaulted. Abigail, Benjamin, Jacob and Lucy make no other appearances in the play. Not even at the end, which is rushed and underdeveloped.
From a historical perspective, “Rivanna” fumbled key details, ultimately diluting the graveness of the subject matter through historical inaccuracies, logical leaps and poorly conceptualized narratives. According to the script, most of the play’s action occurs on the fictional Hope Plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia with time jumps between present-day and 1850. In reference to his great-great-great-great-grandmother’s journal, protagonist Grady said she was a “rare” slave that could read and write. Though it was illegal for enslaved people to read and write in 1850 Virginia, it certainly wasn’t as rare as Smith’s play purports.
“Elite whites worried that enslaved people who could read and write could travel through white society more easily and be exposed to ideas of freedom, making them more inclined to rebel. The gathering of enslaved people for the purpose of education was prohibited, so individuals stole away to learn on their own, often at great personal risk,”according to a Library of Virginia project.
In April 1831, an amendment to the slave codes was passed:
Be it further enacted, That all meetings of free negroes or mulattoes, at any school-house, church, meeting-house or other place for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered as an unlawful assembly; and any justice of the county or corporation, wherein such assemblage shall be, either from his own knowledge, or on the information of others, of such unlawful assemblage or meeting, shall issue his warrant, directed to any sworn officer or officers, authorising him or them, to enter the house or houses where such unlawful assemblage or meeting may be, for the purpose of apprehending or dispersing such free negroes or mulattoes, and to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.
Nat Turner, a preacher who could read, was an exemplar of enslavers’ fears. Turner led the only effective, sustained and deadliest slave rebellion in U.S. history. Roughly 55 to 65 white people were killed in Southampton County, Virginia in August 1831.
In sharp contrast to what “Rivanna” alleges, the number of literate enslaved people actually doubled to 10% before the Civil War. So, it’s safe to assume that Charlotte, Grady’s relative, would not be the only literate enslaved person in the area. Later in the play, Grady and his white friend Adrian (the play’s co-lead) debate whether Charlotte would’ve been familiar with the Book of Psalms. She very likely would have attended a church service, perhaps even been required to do so as enslavers saw it as their duty to convert Africans to Christianity. (The play’s audience is told that enslaved people had Sundays “off.”)
In the scene preceding the trio of dancing field hands, Charlotte tells the story of the ancestors crossing the ocean. Ben asks her, “What’s an ocean?” It’s an interesting choice to make a person enslaved in Virginia unfamiliar with the term or concept of the ocean. If Jackson, master George’s enslaved lover (more on that to come) understands that there is freedom in Philadelphia (255 miles away from Charlottesville), why wouldn’t he know about the Atlantic Ocean just 200 miles away? In this same conversation, Jacob asks, “What’s a fortress?” Charlotte compares it to a village but bigger. So this field hand would know a village, but not a fortress–even though the latter is a word found in the Bible.
Smith’s white master, George, has no agency whatsoever. He hates that he is an enslaver, but laments that there is nothing he can do about his station in life as he holds the lives, futures and fortunes of dozens of Black people in his hands. When faced with having to whip his favorite stable hand Jackson, he resists until his elderly mother yells at him.
You gonna whip that boy, and you are not going to send him to Tom Murdoch for the lashing. You need to be a man, for once in your life!
George does not have it in his character to be whipping slaves.
How dare you interfere in these affairs! You are a weak woman, Hannah, and you have no place to be speaking your mind.
HANNAH, on the verge of tears, exits.
Mother, Hannah is right. It’s not in my disposition.
It better be in your disposition, George, because if you can’t find the will to do it, I will tell the entire county that you are a sniveling coward! I will say it about my own son!
A long beat.
Jackson, wait outside for me.
JACKSON exits to the outside of the house.
You’re a mean old woman, Rebecca Miller.
GEORGE exits to the outside of the house. After a few beats, offstage, we hear the whipping. After the first few strokes, there is no sound from JACKSON. But then, after each lash thereafter, we hear JACKSON cry out. REBECCA remains stiff and stoic during the whipping. When the whipping ends, GEORGE enters. He is shaken.
Are you happy… (spitting the word with disgust) Mother?
After the brutal whipping, Jackson actually defends his enslaver: “The Master be a decent man, he never take the lash to nobody.” The audience learns that the enslaver George and Jackson are in love. Enslaver George offers to free Jackson. Jackson proposes they run away together to Philadelphia. But, when George says he can’t leave his family, Jackson says he could never be apart from his Master. It is clear that the message of this play is that that slavery wasn’t all bad and all enslavers weren’t bad; they were just put in “difficult situations.”
Appallingly, Jackson accepts a life of continued subjugation and brutality for the sake of his lover, the man who subjugates and brutalizes him. Centering their romantic involvement as a “love story ” is problematic. Despite how they’re portrayed, George owns Jackson as part of the institution of chattel slavery. The imbalanced power dynamic nullifies the consent requisite for lovers.
But, perhaps the most offensive aspect of “Rivanna” unfolds around Jackson’s wife, Charlotte. She decries the name “Hope Plantation” and expresses her confusion as to how anyone could hope for freedom. After undergoing no personal journey and experiencing no character development, Charlotte inexplicably changes her position. Her main objective becomes to have a child—by any means necessary— because children mean hope, and she has to hold on to hope. She berates her stable hand-husband for coming to their slave cabin smelling like horseshit and confronts him for not wanting to impregnate her. When Jackson is resolute that he won’t father a child into slavery, Charlotte finds herself desperate. Near the end of the play, she writes in her journal:
I am with child now, though Jackson not be the father. Tom Murdoch come creepin’ into the cabin one night and take me, and I did not resist because I want a child, no matter who the father be.
More offensive words have never been written. The idea that an enslaved woman would welcome being raped as long as she could get pregnant is historically and culturally wrong. It’s offensive to Black people, it’s offensive to women, and it is harmful to ask a Black woman—especially a student—to perform those words.
“As an artist, I can’t always explain where my stories come from… And I cannot begin to fathom what it was like to be a slave in America. I also cannot understand what African Americans today face in this country—from micro-aggressions to outright violence.
Nevertheless, I felt compelled to tell the story of Grady and Adrian, Jackson and George, Charlotte and Hannah. What spoke to me was a tale of identity, of violence, of tragedy—but also of love. However dark the chapter in our history, we are humans, with all our darkness and light, hate and love, blindness and vision. We are frail, we are strong, we are complicated.”— G. Bruce Smith’s “By the River Rivanna” artist’s statement
The portrayal of slavery in the play is alarmingly naïve. A white slave owner without agency, remorseful yet unyielding. A Black enslaved man who defends the institution as well as his oppressor. And, a Black enslaved woman portrayed as so desperate for a baby that she is gleeful about being raped by a white master. Apparently Smith was compelled to tell a dangerous oversimplification of one of the most horrific eras in American history.
Cultural nuances in plays, especially ones with sensitive themes, demand authenticity and thoughtfulness. Oversights, like the aforementioned examples, can lead to the perpetuation of stereotypes and misinformation. This level of carelessness mistakenly renders revered cultural traditions as primitive. It diminishes the rich performances, rituals and heritage that permeate Black culture and codifies Black history. Due to the historical foundations and delicate nature of the content, the playwright should have consulted, specifically, with a Black dramaturg. Of course, had the playwright consulted with a Black dramaturg, this play’s script would be propping up a wobbly table instead of inflicting harm on Black theater students. Not only is it a good thing this production was canceled, it is imperative that this play never see the light of day.
“By the River Rivanna” is a dangerous experiment in which SMC theater faculty allowed their own egos and artistic perspectives to be prioritized over the well-being of their students. This negligence and lack of empathy is wholly unacceptable. Unbelievably, the students were under the leadership of dialect coach Crystal Robbins, a white adjunct instructor who is in her final semester of SMC’s equity coaching professional development program for faculty. Additionally, they were directed by theater arts department chair Perviz Sawoski, who has made it clear that she feels “censored.” (In an Oct. 19 statement emailed to SMC faculty, Sawoski wrote, “This [the cancelation] is akin to censorship of my class and of the students who have worked so diligently on putting on this show and who deserve their work to be seen.”)
Despite the play’s eventual cancellation after widespread disapproval, the harm to the student actors is irreversible. The grueling weeks they spent internalizing their roles, mastering inappropriate dialects and embracing poorly-developed characters, is a harm that cannot be undone. The question now is: How can Santa Monica College begin to repair the wound it has inflicted on its student body?
The college owes its students an environment that fosters respect and understanding. The challenge lies not just in addressing this single oversight but ensuring that such disrespectful and uninformed representations never find a stage again.