Christina Anderson was inspired to write her play based on the circumstances of black people in Seattle in the 1800’s, then as segregated an American city as you could find. Free blacks were actually prohibited from entering the state of Oregon by its constitution when it was admitted to the union. In 1860, when Abe Lincoln was elected president, Oregon’s black population was 128, out of a total of 52,465.
At the end of the Civil War, the new states in the Northwest were not alone in their exclusionary policies, but merely carrying on a long northern tradition. Free blacks were a population largely unwelcome in the North, ignored, forgotten about, disrespected, and most of all “disregarded,” as stated by the protagonist of The Ashes under Gait City.
After the fictional Gait City had been leveled to the ground by a devastating fire some time in its past, it was rebuilt. But one little piece of its history was missing: It no longer recognized that it had ever had a black population. And now, Simone, an internet spiritual leader, decides to incite her fellow black Americans to move into the city and reclaim their history and their respect.
Much of the play is given over to the nitty-gritty of finding a place to live and gaining an initially reluctant small cult following. Only in its last thirty minutes does it get into serious debate about the function of cults, the need for revolution, the quest for dignity as human beings, respect, or even mere recognition.
And then, surpassing expectations, the play begins to question whether such searches inevitably turn back on themselves, so that the revolutionaries become exactly what they have decried and protested. The virtues of strong leadership and free elections come into question. The evolution of the play takes on shades of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” particularly at the very end, although to me the irony felt both naïve and excessive. Still, it’s also not hard to recognize parallels in our own world where the “righteous” become the oppressors, and where “the others” are but a problem to be either eliminated or ignored. The evidence is in the headlines.
The play is loosely structured as a series of short, more-or-less chronological episodes, which of course is a popular approach these days in reaching short attention spans. That’s possibly at least partly the result of the workshop approach to play development, where suggestions for scenes come from many different directions, some focused, and some not so much. I found myself longing for a tighter story line, with a limited number of essential scenes with ever-rising tension and a sharper sense of irony.
We are way beyond an angry treatise on black history here. These are big themes, a part of our common human need to understand our own behaviors and needs, and figure out where we fit in the puzzle of life and death. It’s not our otherness which draws the focus, but our sameness. And critical to the success of the play is its ability to force us, or trick us, into accepting our own blind hypocrisy, and into recognizing our individual need to be seen. It’s the dilemma of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man: You don’t have to like me. You don’t even have to respect me. Let’s just start with knowing that I am.