Anybody Home? (A Short Play)
The artists, Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur, reimagined Norman Rockwell's "Freedom From Want", the iconic 1943 homage to American abundance. (Photo by For Freedoms)
They are the same Black American woman in her 40 living abroad.
The action takes place in three aspects of herself – the Black American experience (stage left at a bureau displaying photographs of Black leaders and writers), the estranged fate of the immigrant (center stage at a glass box representing the national identity of her resident country, which she can see but not penetrate), and the expansiveness of the world citizen (stage right at a round table, where acculturation seems easy).
An immigrant constantly shifts perspectives of herself and her place.
Nancy and Barbara hold the extreme views of the same person.
Downstage right, a round table is covered with a tablecloth and four chairs are around it. A small vase of flowers sits on it and a mug filled with coffee. A narrow serving table is in front of the round table but placed at the far right of the room and turned to the side so that it doesn’t obscure the view of the sitting table. It is also covered with a cloth. On it sits a coffee maker, sugar bowl, milk server, spoons, filter, coffee and water. On a lower shelf hidden from view, there is a music player.
Directly behind the round table, a quilt hangs as a stage curtain. On the chair to the far right with its back to the audience is a quilt in the making, needle intact, which has some similar patches to the curtain. On the other chair facing away from the audience is an unfinished vest of kente cloth also still attached to the needle.
Upstage center stands a pedestal with a glass box on it. The audience should be able to see BARBARA’s head when she stands behind it. A solid-colored stage curtain hangs there.
Downstage left, a bureau stands holding photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin and lit candles. It looks like a shrine. The stage curtain behind it and adjoining the solid-colored one is black.
NANCY sits on the chair to the far right facing the audience, sipping coffee. She’s wearing a white blouse, black skirt or trousers, flat shoes and pearl stud earrings. Her clothes and her hair blend in.
BARBARA enters stage left behind the bureau. She walks slowly, as though in a funeral, toward the glass box with her arms folded round herself and running her hands up and down her arms as though she’s trying to get warm. She is wearing a colorful West African headwrap and gown of a design that does not complement kente cloth. She also wears sandals and large gold and beaded jewelry. The glass box is the national identity of her country of residence.
BARBARA (lamentedly to herself). I have no home. I have no home. I have no home.
NANCY (smiling contentedly as she looks into her mug and sips the rest of her coffee. She speaks as BARBARA begins her third “I have no home,” so they say one sentence in unison). I am at home. I am at home. I am at home.
BARBARA (speaks as NANCY starts third “I am at home” as she reaches the glass box.) I’m outside. (She presses her nose up against the windowpane of the glass box while cradling it with her hands as though it were a crystal ball.) I want to be inside.
NANCY (to Barbara) This isn’t Africa. Why the clothes?
BARBARA (to Nancy, standing erect with her hands by her side). I am African.
NANCY (solidly to audience). I came here to begin again, to make a better chance for myself and for my family. (Like a birdcall.) To be free. To be free. To be free.
BARBARA (turns to NANCY as NANCY begins third “To be free.”) I’m so homesick for what I know, Nancy. I miss the ease of knowing what people mean without having to think about it. Here, I’m never quite sure. They speak English, but that’s not helping me. Do they mean what they say and say what they mean? What about that smirk, that scowl, that smile? I shouldn’t talk too loud. I shouldn’t look too long. I shouldn’t stand out. I’ll get branded as different, as alien, as an outsider. (Hands clutching her chest. Desperately.) God, I can’t breathe!
NANCY (to BARBARA) I’m sorry for you, Barbara, because you don’t have a place to be yourself. You don’t have a home. My children’s home is here. (BARBARA starts walking toward her.) They go to school here. They’ve learned the ways here. They know the spoken and unspoken language. They move about in peace without fear. Their community is here.
BARBARA (standing beside her, pleading). But who are they, Nancy?
NANCY They are my children, and they were born here. What has our history brought you but an unbroken cycle of pain and anger?
BARBARA (starts walking to shrine as though being drawn by a mystical force). A circle of belonging.
NANCY Of being a victim.
BARBARA (keeps walking). Of being loved.
NANCY (BARBARA is at the shrine, head bowed with her back to the audience.) Or hated.
BARBARA (shouts). All right! All right! All right! (spins to face NANCY.) It is soul-killing for a stranger to look at me as though she wished I were dead. (Lowers voice.) But I was always around other people who got the same death stares. They understood. They were there to console me. I was there to con—
BARBARA Maybe wallow. (Walks back to the glass box and hits it). But I can’t get inside here.
NANCY I was so happy to leave the States behind and the burden of being the Black. The resident spokeswoman for Black Americans. A nonpaying, stressful position that I was supposed to relish because I could educate whites about us and help wipe out ignorance and racism. I no longer speak for us.
BARBARA (spitefully) You speak for Americans.
NANCY Yes. And why not? I am an American.
BARBARA (stalwartly) An African American.
NANCY But an American first. Like Irish Americans and Vietnamese Americans and every other group of Americans.
BARBARA Those others chose to go to the U.S.
NANCY No. The threat of death by starvation or by the hands of others shackled the hands and feet of many and forced them to emigrate. We were physically manacled and shipped out as human cargo, yes, but we’ve allowed our history to prevail and we’ve remained slaves. We’re quick to call ourselves oppressed. We oppress ourselves.
BARBARA (walks to NANCY and sits beside her. Patiently). Nancy, I wasn’t oppressing myself when the editor at a newspaper in Virginia told me that I wouldn’t get anywhere there and suggested I go to a paper in California. He said that my official sources, all white police, wouldn’t cooperate with me because I was a Black woman. His personal feelings, especially, hurt me. I had no idea. I thought that he was dealing with me as Barbara, a person.
NANCY (takes her hand). No, you weren’t oppressing yourself. I’m not denying racism or your pain, Barbara.
BARBARA Then, what are you denying?
NANCY Our renewal of it.
BARBARA What are you talking about?
NANCY (releases BARBARA’s hand). Taking our war stories and clinging t them for dear life. When we get together, all of us taking turns telling them. Ritualizing racism. Worshipping it. Keeping it alive. (Singsong.) Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.
BARBARA What about white people?
NANCY The same to a lesser degree. No one is as obsessed with race as we are. But all Americans embrace racism as a defining truth about themselves.
NANCY I’m an American, but I don’t accept racism as a fact of life. It’s an industry there, for God’s sake! Racism inspires hours of talk show material. It’s the focus of dozens of political leaders’ careers and the subject of millions of pages in books. When I lived there, I didn’t understand racism. Now, I realize that it’s a need. Americans are afraid to let go of it. Who would they be without it?
BARBARA Who are your children, Nancy?
NANCY (speaks in staccato). They’re not martyrs. They’re not warriors. They’re not spokesmen and spokeswomen.
BARBARA I didn’t ask who they aren’t.
NANCY (changing the subject) Would you like a cup of coffee, Barbara?
BARBARA Yes, please. I could use the break.
NANCY Me, too. (Slowly, ritualistically, NANCY puts coffee and water into the coffee maker and clicks it on. She places a mug in front of BARBARA and sets the milk, sugar and a spoon on the table.) I love coffee.
BARBARA I do, too.
NANCY (sits down). The rich aroma is such a joy in the morning, any time.
BARBARA Yes, it’s such a treat.
NANCY And a necessity.
BARBARA Sometimes an escape. I never drink coffee in real time.
NANCY Neither do I. (Pause.) More like dream time. (She gets up and pours the coffee into their mugs.)
BARBARA Do you have any music?
NANCY You know I do. (She clicks on the music on the lower shelf of the serving table. She sits. “No Woman, No Cry” by Ziggy Marley plays, a song his father, Bob Marley, once sang.)
BARBARA What goes around comes around.
NANCY (sighs as she relaxes) Ain’t it the truth. (Pause.) (She holds up her mug as in a toast.) To our health. (Both sip their coffee quietly.)
BARBARA You’ll never feel totally at home here.
NANCY I know that. I joke is told, a festival reminisced over, a historical event cited, and I don’t get it, I don’t remember it, I don’t swell with pride. But I am comfortable enough.
BARBARA Comfortable enough? What is that, Nancy? A pair of shoes that almost fit?
NANCY At least I have a pair of shoes.
BARBARA I got to give you that one.
NANCY That’s all anybody has. Everyone who’s alive feels the pinch at times. The old are at home in the world of their youth and their memories. The young are at home in the world of their future and their dreams. Time has robbed them both of total comfort.
BARBARA I’m not talking about what time’s done.
NANCY Aren’t you? You’re talking about the past, Barbara. Resurrecting it.
BARBARA How can I take on another national identity when I don’t have one from the past? In the States, I kept crashing into barriers, reminders that I was an oppressed Black person. First-class citizen? I was a sub-citizen. Always holding my breath. Doomed to limbo. I’m still in limbo.
NANCY In your head.
BARBARA It’s in my head that counts.
NANCY Yes, it is. (NANCY and BARBARA sip coffee.)
BARBARA How can I give up what I’ve never had?
NANCY (exasperated). I’m not asking you to pledge allegiance to another country. Why define yourself so narrowly? You’re stuck in the muck of the U.S.A.
BARBARA I’m afraid.
NANCY Of what, Barbara?
BARBARA (sips coffee). Of stepping out on my own and being judged for myself.
NANCY I’m tired of your whining. You wanted to come here. You’re here. Why can’t you shut up and get on with it?
BARBARA (ignoring her and staring into the distance over the heads of the audience). When I was a very little girl, I dreamt of having a home and living happily ever after. I stopped dreaming it and forgot I ever had very soon. What I was taught promised none of that. I feared for the welfare of my future family, forever caged in our black box. I feared most for my son who was bound, statistics told me, to end up dead before he became a man. How could I bring him into that world if I loved him? How could I even get pregnant in a country where I felt unsafe and endangered? I had no future there.
NANCY (pleads). You have a future here. (BARBARA looks at her.) I’m not asking you to forget the past. Acknowledge it and move on.
BARBARA Move on from what, Nancy? We don’t know where we came from, who we are. We pass our lost heritage on to our children. Calling ourselves African Americans is an attempt to give ourselves an identity. Africa. That huge continent is as close as we can get to identifying the tribes of our great-great-great-grandmothers and grandfathers.
NANCY We never accept any other part of our heritage but the lost one.
BARBARA If we’re part Native American, we acknowledge it.
NANCY Another group stomped on. Anything but Scottish or French or Dutch or –
BARBARA Anything but the enemy.
NANCY We are the enemy. (They stare at each other, NANCY steadily and surely, BARBARA uncomfortably. BARBARA finishes her coffee and walks to the glass box. NANCY picks up the quilt from the chair in front of her and works on it.)
BARBARA (presses her nose against the glass, while holding the box). I have no home. I have no home. I have no home.
NANCY (smiling contentedly as she sews. She talks to herself as BARBARA begins third “I have no home.”) I am at home. I am at home. I am at home.
BARBARA If only it were so simple.
NANCY It is.
BARBARA (shifts her body away from the box and toward NANCY while sliding her hands down to her hips. Accusatorily) Who are your children?
NANCY (stops quilting and meets BARBARA’s eyes). They are who they choose to be.
BARBARA You’re dreaming. They are the color of their skin and the texture of their hair.
NANCY And they are their blood and their home.
BARBARA (moves close. Louder than before). Their skin and hair.
NANCY (repeats in same even tone). And blood and home.
BARBARA (standing over Nancy. Dogmatically). They have no choice, Nancy.
NANCY (standing up slowly so that they’re in each other’s face. NANCY, holding the quilt in one hand, speaks in same tone). They do have choice because they see that they do.
BARBARA You can’t deny that racism surrounds them.
NANCY Yes, I can. Nobody snubs them because of their Black heritage.
BARBARA You’re living in a fantasy land.
NANCY (turns BARBARA around by her shoulder. Explodes). No, you are! You left the States physically, but not spiritually. You can take a sister out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the sister, especially if she doesn’t want to leave it. You assume racism and, so, you see it. The more racism is fed, the bigger it gets.
BARBARA (like a surly teenager). Who’s feeding it?
NANCY Your assumptions.
BARBARA So, it’s all my fault now.
NANCY You have a lot of power.
BARBARA (sits and takes up kente cloth vest she’s making from the chair in front of her. Starts sewing). I remember how forlorn I felt when I first came here and Black folks I passed in the street didn’t return my smile or even look at me.
NANCY (sits). This isn’t the States. Folks weren’t weaned on the same sour food as you. The silent street acknowledgment of one slave to another without the knowledge of the master is an American tradition.
BARBARA Hmm. I was shocked when I filled out a form here and wasn’t asked my race.
NANCY So was I. (Sips the rest of the coffee). It was unbelievable to me. I was so accustomed to checking a box for myself that I never questioned it. On hospital forms, school applications, birth certificates, even on marketing surveys asking which soap powder I preferred. What other country always asks such a thing? Only a country obsessed with race.
BARBARA I felt naked. Race is how I define myself. Without it, I felt stripped bare.
NANCY You know what I think? I think race is bullshit!
BARBARA (incredulous, stops sewing). What are you saying? (As if by rote). There are three races. Cauca—
NANCY You learned that in school as a child along with your timetables. Look at you. You’re acting as though I just told you that two times two is five. You were taught race as a child, and you’ve never questioned it as an adult. Don’t you remember that you questioned it then because there were people who didn’t seem to fit into any category? Mongolians? Fijians? The large subcontinent of Indians? In the eighteenth century, a Swedish scientist classified plants, animals and minerals. Not people. There is nothing scientific about race. It’s an invention.
BARBARA You have really lost your mind, Nancy.
NANCY No, I’ve won it back. I had hoped that the controversy over the choice of ethnic groups in the U.S. Census might lead to the realization that the box itself is silly.
BARBARA (throws down the vest onto her lap and claps her hands over her ears). No, no. I won’t listen to your craziness.
NANCY (resumes quilting). I know I can’t force you to hear me, Barbara. I wish I could. My heart breaks when I read stories in Black magazines about how to create your own naming ceremony, ritual-making, people-making. It makes me feel as though we are a lost people (BARBARA slides her hands down, away from her ears). Searching for ourselves. Why haven’t we gotten past not knowing about one part of our heritage?
BARBARA (puts vest on chair in front of her, stands up and adjusts her headdress). Because it is our heritage.
NANCY This journey we’re on is a dead end because the voyage to the New World washed away the answers. Our search is a way of keeping us separated from other Americans and from other people.
BARBARA (drawing herself up taller). A way of keeping us united.
BARBARA (standing taller). Together.
BARBARA But don’t you miss the States?
NANCY Sometimes, of course. I was brought up there. I learned how to think and how to talk there. I learned how to dream there. Since leaving, I see how American those things are. Sometimes I forget the bad and exaggerate the good. (Stops quilting). My perceptions keep changing. They’re the only things that are real.
BARBARA I’m tired, Nancy. (Collapses from her overarched stance in her seat. NANCY puts down her quilting on the chair and cradles BARBARA’s head on her chest.)
NANCY I know you are, Barbara. It’s been four hundred years. It’s time for you to breathe. Why would you want to confine yourself again in a box? (Gestures toward the glass box with her chin).
BARBARA I don’t like living on the outside.
NANCY We’re all human. (Sings first chorus of the black American anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. Halfway through, BARBARA joins in as both rise to their feet with NANCY enfolding BARBARA.)
Lift Every Voice and Sing
James Weldon Johnson, J. Rosamond Johnson
Lift every voice and sing
'Til earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list'ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on 'til victory is won.