I’m sure many of you have heard of or read Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 one act play Day of Absence.
As a refresher (and an introduction to those who don’t know the work) Day of Absence is set in a southern town where one day the white residents, to their shock and utter horror, wake to find that most of the town’s black people have vanished. The only remaining black people are in comas, and some of the folks they thought were white…well, turns out they’ve vanished too. Panic ensues as the whites realize that there’s no one to shine shoes, raise their kids, and clean their houses (among other things). The town mayor makes a national plea for the return of the black people, and if he can’t have them back, well, maybe some other blacks will do just fine. By the end of the play (which was written for and performed by black actors in “white face”) all of the black residents return in the same inexplicable way in which they disappeared, and the audience is left with a sense that life goes on—perhaps the same way it always had.
After the first few productions of the play, it received mix reviews, even within the black community, for its technical and contextual shortcomings. Nevertheless, the idea was bold, inciting, and intriguing, piling the audience’s plate high with food for thought.
Ward’s vision was clear, no matter how it was executed, and it was a timely classic. The question remains though, was the play a timeless classic?
I’m not sure Day of Absence would have the same impact today, on the stage, or adapted to film or television.
As recently as 2004, director Sergio Arau gave us A Day without a Mexican. It has almost an identical premise (without attributing any credit to Ward), except this film is about modern day Mexican residents of California, instead of black people in the south.
The social and political shift here is palpable.
Nevertheless, while black people’s role in society has shifted considerably since the 1960s—and to be fair the breadth of our influence, even then, went farther than Ward suggested—it’s the kind of shift I’d like to focus on here.
As an exercise, let’s imagine another form of absence, a more extreme form—let’s just completely erase people from our history. Now, this could easily turn into a complicated exercise if I included all areas of society, so let’s concentrate on film and TV (this is Shadow and Act after all). The impact can be purely artistic, it could be technological, or it could be in the area of organization (including entrepreneurial) and activism. Submit a comment with the name of a black person in TV and film. Erase them completely from history and describe the impact it would have on the industry as a whole (not just for black people).
Let’s try to not repeat names, so if someone already submitted your first choice, try and submit another.
Does Ward’s vision (of the black community as an anchor in American society) still have the same relevance today as it did 45 years ago? Part of that answer might just be found here, so weigh in.