Uncle Tom vs. Uncle Sam, produced, written and directed by Bless ji Jaja, touches on old paradigm problems in the current backdrop of gentrified Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. The play is up at the perfect time, on the tail end of the of the Zimmerman trial media frenzy, and it clearly reflects where we are today as a society in our race consciousness. We live in an era where we can choose partners of any race for any reason and live out loud in our choices, and as interracial couples we have a choice to adopt a white child even if one partner is Black. Most importantly we can choose how we look at our relationships: do they provide a comfy cover up for our realest fears, or do they draw them out to the surface for us to deal with them head on?
The conflict begins with a discussion between the headstrong yet doting French white woman, Margaux (played by Tiphanie Doucet), who has married the seemingly well put together Shawn Pembrook (Trayon Blackwell). If they can’t conceive, Margaux would like to adopt a bi-racial child and Shawn prefers to only adopt white. Soon we would see that Margaux still has a lot to learn about the America her husband has experienced all of his life and how it contrasts greatly against her own privilege, while Shawn holds deep insecurity regarding his skin color that no quick fix marriage would be able to hide, regardless of the honeymoon period.
There were some very uncomfortable truths about double standards brought forth throughout the play, like the question posed by Claire Simba’s character Trisha to her best friend Margaux, “What’s your secret?” She demanded to know why Shawn had proposed after only 2 weeks of knowing Margaux after she completely ignored him. He and Trisha, on the other hand, a successful and attractive black woman, seemed to have so much in common when all three characters initially met. As an interesting twist, later in the play the question is turned back around to Trisha from Shawn. What’s the difference between Black women who relax their hair to look like a white woman’s hair texture, yet are confused when Black men choose to date and ultimately marry white women?
All of the characters, even in their weaknesses, exhibited their strength when they were able to face their own demons and take responsibility for them. For this reason, the most obnoxious characters were the most endearing, the flashy and flamboyant Li (David Glover), and the ghetto fabulous uber-alpha rapper turned actor Devon Don (Kyle Caldwell). Chemistry was apparent between Devon and Isis Harris’ character Jolene, due to resentments about failed ridiculous expectations of how a man and a woman should behave after sex on the first date.
The play deals with types of questions that many Black people struggling to find an identity in a white supremacist America still can’t answer, yet brings up deeper issues that touch all humans at their core. Why do we think we are victims? Why do we feel it is anyone else’s responsibility to ensure that we are safe within ourselves, and make us feel OK about who we are? There was a lot of blame that seemed to be placed on the characters: to one another and themselves. This play, hilarious and very relatable, doesn’t answer all the questions for you (and no good show does), but provides a pretty entertaining ride inside of the convoluted mentality that our society holds about race, relationships, and ultimately, ourselves.
You can still see the show playing at Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway at 95th Street. Call 212-864-5400 or go to www.symphonyspace.org for tix. The remaining show dates are August 29, 30, and 31.