Given the success of and controversy about the movie The Help last year, it certainly would be instructive to hear from real African Americans of that period on "domestic service" and the larger community. Kuntu Repertory Theatre delivers, diving into 1965 for the vision of Douglas Turner Ward's "Happy Ending" and "Day of Absence." (These satirical one-acts won the 1966 Drama Desk Award for writing for Ward, the co-founder and long-time artistic director of New York's Negro Ensemble Company.)
Ward's satire is indeed very broad, often startling with its use of racial slurs and offensive stereotypes. Directed by Kuntu founder and artistic director Vernell A. Lillie, the plays are often funny, though none of the laughs is a comfortable chuckle.
"Happy Ending" is sort of the flip side of The Help. Two middle-aged sisters/maids (Victoria Bey and Alyse Hogan, laying it on thick) let down their hair, their emotions and some hard confessions in their own home. The prospect of the dissolution of the wealthy New York household they both "serve" has them in full-throated grief ... but not out of "devotion" to their employers. For critics who could not accept the angry conniving of The Help, here's the real thing.
The second play is more upsetting, with its all-black cast in creepy "whiteface" skewering white stereotypes of black stereotypes. The premise is that for one day, in an unnamed Southern town, all the African Americans have disappeared, and white society falls apart. An ensemble of nine tackles multiple roles, notably George Montgomery as the mayor alternately pleading for and demanding the return, or replacement, of the city's black population.
Though the production is uneven, and both "Happy Ending" and "Day of Absence" can be heavy-handed, the journey to the past is valuable. And it makes for a wonderful "compare and contrast" discussion if you were fortunate enough to see Bricolage's recent revival of LeRoi Jones' Dutchman, from 1964.