VANTABLACK: The Blueprint for Future Blackness by Mia Harrison

Photo byEike Walkenhorst

v a n · t a · b l a c k

n. the deepest black material ever made. Also, the title of Nazareth Hassan’s play which poses the question: what would it look like if Black folk received reparations? This wasn’t an easy task for the Southern-born, Brooklyn-based playwright, director, essayist, and musician who was told that his place was untranslatable. The play, originally written for a U.S. based audience during Hassan’s undergraduate studies at NYU, was chosen to be read in Berlin as part of the Berliner Festspiele’s Stückemarkt competition. The Stückemarkt “presents new authors from all over the world, who express themselves in a wide variety of theatre formats – from dramatic texts to performance project.” Each chosen piece highlights the intersections of politics, narrative, and poetry. With more than 360 submissions from 65 countries, the Stückemarkt-jury selected five works to be presented at the Theatertreffen in May, including Vantablack.

Four hundred years the white man has had his 

`foot-long knife in the black man’s back – 

and now the white man starts to wiggle the knife out, 

maybe six inches! 

The black man’s supposed to be grateful? 

Why, if the white man jerked the knife out, 

it’s still going to leave a scar!

-Malcolm X

Above: Nazareth Hassan

On May 4, these words were not only projected onto a white wall via an overhead projector, they were also painted into the subconsciousness of a predominately white German audience – Berlin was getting a crash-course on the Black-American experience, and they weren’t ready. I was chosen to be part of the experience itself as one of the few Black Americans within Germany’s Black expat community. As an interdisciplinary artist who focuses on creating new ways of being, Vantablack presented an opportunity for me to embody a different dimension of Blackness while reflecting on the different possibilities of reparations within individual, communal and societal levels. 

Hassan’s play, comprised of series of vignettes, constructs an unapologetically Black utopia that lives where absurdist fiction meets Afrosurrealism. Reminiscent of Boots Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You or Terence Nance’s sketch series, Random Acts of Flyness (RAOF), Vantablack employs a “fluid, mind-melting stream-of-conscious response to the contemporary American mediascape” that Deadline writer Dino-Ray Ramos attributed to RAOF. Hassan’s channeled inspiration directly from contemporary events, like the Dominatrix who requires the men who hire her to read Black Feminist Theory, Mistress Velvet

Photo by Eike Walkenhorst

The piece, and surrealist art ,in general, suspends the constructions (time, space, morality) that exist in our regular reality allowing the audience to accept an alternative reality that dissolves the present, past and future. Instead of focusing on the dichotomies of good and evil, black and white, Hassan challenges us to pay attention to the grey by creating a liminal space – the place where liberation is possible. But before the audience, the actors or even the playwright can reach that, a shedding process must occur. One that delves into the complexity of colonization. Would reparations change power dynamics between black and white people in the states? How would it impact the way people love, live, work and communicate?

after the civil war, sherman, the general of the union army, promised black families on the southeastern coast of the usa 40 acres of land and a mule in his bill SHERMAN’S FIELD ORDERS #15.

after lincoln was shot, johnson revoked this bill. blacks have not received reparations since.

Reparations have a multitude of definitions a simple set of “repairs” to “the action of making amends for a wrong one has done, by providing payment or other assistance to those who have been wronged.” This play was birthed out of a need of repair, a chance to heal the wounds. In an interview for the Theater Treffen Blog, Hassan discusses how the play came to be. “When I started writing the play, I was really angry and really at a loss for how to move past that anger productively and I think that writing a play was a way for me to not only think of the space that I would want to create on stage to move past that anger but also what an actor would want to do on stage to move past that anger,” Hassan says. The play transformed into a platform to discuss the internalized systemic oppression that permeates us all. How do we replay the master/slave complex? How have we as Black folx been limited in how we see ourselves? How has this inhibited our ability to dream up a bigger existence for ourselves?

There are 37, 144, 530 non-hispanic black people in usa, including immigrants and 1.925 billion divided by 40 = 48,125,000 forty-acre segments so then 48,125,000 – 37,144, 530 = 10, 980, 470 forty acre segments left over after giving every single black person 40 acres

If black people were given 40 acres and a mule, it would be worth 6.4 trillion dollars today.

Reparare, the root word of reparations, means to make ready again. This is the process that Hassan has put in place. By creating these conversations, he is inviting Black audience members to meditate on what would actually happen. In the play, Hassan has already constructed a reality making him, and other futurist creators as well, a predictor of potential futures– a diviner. This can also be said for Dave Chappelle’s 2003 reparations sketch. Although it is over ten-years-old it still resonates, especially as reparations has reemerged as a political topic in the 2020 democratic campaign. During the sketch, the fictional character, Tron, the world’s new richest man after receiving reparations,  is being interviewed by a white female newscaster.

“What are you going to do with all this money?”  

His response falls in alignment with what is expected or desired by many.

 “I’m going to reinvest my money into the community.”

Above: Nap Ministry Photo by Victoria Sanders

She proceeds to define it as a kind gesture and is interrupted by him saying “SIIIIIIIKEEE… I’m going to do the real thing and spend this money before you honkeys change your minds.” The reaction of the character could be brushed off as comedy. Yet, the social criticism that Black people are used to a lack of control within systemic institutions and therefore act without trust in the system is valid. A payment of money would not erase how we have felt nor will it render visible to ways the money or other types of retribution should be used. Other projects have also raised this question or attempted to provide solutions. 

Reparations LIVE!, examined rest as a form of resistance through durational performance and meditation. The project was conceptualized by the Nap Ministry creator, performance artist and liberation theologian, Tricia Hersey. Based in Atlanta, Hersey utilizes the ritual of public napping as a subversive political act. She encourages bridging the connection to our ancestors through sleep where we can “recapture the DREAM SPACE that was stolen centuries ago.” 

Photo by Eike Walkenhorst

REPARATIONS: REQUESTS & OFFERINGS is a digital project that started as a social media experiment in 2016 by Seattle artist, Natasha Marin. Marin is a multimedia interdisciplinary conceptual artist whose work is rooted in collaboration. The Facebook group allowed Black folk to make requests for the mundane, including money for bills, childcare, massages, and rent. After a request is made, a white group member fulfills the request or makes an offering to the community board. 

In “The Creative Process,” Baldwin writes: “The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” Although each approach is different, each artist is collectively helping us reimagine the present, past, and future of Blackness.

We have been having this conversation in the US for a minute. For the 400 years, we have been in the US, we have been talking, humming, singing, acting, crying, yelling. We’ve been killed, and reborn and the conversation has continued. But in the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., 

“We are coming to get our check.”

Hassan’s next show,  [wave emoji] will be up at ANTFest at Ars Nova in New York on June 2. You can follow the movement for rest on Instagram and Facebook at The Nap Ministry and check out Marin’s work on Facebook.

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