This collection of Ishmael Reed plays includes plays from about 1970 through 2009. Many of the plays have been updated at various times, or else it would seem weird that a play from 1970 is referencing Bill Gates, 1996, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. I decided to read this book in part because of the fact that I’ve read several Ishmael Reed novels and nonfiction books at various times and his audaciousness and brazenness, but also complete clarity of thought and refusal to compromise ideas is really compelling even when I don’t find myself agreeing. He’s kind of an old guard, somewhat less radical, imminently more progressive (not to say woke exactly except for a few areas), and definitely found within the spaces of American democracy except as inescapable. He often seems to be writing in the interstices of American life and feels like a fictional (and much more nuanced in terms of understanding race and sexuality) version of Hakim Bey’s theory of the Temporary Autonomous Zone and poetic terrorism.
The second reason I picked this up is from listening to the new Audible mini he did detailing his few interactions with Malcolm X and in the larger ways in which Malcolm X influenced his life directly and his writing more indirectly. The moment I knew I want to read through his plays was when he mentioned that his new play is a directly confrontational reading of Hamilton, which he takes to task for whitewashing Hamilton’s relationship to slavery.
Play one: Mother Hubbard: This is one of the plays that I mentioned was updated over time, and given its subject matter and the ways in which that subject shifted over the course of the 15 or so years between the publication dates this makes sense. In the introduction to the book, Reed mentions that his play came in part from his reading of bell hooks and her criticism of white feminism, and of course that’s a large topic in a lot of circles right now. In the play, a group of radical feminists have taken over California, renamed it after an Amazon goddess, and gives the men in the state 60 days to leave. I feel like, obviously intersectional feminism works to cover the gaps of white feminism as well as the gaps of anti-racism in ways that help to confront the uneven ways in which those movements line up. So what I mean by this is that there’s a sinister history of white women’s complicity in the incarceration and lynching of Black men in this country. That’s a given. At the same time, there’s a sinister history in which men of all color and ethnicities treat women. That’s also a given. So there’s never a complete understanding of how the different cultural forces of capital, racism, sexism and misogyny interplay on a given moment. But there’s definitely elements within all these topics that become overly absurd and this seems to be where Reed’s play comes into the conversation.
Turns out I only felt like reading one.