A Conversation with Carlyle Playwright Thomas Bradshaw
A Brief History of Black Conservatives
Creating Carlyle: Actor James Earl Jones II Takes on the Title Role
The Embattled Appointment of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
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A Conversation with Carlyle Playwright Thomas Bradshaw
By Tanya Palmer
Known for his audacious, sometimes incendiary plays, Thomas Bradshaw sets his sights on American politics with his newest comedy Carlyle. In the play, Bradshaw, whose work last appeared at the Goodman with 2011’s Mary, traces one African American’s path to becoming a Republican. Shortly before beginning rehearsals, Bradshaw spoke with Tanya Palmer, the play’s dramaturg, about his inspiration for the work and its unique presentational style.
Tanya Palmer: What made you decide to write this play?
Thomas Bradshaw: I wanted to write a play about how a black person becomes a Republican, but I wanted it to be an honest investigation of someone’s trajectory to that place. I didn’t want to make fun of anyone; I don’t need to join the crowd of people mocking black Republicans because that would be too easy. I also had the thought in my head that black Republicans, in a way, really exhibit all the traits of the American ideal in the sense that we value individualism, independent thinking and pursuing your own version of happiness. As a society, we don’t talk about black Republicans in that way.
TP: Carlyle uses a meta-theatrical device in which the main character puts on a play about his life for the audience. What inspired you to use this device and why do you think it’s an important part of how the story is told?
TB: I really wanted this black Republican to tell his own story from his point of view, but I didn’t want this to be a play where someone just comes out and delivers a monologue about their life.
TP: You’ve previously said that your plays have no subtext. What does that mean and what impact does it have on the work?
TB: I say that all the time and I stand by it, but it’s a generalization. My characters are generally very honest and there’s a unity among everything they say, think and do. On the first day of rehearsals an actor might say, “Ok, This is what I’m saying, but what does the character actually mean?” They might be playing something completely different from the words that come out of their mouth. I find that you can bring a different level of honesty and higher level of drama to a play if characters are actually just wearing their hearts on their sleeves. In most of my plays, I start scenes in the middle of the action and then go on to the next scene, so it’s kind of like getting all the highlights. A lot of plays will have three pages of dialogue before that important dramatic moment. The playwright is building up to that event, where my thought is, “Let’s just get to it and move on.” It’s embracing the artifice of the art form of theater instead of pretending this is real life and an actual conversation is taking place. I want to get to the true moments of drama.
TP: The play is about a fictional black Republican who came of age in the 1980s and ‘90s, but you also evoke a very real black Republican of an older generation, Clarence Thomas. Can you talk about the play’s relationship to Clarence Thomas?
TB: Clarence Thomas’ success story is very typical in the sense that he grew up in extreme poverty, received scholarships to prep schools and then went to Yale. He is really a self-made man. I’m not so much interested in that story; we’ve seen that kind of story on stage many times. I’m more interested in telling the story of a modern black man, specifically the assimilated black man. I wanted to create a character that doesn’t have this typical story of struggle, someone who was privileged since the day he was born and who’s more or less as assimilated as a black person can be in American society. That’s a very different story than someone coming from poverty and clawing their way up. This play is about the black upper middle class. Clarence Thomas is a looming figure when you talk about black Republicans though, and I wanted him to have a part in the play so I made Carlyle be his acolyte. He is Carlyle’s idol, but they grew up in different generations and different worlds.
TP: In addition to the Clarence Thomas trial, the play references important moments of history and issues like affirmative action. How did you select which moments to touch on in order to tell Carlyle’s story?
TB: It seems like all black Republicans I’ve encountered have very strong feelings about affirmative action. It seems to be an issue that’s core to them so I thought that was important to address. I want to force audience members to have a wrestling match with themselves so that you can’t sit and watch the play with any sort of complacency. I picked issues that would do that and presented them in a way that’s honest to how black Republicans see these issues.
TP: Because Carlyle has this play-within-a-play device, the audience becomes a part of the event. When attending most plays, you’re not necessarily aware of other audience members. The main events happen on stage. With your plays, a lot of the action is actually happening in the audience. As an audience member you become incredibly aware of the people around you, what they’re responding to or not responding to and whether or not you feel like you can laugh. Is that intentional?
TB: For me it’s really about what happens after the play is over, once the lights come up and the audience is left with what has been presented on stage. In most plays, you’re left with a very clear idea of the playwright’s point of view and there’s no doubt what you’re supposed to leave the theater thinking. You know which characters are the good guys and which are the bad ones. My plays are more open-ended. It’s really up to the audience to decide the morality of the play.
A Brief History of Black Conservatism
By Tanya Palmer
Early in Thomas Bradshaw’s new play, the title character, Carlyle Meyers, reveals the question that the performance will set out to answer: How it is that a black person could end up becoming a Republican? He elaborates:
CARLYLE: There’s no simple answer to the question of how a black person ends up a Republican. And I think the question is problematic in the first place. The question assumes that all black people think alike, talk alike and vote alike. As if black people are some homogenous group. A lawyer for the Republican Party, Carlyle is living proof that not all black people vote alike–but it’s indisputable that Carlyle, along with a number of high profile black Republicans like former presidential hopeful Ben Carson, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is in the minority in the African American community. A Pew Center study showed that in 2012, 76% of African American voters were registered as Democrats, with only 16% registered as Republicans, and a whopping 93% of African American voters cast a vote for Democrat Barack Obama for president. While that number was higher than previous election cycles, it was not an anomaly: since the 1930s, African Americans have voted Democratic in large majorities ranging from 60% to 95%. “It’s true that most blacks vote Democratic,” admits Carlyle, “but lots vote Republican too–they just won’t tell you ‘cause they know that a lynch mob will come burn down their house if they admit that.” While this sentiment may seem over the top, this line reveals an uncomfortable truth: over the course of the 20th century the term “black Republican” has come to seem like a contradiction.
“Since President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal,” wrote the editors of the Chicago Defender in 1976, “being black and Republican was about as compatible as being black and aspiring to leadership in the Ku Klux Klan.” Through Democratic liberal policies like the New Deal and later Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” programs, African Americans made significant advances for racial equality and social justice. By contrast, during that same period, the GOP was moving further away from its identity as the “Party of Lincoln” and instead became indelibly associated with Herbert Hoover’s anti-civil rights “lily-white” movement, the “Operation Dixie” campaign that conservatively unionized Southern industry in the 1950s and Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to win back white Southern voters to the party. Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act passed that year, and Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign with a now-infamous “states’ rights” speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi—the town in which three civil rights workers were murdered 16 years earlier. In short, as authors Hanes Walton and Robert Smith argue in American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom, the GOP had become a party whose conservatism seems to make it “virtually impossible for blacks, given their history and condition,” to accept. By extension, those African Americans who identified as Republican were often perceived as “sell-outs” who were not committed to racial justice and empowerment.
But as scholars like Leah Wright Rigueur, author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power, point out, conservative thought has deep historical roots in the African American community, and its proponents have long been engaged in the struggle for racial equality, seeing conservative ideology as a legitimate solution to the ills that afflicted their community. In his 2008 book Saviors or Sellouts: The Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism from Booker T. Washington to Condoleezza Rice, law professor Christopher Alan Bracey charts the history of black conservative thought from the 18th century to the present day, locating its origins in two forces that have motivated conservatives for generations: love of God and country. Specifically, he links black conservative thought to Christian evangelism and a strong faith in God’s plan, as well as the pursuit of “American exceptionalism,” a concept rooted in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville and that has grown into a national mythology. This belief portrays America as a mythical space of unlimited human potential, a beacon of freedom and democracy, with Americans as a kind of chosen people. It is almost impossible, of course, to reconcile the history of slavery, segregation and ongoing racial bias with the American cultural mythology of freedom, democracy and human equality. But Bracey argues that it has been this project–to pacify the mythology of American exceptionalism with the reality of racial suffering by African Americans—that has animated black conservative thought from the outset. For early black conservatives like Richard Allen, the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute and the National Negro Business League, promoting black economic success and greater inclusion in American society was the goal, and the way to achieve those ends was through respectability, proper deportment (including a deference to authority) and strict adherence to an ethical, temperate and productive lifestyle. Washington in particular saw black economic advancement as a more secure path to greater social integration than the pursuit of political and legal rights for blacks, which was the hallmark of the Northern liberal agenda.
Washington’s approach, with its focus on pragmatism, middle-class morality and an emphasis on economic advancement over political solutions, continued to hold a strong appeal through the dawn of the 20th century, when it came under fire from W.E.B. DuBois, author of The Souls of Black Folk and founder of the NAACP. DuBois repudiated Washington’s accommodationism and called for “persistent agitation [as] the way to liberty.” The majority of African Americans followed DuBois’ lead, shifting to the political left through the decades that followed. But certain tenets of black conservative thought, such as a belief in hard work, self-reliance and personal responsibility, continued to hold appeal. What perhaps most strongly marked the distinction between liberals and conservatives within the black community in the early 20th century was the manner in which they struck a balance between their racial and national identities–between their “blackness” and their “Americanness.” Early 20th century liberals tended to place a strong importance on their racial identity, while conservatives of the period preferred to emphasize their American identity over their race.
With the advent of the civil rights movement, black conservatives were pushed even further to the margins, but for those who did retain their affiliation with the Republican Party, their political philosophy was generally defined by either a strong social conservatism, or a strong opposition to government interventions in black life–or both. Those prominent black conservatives who rose to power during the Reagan administration–people like Supreme Court Justice Thomas, former Secretaries of State Rice and Colin Powell–shared with their white Republican counterparts a social conservatism and a mistrust of government intervention and the welfare state, leading to their opposition to the very programs that many others within the African American community credit with breaking down barriers and advancing racial justice–programs like Affirmative Action, which Justice Thomas opposes. It’s hardly surprising then that Carlyle, a self-proclaimed acolyte of Justice Thomas, would feel the need to go to great lengths–including putting on his own autobiographical play–to explain himself; for all their deep historical roots, the black Republican is still a political unicorn.
Creating Carlyle: Actor James Earl Jones II Takes on the Title Role
By Michael Mellini
In Thomas Bradshaw’s new political comedy Carlyle, nerves start to set in for the eponymous Carlyle Meyers, an African American lawyer working for the Republican Party, when the GOP requests he take to the stage to present a theatrical retelling of how and why he became a Republican. No such stage fright seems to be affecting the play’s leading man James Earl Jones II, however,
as he prepares to step up to the onstage podium.
“I absolutely cannot wait,” Jones said shortly before beginning rehearsals. “This is going to be an amazing experience. It’s a rare opportunity to not only play the lead character, but also a character for whom the play is named. And this is an amazing play.” Jones, a frequent presence on Chicago’s stages, is stepping back into Carlyle’s shoes after appearing in the play’s workshop production at the Goodman’s New Stages Festival in 2014. “This piece really brought out all types of opinions and emotions in the audience and I think that’s what the best theater does,” Jones recalled of performing the work, which showcases Bradshaw’s unique, bold take on affirmative action, the Black Lives Matter movement and other racial topics currently at the forefront of discourse in the country. “Thomas is kind of like a Quentin Tarantino figure in theater in the sense that people sometimes think he’s looking to shock on purpose,” Jones said of the playwright, who was called “one of the country’s most controversial playwrights” by the Chicago Tribune in 2015. “What’s so amazing about Thomas, though, is that he simply lays it all out there, warts and all, and allows the viewers to form their own opinions. People have a tendency to edit things, but the human experience isn’t edited.”
For all the play’s striking commentary, Jones is focusing on the life experiences of Carlyle to fully flesh out the character. “There are people who will say, ‘Oh, this play is just about a black guy who is Republican,’ but it’s really about Carlyle’s journey of discovering his identity. Carlyle comes from a well-to-do family; he’s tried to gain acceptance from the African Americans and everyone else in his life, never really knowing what was acceptable in which cultures. For many years he just didn’t know how to fit in. Eventually he had to find his own way and it just so happens that he found his own way within the GOP. This is his story, but it’s his entire story, not just his story to becoming a Republican.”
And it’s a story to which Jones can relate. “I’m approaching Carlyle like [I’m playing] myself,” he said. “You look at Carlyle and he’s eloquent. He’s married to someone who is not of his own race, which for some is still a bit of a taboo, and for a long time he was really in search of himself. That all really applies to me in various ways. I’ve been in interracial relationships and scoffed at by others for doing so. My family often mocked me and said I ‘spoke white.’ It’s really amazing how some people don’t feel comfortable around me until I tell them I’m an actor. It’s unfortunate but true.”
Preparing for the show during an election year when the race for the Republican presidential candidacy has been anything but business as usual also presents an exciting opportunity for Jones. “I don’t really have an opinion on any of the [potential candidates] individually,” he noted, “but it’s been so interesting to see them fight like rabid dogs, yet at some point, once the candidate is named, they’re going to have to turn around and say they fully support and endorse that person?” Perhaps not surprisingly, one former candidate continuously arises in Jones’ conversations about the play: African American neurosurgeon Ben Carson. “People keep telling me how timely this show is and try to make a direct comparison to Ben Carson and Carlyle Meyers.” Aside from both being African American, Carson and Carlyle have very different backgrounds in Jones’ mind, with one significant difference setting the two apart. “To be fair,” Jones cracked with a chuckle in his voice, “Carlyle Meyers is much more attractive.”
The Embattled Appointment of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
By Steve Scott
With the spring, 1991 resignation of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, then-President George H. W. Bush was presented with a unique challenge. Marshall had been a legendary liberal who, as the first African American Justice, brought his decades-long activism to Court decisions. But the 1990s lay nestled in a resurgence of political conservatism, and Bush, recognizing the necessity of appointing another African American to the Court, struggled to find a qualified black jurist whose political leanings matched his own. His eventual choice would be Judge Clarence Thomas, who sat on the United States Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia. To Bush, Thomas seemed the ideal nominee: born into Southern poverty in 1948, he struggled to put himself through the College of Holy Cross, then through Yale Law School, from which he graduated in 1974. The prejudice he faced, however, from law firms convinced that his Yale degree had been merely the result of affirmative action, instilled in him a growing belief that individual action, rather than governmental programs, was the key to overcoming racial and economic adversity. These libertarian beliefs, combined with a strong grounding in Catholicism, resulted in a political conservatism which mirrored Bush’s own beliefs in many ways.
The appointment was controversial, with many civil rights and feminist organizations vehemently opposing Thomas’ stated opposition to affirmative action, his disagreement with the NAACP on labor issues and a perceived stance against abortion rights. The confirmation hearings, which began on September 19, were often hostile, with Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee pummeling the appointee with thinly-disguised attacks on his qualifications for the job, their ire fueled by the candidate’s own tight-lipped reluctance to reveal his own political opinions. Ultimately, the Committee passed Thomas’ appointment on to the full Senate with a seven-to-seven split vote, thus ensuring an equally fractious Senate hearing.
But contentiousness turned into full-blown attack when an FBI interview with Anita Hill, then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, was leaked to the press. The interview focused on Hill’s accusations that Thomas had sexually harassed her when she assisted him at the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, making inappropriate sexual remarks, unwanted requests for dates and references to such esoterica as “women having sex with animals” and the adult film star Long Dong Silver. Perhaps the most popularly quoted piece of testimony was Hill’s assertion that Thomas had found a can of soda on his desk and quipped, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” The resulting frenzy captured national headlines for weeks, especially after Thomas’ heated denials of Hill’s accusations. A final Senate vote on the appointment was postponed while the Judiciary Committee re-opened its hearings to interview both Hill and Thomas. (Four other women who supported Hill’s claims were not called to testify, allegedly because of a deal struck by Republican senators and the head of the Judiciary Committee, Democrat Joe Biden.) On Friday, October 11, as the second round of hearings began, millions of avid television viewers saw Thomas, then Hill, present their stories. Thomas read from a prepared statement during which he denied Hill’s charges once more, then refused to “be further humiliated in order to be confirmed.” He continued: “Mr. Chairman, I am a victim of this process. My name has been harmed. My integrity has been harmed. My character has been harmed. My family has been harmed. My friends have been harmed. There is nothing this committee, this body or this country can do to give me my good name back. Nothing.”
Following this, Hill (who had just been subjected to a lie detector test which supported her assertions) was questioned first by Chairman Biden, then the other members of the Committee. As the interrogation grew more specific and more heated, Hill herself remained the picture of composure, writing later that “[T]hough I felt each one of the senators’ attempts to humiliate me, I vowed not to so much as twitch…I ignored my dry throat. I sat throughout the ‘conversations’ with the Republicans and Democrats with my hands in front of me and only occasionally would I even lean forward.”
The grilling of Thomas and Hill continued for two more days. Hill would later comment that the sessions seemed distinctly pro-Thomas, while Thomas likened his experience in front of the Committee to a “high tech lynching.” Neither budged from their very different accounts of the incidents in question; predictably, the senators took sides based on party lines. After hours of debate, the full Senate voted to confirm Thomas’ nomination, by a narrow vote of 52 to 48.
Nearly 25 years later, the case still inspires passionate debate, and is seen by many as the beginning of a new era in the evolution of racial politics and the polarization of liberal and conservative values. It also inspired a new awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, and galvanized the increased involvement of women in politics. And the media frenzy that erupted that fall led to a new age of electronic “tabloid press,” evident in such media-genic events as the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton scandal, the popularity of reality TV and the current coverage of Donald Trump’s presidential bid.