Inside a large, bright, air conditioned room at the Irondale Theatre Centre in Brooklyn, audience members view the work of the Afro Futurist but fictional artist Uncle Jimmy. This is W. David Hancock’s new play, Master, in collaboration with visual artist Wardell Milan.
Uncle Jimmy’s widow greets us at the door. The life work of Uncle Jimmy was to conceive and design 43 ‘illuminations’ for a time travelling character called Jim, inspired by one of the central characters of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Alongside his other art works some illuminations are complete and exhibited.
Uncle Jimmy’s interest in the work of Twain was not just the appropriation in Twain’s writings of stories told to him by a family slave growing up, but equally Twain’s appropriation of the witticisms and dialectical rhythms of the man in his writing style. In his illuminations Uncle Jimmy is taking Twain’s Jim back by pushing him forward into the future.
In Illumination 14, Jim, in his quest to be reunited with his family, lands on the moon. On the moon Jim builds coffins as fast as he can make them but discovers, ‘godlike powers only heighten loss'. Not all illuminations are confined to Jim’s adventures though. In illumination 29 Uncle Jimmy imagines his daughter Paige blowing up the Jefferson plantation Monticello, ‘Good terrorism destroys a culture’s deepest held beliefs'.
There is a large production team involved in Master and the scale of the detail and labour in the exhibition is immense; video, tape recordings, a tepee made of Uncle Jimmy’s old clothes, miniature objects and carvings, fully realised illumination boxes, a displayed copy of Malcolm X’s autobiography, paintings – there’s not enough time to enjoy them all before Uncle Jimmy’s widow invites us to sit down.
Anne O’Sullivan plays his widow, Edna Finn, and expands on his backstory for us; Uncle Jimmy was distrustful of agents and collectors who, he perceived, exploited the black artist leaving him with nothing. This is the first time his work has been exhibited. She shares details of their life together, the financial assistance she provided and the disintegration of their relationship. It is a sel- conscious performance, every emotion signalled to us by the actor before the text arrives in a manner that is almost contrived. In such a considered piece I chose to interpret this as as a directorial choice, the effect of which serves to remind us we are part of a production - this is not real life. Also, because the contrast with the next speaker is so stark, the performance is possibly constructed to reference the discomfiture of a white woman being the representative of a black artist’s estate.
Uncle Jimmy’s son James, played by Mikeah Ernest Jennings, is a surprise guest, noticed by his father’s widow in the audience and invited to speak. James assails us with a confluence of mixed emotions triggered by the retrospective; pride, awe, frustration, shame. It’s an artful performance both casual and bemused but betraying deep hurt. He remembers long road trips with Uncle Jimmy, long silences interrupted by his childish curiosity, ‘why are white men obsessed with dead black bodies?’ He outlines the devastation of being the child of a man possessed by his art, ‘when was it he started to dislike me?’ and the legacy of being the son of a brilliant black man in a world that embraced the commercial value of the work but not the artist. In an act of rebellion James sold the one piece Uncle Jimmy ever gave him, breaking his heart. When Uncle Jimmy withdrew into himself and his work completely the complex relationship of father and son, artist and artist (James is a queer performance artist) remained with the son to configure.
That night at the show, with one exception everyone in the audience was white. This added yet another layer to James’s monologue but I don’t know how to express the effect of that, whether what’s significant was the presence of a white audience or the absence of a black one. It was something to think about once James finished speaking and we all eagerly returned to view the exhibition until we were asked to leave.
Una for DRAFF
Master written by W. David Hancock in collaboration with visual artist Wardell Milan, and directed by Taibi Magar, runs at the Irondale Centre until June 24th. Image: Julieta Cervantes
Posted: 21 June 2017