The playwright conceived it as a reverse minstrel show, with black actors playing in whiteface. But Douglas Turner Ward’s Day of Absence is a lot more. As staged by Congo Square Theater, the 1965 script is updated to feature today’s issues and give you a chance to let your laugh muscles out to play. Day of Absence, directed by Anthony Irons, is a chance to laugh uproariously at ourselves and the upside-down society in which we live. The play is directed and performed smartly, coming in at an electric 70 minutes.
Day of Absence is set today on a warm summer morning in an unnamed Southern town. Things get started with Luke and Clem (Ronald L. Conner and Kelvin Roston Jr.), two good ol’ boys, hanging out on the mall. They gradually realize that something is wrong, something odd is going on. Something is topsy-turvy. Eventually they realize that all the black and brown workers they are used to greeting are nowhere to be seen.
Now we’re in the bedroom of Mary (Meagan Dilworth) and John (Jordan Arredondo). The baby is crying inconsolably and Mary tells her husband to have the maid take care of the baby so she can sleep some more. But John reports that the maid isn’t there and isn’t answering her phone. But what will we do? Mary laments. I don’t know how to change a diaper and the baby yells even louder when I try to touch her. The baby continues to scream as John dresses to go to work.
At city hall, Mayor Henrietta R.E. Lee (Ann Joseph) is trying to start her day, despite the fact that Mandy and Rufus aren’t here to help. Three men burst into the office to complain “They ain’t here // Vanished // Disappeared into thin air // Gone without a trace // Not a one on the street // in the home // on the job.” The Mayor tries to calm them down but then her assistant Jackson (Ronald L. Conner) comes in to say Mandy and Rufus are nowhere to be found. But where are they? And how will we get along without them?
Nothing is happening at the hospital either. “Them that’s sick don’t get better…. Babies ready to be born aren’t coming out…. Those that are near death aren’t dying.”
The trauma continues. Protesters march to demand the absentees return. They carry signs saying “We’ll treat you better // Than Your Shithole Countries.” And “Come Back // You Still Owe Us for the Wall.”
The mayor decides to give a television address to reach out to the missing Blacks and Latinos, asking them to return. The mayor also speaks to a TV announcer (Dilworth), seeks help from the Rev. Pious (Roston) and meets with Mr. Clan (Bryant Hayes), who denies having any part in the disappearances. (He’s annoyed that he had nothing to do with it.) There’s even a march by zombies, singing the Republicans’ favorite anthem, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”
Douglas Turner Ward calls Day of Absence a “satirical fantasy” and it is certainly both. The wit is scathing, though applied more with a bludgeon than with a rapier. But no matter; it’s very funny with many current references. The opening-night audience clearly enjoyed it, and so did I.
Ward’s original 1965 script has been updated to include Latinos as well as Blacks and to feature contemporary issues such as immigration as well as today’s technology and language. The 1965 off-off-Broadway production resulted in the launch of the Negro Ensemble Company by Ward and two other artists. In that first production, Ward himself played the mayor. His original script prescribes the acting style (“go for broke, but don’t ham it up too broadly”) as well as makeup and costuming.
Sydney Lynne Thomas’ scenic design is spare and modular. Boxes of different sizes are turned and flipped to serve as beds, chairs, counters and desks. Lighting design is by Levi J. Wilkins. The outstanding whiteface makeup, costume and wig design work is done by Rueben D. Echoles. Sound design is by Rick Sims. The seven actors all play multiple roles, including Sonya Madrigal, who plays a clubwoman and other parts.
Day of Absence by Congo Square Theatre continues through March 22 at the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $35 ($25 for seniors and students) for performances Friday-Sunday.