bonded

This past Friday night, I got a group of friends together and we went to see my friend Donald Jolly‘s play, bonded.

bonded (yes, it is spelled with a lower case “b”) is set in rural 1820s Virginia, at the height of slavery.  At the play’s opening, Sonny, a slave who in the past has made an escape attempt, is being pressured by Lily, another slave, to “jump the broom” to solidify their budding relationship. Enter then Asa, the educated, trouble-making house servant recently-arrived slave to the plantation from Massachusetts, who outright declares himself to be “no barn n*****.” After being whipped into submission by Jack, the cantankerous, grey-haired head slave, Sonny and Asa gradually begin to build their relationship. At first, Sonny’s protection of Asa suggests a fraternal, or perhaps paternal type of care; by the intermission, however, one realizes that what the two men feel for each other transcends any label: they are in love, madly in love, and the consequences of this unspoken love threaten every part of their existence.

[WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!]

While the language in most plays might vacillate between being insipid or waxing overly melodramatic, Jolly’s main triumph is his solid writing. As a fiction writer, I’ve always particularly admired playwrights: whereas prose lends itself to the use of setting, description, point of view, and other literary devices, drama relies exclusively on dialogue to drive the plot, create characters, spur and resolve conflict, and let the viewer walk away with a sense that something important has happened in front of them. All of this coming together in a way that feels artistic without feeling heavy-handed always seems so magical to me, and when a well-written play pulls this off, I’m that much more in awe.

Jolly, in bonded, truly demonstrates his mastery of language in the play. Aside from being devoid of teeth-gnashing cheap metaphors and meaningless symbols, I admire how well the play’s language complements each respective character: the better-educated Asa, for example, has a more advanced vocabulary, and even pronounces his words with better elocution than, say, Sonny, whose circumstances have bred a heavy southern drawl with a more basic set of plantation-based vocabulary. Each character speaks distinctly from the other (Jack’s voice booms; Lily sing-songs) and also possesses words and phrases tailored by the playwright to their particular point of view in the fictional world.

I also really admired how Jolly paces the exposition and revelation of important data. Some less-artful plays that I’ve read in the past either clumsily reveal everything there’s to know about a character at the beginning, making the reader lose interest, whereas others withhold important information until the very end in an attempt to resolve the story, but confusing the viewer instead. bonded is lovely in that important information – Sonny’s previous escape attempt with Matthew; Lily’s miscarried baby being the seed of the plantation owner; the fact that old Jack, in a moment of senility, confesses to having seen Sonny and Matthew in intimate moments — is withheld only until absolutely necessary. When these developments (among others) are revealed, it’s timing is such that the other characters and their plights become that much more moving — and fascinating.

But what I’d like to praise the most about bonded is the relevance that the play, despite being set in a time so far removed from our own, has to our world. In fact, not only relevant, but contemporary in a way that directly speaks to the many injustices taking part in our society today.

It’s no accident, for example, that Jolly chose this particular period in U.S. history to set his play. While the 1820s are certainly distant from us in terms of time and way of life, bonded does a wonderful job of how the idea of second-class citizens continues to exist today. Take, for instance, the plight of minorities in this country. Aside from the (most recent)  outright racism that manifests itself against President Obama and the rampant over-representation of people of color in jails and prisons, there’s also the continuous assault on ethnic studies programs and the inhumane treatment of immigrants, documented or not. Though the country has made significant progress since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, the fact still remains that the poor and people of color remain second-class citizens in the eyes of the wealth elite.

Given the beautiful portrayal of same-sex love and the anger with which it is met, it is not difficult to see the message that bonded seems to be sending in regard to the current plight of LGBTQI today, especially in regard to the fight for marriage equality, evidenced most obviously in the final scene.

Right before Sonny and Lily “jump the broom” as a symbol of their marriage, Asa asks why Sonny will not perform this same act with him. Sonny laughs, dismissing the idea as “crazy,” and goes forward with the ceremony with Lily.  Later, after Sonny feels something between discomfort and disgust on his wedding night, and after Lily catches Sonny kissing Asa in the woods, Asa brings up the broom-jumping again. Lily has gone off to fetch the plantation owner and Jack, striking fear in Sonny’s heart. He chastises Asa again for the idea, eyeing the broom tossed haphazardly in a corner of the stage. Asa pleads to jump the broom before they run away together, but each time is met with Sonny’s dismissal. Finally, when Asa appears unwilling to go, fearing perhaps Sonny’s lack of commitment to their love, Sonny begins to sing an old African song that Asa is familiar with. Rising to kiss him, Asa acquiesces. After a quick kiss, Sonny grabs Asa by the wrist and runs offstage — running, not jumping, over the broom in the process.

While Sonny and Asa may not have literally jumped the broom, symbolizing their marriage (I, for one, like the ambiguity), what was highlighted in this act for me was their bravery: despite the impending doom and violence that threatened their very lives, these two men ran away together, bonded together in race, status, and forbidden love. LGBT couples, even in 2011, continue to feel the need to hide their love; our relationships continue to be held as invalid in the eyes of the law, and by this relegate us to second-class citizens. Sonny and Asa, forbidden from being together by a cruel society, chose to run away, evading and challenging the establishment. Same-sex couples today are forced to find creative ways to stay together because of a myriad of factors, often times suppressing their love because of the fear of being persecuted, harassed, or worse.  I for one was moved by their brave display of love and dedication to one another, and found myself relating to their plight all the more.

On a final note, another thing that I appreciated about the play was its beautiful way of playing with history. I’m fortunate enough to know Donald personally, and after seeing bonded we talked about the play over dinner. Though Donald researched his play, he admitted that depictions of same-sex relationships among African slaves were difficult to find, most notably because of efforts to censor and erase them from history. In a sense, then, the characters in the play were created to “fill in” the gaping historical hole. Donald contends, and I concur, that just as homosexuality is a positive, natural occurrence among us today, so too it was among the slaves. (How arrogant, indeed, for us to dehumanize their experience all the more by negating this possibility!) Donald says he thinks of Asa and Sonny as his “historical great-great-great-great grandfathers” of sorts, providing him with a sense of history that has been denied to him, and to all of us, collectively.

This, indeed, seems to be one of the play’s messages to its viewers: the play might deal with gay slaves in the 1820s, but all of the elements – discrimination, cruelty, racism, colonialism, etc. –  that are manifested in the play continue to be exhibited today. Just look hard enough, and you’ll see the truth: you might not have physical chains on you, but the play encourages you to look further, for the instances in your life when you, too, feel bonded.

________

bonded is currently being staged at the Los Angeles Theatre Center until April 24th! For more details, please visit http://thelatc.org/seasons/east-of-broadway-spring-season-2011/bonded/

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