October 20, 2008 — As Americans prepare for an election that may produce America's first black president, the University of Virginia Department of Drama is presenting one of the theater world's most intriguing racial satires.
Douglas Turner Ward's "Day of Absence" is a one-act satire, written in 1965, that explores what happens in a fictional Southern town one day when all of the black people suddenly disappear.
Ward, one of the icons of African-American theater, paints a world where this sudden disappearance causes life to come apart at the seams. Parents are unable to care for their babies. Businesses are unable to function as they had the day before. And governments begin to collapse under the weight of their increasingly agitated and helpless citizenry. The next day, when the black people return as quickly as they left, life goes right back to normal. Or does it?
Adding to the unique power and appeal of the play is the fact that Ward wrote it, and U.Va. Drama will present it, in a reverse minstrel style, with African-American actors performing in whiteface and portraying Caucasian characters.
Director Theresa M. Davis said the play should serve as an equal opportunity eye-opener. "I think there is a danger if we think the exposing being done in this play is only for white America," she said. "The issue is bigotry. I think it is a sending up of bias and prejudice and bigotry and some of the things we still think about whether or not we like to admit it."
That the play is being presented just days before the presidential election is hardly lost on Davis and her cast. "I think there is a particular relevance in doing the piece as we are having a higher level of discourse about race and culture in this country," she said.
The fact that Ward's chosen mode of truth telling is humor works particularly well for the message, Davis said.
"The New York Times, in its review when the play opened in the '60s, said that 'laughter can be used as effectively as anger in telling white America what the Negro had on his mind,'" she said. "For me, what is particularly relevant is the fact that it is a satire, and a satire above all else has a corrective nature that is different from parody.
"It gives us irony and sarcasm and a caustic wit that, in the end, are all used to attack and expose folly."
"Day of Absence" will run at the Helms Theatre Oct. 23 to 25, Oct. 28 to 31 and Nov. 1. All performances begin at 8 p.m. Single tickets are $14 for adults; $12 for seniors and U.Va. faculty, staff and alumni; and $8 for students.
The 2008-2009 season will continue with the musical theater classic "Oklahoma!" at the Culbreth Theatre Nov. 20 to 22 and Dec. 3 to 5.
The season will also include the surreal "The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer" (Culbreth, Feb. 12 to14 and 18 to21); "Fuddy Meers," a tale of a wild farcical day in the life of a family like no other you have ever met (Helms, March 19 to 21 and 24 to 28) and Shakespeare's "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" (April 16 to 18 and 22 to 25).
Culbreth season subscriptions are available for $38 adult; $33 for seniors and U.Va. faculty, staff and alumni and $26 students. Tickets can be ordered by calling 434-924-3376 or by visiting Culbreth Monday through Friday between 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets for individual productions go on sale approximately two weeks prior to the opening. Full-time U.Va. students can use their ARTS$ Dollars to purchase individual and season tickets.
Free parking is available at nearby Culbreth Road Parking Garage.