ON SQUARE BLUES
by Daniel Alexander Jones
In the punishing summer of 1979, one of Georgia’s finest, President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation. He gave a speech that would later be described as his “malaise speech”. In it, he challenged the people of the United States to change their ways: to reckon with the nation’s hypermaterialsm; its unchecked consumption of resources; and–by urging folks to take greater responsibility for the Earth, the nation’s governance, and the web of social compacts that bound it all together–Carter challenged Americans to resist the urge to stay in an attenuated civic adolescence. “We as a people, Carter explained,’worship self-indulgence and consumption’ and are mired in fragmentation and self-interest.’ ‘Our people are losing’ faith in ‘the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy.’” He put his faith in Americans’ capacity to reason, and offered an invitation for a collective change of course.
Despite the address being initially very well received (contrary to current public perception), as time passed, the rosy glow of sentiments gave way to the stark contrasts and sharp edges of those consequential actions folks would need to take in daily life. It’s one thing to talk about energy conservation in the abstract, another to go without air conditioning yourself; or, to ration your use of a car; or, at the core, to place the well-being of a collective ahead of your own desires. Public opinion for the speech and for Carter dropped like a hot potato. The telegenic, former New Deal Democratic actor-turned-conservative Republican politician Ronald Reagan trotted across the country offering a horseback view of America as perennially renewing and exempt from toll. He offered a package deal of rugged individualism and trickle-down economics that would make a snake-oil salesman proud. His brand of American didn’t need to concern himself (or his little lady) with all that talk of limited resources and environmental impact. Rather, they should shimmer like rhinestone cowboys and cowgirls as they ride on out to a horizon bursting with red, white, and blue fireworks. He won the 1980 election in an historic landslide, having routinely employed the signs and signifiers of the longstanding Republican southern strategy during his campaign, a strategy that stoked racial animus and flattened histories in order to successfully pit communities against one another. As would become common in the future, huge swaths of the United States’s white population voted against their own long-term interests in order to maintain sketchy notions of their own superiority, if only in their minds.
I met Shay Youngblood, another of Georgia’s finest, on my first day in Providence, in the Fall of 1991, as I began Graduate School at Brown University in the Theatre Program. She had arrived from Atlanta as one of the incoming cohort of MFA Playwrights, who would study under the powerful wing of playwright and activist, Paula Vogel. Vogel had blazed a luminous path, creating and offering a radical and inspiring educational model that broke with stayed tradition, embraced the inherently political nature of art, and empowered student-artists to take charge of their visions and boldly claim their vital roles as culture bearers. Years later I would learn that this brilliant professor, who had such a strong center of gravity, and whose students would seriously transform the field for decades to come, had to fight tooth and nail against both a rigid and resistant institution on the one hand, and colleagues who were profoundly threatened by her liberatory vision and professional success on the other. Freedom ain’t free. And there are many folks who are invested in yoking freedom to set positionalities in their hierarchy. She won, but Vogel’s choice had hard costs that she intentionally sheltered her students from, so they could do what she’d invited them to Brown to do: dream boldly and manifest their visions with as much elbow room and vigor as possible. Paula’s writers were afire!
I fell madly in love with Shay Youngblood’s writing. First, I read her impeccable Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery, chronicling the coming-of-age of a young girl abandoned by her mother who is raised by her big mamas–a much-produced play that got its start at Horizon Theater Company. Over the course of our first year, she wrote and developed the hilarious and poignant play Talking Bones. And, in our final year, she completed the play you are going to see today, Square Blues.
During the early 1990s, our nation was enmeshed in yet another series of stark choices. The first Gulf War was a flashpoint. Shay and I sat rapt watching Anita Hill’s courageous testimony against Clarence Thomas, whom we all believed to be an obscene nominee in light of his predecessor, the legal legend Justice Thurgood Marshall. We cautiously celebrated Bill Clinton’s electoral victory, after 12 years of Reagan-Bush politics, and heard Maya Angelou deliver her Inaugural Poem. We watched the constantly-looped videotape of Rodney King’s beating and the rebellious uprisings that surfaced nationwide as a result. We started to see the way the Clinton Era would shift us away from progressive politics toward a Trojan-horse neoliberal centrism. We believed wholeheartedly in the work of the artist, and that our art would house our dreams, deep concerns, and emerging strategies to continue the labor of our forebears. In many ways, the surge of popular visibility for Black and/or LGBTQ theatre, music, film, visual art, and political thought seemed to be part of a new era: Toni Morrison won the Nobel, a generation of bold young hip-hop artists and deejays wed beats to buried histories, and dancefloors to radical poses of self-reinvention. Shay, to those of us who knew her at Brown, was already a luminary and I delighted in seeing the way her life reflected the durable connections across geography and generations to a wide constellation of artists, activists, & entrepreneurs, some of whom sought whole new structures for living, even as others sought to reform and repurpose institutions, policies, and programs that had lost their ways.
As hopeful as we were, we were not naive; we knew that history repeats itself in sheep’s clothing. Shay’s vocabulary was peppered with a bunch of sayings inherited from her own big mamas reminding us all “there are fools born every day”, and to “remember that every shut eye ain’t asleep”. Shay was our brilliant example of an artist who told truths while also insisting upon love, upon the power of beauty, and upon our personal agency. Shay trusted the everyday stories folks tell, and the distinctive voices they use to tell them, as her clearest guides through uncertain waters. When I look at the script, I still hear the cadences of the original cast of actors including Venus Irving-Prescott, Rahja, Miré Regulus, Laura Verallo de Bertotto, and Raffini Naar; and see the bright, bold murals designed for the Brown production by Madolin Maxey. Each night the now celebrated-novelist Rachel M. Harper and I sat in the tiny tech booth and operated the lights and sound, laughing and crying in turn. Square Blues could easily be viewed as a sacred relic from that time containing many of the emotional chords we experienced in those years. Except, Shay was hella prescient, and as you will see, this play might have been written yesterday.
Here we are in 2022 weathering a staggering rollback of freedoms, including the decimation of voting rights legislation and other civic protections our ancestors struggled for, often at the cost of their lives. Clarence Thomas is now the senior jurist on the Supreme Court and has, following the overturning of Roe v. Wade set his sights set on a rollback of Gay marriage and privacy protections that served to decriminalize same-gender relationships. We are experiencing global climate collapse; staggering levels of income inequality; a nightmarish steady rise in gun violence broadly, and in state violence against black bodies in particular; a dysfunctional federal government and starkly polarized society, all grievously damaged by the impact of the chaotic, proto-fascist Trump administration. President Joe Biden’s plummeting approval ratings are lately compared to Carter’s. We are wrestling with our collective history, its hungry ghosts, its buried truths, and increasing censorship of any candid discussion about race, sex, gender, power, and revolutionary change. Shay stood boldly against such censorship as she contributed her work to the field of American theatre, which, at the time seemed too invested in irony, celebrity, and Black trauma as entertainment; its gatekeepers unwilling to cede terrain to a voice as sovereign and loving as Youngblood’s. We are all fortunate that she continued to believe in this play so that we might consider it anew.
I used to hold that it was never too late to make a better choice. Now, I’m not so sure. I still believe we can each make better choices; and I hope that we can do so collectively. But I’m doubtful about the time we have to do it. I have been speaking a lot with young folks about the choice that was made after Carter’s “malaise” speech, when we could have chosen a path that may indeed have mitigated the floods, fires, and famines that seem to be our forever headlines; and, may—may—have helped us to focus a little less on ourselves in favor of considering our impact on others. There were many alive then who knew we would end up here if, as happened, the illusion held sway over courageous witness and action. Will our ears hear better this time? Now that we know what all has been lost. Now that we can more accurately regard her brave decision to speak these truths when few wanted to hear them. Now that we recognize our culture’s genuine and profound need for the kind of loving witness Shay models in the work. She showed us a path. May we choose wisely this time.
— Daniel Alexander Jones is an award winning artist whose volume of collected plays and performance texts, Love Like Light, was recently published by 53rd State Press. He lives in Los Angeles. 2022