Justin Haynes is an associate professor of English at Randolph-Macon College. He was awarded a Billops-Hatch fellowship in support of his research on carnivals in the Americas. He is the 2021-2023 Nicholas Jenkins Barnett Fellow in fiction at Emory University.
Tom Dent’s creative writing and essays focus on centering cultural Blackness in his hometown of New Orleans. His poems, plays, nonfiction, and work with the Free Southern Theatre, all endeavor to underscore a historical marginalization, and suppression, of Black people, and a way for them to escape such insulation. Dent’s work inherently understands New Orleans’s historical place in Black suppression: the city not only holds the ignominy of being the site of the highest population of the trade of enslaved bodies in US history, but the state of Louisiana, in the twenty-first century, holds the highest rate of incarceration, per capita, in the world, and this incarcerated population also tends to be disproportionately Black. Dent’s work is vital to my study of Black performance and how Black performance uses coded actions that non-Black audiences often misinterpret or cannot discern. Through a close reading of two of Dent’s typescript plays housed in the Billops-Hatch archives of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library—Riot Duty (1969) and They Came This Morning—I analyze how Dent positions the Black body to resist suppression, and how this body often gets punished as a result. Additionally, an audio interview in the archive reveals Dent’s creative vision and the role that his background plays in his creativity which served as an unexpected bonus to my studies.
Dent, a native of New Orleans (1932—1998), wrote poetry, plays, and nonfiction about the Black perspective, particularly as seen in New Orleans, and he did so from a middle-classviewpoint. His father was a president of Dillard university, and his mother was a concert pianist. Both his mother’s musical abilities, and New Orleans’s own vibrant musical identity, tie into Dent’s understanding of Black culture. “There’s no city in America which has a stronger Black musical muscle than Black New Orleans,” Dent argues in his interview. “It’s still here. There’s so many great musicians in New Orleans.” Speaking more directly toward his understanding of Black culture, Dent writes, “My own vision of what the Free Southern Theatre was doing was strongly tempered by the fact that I was from New Orleans, and I could see how it could provide a type of pride in our culture and development and dealing with the pride that was so germane.”
The theme of Black cultural pride, while absent in Riot Duty, is a central theme in They Came This Morning, where it becomes a problematic element that figures of authority seek to suppress. Riot Duty, a one-act play, features three central characters: “Albert Roberts, a black plainclothesman,” and “Two white cops in a patrol car.” Additionally, there are unidentified Black people who move past Roberts, and with whom Roberts makes brief conversation. The play opens in the middle of a riot during which various Black characters loot a store in “a major American city.” Roberts, on a pay telephone while destruction happens all around him, attempts to call his precinct to provide a report of the looting. He has trouble with the operator, and while he waits to be connected, he engages with various Black looters. The looters clearly do not perceive Roberts, sans uniform, as a representative of the law, and they confess various transgressions to him, and even how they intend to assault any arriving police officers. Roberts’sappearance, which does not signal him as a figure of authority, serves as the hinge on which the play’s action bends: outside of the uniform means that he is black and a potential looter. Roberts, unrecognized by the patrolmen who eventually arrives to establish order, gets searched by the patrolmen who dismiss his attempts to identify himself as one of them. Upon finding Roberts’s service weapon, the patrolmen beat him with their nightsticks until he is unconscious. The police officers subsequently beat two Black boys who also pass, and, after rendering them unconsciousas well, one of the police officers proclaims, “Well we got three.” Absent of a uniform, Roberts’s phenotypical appearance serves as the central identifier to the police: a Black man equals a looter during a riot. Another vital theme is Roberts’s inability to communicate, both over the phone, and in person, to representatives of the law. The suggestion here is that Roberts is not truly one of them, and that Black people may have to establish their own laws.
A theme around which both plays overlap is one that often repeats in all of Dent’s writing: the presence of non-Black authority figures in the form of the police, or the military, who issue orders to, are aggressive toward, and seek to subjugate, Black people. Put differently, these figures of the law seek to marginalize a traditionally, and historically, subjugated people. In They Came this Morning, the premise is that an unnamed government organization, who have a branch of the military at their disposal, separate a group of five Black people—three men, and two women—in order to have them mate and reproduce for an undisclosed mission in an undisclosed location. The audience/reader, who receives the action from the perspective of the Black characters, initially remains just as in the dark as the Black characters as to what is happening. The very first action/direction of the play establishes Black suppression at the hands of the law: “a small crowd of people is led across the stage by one soldier/they walk slowly & look lost.” An unnamed captain of the military addresses the group, telling them that “the first thing you must all remember is that you must follow orders. You must follow orders! You must do as you’re told.” A second military officer, Sergeant Riley, reinforces the captain’s orders: “Listen up. I’m Sgt. Riley. I’m in charge of this group. From here on in if you have any questions you must not ask them. If you have anything to say you must not say it.…There is no real need for any of you to be alive.” One of the Black men, Calvin, immediately protests the situation, and Sergeant Riley commands a soldier to shoot Calvin, whereupon Calvin is unceremoniously dragged off to a pit at the back of the stage.
What the audience—but not the Black characters—finally learn by the play’s end, is that the group has been chosen to help colonize the moon. The metaphor is meant to expand the idea of slavery and colonization to its extreme—this group of Black people will be kept in captivity in a manner meant to mirror Atlantic slavery of Black bodies. Written in the 1960s during the moonshot, Dent probably meant his plot to be tongue-in-cheek, and to innately raise questions of belonging, homeland, and colonialism. But read in 2021, when billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson, seek to expand their cooperate wealth through a mélange of space capitalism and tourism, Dent’s play seems peculiarly prescient. Both plays feature the use of weapons to subjugate the black body, but these weapons are deployed not just to subjugate, but to create a legal order that instills fear in the Black population. The central difference between the plays is that Riot Duty features a lone Black character, while They Came this Morning, by dint of containing four Black characters, immediately displays a Black culture and society.