December 02, 2010

Tables turned in Assimilation

Flipping the script:  "Assimilation"

By Dawnell SmithIf Jack Dalton’s work in “Time Immemorial” proved the power of humor, perspective and nuance, his latest play, “Assimilation,” reveals theater as a tool of blunt force. Though not flawless or easy on the heart, the script uses a fictional future to tackle a great deal of historic material, from the Great Death in villages throughout Alaska in the 20th century to the loss of dignity when white people used school, religion and physical punishment to beat the language, traditions, ancestry and even a sense of place out of Native people.

The play’s simple strategy of turning the tables on Alaska history creates a disturbing catharsis; here, white boys suffer the brutality of a cruel Native headmaster called “Elder.” I’m no psychologist, but the set-up seems to allow anger and shame to turn the tables as well. Through this storyline, the play asserts the necessity of empathy and apology to forgiveness.
Comment:  Sounds like the movie White Man's Burden (1995) starring John Travolta and Harry Belafonte. Alas, that movie showed that simply flipping the races isn't enough to convey a compelling message:The premise is interesting, but the execution fails to live up to any of its potential. White Man's Burden imagines an America where black people are the ruling class and whites are underprivileged minorities. John Travolta stars as a factory worker who is fired after making a delivery to the house of the factory owner (Harry Belafonte) and accidentally peeping the man's naked wife through a window. Now jobless and unable to support his family, his wife (Kelly Lynch) leaves him. In desperation he kidnaps Belafonte. The best part of the film is seeing African American actors filling the smaller, background roles that usually go to white actors (such as police officers and wealthy suburbanites), but the movie fails in its poorly thought-out ideas.Comment:  For more examples of race-flipping scenarios, see What If Indians Conquered Europe? and "What If" Stories About Indians.

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