Rules of Engagement: An Interview with Thulani Davis

San Francisco Bay Guardian
by Miya Masaoka
March 8, 2000

Thulani Davis talks about race, gender, murder, and her play, Everybody’s Ruby.

THULANI DAVIS IS an acclaimed novelist, librettist, and poet, as well as the winner of an American Book Award for Makers of Saints. She wrote the libretto for the opera X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X, originated the series concept for I’ll Make Me a World, and is an ordained Buddhist priest in the Jodo Shinshu sect. Her play, Everybody’s Ruby, which opens at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre on March 16, is based on actual events that happened in Live Oak, Fla., in 1952. The play begins with a bang — and a death. Ruby McCollum, a black woman, has been charged with murdering her lover, a white doctor. Enter writer Zora Neale Hurston, who, having fallen out of favor with her peers and patrons, needs money and national attention and takes a job covering McCollum’s trial for a Pittsburgh newspaper.

Bay Guardian: In light of current events — the Diallo trial in particular — how do the overlapping conflicts in Everybody’s Ruby involving race, class, regionalism, and gender look in the year 2000?

Thulani Davis: Everybody’s Ruby depicts a world that is rigidly stratified and has a lot of rules. It’s a world where the boundaries of sex, race, and class are enforced by day (but not by night). It’s also a fluid society where people go around those rules if they want to, and people actually know each other fairly well. I think that is how people functioned before the time of my play. For instance, there were boundaries on a plantation that were crossed every night, and everyone pretended that the rules were upheld. Those things now are still all in place, and geography or real estate determine how fluid your experience of America is. If you live in a poor neighborhood, you are likely to know several kinds of people and be more intimate with them. Whereas if you live in the top of this society, you’re likely to live in an all-white world where all this is a great mystery and you think that the police are working for you. It’s never been true for the poor. Perceptions about race really can determine whether a person will live or die. So you find four cops in New York who supposedly have none of the baggage of slavery. But they have those same perceptions that were put out in society during slavery: that a young black male is armed and dangerous, will kill them. In fact, in the Diallo case, the person that they killed was a middle-class African who was here trying to make it on his own – and he was unarmed. We all carry the baggage of slavery, because there are very few people in this country who do not learn those perceptions and who do not go around thinking that a young male between the ages of eighteen and thirty-six who is black is a threat to them. That is part of the eyesight of people in America, and it’s taught, it’s learned, somehow. The characters in my play simply represent a time when it was overtly enforced.

BG: Zora Neale Hurston’s studies of the folklife of the African American rural South didn’t endear her to the middle- and upper-middle-class black art establishment, who strived to “uplift” the community from commonly held stereotypes. Artists of color often have pressures to be “representative” of whatever ethnicity we happen to be, and are open to critique if we portray people of our race as “reinforcing stereotypes” or “playing up to the worst stereotype.” You portray a rape that becomes a relationship between a black woman and her white doctor, which recalls memories of slavery and must feel like pouring salt in an open wound for some people. What has been the reaction to this aspect of the work?

TD: The experience of artists of color is almost always the same regardless of what time period they live in – there are always these issues about representation. I can look at the issues Zora Neale Hurston was facing and they are utterly contemporary. She was presenting folk material and keeping the people’s language the way it was spoken, and presenting it unaltered as both folklore and as artistry. And at the time, other artists, who were much more entrenched in middle-class and European values, thought that black folk material needed to be cleaned up and put inside a European structure. They thought that if you presented black people as more Europeanized, and made them more acceptable, that political struggle would then go further. You can see the counterpoint to that with hip-hop: part of the struggle around hip-hop is that it represents young black people as gangsters, and in language that is not to be spoken in the office. This, the argument goes, assists the society in holding bad views of black people. So this has been an issue for black artists since slavery, and probably will continue to be.

BG: What does the play’s title mean?

TD: One of the reasons that it’s called Everybody’s Ruby is that people struggle over the ownership of the story in the play, people who are trying to prevent Zora from getting the story. Each person has their own version of this ephemeral thing — the truth — and in their minds it belongs to them. The town owns a version, and they want to keep it to themselves. Zora wants to use the truth to help save this woman’s life, so there’s conflict about who owns this story, Ruby’s story.

BG: How is the illicit, obsessive sex between Ruby and the doctor written into the play?

TD: Most of it is nonverbal, a love that is taboo. We have so many barriers in our society with the people who are supposed to be the other, and I think there is always this attraction and repulsion going on with encounters between people. Very often we’re raised in a world where we’re taught to be xenophobic and not to like those other people whoever they may be. Yet we get caught up in these systems of desire. The real situations intrigue me. I can think of modern ones, or historical ones, where there was a long-term relationship. Thomas Jefferson and Sally were in a relationship for 40 years, and he refused to free her. It’s very difficult to understand either party in that relationship. If you look at the white male as a metaphor for society, part of these relationships were not loving the self. These women thought that they were in a powerful, compelling relationship, but it meant existing inside of a trap and making the best of that. Not loving the self is part of it; if the people continue to regard society as something that will continue to reject them, and that you must adapt so that you will be acceptable to the larger society, you do have to kill off something inside yourself. You have to assimilate yourself and deny some parts of yourself, you know, straighten your hair, get some blue contact lenses, so white males are almost indistinguishable in my work from power. They usually have some attachment to the power that is perhaps offstage but acting upon the black character.

BG: Is there a Buddhist current in the play?

TD: Zora Neale is kind of a Buddhist character. She enters the play still trying to hold on to her fame and glory, which is really a thing of the past by that point. Her efforts to get the story fail, but finally she’s able to survive by letting go of the attachment to fame. She can’t even make a living, but by giving up any claim to the story, she can give her compassion to Ruby and give her the best chances for surviving. I tried to wear everybody’s shoes and make all the characters more complex and keep them from “representing.” I try to give existential choices for both these women. Ruby gives up her desire to escape from jail and makes her peace with dying, but then of course she doesn’t die. Zora gives up her idea of having one last bout of glory. They’re both very determined to be the captain of their ship under very constrained circumstances. No matter how confined they become, they still try to control what is going to happen with their lives. That’s a theme probably in all of my work. That no matter what is happening, the characters are still trying to be the catalysts of their own event.

‘Everybody’s Ruby.’ Through April 16. Previews Sat/11-Sun/12 and Tues/14-Wed/15. Opens Thurs/16. Runs Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m., Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter, S.F. $22-$26. (415) 474-8800.