‘Bondage’ Unleashes a Destabilizing Force Between Black and White

Zuri (Dezi Soléy) and Emily (Emily Serdahl) in 'Bondage' by Star Finch.

Zuri (Dezi Soléy) and Emily (Emily Serdahl) in 'Bondage' by Star Finch. (David Allen)

America sometimes seems an endless conversation between black and white, as if slavery, the Civil War, the emergence of the Klan, the Civil Rights Movement, the southern strategy, Afrofuturism, and the tiki-torch return of white nationalism were one long dance of opposites. That rigid oppositional framing, though, is shaky, and especially in the face, the hair, and the skin of all Americans who slip between black and white.

And so part of the pleasure of AlterTheater’s bare-bones, well-acted production of Star Finch’s gothic shocker Bondage, ably directed by Elizabeth Carter, is the way Finch catches the destabilizing force of simply being neither black nor white. As William Carlos Williams memorably summed it up, “the pure products of America go crazy.”

Zuri (Dezi Soléy) is a destabilizing force just by being alive in 'Bondage' by Star Finch.
Zuri (Dezi Soléy) is a destabilizing force just by being alive in ‘Bondage’ by Star Finch. (Photo: David Allen)

Finch places us in an island nether world some time before the Civil War, and begins with the outlines of a simple tale — 13-year old Emily’s father and aunt are trying to find her a suitable husband, though she would rather play with her cousin, Zuri, a mulatta slave and her handmaiden. The play begins with the cousins staring off at the distant sea. Zuri dances a bit, swaying to music of her own making, and Emily wants that too: to move as her cousin moves.

It’s a canny take on white desire. Zuri can barely understand Emily’s needs or has any inclination to fulfill them — “There’s nothing to teach,” she offhandedly remarks. Yet we know from a thousand movies that it’s supposedly Zuri’s job to teach her white cousin to dance — that’s the trope. It’s a risible notion if there ever were one, but one deeply entrenched in the American psyche. Finch doesn’t so much critique the cliché as makes it inoperable.

One might describe Bondage as an unlearning play. Emily, in what she sees as an act of kindness, wishes she could turn her cousin white; Zuri responds, “But my skin is pale now. How much whiter would you wish me?” In her refusal or inability to understand the world around her, Zuri turns everything into an absurdity. That’s part of the brilliance of the play: you can’t help but see our present world as the inhuman result of the craziness she can’t get her mind around.

The hand of Azucar (Cathleen Riddley) tries to protect and silence Zuri (Dezi Soléy) in 'Bondage' by Star Finch.
The hand of Azucar (Cathleen Riddley) tries to protect and silence Zuri (Dezi Soléy) in ‘Bondage’ by Star Finch. (Photo: David Allen)

When Emily’s father Phillip looks at Zuri, he’s not only caught in the allure of desires he feels are illicit and enticing — her age (13), her heritage, his daughter’s truest friend — but also a way out of a meaningless life. For him, the indeterminate nature of her race becomes a sign of another way, an escape from limits and the opening up of new possibilities. One of Finch’s slyest jokes in the script is Phillip’s crazy wish to take Zuri to Bombay, where they can be artists together.

In late 18th century America, Phillip’s dream is ludicrous, but enticing enough for Zuri to wonder just how real it might be. “What do you think life might be like in Bombay?” she asks Azucar, an older mulatta slave, “Could I pass for one of them [whites]?” In the world Finch creates in Bondage, it takes a sexual predator to see a way outside injustice and grasp for new ways of thinking and being.

Zuri is both too much and not enough of everything. Caught between father and daughter, adult and child, white and black, slave and relative (a cousin that Emily wishes were a sister), she unbalances the world by her mere presence. If you’ve read your gothic titans (the Brontë sisters and Daphne du Maurier), you know that the world, society, and its designated authorities will and must redress that imbalance.

Azucar (Cathleen Ridley) watches in the background as Aunt Ruby (Emilie Talbot) goes in for the kill in 'Bondage' by Star Finch.
Azucar (Cathleen Ridley) watches in the background as Aunt Ruby (Emilie Talbot) goes in for the kill in ‘Bondage’ by Star Finch.

In Bondage the redressing comes from Emily’s Aunt Ruby — Phillip’s sister-in-law, and, rather obliquely, Zuri’s half-aunt. Both Zuri and Emily’s mothers died under mysterious circumstances, and Aunt Ruby enters the scene as a restoration of the maternal and social order. Only this order is out of control and rule-bound to the point of sadism.

Finch has a keen eye for how inbred and savage America’s racial hierarchies are, but she also takes a perverse pleasure in setting up and watching evil take its course. Aunt Ruby is more than an obvious villain: she’s a theatrical wellspring of insidious joy and chaos, and incisively performed by Emilie Talbot. The effect isn’t exactly sympathy for the devil, just sympathy for how difficult the maintenance of injustice is.

Zuri (Dezi Soléy) knows there's only one way to escape in 'Bondage' by Star Finch.
Zuri (Dezi Soléy) knows there’s only one way to escape in ‘Bondage’ by Star Finch.

At the point Zuri informs Emily that she thinks Aunt Ruby “intends to kill” her, there’s a part of you that says, of course, that would right the books, untangle the mess before us, and give that poor sadistic woman a rest. It’s probably the ugliest of the many ugly thoughts that Bondage unleashes, and an unsparing depiction of the evil of logic, systems, and rigid forms of racial classification.

Though Finch’s ambitious play falters towards the end, Zuri’s story is a vicious and unsettling account of the vast, shifty landscape that is neither black nor white. We might call that landscape America if we could only see it for more than a moment. What we do see, though, is a shock to the system and well worth seeking out.

‘Bondage’ runs through Jan. 20 in rep with ‘Cow Pie Bingo‘ at the Costume Shop in San Francisco. For tickets and information, click here.

‘Bondage’ Unleashes a Destabilizing Force Between Black and White 20 January,2018John Wilkins

Author

John Wilkins

John Wilkins is the theater critic for KQED Arts. He was the Artistic Director of Last Planet Theatre for ten years and teaches in the Writing and Literature program at CCA. Follow him on Twitter @johnrwilkins2

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