Exposing By Extension
Using what Joseph Harris refers to as “extending” in his book Rewriting, Adrienne Kennedy absorbs and uses the characters of the film Now Voyager to tell her own tale of strife in the play A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, making the art provided by the larger, more mainstream and recognized culture in some way her own. Defined as putting one’s own “spin on the terms or concepts”(Harris, 39) taken from other texts, the idea of “extending,” as Kennedy uses it, echoes a similar mimicry effect to that which we see everywhere in culture, the creation of a sort of forwarding of ideas beyond their cradle and into concepts such as “Black Bart Simpson”(Parisi 125) and an accepted division within the “black expressive culture”(Hess, 372) of the rap community that is home to white artists like Vanilla Ice and Eminem. Adrienne Kennedy’s work is not merely an extension of black and white films like Now Voyager, however; simply by presenting the words of a poor black woman through the medium of a wealthy white actress, Kennedy’s words work to “uncover values” as Harris puts it, that are unconsciously tied into a mainstream media all too eager to present images of ideal beauty and the future paired with the image of the wealthy white man or woman, the “movie star” that is held up as the pinnacle of human potential. Working within this framework of uncovering values by extending the meaning of mainstream art, Kennedy’s play provides its audience with a view of a part of society that many of them might never otherwise glimpse, and only because it is a fraction of that broader society that is not naturally studded with the white stars that we’ve come to expect as the default human form within the mainstream media.
In Adrienne Kennedy’s play A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, Bette Davis takes on the familiar role of Charlotte Vale just as she does in the 1942 film Now Voyager, only this time, her words are not her own. Speaking for Adrienne’s own character Clara almost more often than Clara does for herself, the character of Bette Davis puts forth lines that betray a deeper meaning, such as when she speaks of her father, saying: “He used to tell my mother his dreams how he was going to go up north. There was opportunity for Negroes up north”(Kennedy, 86). In this way, Kennedy uses the character of Bette Davis to bring the life and troubles of a young black woman, pregnant with child and with the potential of a playwright, into the silver-lined cloud world of riches and white faces which films like Now Voyager have always brought to the silver screen. Though this might be seen as the wholesale robbing of characters from one story to fill the blank spaces in another, it instead stands as an extension of the larger culture co-opted by a given subset of that culture which feels in its own way under represented in the images that art creates of what reality is really like. In the world of today, we see this phenomena as a regularly occurring cycle where many cultures, not just black culture, act “upon dominant culture, not defensively or reactively, but actively, perspicaciously, and with satirical penetration.”(Parisi 130) A classic example of this phenomena offered by Parisi himself can be seen in the appearance of “Africanized” versions of characters like Bart Simpson, who, while portrayed as white on the television show of which he is a central figure, contain traits which resonate clearly with other ethnic groups who do not hesitate to “extend” such characters into the colors of their own society and recast in their own image the messages within the greater culture meant for everyone in that culture even despite the fact that they are offered up wrapped in the skin of the wealthy, anglo-saxon protestant demographic.
In his article, Hip Hop Realness and the White Performer, Mickey Hess illustrates that this give and take form of cultural extension is not limited to the non-white section of mainstream society. By pointing out the ways in which white artists like Vanilla Ice and Eminem insinuate themselves into a stereotypically black segment of society through “a continuing state of ‘marking and cloaking’”(Hess, 376) that is, by choosing to hide or expose their “whiteness” in any given situation in order to maximize the advantage that allows them to make a part of black culture their own, Hess paints an incredible picture of extension and the way that it rises and occurs in every subset of society that finds a message it can identify with wrapped in the flags and skin colors of another cultural demographic of human beings. While the form of extension that takes place in Adrienne Kennedy’s A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White does not occur with the same motivations (perhaps) as those that drive artists like Eminem and Vanilla Ice to co-opt elements of the greater rap and hip hop culture in their quest to become part of that greater identity and claim a piece of it as their own, it achieves a similar result in that it allows the playwright to “claim” a part of the greater hollywood culture, to co-opt elements of it and make it her own in a quest to bring her own cultural identity into that limelight, as complete and unrendered as possible.
Of course, to expect an audience used to the white-skin and riches wrapping that Hollywood has made so pervasive to accept wholesale and be able to clearly identify with the sudden and untarnished tale of a poor black woman, especially in 1976, when the play was written and television shows like Happy Days and Little House on the Prairie were on the Prime Time schedule, would be like expecting predominantly Islamic countries to air shows like Bay Watch and Sex in the City completely untouched and unedited. It’s racy, it’s outside the normal experience of what the greater culture expects to appear on television, and its almost impossible to identify with at first blush, even though the message imparted within the show may be in many ways identical to that put forth in other shows featuring affluent white stars dealing with similar problems to those faced by Clara in A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White. To this end, Adrienne Kennedy applies a similar system of marking and cloaking (Clara, being black, becomes a form of marking, while Bette Davis, being white, becomes a form of cloaking) within the body of the play, hiding Clara’s “blackness” when necessary in order to keep the audience from losing the fragile connection to Clara’s plight as it is presented through Bette Davis. But, we may ask ourselves– why Bette Davis, and not some random other white affluent female? If marking and cloaking of this form is necessary to bring the story of a poor black woman into the eyes of mainstream society, then why does the playwright extend the characters of other stories into her own and not just create white versions of Clara and Eddie? The answer, though simple, betrays the true genius of the playwright. By using iconic figures like Bette Davis and Paul Henreid as they appear in Now Voyager, Adrienne Kennedy draws attention to the need to use such tactics as marking and cloaking in order to attract the eyes of an audience, effectively creating a tool by which the unconscious assumptions, the “values” of the mainstream are uncovered and exposed for all to see. Instead of being invisible and assumed, “whiteness” is ousted from “the default racial position”(Hess, 376) in Adrienne Kennedy’s play and forced to become highly visible, a garish covering which in turn points to the equally garish need to hide true racial identity in order to be accepted by the mainstream instead of being callously cast aside and/or ignored. Like Eminem, who credits “his commercial appeal to his white identity”(Hess, 384), Kennedy’s play also points to the sad bias in society in favor of the already entrenched image of the affluent white man or woman as the primary character who stands almost as our avatar when it comes to facing the problems and the messages that come to us as members of the greater mainstream viewership, every day of our lives.
Though it presents itself as a sort of cultural universal, the notion of extending meaning from an object of the greater culture to which it is seen as belonging to into a subset of that culture, essentially forwarding that meaning onto others who can therefore better relate to it, makes its appearance in Adrienne Kennedy’s A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White not just as a means of making that object of greater culture a part of her own, but also as a means of uncovering the unspoken and unseen “values” and ideas that we as a society unconsciously create and reinforce through the invisibility of “whiteness.” By exposing the fact that those who are raised up on high as the means through which our dreams, our aspirations, our worries and our fears find expression are disturbingly white and dreamily affluent, Kennedy shows us (as her audience) what cannot be said with words, especially in the time period in which the play was written. In the plight of a poor black woman, she exposes the fact that we are all subject to the same problems, the same painful twists of fate and bumps in the road of life, even if we are not all affluent or white, and she does it in such a way that everyone, regardless of skin color or cultural upbringing, can identify with and relate to.
Harris, Joseph. Rewriting. Utah: Utah State University Press, 2006. Print.
Hess, Mickey. “Hip-hop Realness and the White Performer.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 22.5 (2005), pp 372-389. Print.
Kennedy, Adrienne. “A Movie Star has to Star in Black and White” In One Act Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. Print.
Parisi, Peter. “‘Black Bart’ Simpson: Appropriation and Revitalization in Commodity Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture 27.1 (1993), pp 125-142. Print.