On Being Subjects

When we discussed Suzan-Lori Parks’s Imperceptible Mutabilities in class the other day, Professor McCoy told us how in the performance of the play, actors stare and single out audience members, making them uncomfortable. This was a big source of criticism for viewers, as it made them uncomfortable to be the subject when they went into the play with the expectation of watching objectively. After learning this play is a commentary on slavery, I believe the intent of this was to make viewers feel the way the Naturalist, along with white people in general, were treating and seeing African Americans as inferior subjects.

The Naturalist says “An obvious question should arise in the mind of an inquisitive observer…how should we best accommodate the presence of such subjects in our modern world” (Parks, 29). He views African Americans as a ‘problem’ that must be dealt with and observed. The easy solution would be to treat them as what they are–human beings. Instead, he treats them as test subjects whose choices are not their own. In making audience members subjects instead of observers, this sense of being observed is transferred to the audience so they can feel the discomfort of being a subject in a place where you should not be.

The Naturalist also states that “Information for the modern cannot be gleaned from the primitive, information for the modern can only be gleaned through ex-per-i-men-tation” (Parks, 29). In my group’s discussion, before we were told that the play was based on slavery, this statement screamed colonialism to us. The Naturalist is suggesting that nothing can be learned from African people that they have captured and enslaved, and that the only way they can learn from them is through experimentation. This also reminded me of the idea of a single story that we talked about in the beginning of the semester after watching Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk. His view of Africa was that it was “primitive,” and therefore inferior. His single story of Africa was that it was primitive and tribal, however he didn’t bother to learn about their unique culture and values.

Treating the audience as subjects also takes away their sense of control and they had to just sit and continue watching while others watched them. Choice and freedom were taken from those who were enslaved, and like the chosen audience members, they had no control in the matter. I think this is a unique and effective way to get across the message of the play because rather than just show it, audience members feel for themselves the harm of being seen as a subject rather than a real individual person.

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