Part of the Story

As we have discussed in class, Toni Morrison’s Jazz ends with a line that reads, “Look where your hands are. Now.” By ending her book in such a way, Morrison is acknowledging the reader, letting them know the uncomfortable reality that they are not as far removed from the narrative as they may believe. Usually, when one reads a book watches a play or engages in any other form of media they are observing it through the eyes of the protagonist, a safe, comfortable lens, where they are just out of reach of the events taking place.

This topic has been on my mind for the past few days after we started reading “Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom” by Susan Lori Parks”. One of the defining features of our discussion was the film and theatrical technique known as “Fly on the Wall”. In this type of filmmaking, the film crew involves themselves as little as possible, serving as a “fly” who observes things as they happen. The idea is that the audience or reader is meant to be an impartial observer watching the events of the play. “Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansbury is especially famous for this type of storytelling.

Although I didn’t think much of it at first, I became aware of the criticisms of this style when my group researched this topic in class. We found that a number of people have criticized the idea of the “fly on the wall”, such as, an

from written by Christopher Campbell who calls out the practice, stating, “The main problem with these labels … is that they’re simple and lazy, shorthand that can be used in brief reviews where fully describing a doc isn’t possible.” While this criticism is directed towards observational documentaries, it nonetheless served as an entryway to me for the criticisms leveled in Park’s play.

From what I read of “Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom”, there are no many direct addresses to the audience. However, Parks is nonetheless poking fun at the “fly on the wall” through the Naturalist, also called as Dr. Lutsky. This character is consistently portrayed as a pompous intellectual, who paints himself as an impartial observer, declaring, “Thus behave our subjects naturally. Thus behave our subjects when they believe we cannot see them when they believe us far far away when they believe our backs have turned.” Despite this, the Naturalist repeatedly interacts with the characters and is part of the play. This “impartial observer” is far from it, constantly observed by the audience, and directly interacting with the main characters. He is not free from this narrative, which Parks makes abundantly clear.

Dr. Lutsky’s position in the narrative made me think of one of the course epigraphs from Toni Morrison, “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” I believe that Parks is playing into the ideas brought up by Morrison. Plays like “Raisin in the Sun” hold a level of ubiquity, especially within the public education system (as evidenced by Yadelin’s reaction to Dr. McCoy announcing that we’re watching the movie). It is taught as sociology, a direct reflection of the lives of African Americans. While there may be a kernel of truth there, the “fly on the wall” perspective suggests that the audience exists outside of the narrative and are instead passive observers, firmly removed from the events of the story. The Naturalist exists as the antithesis to this. Through Lutsky, Parks is demanding that the reader be an active participant in her work, making clear that just because they exist in a different world they are nonetheless part of the story.

Works Cited:

  • “Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansbury
  • “Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom” by Susan Lori Parks
  • “It’s Time to Stop Calling Observational Documentaries ‘Fly on the Wal'”  by Christopher Campbell
  • The featured image is an image from a production of “Imperceptible Mutabilities” at the Undermain Theatre

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