Disarming the Audience

I said that my next post would continue the epic saga of homeless people in Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, but I think that post will percolate for a little while more while I write out this post. Percolate, or to bubble and warm up, is an SAT word that is a very useful word to know. The SAT, however, was a test created by upper-middle class white men to admit people with similar backgrounds into college. I will be talking about some of those examples in this next post.

In Imperceptible Mutabilities, Susan-Lori Parks uses a character called “The Naturalist” to serve as a narrator for the confusing plot. Instead of blending in, the character, with his white skin and holier-than-thou attitude, stands out amongst “them roaches” (Parks, 29) that he has been studying. This character archetype is incredibly familiar to many of us, and in my group, we discussed characters like…

A Famous Historian, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

and…

The Criminologist, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (one of my favorite movies!)

These characters share some similar traits: they are fascinated by older subjects, such as classic literature, medieval studies, and geography. They are played off for comedic effect, especially as the hijinks played straight by the main characters turn more and more unbelievable. Along with those traits, these characters star in cult classics, which are full of camp and humor. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was only made with a budget of 200,000 pounds, and Roger Ebert initially rated The Rocky Horror Picture Show 2.5 out of 5 stars.

The Naturalist shares a similar scientific title as the Criminologist, but is much more sinister. One of the quotes from the Naturalist where he was getting more sinister was “The wilderness was vast and we who came to teach, enlighten, and tame were few in number. They were the vast, and we were the few.” (Parks, 29) There is immediately an us vs. them dynamic established, and the use of the predicate nominative, or the grammatical term referring to the vast (what?) allows any keen listener, whether racist or anti-racist, to fill in the blanks. The Naturalist is an archetype of when empirical evidence and Enlightenment Thinking run amok, and how language can cloak an openly racist statement in vague words.

One of the pleasures (depending on your point of view) of watching Monty Python, and especially the Rocky Horror Picture Show, is that you can laugh directly at the characters without the characters reacting to you. In a Rocky Horror screening, you can throw rice at the characters, squirt water guns, and follow a script that will cue the audience with “YOUR NECK!” or “SLUT!” “WHORE!”. It’s a lot of fun, and disarms the pretentiousness of the narrators. On the other hand, Parks disarms the audience. When the Naturalist speaks, he stands at a podium, and speaks an entire paragraph without taking many breaths. He refers to the people we just witnessed as subjects, roaches, and creatures. His character even shows up under another name, and acts like the audience doesn’t know that he stood up in another environment and gave a racist and colonialist speech. It’s extremely uncomfortable for the audience. But for Park’s radical messages about surviving as a black person to really shine through, I believe that she has to make her audience uncomfortable on purpose. Imperceptible Mutabilities does not follow the same plot structure as Death of a Salesman, and the collection’s title An American Play alludes too and rejects the idea of a “Great American Play.”

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