Clint Dyer’s “The Happy Tragedy of Being Woke” takes us on a journey through the troubled mind of ‘Frantz‘, a black man who has been trying for a baby with his white girlfriend.
The fissures start to appear when they start having to think about adoption, as the need to know, or, for the child’s sake, the ability to explain “blackness“, sends Frantz on an almost “down the rabbit hole“- like quest of finding out what it is like to be black when adopted into a white household, and the effect it has, through a series of interviews he documents. Unfortunately, the journey has a dramatic effect on his already fragile mental health as he discovers his blackness.
Written by Dyer, co-directed with himself and Simon Mcburney, I was grateful to get the opportunity to discuss the play and its themes with Dyer before seeing it. When I asked for an overview of how the idea came to life Dyer said,
“The play arose from the theme of cross-cultural adoption and developed into what “blackness” is and whether that runs counter-intuitive to the idea of also being “British”.
This prompted the question, what is blackness? Is it possible to fully know your blackness and be fully woke? To which he replied,
“This is exactly the question play seeks to answer. It takes a lot of stamina to be optimistic. You have to practice a lot of good mental health to deal with the truth of the structures of the world when they are laid bare to us. The definition of blackness tends to be rooted in
“To be British. To be black British. when do you stop being African or Carribean generationally and start just being British? When does the dilution of your heritage stop defining you and you start defining it? This is the knotty and difficult conversation the play attempts to have.
“Until neo-colonialism has been accepted as the way that we engage with people of
By looking into cross-cultural adoption, Clint wanted to explore this underbelly almost completely overlooked by the system and the damage it does, not just the concept of blackness, but also whiteness and the impact on both sides of this division, and not only in the western world but in the countries these children are taken from where it is a booming business to help assuage the guilt of privilege for those who can afford it, apparently.
The Happy Tragedy … is still in research and development (R&D) so it was fascinating to
This story is unique because it has not been told on any UK stage before, but I feel it has some way to go before it is fully cooked. With the inclusion of so many themes such as cross-cultural adoption, the neo-colonial experience, the paradoxes of race and otherness as well as misogyny against white women, it is a very vast brush Dyer paints with at the moment.
It was beautifully executed but I believe the play might benefit from more text-focus for the sake of time. With a cast of male actors (Javone Prince, Lloyd Everitt, Brian Bovell, Jason Barnett and more), the stories exclusively come from a male perspective; those who have been through cross-cultural adoption. Which for the bulk of the story made sense especially as the cast actors doubled up as patients on the mental ward with Frantz but, as a black woman watching, the lack of women’s voices sat like an empty void.
The tone of the show at the moment is still very educational. It feels like I’m seeing the work a ballerina puts into choreography rather than just the beauty of the dance. In other words, there is a deep deliciousness here to be seen but it’s missing the shiny veneer need for an audience’s sake. This is partly from a writing perspective and from a directing perspective.
However, Dyer and team are most definitely on the right track, I thought the direction and staging for the R&D were gripping and really tied things together in a wild and shocking way, not unlike Frantz ‘s brain. I feel the next draft of the play text will highlight what next needs to be done.
Javone Prince as Frantz had a huge job on his shoulders and I take this moment to send the hugest props to him and the cast. Whoever plays Frantz in his final form will be taken on a deep journey which will take all their resources to execute perfectly. It’s important that those behind the stage cater to that and give him all the support he may need.
The Happy Tragedy of Being Woke is not an easy play, but it is well needed.
Clint Dyer took part in BBC Four’s Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle. See the episode 3 ‘Kev 1968‘ which Dyer wrote and the rest of the series via BBC iPlayer.