Paul Killebrew: from Negro Yachtsmen I Have Known

We’re pleased to welcome Paul Killebrew back to New Orleans this week, as part of the PXP 2013 Symposium at Tulane University, and to begin a 3-day mini-feature of his work here at THERMOS. Paul’s second book with Canarium, Ethical Consciousness, came out earlier this year. It’s an astonishing book, my favorite of the year, anchored by the lengthy narrative poem “Muted Flags.” This new poem, the first chapter of an even lengthier narrative poem of the same name, carries on the work of the longer poems in Ethical Consciousness. We hope you’ll enjoy it, and come to see Paul read later in the week, along with fellow Canarium poet Robert Fernandez, and many others. — AS

from Negro Yachtsmen I Have Known

The incomplete mosaic into which I dazzlingly fit
began to come into view 
with the opening of a pair of automatic doors at Walmart in 2011, 
where I saw 
through a crisscross of ambling customers 
and disheveled intra-aisle displays, 
through a cornea-scouring rant of A/C,
through what Cornel West would later call 
my “egocentric predicament,” 
a middle-aged African American woman 
standing in the returns line at the customer service desk 
idly holding one of those awful 
cardboard-backed, clear-plastic-fronted packages 
that cheap toys and seemingly everything else comes in, 
in this case a pair of toy handcuffs, 
a toy sheriff’s badge, and a toy gun. 
I headed straight for her, 
both because I was intrigued to hear 
what drove her to this particular precipice–
if the Walmart returns line formed along the ledge of a tall building, 
would anyone make it to the counter?–
and because I was returning something myself, 
in my case a cheapo rice cooker 
that had no facility with the short-grained brown rice 
on which I’d become 
totally dependent. 
It had gotten to the point 
that I consumed embarrassing amounts of each day 
in the preparation of this rice, which formed 
the bedrock of every meal at the time, breakfast included. 
And because the rice is so much better freshly cooked than reheated, 
I insisted on only ever making enough rice for one meal at a time. 
Each batch takes–from pre-soaking to letting the cooked rice stand off the heat–
an hour and a half. I’m also a particularly forgetful person;
the smell of scorched rice is hardly unknown
to even the least observant of my kitchen towels.
I should mention that I’m a playwright, 
and I actually own my own performance space, 
though it’s really just the ground floor of my house,
and since for money I do freelance graphic design work from home,
I basically “live over the store” as Barack Obama often says, 
and it’s easy for me to slide into such time-swallowing intricacies 
as the perpetual making of temperamental rice. 
The endless rice-making had actually inspired my last piece, 
in which the curtain opens on the announcement by two white actors,
a man and a woman, who play a couple,
to five other white actors, three women and two men,
who play their friends, in a modest living room 
(my own, actually, in the only staging so far,
and “modest” is probably a bit hyperbolic)
that they are soon to be married. The five friends
are overcome with excitement–they shriek
and laugh and text other friends– 
when the groom gets a text message
that his father has fallen seriously ill, and he must
take the first available flight back home to Atlanta.
After a tense discussion over whether his fiancé
should go with him–she has never
met his family–the bride decides to stay, 
preferring to make her introductions during a less
trying time. The groom leaves, 
and the six remaining onstage 
are doused in a silence 
from which bright flickers suddenly appear–ringtones 
picked in more whimsical times 
that now seem in blanchingly poor taste. 
A few unmistakeable notes 
from “Country Grammar” and “In Da Club”
announce calls from friends for whom the friends 
of the bride and groom had just left excited voicemails.
After several of these calls, 
all of which the friends send straight to their own voicemails, 
yet another call comes in 
with an eerily normal ringtone,
and the actor, identified in the script
as Female Friend #1, 
says it’s her boss and she has to answer. 
FF1 tentatively does so 
and then says a series of yeses, 
each growing more assured than the last. 
She hangs up, looks around at her friends, 
and, in a dumbfounded voice, 
tells everyone that she has just been made 
the CFO of her company, 
a job she had not even applied for 
but that involves a substantial raise. 
FF1’s friends nervously congratulate her
with one eye on the distressed bride, 
who breaks the tension by walking over to FF1 
and giving her a long and gracious hug, 
which is interrupted by a loud crash offstage. 
Everyone runs to the window of the living room and 
sees that there has been a car accident outside–
a cement truck has tipped over, 
apparently trying to avoid some children
who biked unexpectedly into its path, 
and cement is now spilling out 
and covering the neighbor’s front yard, 
which causes one of the male friends to laugh uproariously 
because, the audience learns, 
this is his house, and he knows his neighbor 
to be especially tedious about lawn care.
The character, who is identified in the script as Male Friend #1,
explains that he was out walking his dog just a few days before
when his neighbor came running and screaming out of his house, 
wielding, improbably, a kitchen sponge.
MF1’s dog had urinated in the neighbor’s yard, 
and the neighbor wanted MF1 to sop it up. 
MF1 goes on to explain, with growing agitation, 
that he had done so,
but that when he tried to hand the sponge back to his neighbor, 
the man said, “Keep the change,” and walked off laughing. 
I should say at this point
that the actor I cast as MF1 
is the spitting image of the young Laura Dern, 
long blond hair and face, 
but with a frat boy’s voice and bearing.
MF1 looks ruefully out the window at the cement,
his friends a little spooked by his show of emotion,
when he suddenly screams out “Rachel!” 
and runs out the door. MF2 says, “His dog!” 
as the friends and the bride rush over to the window. 
The bride says, “Oh god, she ran straight into the cement!”
Then, through the highly contrived narration of the friends, 
the audience learns that Rachel
will not respond to MF1’s calls 
but instead just wallows there, 
a pig in rapidly hardening shit,
until MF1 finally wades in and rescues her.
MF1 then runs back onstage with Rachel in his arms,
both covered with drying cement, 
and says, “I’ll be in the bathroom.” 
While he’s gone, MF2 changes the subject entirely 
by telling the bride and the remaining friends
that he is considering relocating his artisanal stationery business 
to Montana, apparently to take advantage 
of certain unusual but quite favorable tax treatments 
for paper products in the Big Sky State. 
This prompts a fraught discussion among the friends
about whether moving your entire business to avoid taxes 
is the morally right thing to do,
a discussion that ends abruptly when the stationery mogul
blusteringly recites a passage from Judge Learned Hand:
“Anyone may arrange his affairs so that his taxes
shall be as low as possible; he is not bound
to choose that pattern which best pays the treasury.
There is not even a patriotic duty 
to increase one’s taxes. Over and over again 
the Courts have said that there is nothing sinister 
in so arranging affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. 
Everyone does it, rich and poor alike 
and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty 
to pay more than the law demands.” 
Just as MF2 finishes his pretentious little show–
not at all too soon for his friends– 
MF1 returns to the room dogless, shirtless, and clean 
and asks if anyone would give him a cigarette. 
But you just quit smoking, his friends say, 
to which MF1 casually retorts
that he picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue. 
The Airplane reference sends a light titter through the room, 
and the bride, with a curious look on her face,
pulls a pack of cigarettes out of her purse
and hands one to MF1. 
He grabs a book of matches off the mantle, 
lights the cigarette, 
and looks around for a place to throw away the match,
realizing (out loud) that when he quit smoking, 
he threw out all his ashtrays. 
As he walks offstage he tells everyone 
he’s going to the kitchen to get something to ash into, 
and he returns a second later with an empty glass tumbler.
He says, “So where were we,” 
and in the awkward silence that follows 
his eyes fall on the bride,
and he blushes. Just then a billow of smoke
appears behind MF1 from the direction of the kitchen, 
and the bride yells out, “FIRE!” 
MF1 yells, “The match! 
I just threw it in the recycling with all the newspapers! 
I’m so stupid! Someone call 911!” 
FFs 1 through 3
peck frantically at their cell phones 
and report the fire so nearly in sync 
that they become incredibly confused, 
one trying to report the address 
while another tries to report the number she’s calling from
and the third inexplicably counts backwards from six.
Sirens are soon heard offstage 
as whirling red lights appear through the windows. 
Dozens of firefighters come onstage 
and are soon annoyed
because while several fires have been reported at this address,
there appears to be only one small kitchen fire. 
I won’t bore you with any more of this; 
the point is that the plot keeps accumulating 
for another couple of hours–
one of the firefighters faints from the sight of his own blood
after receiving a nasty papercut 
while helping MF1 clean out his unburnt recycling; 
FF1 learns that she has come into a substantial inheritance, 
which somehow triggers a memory, long suppressed,
of childhood abuse; 
a huge tornado passes less than half a mile from the house; 
the secret, smoldering romance between MF1 and the bride
comes obscenely into view 
just as the groom returns unannounced and quite unexpectedly 
from an airport that had canceled all flights due to the tornado; 
and so on. 
There’s no real effort to create “rising action” or a climax, 
and in fact the play ends
just as FF2 accidentally slices off the end of her thumb. 
Throughout the play 
there are two male African American teenage actors
at the back of the stage, 
barely visible behind the furniture 
and not lit in any deliberate way. 
They make box after box
of Uncle Ben’s Instant Rice, 
a cup at a time,
on a single-burner hot plate, 
throwing each finished batch onto to the stage 
as soon as it’s done. 
The directions for making Uncle Ben’s 
call for one cup of water
for each cup of uncooked rice, 
plus a tablespoon of butter or oil. 
Combine all ingredients and bring to a roiling boil. 
Cover the pan, remove it from heat, 
and let it stand for 5 to 7 minutes. 
Fluff with a fork and serve
or, in this case, dump it on the ground.
The actors started each night with ten 
unopened, 14-ounce boxes of Uncle Ben’s, 
two new gallons of spring water, 
and an unopened package of a pound of butter. 
Each batch takes between 10 and 12 minutes, 
and the performance usually ran
about two and a half hours, 
so they made about fifteen batches of rice per night, 
or 30 cups of cooked rice. 
There was no line of sight
from anywhere in the audience 
to the pile of rice on the stage, 
but you could smell it.
The white actors give no indication 
that they see the black actors 
throughout the performance, 
and the black actors say nothing
to the white actors or to each other.
They simply help one another 
make the appropriate measurements 
and otherwise stand there looking at the saucepan. 
The only thing even approaching tension in their actions, 
which I felt sure no one would notice, 
is that they cook the rice in a saucepan 
coated with nonstick teflon
and then fluff each batch with a metal fork.
I called the play Negro Yachtsmen I Have Known,
after the title of a book I once found 
on the bookshelves of a childhood friend.
I took particular notice of this book 
because my friend’s father, a Civil War buff,
was listed as its author, 
and I didn’t know he was a writer. 
I pulled the book off the shelf and flipped through it, 
finding a book of blank pages. 
Negro Yachtsmen–the play–owed a substantial debt
to Young Jean Lee’s play The Shipment, 
or really its second half. 
A young black man is having a party
for friends and co-workers, all of whom are also black.
The party grows increasingly neurotic 
as accusations are flung and alliances revealed. 
Like all of Lee’s plays
the whole thing is quite hilarious, 
that is, until the last two lines of the play, 
in which the audience learns 
that the characters aren’t actually black.
It’s not as if the actors are wearing makeup
like in that old Eddie Murphy skit from Saturday Night Live, 
“White Like Me”. It’s just that the race of the characters
hasn’t been made explicit in the dialogue
until those last two lines,
and when it is, the actual blackness of the actors
takes on the same deafening muteness 
that I tried to capture through Negro Yachtsmen’s rice-makers, 
though without Lee’s brilliant trompe l’oeil effect. 
The program for Negro Yatchsmen had this passage 
from Matthew 25:35 on the cover: 
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, 
I was thirsty and you gave me drink, 
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
This epigraph, my friend Tiffany explained to me, 
gave away too much. 
Tiffany, who is an artist and professor of internet sculpture 
at the University of Alabama,
said that when liberal white artists “deal” with race–
and the verb for what they do
usually falls between quotation marks–
it’s a gambit calculated to draw the eye
of the redeeming Christ. 
Tiffany said she understood
what I was trying to do, 
to enact the failure of integration
between white privilege in the form of endless plot 
and the plotless inertia of black poverty, 
to show them as characters living right alongside one another 
and yet never commingling.
Tiffany said she respected those intentions, 
but nevertheless the true object of this kind of work 
is personal salvation, and the terms of the artwork 
are correspondingly inward.
The actual black people I portrayed 
were purely tangential to my purposes. 
Were not the black teenagers
in Negro Yachtsmen totally silent?
Wasn’t their poverty strikingly free of pathology?
Even within the racial logic of the play,
wasn’t black struggle just a foil for white privilege, 
an expression of quiet nobility 
to make the yammering of the white people 
seem not merely ridiculous, but contemptible?
“Maybe another way of putting it,” Tiffany said,
“and I don’t mean to be too cute about it, Christopher,
but aren’t the teenagers just a residue
of the white characters’ lives, 
bits of teflon scraped into piles of white rice?”
Tiffany had noticed the metal fork. 
I told her I was more than a little annoyed
that she was voicing these criticisms only after the fact, 
even though she’d read drafts of the script
and saw the play in workshop a year before.
Tiffany said it had taken her some time
to identify her discomfort, and anyway 
what did it matter? “If you’re saying
you would have rewritten the play
had I told you all of this, 
doesn’t that prove my point? 
Why do you need my blessing?” 
She made the sign of the cross
and said, “I absolve you. Dominus vobiscum.”
I had closed my eyes, 
and I sat silently for about a minute, 
imagining that my forehead had shaped itself
into a book that I could open 
only by relaxing each muscle in my face. 
I said, “It’s exhausting. 
Why all this anticipatory maneuvering? 
Why am I trying to think 
of every avenue of criticism 
and building it into the work myself? 
It’s like chess.
But–and I apologize if this just shows my
profound lack of imagination–what
are the alternatives?” Tiffany said,
“What if you have none? 
What if you have reached the upper limit 
of white racial sensibility
because going any further
would require making concessions
that a white person like you 
is simply not prepared to make? 
Look at this play.
Your white characters are sinners,
and your black characters are saints.
On the surface that’s certainly admirable,
but what’s impossible for you, 
because of your racial guilt,
is to portray the sins of black people. 
To do so, you fear, 
would expose your racism.
And it surely would.”

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