Ushers were busy separating the arriving theatergoers by race, directing them toward entrances marked Whites Only and Colored Only. The purpose in the end was to bring them together.
Some patrons complied readily, grasping the spirit of the evening. After all, they had come to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center to see a dramatization of Race, author Studs Terkel's gripping study of "the American obsession."
But some patrons were confused, even angry. Race, it seems, is not always a simple matter of black and white.
"You got any black blood? Well, you're colored," one usher patiently explained.
"What are you? Hispanic? Then you're colored," said another.
When we arrived _ a black male reporter and white female reporter _ we dutifully went to our assigned stations in this microcosm of society. Others who balked at the idea were allowed to sit in the balcony. A few stubbornly sat wherever they chose.
It was all friendly enough, but the emotional impact of the separate entrance signs was clearly calculated. They embody a lot of cultural baggage. As the evening made clear, they also symbolize the source of confusion about race today. The racial divide used to be very visible, at least in the rigidly segregated South. Society eventually removed the signs. Too many of us have confused removing visible signs with removing the problem.
The forced audience segregation was a way to make us acknowledge something blacks and whites constantly do without thinking, "because that's what we do," said director L. Kenneth Richardson.
The 42-year-old Richardson, now based in Los Angeles, is the founder of the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, N.J., one of the country's pre-eminent black theaters. His was the steadying hand behind the production, while dramatizing Terkel's book was the idea of Denis Calandra, chairman of the University of South Florida Theatre Department. Calandra asked Ybor City native Jose Yglesias to adapt the work for the USF Theatre Department.
Whatever its artistic merits, the multimedia play is an honest attempt to bring blacks and whites together to talk.
"This is a play for the communities, not for Broadway," said Richardson, who led the one-hour audience discussion after Thursday evening's performance. "It's more a town meeting. We're facing an incredible rise in race hatred in America, period. And we've got to deal with that."
That's what audience members tried to do after the play. It was an unusual forum: blacks on one side of the room, whites on the other, divided by a white line down the middle of the stage. There was some awkwardness. "I sense a strong feeling of unease in this room," one black audience member said. "That's the problem in America. We can't have a frank discussion about race because we want it to go away."
One white college student admitted he had been afraid of blacks when he was in high school. He found them bitter and angry. "The guys looked so big in the locker room," he blurted out. Spurred by nervous audience titters about the sexual innuendo, he quickly added: ". . . to be honest, like you asked us to be."
A young black man spoke about his frustration with whites in this country. They talk about minorities, he pointed out, when it is really whites who are the minority worldwide. He rambled on and on as though his words had been bottled up inside for a long time. Like the Sister Souljahs and Ice-T's, he is part of a generation that is seldom listened to, whose expressions of frustration are too quickly stifled and dismissed as "reverse racism." If we could get past the defensiveness and hear them more, maybe we would learn the difference between institutionalized racism and the angry reaction it inspires in the powerless.
The comments of blacks and whites were about as hard to divide into neat categories as was the seating itself. "Race is an individual thing," said Robert Warren, a black man from Virginia who recently retired as an army colonel. "There's no collective feeling in this room with black people feeling one way and whites feeling another way. You can't define it collectively."
What was unusual, though, was that ordinary black and white strangers were talking together, in public, about race. "Tampa has never had a play like this," Karen Northover, a USF student who plays Little Dovie, told us during rehearsals. "They need it."
Yglesias echoed that point in a backstage interview, evoking the Hillsborough County trial in which three white men are accused of kidnapping and burning a black tourist. "Think of the incredible inhumanity that it would take just to burn another person, another human being," he said.
A newspaper clipping about the burning is the last image the audience is left with at the end of Race. Yglesias, wishing to send the audience away on an upbeat note, had ended his script with one of the more hopeful scenes from Terkel's book: the friendship between Ku Klux Klan member C.P. Ellis and civil rights activist Ann Atwater.
That was much too pat for Richardson, who closed the production with film clips of Southern segregationists and statistics about racial atrocities in Florida.
"I didn't want to end with a hug," Richardson told the audience. "It's easy to clap at the end when two people embrace each other. We all want to be able to join hands, but what's difficult is to do that in life." What we have to admit, he says, is that slavery has created a psychic legacy. "White people feel ashamed and black people feel less than human."
Studs Terkel's books are remarkable oral histories in which people speak with startling frankness about a variety of subjects: how much they hate their jobs in Working, how they felt about World War II in The Good War, how they managed through the Depression in Hard Times (where Yglesias is also interviewed). In Race: How Blacks and Whites Think & Feel About the American Obsession, he faithfully presents his subjects' the various shades of thought. In the play the range of opinions on race is equally vast.
At one extreme is Joseph Lattimore, a black Chicago insurance broker who declares, "Being black in America is like being forced to wear ill-fitting shoes." Blacks feel "like a mouse in a cage with a boa constrictor; the mouse will do everything he knows how to please the boa constrictor, but when the boa is ready to eat, the mouse is gone." Actor Calvin D. Ricks makes Lattimore's passion almost palpable to black and white audience members, who are left to ponder his pronouncement of the futility of We Shall Overcome, the international anthem of racial and political harmony.
"We should not make a lifetime of singing that song," he says. "I refuse to sing it anymore."
One thing that frustrates blacks like Lattimore, who aren't haters but no longer believe whites will abandon racism, is the prevalence of Americans at the other extreme _ like Kid Pharoah, played with chilling relish by Louis Greto. The lights dim, and the Kid is in the spotlight, a figure out of an old Simon and Garfunkel tune: he carries the reminder of every glove that laid him low and cut him till he cried out in his anger and his pain . . .
This boxer's scars are mostly psychic, but just as ugly. "These recent years have not been kind to Kid Pharoah," intones the Terkel narrator. Indeed, they have produced something twisted and evil, a nature that assuages white guilt with delusions of black genetic conspiracies to "dissolve this pigmentation through intermarriage." He dehumanizes blacks, even as he ingratiates himself to them and jokes about "delivering a load of coal (black children) to school every day." His is the most insidious kind of racism, because it perceives itself as benevolent.
But these subjects have never had to look each other in the eye.
That is how the so-called dialogue about race too often occurs in this country. It isn't really a dialogue at all but a series of monologues. Whites have their say. Blacks have theirs. Seldom do they talk to each other. The recent denial of Lani Guinier's request to air her views in front of the Senate subcommittee is only the most current example of how strenuously we avoid the subject of race. "It would be too divisive," we are told.
The discussions after each performance of Race are a start in launching such a dialogue. Equally significant is what occurred in the assembling of such a production. Combining a white producer, a white playwright and a black director with 23 black and white actors, it served as a crash course in race relations.
The actors had to face each other with both the ideas of their characters and their own buried feelings about race. In the weeks before the play's opening the actors took part in weekly two-hour workshops to prepare for their roles. The workshops were conducted with the help of the Institute for the Healing Racism, a non-profit organization founded by the Bahai faith, combined with some theatrical techniques not normally a part of the institute's approach.
Those techniques could be rather brutal.
At one session Penelope Tobias, a white actor, was harangued by a black actor who questioned the sincerity of her self-proclaimed "white liberal" views. "I'll bet you go home and say nigger this and nigger that," he yelled at her.
"I was hurt," said Tobias, a Detroit native who graduated in May from USF's theatre department. Tears sprang as she tried to defend herself, but she only grew angrier. Later she discovered it had been a set-up to try to flush out her own feelings about race as well as those of Diane Romano, the character she plays.
Tobias said the racial workshops taught her how little anyone tries to understand what the other is going through.
"We all tend to group people by category," she said. She used to talk about blacks as "them." Now, she says, "It is difficult to say "they' about anybody. We're all in the struggle together."
The character of Romano is typical of many whites in the play and in the audience, which is to say, racially ambivalent, confused and fearful rather than outright hostile. They go along with stereotypes and misinformation to get along with their peers, and in the process racial animosity just keeps rolling along as well, from generation to generation.
As a Latino, Yglesias was well aware of other group conflicts, but chose to stick to the central American antagonism between blacks and whites. The 73-year-old playwright said he aimed primarily at whites "who have got hold of that European racism" and won't easily let go. "There are days when I think there is no hope," he said.
If there are to be hopeful days, thought-provoking books like Terkel's can help bring them. However, we cannot leave the discussion of race between the pages of a book. It must be brought out into the open. By staging this play and providing audience discussions afterward, the cast and crew of Race provoked more than mere thought _ they provoked a real confrontation.
At least it's a start.
Yglesias said he wishes the play could go on tour and "stir up every community in America and get people to listen to it and argue. Wouldn't that be wonderful if it could happen?"
The 80-minute multimedia play Race continues Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Jaeb Theater of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $3 and $6. Call 221-1045.
Carl McClendon is a staff writer and Margo Hammond is book editor for the Times.