Day of Absence Features an Almost All-Black Cast Made Up in White Face

The cast of Day of Absence rehearses for their play about a town's black residents disappearing.
The cast of Day of Absence rehearses for their play about a town's black residents disappearing. courtesy of Day of Absence
Passion, satire and professionalism collided when Day of Absence cast members met in the basement of Oak Cliff’s Arts Mission this week for rehearsal.

“The play is a reverse minstrel show,” says director Aaron Zilbermann, “which means it has an almost entirely black cast that is made up in white face.”

A satirical fantasy, Day of Absence depicts a Southern town that wakes up one day to discover all of its black residents have disappeared. And the results aren’t pretty.

Roused from sleep by her own crying baby, a woman in one scene was desperate to find the baby’s nanny.

“She just can’t not be here,” the actress wailed to her visibly heartbroken and hungry husband.

“I want you to panic,” Zilbermann says to the actress. “But I want you to panic quietly.”

Such subtle tweaks throughout the rehearsal transported scenes to a higher level of captivation. And as news of the missing black people spreads so did the chaos prompting the town’s white citizens to take to the streets in protest, chanting things like “Bring them back,” and “Where’s my negra?”

The play’s 10 scenes, which provide a mirror for ourselves and our society, come across at times as hilariously, or alarmingly, true yet occasionally a bit harsh.

Zilbermann says although some view Day of Absence, which was written by Douglas Turner Ward, as a racist play, he believes the conversation needs to take place.

“We’re going to continue the conversation, but we’re going to take it further."

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In 2016, Zilbermann founded Metamorphosis as a theater tool to battle systematic oppression, something he describes as an across-the-board mistreatment of a group of people based on their social identity.

Day of Absence is a follow up to Dutchman, a previous Metamorphosis production. Zilbermann says both plays touch on the subject of white privilege.

“We’re going to continue the conversation, but we’re going to take it further,” he says. Special guests will be brought in to speak about what they do in the community and offer audience members a chance to get involved.

While Zilbermann says juggling everyone’s schedules has been the biggest challenge for him, one actor encountered an unexpected hurdle while combing his hair during one scene. After realizing a white man probably would not be using a pick, he then began to awkwardly and hilariously comb his hair from front to back.

McClendon Giles, 25, plays the town mayor in Day of Absence and says the role resonated with him because he’s always been drawn to political satire.

“It makes [tough topics] easier to get people to laugh before, during or after,” he says.

J.R. Bradford, 32, who has been acting since 2009, plays Klem, a tobacco-chewing Southerner and one of the first people in town to notice something is amiss.

Bradford generally tries to avoid topics about religion and politics, he says, but auditioned for the play because it scared the hell out of him.

“A large part of being an artist is, you know, stepping out of our comfort zone,” he says. “And that is exactly what this show does.”

Bradford and Zilbermann agree that the play’s ending is the most powerful.

“I think it will start the dialogue in the conversations that we are all afraid to have,” Bradford says. “It’s a conversation we need to have, and it feels like it’s an experiment. Let’s see what happens… it could be interesting.”

Day of Absence will run March 23-25 at Margo Jones Theatre located at 1121 1st Ave. in Dallas. Tickets are $12.
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