Review: Redbone and Black History: As Seen Through the Eyes of a Child

Chip Sherman as Redbone, the main character of Helen Collier's virtual play Redbone and Black History: As Seen Through the Eyes of a Child.
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It’s 1975 in Chicago. Queenie is cramming for a history test, helped by her friend Candice. Candice is throwing her questions about heroic slave resisters like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner. Queenie shoots back answers, making it very plain that she doesn’t see the point of learning this. She just wants to ace the exam.

But Black history is all around them. Chicago was in the thick of the Civil Rights movement, which had lit up the whole country in revolt. It’s imprinted on teenage Queenie, right down to the pyjamas she’s wearing with images of Martin Luther King Jr, assassinated only seven years earlier. Candice’s PJs pay homage to Malcolm X, gunned down three years before that. 

Helen Collier. Photo courtesy of the author.

This sets the plot of Helen Collier’s cleverly multi-layered and educational 26-minute video play, Redbone and Black History: As Seen Through the Eyes of a Child. Redbone is one of six short plays written, produced and performed by Black artists as part of a virtual play festival auspiced by Seattle’s Mahogany Project. A writer of many genres, Collier’s favourites are science fiction and magical realism. Redbone is her first play. Imparting hard truths about racism and slavery’s legacy is a hallmark of her work.

History distorted through the lens of racism. The education really starts when Queenie’s six-year-old brother, Redbone, comes into the room. Grandpa has been showing him and his friend, Seven Up, old films that he had grown up with. They’re about Black history, Redbone tells Queenie and Candice. He then excitedly recounts one about “a white dude in Africa who took care of African people,” and “all the people and animals loved him.” This dude brought many to America — meaning civilisation — so that they could pick cotton. The white saviour is Tarzan. The other film is King Kong.

Collier speaks through Queenie and Candice, whose attention immediately turns to what the young boys are being taught. Redbone becomes a rich lesson — delivered by two young Black women — about culture’s role in legitimising white supremacism. As we watch the play, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is engulfing the U.S. 

Black struggle, though, doesn’t stop at the U.S. border, and BLM has quickly spread across the world. The reason for this started in the 15th and 16th centuries, from when dispossession and slavery enabled capitalism to spread and flourish, from Africa to the Pacific and Latin America. To justify this, the idea of race and white superiority had to be invented. Capitalist empires were built on racism, and the United States rose to the top. Redbone is truly for audiences everywhere.  

To Queenie’s skepticism about Black history’s importance, Candice responds that Brother Ramsay, her Black Muslim minister, had brought Black Studies into high school so Black kids could learn how their forebears survived. There was a similar battle in Australia around this time, led by the Aboriginal movement, to educate that “white Australia has a Black history.” 

Slavery and its lasting effect take centre stage in Redbone. Queenie and Candice swiftly demolish the Tarzan story with brutal facts about the slave trade. 

The trade was global, and Australia was no exception. Aboriginal women, men and children, some as young as two years old, worked for white “employers” in their homes, on their cattle and sheep stations and cotton and sugar plantations — on the land stolen from them. The conditions were as ruthless as in the U.S. South, and “wages,” if any, were never paid. “Blackbirding” — the practice of kidnapping and shipping South Pacific indigenous people to Australia — augmented the slave force. Some African slaves, transferred from the U.S. to England, were among the convicts transported to the Australian colony. To this day, First Nations and Africans in Australia are prime targets of police violence. Colonial wealth was produced by slave and indentured labour, and its legacy lives on throughout the world. 

Framed and hunted. Queenie’s and Redbone’s grandparents were raised on movies and cartoons that depicted Black people as “ugly and dumb.” Candice explains that while this brainwashing made them feel inferior, it imbued whites with a sense of power. Through the examples of Tarzan and King Kong, Collier reveals how profoundly devastating this is. 

Tarzan shows filmmaking as a powerful weapon of social control. Released in 1918, it has mythologised white superiority for 100 years through endless sequels and re-makes. And it’s been profitable for the mythmakers — the latest blockbuster, Legend of Tarzan in 2016, raking in $356.7 million. 

Redbone retells the story of King Kong, a gigantic ape that abducts a white woman to become his wife. Clutching her in his hand, he escapes capture by scaling the Empire State Building. Fighter planes — the U.S. Air Force — come after him, and he eventually falls to his death. 

Candice explains the trope of the Black male sexual predator, which has been used to frame, imprison and execute Black men over centuries. She recalls 14-year-old Emmett Till, accused of looking at a white woman and lynched in 1955. King Kong was made in 1933 and has enjoyed the same fame and fortune as Tarzan. Its latest box hit in 2017 made more than $561 million internationally. 

Resistance will overcome. A disappointed, but attentive, Redbone asks, “Even Superman is make believe?” He’s learning. So is Queenie, who expresses pride in knowing real Black history and now understands why it’s essential.

Candice blames the “cruel system,” which erases, demeans and murders Black people. She names heroes from Grandpa’s day, who fought against it — artists Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier, track and field athlete Jesse Owens, boxers Joe Lewis and Mohammed Ali, and Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks. 

Queenie announces that after tomorrow’s exam, she and Redbone will talk to Grandpa. Maybe he’ll tell them about “the history stuck inside him” and share it with others.  And so the multi-racial Black Lives Matter movement — initiated by young Black women in the U.S. and inspiring the world — arises. The message I take from Redbone is that Black history is about “phenomenal” (to quote Candice) resistance, and there will be no peace until there’s justice. 

You can view Redbone and Black History and check out the virtual play festival, Transformations, here.

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