During a pre-show speech of “Hang Man,” now at the Gift Theatre, actor Gregory Fenner walks onstage in the half light, climbs up a four-foot platform, hooks a harness peeking out of the back of his shirt to a line hanging from the ceiling, drops a noose around his neck and pushes off, his feet dangling in the air as he delivers his first monologue to the audience.
He remains in that position for the next eighty-five minutes.
It’s a haunting visual, impossible to disregard even in scenes that don’t directly surround Fenner’s character. No matter how compelling the action stage left and center, I found myself constantly checking in with the hanging man stage right. Fenner is black and to be a black man hanging for the entertainment of a mostly white audience has to be a mind trip, one with the potential to hurt his heart. I know it hurt mine. I wished I didn’t have to watch.
“Hang Man” tells the story of a black man named Darnell (Fenner), who, after becoming enamored with hanging himself for pleasure as a child, ends up committing suicide in the pursuit when he’s an adult. His body is discovered by a white woman named Margarie (Angela Morris) as she’s being ruthlessly fucked by her horrible, abusive, racist boyfriend under the tree Darnell’s hanging from. Margarie becomes obsessed with Darnell to the point of delusion. She brings his dead body food, insists that the baby she’s theoretically pregnant with is his child, starts wearing an afro wig, dons blackface and ultimately kidnaps a black infant insisting that it’s her and Darnell’s.
“Hang Man” is technically beautiful, impeccably designed, brilliantly acted, well-written and directed. But it’s a hard show, triggering for POC audiences and challenging to white ones. I wonder especially whether it will land with white audiences in Chicago, who, in their inherent biases, complicity, and liberal city bubble, are liable to look at the racist archetypes represented by the white characters onstage and think to themselves, “Yes, but that doesn’t happen here.”
It does, of course. Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the world. Overt and covert racism affects everyone who lives here. The racism-based mental gymnastics, emotional abuse, and psychological horror that led to Darnell’s death happen everywhere in America to every person of color.
In one of Darnell’s poetic monologues as he hangs for days from the tree, he says, “I wonder how long it will take them to see me.” It’s an apt metaphor for the journey of our nation. How long will it take us white folks to see our inherent racism? How long will it take for us to be able to say “black lives matter” and not be confronted by a fellow white person who insists upon the thoughtless mantra of “all lives matter”? How long will it take us to see? (Emma Couling)
The Gift Theatre, 4802 North Milwaukee, (773)283-7071, thegifttheatre.org, $30-$40. Through April 29.