The Tempest

The reason that it is important – of the utmost importance – for white people, here, to see the Negroes as people like themselves is that white people will not, otherwise, be able to see themselves as they are.

 – James Baldwin, from Nobody Knows My Name

. . . romance deals in marvelous events and solves its problems through metamorphoses and recognition scenes – through, in other words, transformations of perception.

 – Robert Langbaum, from his introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Tempest


3PictureBookTempestThe island’s sand is bright white. Its lone palm is curved, like the line to a high kite. The storm clouds clear, and Ariel drifts down, bound to what the Washington Post calls “an amusingly thick rope.” She seems to miss her runway. She passes Prospero, but she delivers her lines, anyway, as, upside down, she reaches for the oncoming palm. She sounds dutiful and put out.

Will tomorrow’s show be the same, or is the actress making the most of tonight’s haywire high wire? Either way, I reflect, it’s Ariel: she wants to please Prospero because she wants her freedom. She’ll disorient every castaway, and also maybe herself, to leave.

We walk later the high, black catwalk from which Ariel was suspended. Beneath the stage, we touch the forbidden fruit on the banquet table that an hour before fell through a trap door.

But real magic pervades the wig room. Bethany and I are startled to see, on a black mannequin, fair Miranda’s hair. Our friend, who is showing us the ropes backstage, designs the wigs and costumes. She is visibly pleased. I’ve done my job well, then, she says.

Beforehand, I walk upstage in a parking garage. I’m a level below the lowest level with elevator service. An anxious Capitals fan behind me in an SUV drove me to this hell. I wanted to insinuate my car into a narrow spot a few levels up, but I didn’t want to hear more honking.

Outside it’s cold, and a man, covered in a surplus blanket or coat, sleeps against the garage. I’ve no sense of direction, and I’ve dropped Bethany, who has, off at the theater before parking. I’m disoriented. He could be dead. Then a guy comes out of the night as if he were the night coalescing.

He has a badge on a lanyard, just like the college kids that come to my door summertime in the suburbs. Except he’s around fifty, around my age, or he says he is, but I don’t believe him at first. He says he remembers the riots here after they shot King. He was five years old then. His dark dreadlocks fall behind him down somewhere near the dark street. They pull at the wrinkles on his forehead and make his eyes big and sweet.

All these hockey fans, in their red white and blue, care more about the Caps than about these veterans. That’s how he opens. They think they’re patriots. But these homeless served.

The Caps play a block from The Tempest tonight. I don’t like hockey, but no point in saying so. He brings up Ferguson, so I bring up Baldwin and his essay on the 1943 Harlem race riot, how the riot starts when a white cop shoots an unarmed black guy. Not much has changed since 1943, I say.

No, things have changed, he says. We’re one people: black, white.

I’m scared for a moment: Caliban is black.

Caliban is a young, strapping slave with something like a Caribbean accent. I count in the playbill: Caliban makes the tenth entrance. All nine actors before him are white. Caliban, Robert Langbaum writes in my college Signet edition, “constantly shifts before our eyes between human and animal.”

Caliban is black in 2014?

I’m disoriented, so I ask him where the auditorium is, and he leads me there. As we walk, he goes deeper into his spiel. I imagine I’m hearing parts of his playbook he rarely gets to, particularly on cold nights like these. But I want to hear how much we really talk. I have my own spiel, I find, flags I run up and down a lanyard.

Ferdinand, Miranda’s love interest, turns out to be black, too. We’re okay. And some of the sprites are black.

The end. Prospero frees Ariel, and a hand from the catwalk drops her thick rope. It plays on the stage like a snare. It lies on the stage like a corpse.

Ariel walks away. She’s not acting. She walks offstage like she’s heading home, like she needs her rest for tomorrow’s matinee. Like she lives around here and sleeps at night and wants to see her lover, maybe meet him for coffee. But she turns and looks at him one last time when she reaches the stage door.

I walk under the marquee, but he has stopped. He stands on the street in the night, receding. His eyes are fixed and distant. He talks at me still through the impenetrable city.

The sky is dark. The island sand is bright against the receding ship.

How does the sand stay on the hill? Bethany asks.

We shovel it after each show, our friend says.


  1. Wash the dishes, fold the clean but frayed humanity, sweep the grit of fear. Regular maintenance is indeed required. Skip one day, and a drift of hatred blocks all exits.

  2. Yes. “We are trembling on the edge of confession here” — another Baldwin quote, this from The Devil Finds Work and not about a play, but about the movie The Defiant Ones — “for, of course, the way the little boy sees the black face [black, unreadable, not quite in focus] is exactly the way the man sees it. It is a presence vaguely, but mightily threatening, partly because of its strangeness and privacy, but also because of its beauty: that beauty which lives so tormentedly in the eye of the white beholder.”

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