Chapter One The Textual Representation of Traumatic Memories
1.1 Personal Trauma: Confusion of Identity
Under the influence of the powerful white American mainstream culture, the traditional culture of black people has been mercilessly marginalized. The memories of black ethnic culture in the minds of black people are gradually becoming blurred. In Topdog/Underdog, in order to identify with the mainstream American culture, the Black brothers try to erase their Black cultural marks and integrate into white society by changing their names and clothes. However, this cover-up, which does not change the essence, further intensifies the confusion about black people’s identity.
Names are the external symbols of language that distinguish individuals from one another, and they go far beyond the meaning connoted by general words. There is an old Chinese proverb “the name fits the person”, and names frequently influence how people judge a person’s character and temperament. For these reasons, most national cultures place a high value on the act of naming. In African cultures, naming is seen as a sacred rite, the essence of a person’s existence. They insist that “a person can only attain real existence after being given the proper name at a particular stage of life.” (Ning, 1993: 65) In Black African Civilization, Ai Zhochang mentions a special naming ceremony in Africa: A few days after the birth of a newborn baby, people pour a jar of water onto the roof and one of the oldest women places the baby under the water and lets it cry, while everyone gives gifts as a sign of congratulations. The baby is then given a name by a respected local elder. It is only when the child has a name that he or she becomes a member of the family. (Ai, 1999: 276) This solemn and sacred sequence exemplifies the creativity and life-giving potency that lies behind the African act of naming.
1.2 Family Trauma: Disruption of Family
The trauma of identity loss suffered by Black brothers is closely linked to family trauma. Family as the beginning of one’s lifelong development influences the trajectory of an individual’s life to some extent. In Topdog/Underdog, painful childhood experiences such as the absence of parental love and inappropriate cultivation methods cause a lot of traumas to the brothers.
1.2.1 The Absence of Parental Love
In the play, Parks does not portray the Lincolns as an impoverished black family who is at the bottom of the social ladder. Instead, after nine years of struggle by the parents, they move the family out of that nasty flat in the Black community and into a bungalow with a front and back yard in the center of town. Although the house is not perfect, always littered with rubbish in front of the door and poorly equipped, they have a time of happiness there. In the play, brother Lincoln recalls: “We had some great times in that house, bro. Selling lemonade on the corner, though treehouse out back, summers spent lying in the grass and looking at thuh stars.” (Parks, 2002: 92) However, the pressure of the ensuing installments overwhelms the couple. Although the social status of blacks has improved since the 20th century, a few black faces can be seen in some white-dominated professions such as law and medicine. But the majority of black people are still poorly excluded from the mainstream of white society. Most black men can only work in manual labor and are at constant threat of being fired. Precarious jobs and meager incomes also contribute to the high probability of the breakdown of the black family.
Chapter Two The Pathways to Trauma Healing: Blues and Jazz
2.1 Healing through Blues Songs
In Topdog/Underdog, Parks uses the most ethnically blues music to cure the personal, familial and racial trauma suffered by black people. It can mainly divided into the borrowing of blues forms and the absorption of the inherent healing characteristics of blues music.
Parks portrays Lincoln as a Black man who lives in poverty but still with a passion for music. He always sits in his chair and holds his guitar. The songs he sings are typical of the blues style:
My dear mother left me, my fathers gone away My dear mother left me and my fathers gone away I dont got no money, I dont got no place to stay. My best girl, she threw me out into the street My favorite horse, they ground him into meat Im feeling cold from my head down to my feet. My luck was bad but now it turned to worse My luck was bad but now it turned to worse Dont call me up a doctor, just call me up a hearse. (Parks, 2002: 35)
Firstly, due to the low educational level of the black singer Lincoln himself, Parks uses lots of non-standardized forms of English and simple words of an everyday black language in the songs, which are common to blues music in order to preserve the tradition of black language and enhance the authenticity of the songs. For example, the word “father” is used incorrectly when it should be singular; “dont Im” is not abbreviated in the correct form and there is a grammatical error in “my fathers gone away” because of the omission of “had”. Besides, double negation is a very important syntactic feature in Black English. The phrase “I dont got no money, I dont got no place to stay.” in the play uses the typical double negation. Yet, it is to be noted that, unlike in standard English, the double negation in Black English is not intended to convey an affirmative sense, but rather to enhance the negative sense. The double negative meaning of the words “doesn’t” and “no” in the song highlights the words “money” and “stay”, exposing the plight of Lincoln.
2.2 Freedom and Hope in Fragmented Structure of Jazz
In addition to the utilizing of blues music, Parks also uses a lot of jazz techniques throughout the play to help African American heal wounds. Parks does not intend to posit a fixed oppressed identity for African-American subjects. Her dramaturgy of recovery uses the fragmented character of jazz and hopes black people could create an aesthetic community of active struggle for freedom and hope.
The musical roots of jazz come from the blues, but with a significantly greater melodic and harmonic complexity compared to the blues. Blues music has its own set of relatively fixed scales and musical structures, and is a simple but distinctive genre of music, dominated by the guitar. Jazz, on the other hand, does not have a very fixed scale system but a scattered rhythmic structure. Jazz is versatile and has many genres, Thus, the harmonic of jazz is particularly complex to find out. In Topdog/Underdog, Parks acutely captures the fragmented commonality of jazz and playwriting. In a seemingly unnecessary, fragmented storyline, Parks intersperses three particular performance scenarios throughout the play. They are 1. Booth and Lincoln’s traumatic childhood memories; 2. the Lincoln shootings; 3. the three-card monte con. However, unlike a symphony, where each section is clearly divided, the chapters in Topdog/Underdog overrun and overlap, resembling the non-stop sequences in a jam session, giving the reader a loose, jazz feel. Through the jazz-like alternation of these three main storylines, Parks’s real aim is to use the freedom of jazz itself to break down fixity and find order in turmoil and unrest. This unfixity is also one of the manifestations of Parks’s desire for black people to find freedom and cure their trauma in the midst of fragmentation.
Chapter Three The Technique of Trauma Recovery: Repetition and Revision ... 47
3.1 The Repetition and Revision of Abraham Lincoln ........................ 48
3.2 The Repetition and Revision of Historical Fragments ........................... 53
3.3 The Repetition and Revision of The America Play ............................ 57
Conclusion .................................. 63
Chapter Three The Technique of Trauma Recovery: Repetition and Revision
The Technique of Trauma Recovery: Repetition and Revision
In the previous chapter, Parks’s attempts to use musical means to heal trauma is explored. Actually, music also inspires Parks in her special writing technique. “After years of listening to Jazz, and classical music too, I’m realizing that my writing is very influenced by music; how much I employ its methods ‘Repetition and Revision’.” (Parks, 1995: 6) “ ‘Rep and Rev’ is a concept integral to the jazz esthetic in which the composer or performer will write or play a musical phrase once and again and again; etc.—with each, the phrase is slightly revised.” (Parks, 1995: 17) As a strict theatre director, Parks required his actors to rehearse their plays every evening in the theatre, or even twice if it was an afternoon performance. Similarly, in the play Topdog/Underdog, we can find Parks employs a great deal of repetition and revision, both in the choice of characters, the design of the storyline, and the creation of the theme. She is fascinated by the tension that arises between each repetition and its accompanying nuances. This fascination stems from her belief in dramatic writing “ ‘Rep and Rev’ as I call it is a central element in my work; through its use, I’m working to create a dramatic text that departs from the traditional style.” (Parks, 1995: 17) Parks was dissatisfied with the traditional black theatre format, and as a consequence, she was looking for a uniquely black way of writing to create uniquely black literature that would heal the wounds of the African American.
The writing of trauma in Topdog/Underdog reflects Parks’ strong sense of humanism. She focuses on the family wounds and healing, revealing not only the trauma suffered by the individual Black brothers from family, society and other sources but also the physical and psychological trauma suffered by the marginalized black ethnic group in American society. Besides, Parks not only presents the external manifestations of trauma but also analyses its internal causes. On the one hand, because of their long history of oppression and marginalization, blacks have unconsciously internalized the unfair norms set by whites and have automatically defined themselves as the oppressed, inferior, and incompetent underdogs. On the other hand, because black history is too distant or too traumatic, people are slowly forgetting or deliberately turning away from it, putting on a mask of disguise in order to make a living in a white-dominated society. However, this acceptance or avoidance does not bring the black race back to life but rather sinks it deeper into the mire of trauma. Through trauma writing, Parks further deepens the writer’s reflection on the interplay between the individual, society, trauma and culture in a historical context.