Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
"History is not something merely to be read," proclaims one of the performers in Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, a new play by Kamal Sinclair Steele and Universal Arts. This collaborative work is based upon the research of sociologist Dr. Joy DeGruy-Leary. It argues that African-Americans suffer from the syndrome that gives the play its title, and that many behaviors exhibited in our contemporary society have their roots both in the development of African culture and in the traumas inflicted upon blacks through slavery.

It's difficult to create a play based on a theoretical position rather than plot or character. The company, under the direction of Obie Award-winner Robbie McCauley, meets the challenge with only partial success. As the play opens, two narrator figures (Audrey Amey and Marc Goldhaber) begin a lecture, promising to take us on a journey through axiology (the study of values). They engage the audience--or rather, cast members planted among the audience--in a discussion of race relations, the origins of cultures, and survival tactics. Although an attempt is made to keep this section lively and humorous, excessive clowning and over-the-top portrayals instead create a simplistic impression.

Far more successful are parallel scenes occurring in the present and the past. For example, there is a scene in which an African-American mother berates and belittles her son after the boy inadvertently lets his basketball fall in the area of a white woman, despite the fact that the woman says it's okay and even praises the boy's athletic ability. Immediately afterwards, the same actors play a similar scene set during the slavery era and showing the origins of the mother's conduct. It is necessary for the mother to punish the child because the father is punished by the white master as a result of the son's behavior, and the son needs to realize the consequence of his actions. At the same time, the mother must discourage the boy from displaying too much talent, as that could lead to him being sold off to another plantation. These are learned behaviors, passed on from generation to generation.

Critical to the effectiveness of the play's central argument is the narration provided by William Lynch (Goldhaber), an 18th-century white slave owner who instructs others on how to control their slave populations--not just for immediate use, but for future generations. Central to this method of control is the breaking of the spirit of the African female. If this breaking process is successful, Lynch argues, then she will teach her sons to grow up outwardly strong but inwardly weak and her daughters to accept the hierarchies and limitations of their position.

The talented members of the ensemble cast throw themselves wholeheartedly into the production. An exhilarating dance number performed by some of the African-American members of the company serves as welcome relief from the dense theoretical arguments of the piece. The number is made all the more potently theatrical and emotionally wrenching by its abrupt conclusion, heralded by the sound of a slave owner's whip.