Southers' 'Nine Days in the Sun'

Plays 'what if?' with race issues

New Pittsburgh Courier
May 4, 2005

by Deborah M. Todd, Courier Staff Writer

One only needs to see the flyer picturing a wide-eyed little white girl peeking out from behind the enormous afro of her Black Barbie doll to know Mark Clayton Southers' "Nine Days in the Sun" has to be about more than just the ozone layer.

The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company production takes the audience to a world where the racial balance has shifted and as a result, the social order in America is turned upside down.

The play rests on the premise that a chemical terrorist attack on America shifted the Earth closer to the sun and accelerated the depletion of the ozone layer; causing the deaths of the vast majority of white people and forcing those remaining to live underground. The change in demographics, accompanied by the idea that Blacks were saved from the sun by melanin, set the stage for an America where Blacks held ultimate social, political and economic power. Like America today, that power was mostly used to maintain and reinforce the comfortable lives of the new majority, as opposed to finding ways to make life bearable for everyone.

The opening scene, "The Chase," shows two Black police officers brutalizing a young white man. On a circular stage only feet away from the front row of the audience, the policemen, played by Wall Jamal and Jonathan Berry tackle, choke and verbally abuse the teenager, played by Charlie Murphy. Berry's character, one who was especially hostile toward whites, spoke of how whites always came "up top" to cause trouble and bother decent people. While Jamal's character initially appears sympathetic, he eventually ends up using the handcuffed teenager as a makeshift bench for him to it down and eat his lunch on. The actions of the police are lost on Murphy's character as he initiate he did nothing and that the police are constantly harassing him and other whites for no reason.

Another scene, "Elevator," shows the different views of whites and Blacks regarding the state of the world. The scene features a conversation between a Black man (Berry) and a white man (Jeff Ash) who are stuck in an elevator together. While Ash's character shows great fear that the present condition is the beginning of the end of the world, Berry's character brushes off his fears as ridiculous. When Ash's character points out how drastically his life has changed because of the attack. he also mentions the fact that Berry's character has nothing to worry about because of the color of his skin.

The idea of white people being at a disadvantage in America because of their skin color in driven home with every opportunity in "Nine Days in the Sun." From the "Brunch" scene where Black women discuss how uncomfortable they are with the white servant, to the "Freak Show" scene where Blacks' fears of white people are exploited during a carnival side show, the play shows how stereotypes and irrational fears prevent an entire race of people from functioning as full members of society.

Southern says the reason he came up with the play is because he wanted people to consider what it would be like if roles were reversed in this country.

"It's written for white folks to have a better appreciation of African-Americans--to try and see how we feel," says Southers. "To see the type of stuff we have to put up with, maybe it will dawn on them, 'Okay, now I see what they mean'"-

"Nine Days in the Sun" does not turn all Black people into power-hungry sadists nor does it make the disenfranchised white people martyrs. Black scientists in the play looked for ways to shift the Earth back to its original position while some white people were so desperate to survive they killed Blacks to extract melanin from their skin. In spite of all that happened to further separate the races, people in Southers' America continued to think in terms greater than just black and white. In today's America, spending nine days in Southers' sun will most likely cause people to brown a little deeper or to burn. In either case, one is guaranteed to feel the heat.

(Nine Day In the Sun is playing at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater, 542 Penn Ave. Downtown, until May 15. Call 412-441-2213 for additional information.)