Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a critically lauded and award-winning book that was a letter to his son Samori as Samori was turning 15, was powerful enough when just contained between pages. A searing indictment of racism and police violence, it was also a father’s letter to his son, containing so many things: love, anguish, pride, and a complex message of resistance.
The 2015 book has now assumed a different kind of power as a piece of theater, the world premiere of which took place at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on Monday (there is another performance tonight, Tuesday, and another at the Kennedy Center in D.C. on April 7).
Coates’ words were read out by eight performers: the brilliant Angela Bassett (most recently seen in Black Panther), Common, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Joe Morton, Greg Reid, Tariq Trotter (better known as Black Thought), Pauletta Washington, and Michelle Wilson.
The performers sat as a small collective, then took to one of three lecterns to deliver certain passages. Common and Black Thought recited a version of “Black America Again,” its words altered to take account of Stephon Clark, the unarmed black man shot and killed by police in Sacramento, California.
The setting for the reading—the most-storied of venues for black performers—rooted the performance even more profoundly, and the responses of a predominantly black audience to Coates’ words and ideas were their own emotional echoes to his words.
For Coates, what is primarily and perpetually in danger, the black body, is also the site of ultimate strength and pride.
The roughly 90-minute distillation of the book, adapted by Lauren A. Whitehead and Talvin Wilks and developed and directed by Kamilah Forbes, took us through both Coates’ life, and his own understanding of black history and injustice.
Haunting and beautiful projections by Tal Yarden formed a backdrop to the speakers; of Malcolm X, the faces of those who have died, beautiful materials, protesters’ signs, rain drops on glass, cracks in stone. Above the speakers sat a group of musicians led by Jason Moran on piano, with Mimi Jones on bass and Nate Smith on drums, providing piercing and never intrusive musical accompaniment to the performance.
The performances were rich, nuanced, and beautifully spoken; the force of the words variously silencing and galvanizing. Through the actors, we learned of Coates’ own life: memories of what sounded like a blissful suburban childhood (although “the Dream, as Coates called what we presume to be the American Dream, is tangible but ever-elusive).
There was a joyous description of attending Howard University (“the Mecca”): the diverse groups of black men and women, talking, singing, and dancing that so inspired Coates when he studied there. That education was double-edged though, because it also included the learning of black history; a brutal history of subjugation and exploitation.
This comes into sharpest focus in the performance with the story of a fellow Howard alum, Prince Jones, whose murder by a black police officer provides Coates with the most acute focus of fury and questioning. Toward the end Bassett stepped outside of portraying Coates to play Jones’ mother meeting Coates for the first time after her son’s death.
Mrs. Jones, a doctor and iron-willed person in her own right, is clearly grief-stricken at his loss, but she also echoes something that Coates echoes in his letter to Samori—that one wrong move can be fatal for a black person.
“Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson,” Coates writes. “Not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson. But the price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined.”
Coates knows this room for non-error all too well: He recalled the time he took young Samori to the Upper West Side, and, remonstrating with a white woman who pushed Samori out of her way, soon found himself surrounded —and seen as the person in the wrong—by a mainly white crowd.
“I could have you arrested,” Coates was told by one of that crowd, crystallizing for Coates the never-ending threat to his body and personhood; the utter, unthinking privilege of white people, and—as he thinks about Samori—the fraught and unfair world he will grow up in.
Imagine, he thinks, if one of Samori’s first memories comes to be his father involved in a violent and perilous situation, through no fault of his own other than the color of his skin and the capacity of white people to so casually abuse him and it. The author himself appeared, to much applause, to read out a final section of Between the World and Me.
Coates, who revealed recently in The Atlantic that he will be writing a new Captain America book for Marvel Comics (two years after his first Black Panther comic for Marvel came out), supplies no positive answer to the injustices so resoundingly expressed in the book. The mechanics and application of white supremacy are a constant, relentless context.
Some of Coates’ critics have found his words negative and disempowering. Last year, Cornel West wrote in The Guardian that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. What concerns me is his narrative of ‘defiance.’ For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic—a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.”
In Commentary magazine, Jason D. Hill wrote, in a wide-ranging, direct letter to Coates: “I am saddened by your conviction that white people wield such a great deal of metaphysical power over the exercise of your own agency. In making an enemy of the Dream that is a constitutive feature of American identity, you have irrevocably alienated yourself from the redemptive hope, the inclusive unity, and the faith and charity that are necessary for America to move ever closer to achieving moral excellence.”
Hill said Coates was “trading on black suffering to create a perpetual caste of racial innocents. And the currency of your economic system is white guilt.” (Coates himself has been asked why he has so many white fans.)
His critics accuse Coates of an overwrought fatalism. Certainly, Between the World and Me is not the kind of letter a father writes to his son that ends with the narrative equivalent of a reassuring pat on the head.
Indeed, last year when Stephen Colbert asked Coates, “Do you have any hope tonight for the people out there about how we could be a better country, have better race relations, better politics?” Coates simply replied, “No.”
Coates’ salve or answer, beautifully expressed by the performers on stage, invokes kinship, fellowship, the warm familiarity of a shared racial identity. This is what he wants to pass on to Samori: the notion that they are not only father and much-loved and cherished son, but also brothers and members of a far bigger community.
Of course, embodying the strength of collective identity is only so sustaining if and when you find yourself in a terrible situation in the moment, faced with violent bigotry or police injustice. But it is, for Coates, a badge of pride and strength. Wear it, Coates seems to be saying, though less as talisman and more as a simple, indelible statement.