Few things, on the face of it, are more innocuous than the hair on one’s head. However, so far as social issues go, the hair on a Black woman’s head is far from an idle consideration. Indeed, reaction thereto can be subtle, yet far-reaching discrimination.
All one needs to verify this is to note that there has been, almost since the invention of dirt, a texture perceived as “good hair,” after which, in fact, Chris Rock titled a documentary.
The meaning being, of course, that any hair, no matter how attractive, be it a fluffy fro, braids, close cut, what have you, comes in second to straight hair — though curls are almost as “good,” as long as they’re not that other n-word: nappy. To be blunt, so-called “good hair” is hair that looks like a White woman’s.
On that score, Tina Burnside’s Kinks is a play you may well want to make time to attend and consider. Burnside makes no bones about addressing the impact of the issue, stating “The issue of what is ‘good hair’ is similar to [that] of skin tone.” Society has created this false message that the closer a person is to White…the more beautiful they are.
“Black women are rejecting this message and embracing our beauty, which includes our kinky hair, skin tones that range the spectrum from fair to dark, and curvy features. In my play, I try to celebrate the uniqueness of Black women.”
Kinks came about, she reflects, “Basically, because of my own natural hair journey. A year ago, I cut all my hair off. I’d worn a relaxer for years [and] decided I didn’t want to wear it anymore.”
It then occurred to her that in so doing, she’d made a statement. “It’s more than just hair. It has issues of race and culture and history and social status. All those are involved. I wanted to explore that.” Which she does, courtesy of theatre companies Raw Sugar and Theatre Unbound.
Rachel Teagle, Raw Sugar executive director, says of the process by which Kinks arrived on the boards, “[Submissions started] in May 2017 when Raw Sugar reached out to women/trans/femme artists living in the Twin Cities to work with us to develop hour-long comedic scripts, culminating in a public performance the following spring.
“We requested samples of existing work along with a pitch for the piece they’d like to develop. The selection committee was impressed with Tina Burnside’s work, particularly how clearly she developed characters…the clarity and strength.”
Burnside, whose work to date has been dramatic, didn’t blanch at testing new waters. “It was very rewarding — a great opportunity, a great learning experience,” she recalls. Indeed, she cultivated what effective dramatic playwrights use as a winning trait, finding humor in a serious subject.
Paying attention to timing and, she says, “Not overdoing it. Being subtle, sarcastic. Playing off of ordinary things.” Hence, she brings home a serious subject without necessarily beating audiences over the head. “I took the discrimination [Black women] face both from society for being your authentic self and discrimination within the Black community. A lot of that still goes on.”
In Kinks, as in life, perceived stigma holds and across class — upscale sistas are by no means immune. Marketing exec Tracy is done assimilating and takes a stand. “The play begins and she is doing a touch-up to her relaxer and comes to the decision that she’s not going to do it anymore. She does the ‘big chop.’ Cuts it all off.
“So, now, she’s embarking on this journey of going back to her natural state of hair. But, she doesn’t remember what it was like because she’s had a relaxer since she was 12. That’s the story of a lot of Black women. It’s a rites of passage when you’re [a teenager]. When you’re down the road, in your 40s, 50s, it’s been a long time since you’ve seen your natural hair. She’s going on the journey back to herself.”
At one point, personal stakes wax professional. “She has this big presentation at work. She’s preparing to deal with that and is getting pressure at the job. ‘What’re you going to do with your hair? You can’t go in there looking like that!’ It doesn’t conform to the corporate norm.” When it boils down to integrity, a matter of pride versus paycheck, push has come to shove and something must give.
“Most of [my stories] deal with race and culture,” notes Burnside, including the script she’ll continue shopping once Kinks is by the boards. Behind The March, which received a Playwrights Center reading, is “about the Civil Rights Movement, the March on Washington. My main character is Anna Arnold Hedgeman. She’s from Minnesota. She graduated Hamline University [and] was the only woman involved in planning the march.”
In Just a Rope? an office cleaning crew at the office discovers a noose, whereupon a discussion about race and the history of lynching erupts, pitting coworkers against one another other.
Impure is about environmental justice based on the water contamination in Flint, Michigan.
Burnside has also written the novel Have Mercy about an assistant district attorney struggling with prosecuting a 14-year-old girl for murder, bringing to bear race in the criminal justice system, as well as the treatment of juveniles tried as adults.
Kinks is directed by Kim Hines with a cast of Brenda Bell Brown, Dana Lee Thompson, Drea Reynolds, Shenique Emelife and Abigail Sharp. The play premieres April 6 and runs through April 15 (except April 13) at Crane Studio, 2303 Kennedy St NE #120 in Minneapolis.
Also on the bill are Katherine Glover’s Sex, War, and Syphilis directed by Morgan Holmes, and Beth Ann Powers’ Ace, with Margo Gray directing and music by Jess Eisenberg. Visit www.rawsugartheater.com for ticket prices and times.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403.