Playwright Thomas Bradshaw has a simple view of human desire.
“If we had three cookies in front of us,” Bradshaw motions to the empty table, “I would be polite and say you should have the last cookie. But deep down, I really want the cookie.”
This extreme example of psychological hedonism is on full display in Bradshaw’s Purity, a brutal, funny, scary new piece premiering at P.S. 122 and directed by Yehuda Duenyas. The play follows the exploits of Vernon, a black literature professor who snorts cocaine, has sex with children, and fantasizes about beating black slaves.
“People want to make sure I know these ideas are wrong. The audience wants to leave thinking ‘I am a good person,’” Bradshaw said. “I don’t comment on [my situations]. Which is what people have the biggest problem with. But the lack of comment makes it interesting.”
While many modern black plays attempt their best August Wilson impression, Bradshaw’s work carves new territory.
“I’m not towing the party line,” Bradshaw said. “Wait, we’re supposed to be positive about this community?”
A playwriting professor at Brooklyn College and alumnus of Mac Wellman’s writing program, Bradshaw writes incendiary satires that demolish expectations about what black writers can—and should—write about.
“There’s the black literature of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s—white oppression is bad, reparations, apologizing. It was awareness building, really. That work was really necessary and important,” Bradshaw said. “But there hasn’t been much work done since then. What is a modern presentation of race? What kind of issues do upper middle class blacks have to deal with? After you assimilate into the mainstream, what are the issues?”
“My work is really polarizing. People generally love it or hate it,” Bradshaw said. “I’m not being subversive, I don’t want the audience to walk out. But people are definitely going to walk out of this one.”
Indeed, Purity should receive the customary flurry of outrage over Bradshaw’s words. At last year’s production of Prophet at P.S. 122, the playwright “developed his fighting skills” in responding to people’s anger. An actor auditioning for a part screamed at Bradshaw for depicting black males in such an unsympathetic manner. After opening night, another actor refused to appear on stage again until the playwright convinced him otherwise. A friend’s step-mom took Bradshaw out to dinner after a performance and proceeded to rail about the show.
“She yelled at me for two hours, saying how she already knew this stuff about racism and sexism—why did I have to show her that?” Bradshaw said. “That’s what’s interesting. People yelling at me, telling me the plays didn’t do anything to them.”
Yet behind Bradshaw’s shocking situations and seemingly artless dialogue is an honest examination of race and lust—and where the two meet. Like Amiri Baraka—whose short plays exposed savage realities lurking in the hearts of the black community—Bradshaw relies on the extremities of human behavior to illustrate his point.
“I really want to shake people’s foundations. I really want to make them ask questions,” Bradshaw said. “In one sense, in the plays I am showing realities that do exist. And people don’t want to believe these realities exist in the world. We treat taboo subjects as if they don’t happen.”
“If I ever see people with kids in the audience,” Bradshaw warns,” I come up and say, you really need to leave. You’re in the wrong place. Trust me.”
Purity plays at Performance Space 122 150 First Avenue, January 5 – 23 Wednesday – Saturday at 8:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 4:30 p.m., with additional performances during the COIL festival, $15 ($10 Members).
Tommy is a playwright. He lives in Manhattan.