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A Black perspective on the French Revolution

by staff

Sometimes to understand the present, we must look at the past. 

In 2017, playwright Terry Guest grappled with how America could elect someone so outwardly racist as Donald Trump. It shocked him into questioning what could be done about the rise of fascism in the U.S.

“Do we protest? Does that work?” Guest asked himself. “Do we yell? Do we scream? Do we give up? Do we focus on our family and our own personal lives? Do we cut off somebody’s head?”

Those musings sent him back in time to figure out what answers people found when faced with the same questions. The result is Story Theatre’s Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes, opening June 30 at Raven Theatre.

Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes
6/30-7/17: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, 773-338-2177, thestorytheatre.org, previews (Thu 6/30 and Fri 7/1) $15, regular run $20 ($10 students, active military, and veterans)

Guest doubles as playwright and director in a story about revolution, rage, and revenge. Set during the French Revolution, the play takes a new look at the lost monarchy myth by putting it in the mouths of Black people.

Brenna DiStasio, one of the founding members of Story Theatre, plays Marie Antoinette, and explains that the company seeks stories that ask how people feel rather than telling them how to feel. They actively support new work and emerging playwrights.

Those goals made Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes a good fit for the young company. In 2019, they premiered Guest’s At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen; that script previously won a grant for a developmental workshop from Atlanta’s Out Front Theatre.

This past spring, Guest’s The Magnolia Ballet premiered at About Face, with Guest playing one of the roles under the direction of Mikael Burke (also the director of At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen). It received rapturous reviews.

“Terry’s work is so beautiful,” DiStasio says. “It is so unique in that it has this mysticism about it. It is constantly digging for the complicated nature of history and interpersonal interaction in a way that really fits our mission statement. This show explores the themes of Black liberation and what do we do? How do we react in the face of adversity in a way that honors the fact that not everyone has the same answer?”

While Guest went seeking for answers, he found something else instead.

“I grew to appreciate how throughout humanity, particularly with Black people, we have had to ask these questions generation after generation after generation,” Guest says. “The thing that keeps me going is knowing that I am not alone, that my ancestors asked the same questions that my children will be asking. There is a connectivity to my history as a Black person and to my present, looking around at the different ways that my Black siblings are dealing with all of the things that are happening in the world and America.”

The play spans 300 years of history. It moves from the French Revolution to the Haitian Revolution to the 1992 LA riots and back again. While there is anger, there is also humor and joy.

“It’s a really funny, fun show,” Guest says. “There’s lots of movement and dance. It will feel like something people have never seen before. My goal is not to create something that’s perfect. My goal is to create something that’s powerful and that is saying something new and exciting.”

In the play, a group of magical traveling Black players decide to put on a show to help them understand and digest the complicated feelings they’re experiencing around being Black in a country that keeps showing it hates them. The story they examine is the French Revolution and how it inspired revolutions around the world. 

“Whenever people ask me to describe the show, I’m like, you just have to see it,” Guest says. “It’s too simple to say that it’s the story of Marie Antoinette. JFK and Jackie Kennedy show up and they’re played by Black people.”

DiStasio says that as the play explores Black liberation, it recognizes that the Black experience is not a monolith—Black people experience it in different ways, all of which are valid and should be honored.

DiStasio points out that they explored her character as both a symbol and a real human being. She is the perfect villain, and also a woman with her own hopes and dreams that put her at odds with the duty she was tasked with fulfilling.

More importantly, she says, is that the story is told through a Black lens, and not the oft-told white Eurocentric lens.

“What is so beautiful about what Terry does is that he states and recognizes that Black people were there and present and engaged and living and surviving and thriving this entire time,” DiStasio says. “There were Black people living in France. The actions of the French monarchy had an impact on the American slave trade.”

Terry Guest David Hagen

Guest agrees that too often stories of the French Revolution focus on Marie Antoinette and the experience of the royals. Not enough attention is paid to the people whose suffering sparked the revolution. 

“Looking at where we are now, in this country, there are so many people who are starving and angry and reaching a breaking point,” Guest says. “It’s a really apt time to look at what’s been done before and to see if we can do things a little bit better.”

As for telling the story from a Black perspective, Guest points out that he is Black and he only knows how to tell the story from his perspective.

“This is just my story, my little version,” Guest says. “I’m not trying to be anyone’s voice of a generation. I’m just trying to tell my little stories and write my little plays about my little corner of the world. And that corner of the world happens to be Black.”

As a director, Guest says he put together a cast that was “energetically diverse,” with five of the seven roles cast with Black actors.

“All our actors have such a variety of ways of interacting with each other and the world,” Guest says. “It really shows the complexity of Black actors in this town. All the actors play multiple characters, so they get to really shape-shift and time travel. Black folk don’t get to do that as often as we should.”

Story Theatre has published content warnings, inviting people to contact them for more information. Guest points out there is violence, revolt, and decapitation. It takes a critical look at how people perpetrate and experience violence in this country.

“Everybody has a different comfort level,” DiStasio adds. “This play deals with white supremacy and Black rage and Black joy and Black liberation in a very vulnerable and frank way. Those themes are inherently triggering. We want to make sure you know that . . . you will see negative actions by white bodies being perpetrated on Black bodies. But ultimately, the goal of this show is actually Black healing and Black liberation taking over that narrative.”

Since Guest started working on Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes in 2017, he’s rewritten it many times and says he’s still discovering new things that will lead to future rewrites. (The play also closes a run at Baltimore’s Single Carrot Theatre this weekend and also has a short run this week at Indianapolis’s Southbank Theatre.) However, he has found that the historical setting makes the play continue to be more relevant.

“People are getting closer and closer to that breaking point that I was talking about,” Guest says. “I can’t wait for the play to not be relevant.”

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