By David Templeton
“Slavery is a horror story,” says San Francisco playwright Star Finch. “Slavery is something that, when you are African-American, and also a parent, you have to tell your children about at some point. And that’s horrifying. That’s a very painful thing. It’s painful in general, telling your children about the horrors of the world. But when you are a parent of color, specifically African-American, you have to feed them these stories that you know could affect their sense of self, and self-esteem, or might paralyze them as they move out into the world. How to do that is a question I’ve been struggling with for a while.”
It’s a bright Saturday morning between rainstorms, and I’ve reached Finch at her home in the city, a few days after catching the film Get Out, the ingenious new horror-comedy from Jordan Peele (MadTV, Key & Peele). It’s the twisty tale of a black photographer, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), who take a trip to visit her parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) at their secluded estate in the woods. What begins as a hilariously uncomfortable primer in what micro-aggression is, and what it feels like, the story veers into A+ creep-show territory, placing Get Out solidly alongside such sociological thrillers as Night of the Living Dead, The Stepford Wives, The Mephisto Waltz and Rosemary’s Baby.
“It was an amazing experience, that movie,” agrees Finch. “When it was over, this audience of strangers, all these people who didn’t know each other, they were all sharing looks and comments, like, ‘That was great!’ and ‘I can’t believe what I just saw!’ We were all laughing and smiling, but we were also pretty stunned by it. That movie taps into the highest and best potential for what storytelling has to offer.”
That, of course, is a subject Star Finch knows plenty about.
A multiple award-winner for her remarkable creativity and strong authorial voice, Finch writes in what she calls an “Afro-surreal style, addressing multiple issues and multiple layers at once.” That style was on bold, lyrical display in last summer’s hit show H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars, Eventually). The play, presented in San Francisco by Campo Santo, an award-winning multi-cultural ensemble, was partly set in a futuristic Oakland and partly on Mars, with a plot touching on the collapse of America, teleportation, planets ruled by Google, technological domination, sex, race, gender, class and love.
In her new play, Bondage, presented by San Rafael’s award-winning AlterTheater ensemble (March 22 through April 16), Finch brings her gorgeously detailed storytelling back down to Earth—and back in time—with a story set on a small island in Pre-Emancipation America.
“At its heart,” Finch explains, “Bondage is about two girls who, because of the isolation of where they live, and the circumstances of their childhood, were raised pretty much as sisters, more or less. But now that they are heading into puberty, one of them, Emily, is expected to step into her ‘mistress’ role, as a white woman, and the other character, Zuri, who is mixed-race, is feeling the heat to become more subservient, essentially to become Emily’s slave. As Zuri’s eyes are opened to the world she inhabits, she begins to question that reality. And that’s the journey these two girls go on together, as they negotiate all of this, discussing it within the structure of the adults around them, who behave the way they’ve been programmed to, within the context of the slavery system they all live in.
“It’s really a fable, in a lot of ways,” she continues. “It’s a way I can tell my own daughter, someday, about the realities of the past, through a character like Zuri, a young woman who is strong, and who can find a way to take control of her own life.”
Control, given and taken—in more ways than one—is a core concept in Get Out as Chris ultimately finds himself in a nightmare scenario in which all of the black people he encounters have lost their sense of individuality or free will. In a series of increasingly hilarious phone calls with his friend Rod (LilRel Howery), Chris is warned that he might have been abducted by a kinky sex cult. Where writer-director Peele finally takes his smartly-crafted plot is surprising, clever, chilling, wildly over-the-top and, in the way of great horror films, often lots of fun.
“Number one, it’s just really great storytelling,” Finch says. “It hooks you, and draws you in, and I think that—having a great story—will always be successful across all kinds of borders.
“I went with my husband and my sister,” she continues. “We had to stand in this long line, and there was this huge sense of excitement and buzz, almost like we were at Great America or something, all of us waiting to get on a great big roller coaster together. And even though none of us knew exactly what was in the movie or what the twists were going to be, everyone in the audience—and it was a pretty racially mixed audience—clearly knew, from the previews, that the movie was going to tackle issues of race.
“So I think there was a thrill of potential ‘truth telling’ with this movie,” she muses. “For all the emotional repression or head-in-the-sand reactions that people have when it comes to certain issues, like sexism and race, there’s a kind of thrill we experience when we know someone like Richard Pryor or Dave Chappelle is going to ‘go there’ anyway.”
For the record, Get Out goes there.
“And everyone in the theater was right there with it,” Finch says, “yelling, talking to the screen, screaming, clapping, cheering. I would attribute that, not just to the storytelling, but to the timing of the movie, too. This film has come out at a very specific time, when our society—a good chunk of us, anyway—are feeling that we really are in a horror movie. Our current government was almost the unspoken third character in the film. That same uncertainty that people of color can feel going into an all-white space, or driving into the suburbs, we are having that same kind of feeling right now with our government. It’s a horror film kind of feeling. ‘What’s going to happen?’ ‘How far are they going to take this?’ ‘Who’s going to survive it?’”
Finch notes that, just as we can’t guess at Chris’s fate, going into the film, no one in America knows quite how the next several years are going to play out.
“There is a sense of fear and trepidation, but there’s a sense of hope, too,” she says, “hope that a big chunk of us—across race, across class, across gender, across everything—will sort of decide whether we are in this together or not, whether we can join forces to fight back and have the unlikely happy ending that so many people in the audience really want for Chris.
“Personally,” she continues, “I want that happy ending for the rest of us, too.”