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Playwright puts new twist on minstrel comedy

By Cynthia Yoder

Princeton NJ -- Khalil Sullivan has revived an old theatrical form in his senior thesis, a "multi-media minstrel dramedy" titled "Playing in the Dark" that will be performed at the Berlind Theatre this month.

Khalil Sullivan

Khalil Sullivan had very little time to spend on a park bench on the set for "Playing in the Dark" between rehearsals for the "multi-media minstrel dramedy."


While minstrel shows of yore created pseudo black characters by using blackface, he uses white minstrel characters, although not in whiteface. Sullivan, who is earning a degree in English and a certificate in theater and dance, said "Playing in the Dark" was inspired both by his studies and by his experiences as an African American student at Princeton.

At the heart of the play is the love story of two young men, one white, one African American. Justin, who is white, is on the way to a restaurant to come out of the closet to his father when he meets Solomon. Their ensuing relationship is complicated by Justin's father's indifference toward his son and by the fact that Solomon wants to stay closeted.

Around this more realistic narrative swirl minstrel characters who add comedic relief. Solomon's three white roommates, who believe Solomon is straight, are an exaggeration of the stereotyped young, straight male student. A gigantic image of a woman towers over their room on stage. Justin's father, too, is more of a minstrel-like exaggeration.

While no one will appear in whiteface, Sullivan remarked, "Comedic criticism is a way of examining white culture and how we view the culture. I'm using the conventions to show the audience what minstrel comedy can do."


Performances of "Playing in the Dark" were scheduled for 8 p.m. April 16, 17, 22, 23 and 24 at McCarter's Berlind Theatre. Tickets are available through the McCarter box office.


He said that on one level, he wants to critique life at Princeton, which he said has not always been easy as an African American. "Even though you have more African Americans at Princeton, more women, more Jewish Americans, a seemingly more liberal society, there's still a culture that wants to dominate and control and restrict access for others," he said. "I'm using the minstrel show to gently raise that topic. It's light-hearted and comedic, but shows you the seriousness of it."

Sullivan said his experiences at Princeton have challenged him to define what he cares most about in life. "The important thing is to find your passion -- that thing you'd love to do all the time," he said. "Princeton will show you how best to live a passionate and meaningful life."

Part of what he has done in that regard is to focus on the issue of race. For students of color, he said, Princeton is "making changes in the right direction -- and quite quickly. That change only comes and will only continue by pushing and expanding Princeton so that everyone can experience its rich tapestry of resources."

Robert Sandberg, acting director of the Program in Theater and Dance and Sullivan's playwriting instructor, noted that Sullivan has struck a balance between social commentary and showing the complexities of human emotion. He said the story works on several levels -- love story, father and son story, and social and cultural commentary in the areas of sexuality, race and personal relationships.

"While Khalil addresses many large issues in the play, it's a very funny play," said Sandberg, who served as Sullivan's informal adviser and oversaw some 10 drafts of the play over a period of a year and a half. "It's touching, emotional and human, with a love story in the center of it. It should be a fun and moving experience for the audience."

Sullivan said he based the lead character, Solomon, on ideas developed by W.E.B. DuBois concerning double consciousness. DuBois suggested that African Americans were conscious not only of personal identity but also of the identity created by white America's perception.

To accomplish this on stage, Sullivan has created a character called "Solomon on Film." Seen via a live video feed produced by senior Frankie Tze Wei Ng, the character represents Solomon's internal monologue -- his double-consciousness. Sullivan said he believes this double-consciousness is not just an African American phenomenon; he has developed the Solomon character in this way to add both comic effect and commentary.

Sullivan named "Playing in the Dark" after a Toni Morrison collection of critical essays by the same title. He said Morrison, as well as other English and creative writing faculty members -- Daphne Brooks, Valerie Smith and Yusef Komunyakaa -- were influential in writing his play, as was theater and dance instructor Timothy Vasen, who worked as an adviser to Sullivan. He also was assisted by the mentoring of Liz Engelman, formerly McCarter Theatre's literary director.

The play will showcase not only Sullivan's work as a playwright and director, but also as a composer. Sullivan's compositions, performed and recorded off stage by individual student musicians and a student jazz/rock group called The Batterie, will be played "canned" during the show. Works composed by The Batterie and by senior Dan Iglesia also will be heard.

Sullivan is eager to have his work performed at McCarter, where he benefits from a professional set and light designer. "It's going to be excitingly crazy," he said of directing the play, which will have eight people backstage alone to manage the set.

A senior from New Carrollton, Md., Sullivan already has directed three of his works on stage, including, "Healing Jude," "My Brother's Keeper" and "The Fishbowl." In 2002, he composed a short operetta, "When the Morning Stars Sang," with librettist Thurston Drake, a 2002 Princeton graduate.

After graduating, Sullivan said he is headed for New York City's theater scene and graduate school. Wherever he is, he said, he wants to be writing plays.