I’ve been thinking a lot about the demonization of black men this week. On Thursday, I joined the many New Yorkers who took to the streets to protest the non-indictment of yet another police officer for the death of yet another black man. And on Friday, I went to see a production of Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe at Theater for a New Audience. Although these two events were obviously quite different, both made me wrestle with the construction of “demons” in our cultural imagination. In this contemporary American production of an epic Elizabethan drama, John Douglas Thompson (pictured above) plays the title role of Tamburlaine, a Mongol warrior who conquers the world, laying waste to nations and subjugating the kings and queens of continents. He’s a glorious monster, brutal and grotesque in his bloody deeds, but also made glorious and even beautiful by Marlowe’s magnificent poetry. Although the play's dramaturgy can become a bit redundant (Tamburlaine comes to a new land, he conquers it, repeat), the bloody excesses of the play continue to mount, making the audience wonder what, if anything, can stop this force of destruction.
Thompson, an actor with a commanding voice and physical presence, is thrilling in the role, giving one of the best classical performances I’ve ever seen. This production, directed by Michael Boyd, employs color-blind casting, and I’ll admit I wasn’t always sure how to interpret the choices the production made of matching certain actors to certain roles. But there were more than a few moments when Thompson, who was born in England to Jamaican parents, made me think of Darren Wilson’s demon. Here was a black man portraying an unstoppable force of terror, a demon who seems emboldened by the attacks of his enemies. At times, Tamburlaine’s terror is so excessive that it verges on high camp—and one can see why the young Charles Ludlam, founder of the ultra-queer Ridiculous Theatrical Company, used Marlowe’s drama as the basis for one of his earliest plays, Conquest of the Universe, or When Queens Collide (1967).
In the fantasy world of the theater, it can be exciting to imagine the extremes of human capacity, exploring what Oscar Wilde called the “monstrous and marvelous.” While I hope that audiences of Tamburlaine are both thrilled and disturbed by the monstrosity of the main character, I also hope that we recognize the theatrical conventions that construct such monsters. And when we see those conventions employed in the real world, we identify them as the artificial constructions that they are. Here, Ludlam is particularly instructive. His queer camp sensibility both celebrates and satirizes the ridiculous artificiality of Tamburlaine as a theatrical monster. By having a better understanding of how we make monsters in the theater, I hope we can recognize and combat instances in which racism, homophobia, and other dehumanizing ideologies create “demons” in the real world. Michael Brown was no Tamburlaine, and we must condemn the attempts to cast him in that role.