Archive for September 25th, 2019

Flannery O’Connor onstage: racial divide becomes a chasm in “Everything That Rises Must Converge”

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019
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A flirtatious “toddler” (Carlton Terrence Taylor) crosses the racial divide. (Photo: Paula Court)

An interesting evening in Chicago with Flannery O’Connor‘s “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” a short story movingly performed (every word of it, including the “he saids” and “she saids”) by the NYC-based company Compagnia De’ Colombari at Loyola University’s Newhart Family Theatre last week. (It moves to Yale and Fordham this weekend, see here.)

The storyline underscores the racial tensions in the Jim Crow South, but, this being Flannery O’Connor, nuance and contradictions take center stage. The focus is on the tense relationship between a mother who reflects the unabashed racist views of the era, and a resentful “liberal” son returning from college – wholly  dependent on his mother’s pocketbook, pantry, and home.

Excerpt from Time Out New York‘s review of the play: “The ensemble is terrific, smoothly slipping in and out of character. …  dark unsettling magic of O’Connor’s art—coming through full force in this exceptionally sensitive translation.” (The translation from the written word to the stage, that is.)

To much of the audience, commenting during the onstage discussion with the cast afterwards, the racism was a shock. But my interest is, I think, where O’Connor’s was: the son is a hundred percent “right” in his message, but who he is interferes with what he says. The mother with the repugnant attitudes may be the more humane of the two. She flirts charmingly with a black toddler on a bus – the only time in the play there is a real connection across the racial divide.

Incidentally, the title “Everything That Rises Must Converge” refers to a sublime phrase from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”

Back to the story. O’Connor’s text drips with irony, noting that, in spite of his mother, Julian had turned out so very well. The story continues:

In spite of going to only a third-rate college, he had, on his own initiative, come out with a first-rate education; in spite of growing up dominated by a small mind, he had ended up with a large one; in spite of all her foolish views, he was free of prejudice and unafraid to face facts. Most miraculous of all, instead of being blinded by love for her as she was for him, he had cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity. He was not dominated by his mother.

The bus stopped with a sudden jerk and shook him from his meditation. A woman from the back lurched forward with little steps and barely escaped falling in his newspaper as she righted herself. She got off and a large Negro got on. Julian kept his paper lowered to watch. It gave him a certain satisfaction to see injustice in daily operation. It confirmed his view that with a few exceptions there was no one worth knowing within a radius of three hundred miles. The Negro was well dressed and carried a briefcase. He looked around and then sat down on the other end of the seat where the woman with the red and white canvas sandals was sitting. He immediately unfolded a newspaper and obscured himself behind it. Julian’s mother’s elbow at once prodded insistently into his ribs. “Now you see why I won’t ride on these buses by myself,” she whispered.

The woman with the red and white canvas sandals had risen at the same time the Negro sat down and had gone farther back in the bus and taken the seat of the woman who had got off. His mother leaned forward and cast her an approving look.

Julian rose, crossed the aisle, and sat down in the place of the woman with the canvas sandals. From this position, he looked serenely across at his mother. Her face had turned an angry red. He stared at her, making his eyes the eyes of a stranger. He felt his tension suddenly lift as if he had openly declared war on her.

He would have liked to get in conversation with the Negro and to talk with him about art or politics or any subject that would be above the comprehension of those around them, but the man remained entrenched behind his paper. He was either ignoring the change of seating or had never noticed it. There was no way for Julian to convey his sympathy.

His mother kept her eyes fixed reproachfully on his face. The woman with the protruding teeth was looking at him avidly as if he were a type of monster new to her.

You can read the whole short story here.

Racial discomfort on a public bus. (Photo: Paula Court)