Author’s Book Looks At How Theater Can Respond To Racial Reckonings

Patrice Rankine is the author of “Theater and Crisis: Myth, Memory, and Racial Reckoning in America, 1964-2020.” Photo by Miles Johnson.
Patrice Rankine is the author of “Theater and Crisis: Myth, Memory, and Racial Reckoning in America, 1964-2020.” Photo by Miles Johnson.

Author’s Book Looks At How Theater Can Respond To Racial Reckonings

By Tia Carol Jones

In Patrice Rankine’s field, he wanted to think about the tools of his discipline, which focuses on the past, and how they could be used to help to think through problems in the present. Rankine is a Professor in the Department of Classics, Division of Humanities at the University of Chicago. The murder of George Floyd in 2020 led him to think about myths and the symbolism around that murder.


“His murder to me was kind of calling back events from our own National past and I wanted to think about what Classical myths and the framework of myths might give us in thinking about what was happening to Floyd,” Rankine said.


The result was the book, “Theater and Crisis: Myth, Memory, and Racial Reckoning in America, 1964-2020.” He started with 1964 because it is the year that James Baldwin wrote “Blues for Mister Charlie,” which is loosely based on the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. In the 1980’s the musical “The Gospel at Colonus” opened on Broadway and featured Morgan Freeman as Oedipus. While the African American musical version of Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus” was important in the national imagination, Rankine was more interested in the absence of a critique of race.


“I began to think of this as a kind of evasion in the American space, that Oedipus had been used in a way to re-enact a past that was about family, it was about connection, but the young Black figure who would be Oedipus, is absent. Instead, we get this older figure, Oedipus, after the blinding, after the incest, a redeemed Oedipus who never has to go through trials and tribulations,” he said.

Rankine added it was interesting given the era, where there was the crack epidemic, HIV/AIDS and the myth of the Black Welfare Queen, but on stage, there was a projection of a healed family.

Rankine said the myths are present with the depiction of Till as being a somewhat Christ-like figure, who suffers on behalf of the community, and the depiction of Floyd as an angelic figure, who has been venerated and the site of his murder made into a shrine.


Rankine found it interesting that there was an evasion of the fact that there is violence against Black men on behalf of the state through the police which is reenacted in the popular imagination. He said that Author Jacqueline Goldsby calls that fact a “spectacular secret,” which is also the title of her book, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature.”


“So, there’s a spectacle around it, and yet, as she said, the paradox is that we still seem to keep it a secret. We still evade the reality and not reckon with it really,” he said. He added that what happened in 2020 was a moment, but there was not a real reckoning. It was a cycle he saw back with 1964 and “Blues for Mister Charlie.”


Rankine said in the way that individuals have a memory, collectives have a memory, too, and in the same way an individual might need therapy to reconcile with their past, communities need to reckon with their past. He believes that theater is a place where that reckoning can take place. He said it has to be something that communities return to time and time again.


Rankine said the theatre community can do this with documentary, or verbatim theatre, where people get to tell their stories on stage. He acknowledged Suzan-Lori Parks and Anna Deavere Smith are playwrights that used this device in their plays. He said it gives audiences an opportunity to come to terms with the experience and internalize an experience.

Rankine believes that classical myth is not in the past, it is always political; there is no escaping the present and they are political moments.

“We’re all part of a community, we’re all part of the reckoning, we’re all part of the memory and our actions, interactions, our words and our deeds are how we cope with the past,” he said, adding that the murders of Till and Floyd are shared events. “That’s why theatre can be a healing space, people from all walks of life step into the theatre and we encounter each other there, we sit side-by-side, we encounter the same event and are able to come to terms with and reconcile ourselves to those events.”

For more information about “Theater and Crisis: Myth, Memory, and Racial Reckoning in America, 1964-2020,” visit .

Latest Stories






Latest Podcast

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Expert Tyronne Studemire