Playwright, Bless ji Jaja Speaks about “Uncle Tom vs. Uncle Sam”, Opening in Harlem


Guerrilla Journalism: What’s your play about and what message or lesson does it contain?

Bless: Uncle Tom vs. Uncle Sam is about the ongoing maladjusted, assimilated and duplicitous identity of Black people in America. Social Activist, Jane Elliott says, “if you’re white and graduated high school and are not racist, then you weren’t listening. In fact you should have gotten an F in social studies.”
I spun that to characterize African-Americans. “If you’re Black and made it past age three and haven’t ingested some small or large degree of self-hate, then you haven’t been paying attention.” I reference psychologists, Mamie and Kenneth Clark doll test showing 6 to 10 year old African American children identifying “bad, ugly and dirty” as consistently being the black doll and not the white. That was in the 1940’s. The test was replicated 2005 to the same results. The ages were the same, as young as six, but I contend had they asked three year olds or whatever age children began speaking, the results would have remained the same.

Playwright Bless ji Jaja

In Uncle Tom vs. Uncle Sam those children now grown up. Shawn Pembrook is African-American with a white wife. Was she his preference or prejudice? And when challenged about his self hate by a black psychologist, he defends himself by asking, “well let’s take your hair. It’s permed. Is that your preference or a prejudice against your natural blackness, cause funny how it looks a lot like my wife’s texture. I’d respect you more if you weren’t standing here being a pot calling the kettle black.”
Uncle Tom vs. Uncle Sam challenges Black people and their sense of identity. Do we assimilate to fit in and survive? Do we have to? Have we exorcised our self hate? Is “Black is Beautiful” as I recall my parents saying in the 1970’s? Or is it so long as it looks like the white power structure’s ideal of beauty. Something along the lines of Beyoncé? Is Fanon’s, Black Skin, White Masks still very much in play? Paul Lawrence Dunbar observed, do we still “wear the masks that grins and lies.” Uncle Tom vs. Uncle Sam asks and dramatizes the same question with answers we need to hear. And hopefully act on.
GJ: Does the election of Donald Trump affect the message in any way?
Bless: Donald Trump’s election plays an integral part to the play’s message. Just by virtue of his overt prejudice helping to make it all the more clear and obvious that people of color don’t matter. No matter how much you try to “appear” like us, in appearance as well as stature, unless you have clearly sold out like Ben Carson, or willing to be used as a butler like Steve Harvey, then the white ruling class has very little love for you. They have a use for you, for example, the prison industrial complex, sports, purchasing the latest iPhone, or pair of Jordans, but love is non-existent.

GJ: Talk about the genesis of the play; how did you conceive of it?
Bless: This is the third iteration of Uncle Tom vs. Uncle Sam. Last year, 2016, we did two months at Symphony Space on Broadway and 95th. My friend Brenda Beener came to see it and was ready to treat her entire restaurant staff to the next performance. Unfortunately, she attended the last show, and ever since, whenever I came into her restaurant she would harass me about our next production. We were supposed to do a run in Brooklyn, but that fell through, and when Brenda heard that, suggested, “why don’t we do it here in the restaurant?” I retrofitted it for her space and here we are.

GJ: Who are the ideal audience for this play or your plays in general?
Bless: I’d make this play work whether its performed on a stage or in a phone booth. Just give me my people, some Black folks, who I love and love to challenge to fulfill their greatest potential, and it’s gonna get done. And you will be challenged. You will laugh and be entertained. I believe in humor as a teaching tool, the truth is easier to digest that way, but once you finish laughing you’ll find yourself thinking.

GJ: Any other thoughts?
Bless: Uncle Tom vs. Uncle Sam was conceived as a result of the new commercial agenda of everything interracial. The agenda that drove James Jackson to kill an innocent Black man here in New York out of frustration of every other commercial featuring black-white couples. I just naturally thought that shouldn’t be too hard as far as getting Blacks on board, what with our artificially imposed degree of self-hate and love for all things white if not lighter, wouldn’t it be interesting if the “brother” was just real and honest about his self-loathing. And through him, hold a mirror up to the Black community.
Bless ji Jaja’s play opens in Harlem at Seasoned Vegan located on 33 St. Nicholas Avenue @ 113 Street on Monday April 3 at 8:15 PM. The plane runs every Monday throughout the month of April. Tickets are $25


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