Although the play delineates the brutal treatment accorded to black women by black men, it also addresses the universal battery of women by men that women experience worldwide. The story of Beau Willie Brown, a crazed Vietnam War veteran who brutalizes his girlfriend with knives and beatings, embodies the violence and the physical abuse that African American women suffer at the hands of black men. The contributing factors to Beau’s cruelty—his maladjustment as a Vietnam War veteran, his victimization by racism in school, his frequent harassment by police officers, and his job as a gypsy cabdriver—must be mentioned in order to resist viewing him as the instrument through which Shange castigates all black men. Rather than depicting Beau and his ethnic counterparts as stereotypical brutes, the playwright seemingly suggests that violent black men like Beau are the products of racial and economic oppression. Frustration, rather than will, prompts these offenders to vent their anxieties upon women. Therefore, to an extent, society is responsible for the violence that African American men and all other victimized men commit against women. From this perspective, this play can be seen as addressing the abuse that all women have experienced at the hands of thwarted and embittered males.
Shange’s play underscores women’s need to rise above this bondage of maltreatment. It is an exhortation for bruised women to fight back after they have been injured and to construct an improved life-style. The characters’ response to the Beau Willie Brown tragedy reflects their internalization of this lesson. The ladies, after hearing about the abuse of a woman and the murder of her children, discover that the black woman must learn to trust herself and to believe in her own elemental value despite all the cruelties that are waged against her.
Dramatist and scholar Elizabeth...
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