Rare Bird by Wendell Edward Carter
This Play is the copyright of the Author and must NOT be Performed without the Author's PRIOR consent
SET: The back wall is a huge replica of a “Jeopardy” game show
board, with equal sized squares four across and five down, white
lettering on blue backgrounds, with white or black lines delineating
the boxes. The title boxes read: “1750-1770s”, “The 1800s”,
“The 1900s”, and “The Present”. The sixteen squares beneath
the titles read: Row One: “BS & Lies”, “Let My People Go”,
“Runaway Slaves”, and “Mad Convict”; Row Two: “Lesbian
Avenger”, “Party Politics”, “Stars On My Ceiling”, and
“Reasons”; Row Three: “How You Create A Mulatto”,
“Justice”, “Sister Sister”, and “No Ways Tired”. Row
Four: “Mississippi”, “Prisoner”, “Dark Shadows”, and “Dusky Sal”
A jail or representation of a jail on Rikers Island prison in New York
City, women’s section of the holding cells, where suspected
criminals are held awaiting trial, and where convicted felons await
sentencing. There is one cell at the center and several others
adjacent to it, separated by black partitions that jut approximately
four feet out, two on one side and one on the other. The cells are
very sparsely furnished. All should have a twin bed, but if space is a
factor, then only the central cell need have a bed. In that case, the
others should have a black folding chair and a small knee-high prop
table or stand. There is a deck of cards in a box in each cell. A
smallish flat tub of water sits to one side of a sink in the central
cell. Near the tub, perhaps hanging over the edge, is a hand towel, a
face cloth, and a small plastic bottle of liquid soap, or a bar of
soap. On the same side of the stage as the single partition but
further downstage stands a giant TV screen made of cardboard or wood,
large enough so a woman can stand inside it with comfort.
Segment two takes place nominally in Boston in the late 1700s,
including locales at a slave auction on the docks, the home of Suzanna
and John Wheatley, but also includes a street in London. A woman’s
bonnet, plain in style, early American, sits on one corner of PRISONER’s bed
There is also a notebook and a pen
Each of the prisoners has their own headwear secreted somewhere about the set
LESBIAN AVENGER has a middle-class woman’s fashionable hat
MAD CONVICT has a long-haired white wig tied into a ponytail like men in
colonial times used to wear
And SISTER SISTER has a colored handkerchief
Somewhere in the central cell, easily accessible, is a book
Segment Three takes place in indeterminate locales in Charlottesville,
Virginia, and at Monticello in the late 1800s
Segment Four takes place in various locations in Mississippi from 1924
to 1960, including a cotton field on a plantation, a voting
registration office, a highway, the lunch counter at a bus terminal,
and a jail, and then at the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic
City in 1964
For this segment, LESBIAN AVENGER, MAD CONVICT, and
PRISONER must each have a flashlight secreted about the set, near to
Segment Five returns to the women’s holding cells at Rikers Island,
in the present
AT RISE, PRISONER sits in the central cell. In each of
the other cells, behind a separate partition, sit MAD CONVICT, LESBIAN
AVENGER, and SISTER SISTER. Except when they are expressly directed
to appear, the others are never more than barely visible behind their
It is semi-dark
On the “Jeopardy” board, the squares “Mad Convict”, “Lesbian Avenger”, “Sister Sister” and
“Prisoner” light up, along with the title “The Present”.
A loud clanging occurs, the GUARD bringing food to each prisoner
GUARD : (Off) FOOD!
ENTER GUARD, carrying four trays of lunch, each one wrapped in
aluminum foil and stacked one on top of the other. She places a tray
on the floor in front of each prisoner, and slides it under the bottom
of the bars, looking into her face as she does. PRISONER is the last
to receive hers. PRISONER does not react to her, does not give any
indication that she has seen GUARD. GUARD EXITS.
All the prisoners except PRISONER pick up their trays and make
themselves comfortable as they begin to eat. PRISONER ignores her
LESBIAN AVENGER: (Seductive) You gonna give it to me today? Sometimes
you say you gonna give it, and then you don’t. You know how much I
MAD CONVICT: Haven’t you figured out yet you oughtta leave that
stuck up little prissy bitch alone? Eat your slop, and shut the fuck
SISTER SISTER: That’s my sister. Don’t you talk that way about my
MAD CONVICT: Shut up, you stupid bitch. Shut up, or I’ll throw that
big rat that comes out of that hole in the wall straight in your box.
SISTER SISTER: (To MAD CONVICT) The woman gotta say something. Been
in here longer than you, and ain’t hardly said a word to nobody.
She’ll go crazy if she don’t.
LESBIAN AVENGER: (To PRISONER) It’ll be better if you talk. I know.
I’ve been inside before.
MAD CONVICT: Let the bitch go crazy. What difference does it make
SISTER SISTER: (To PRISONER) What you doing here, sister? What you in
here for? Tell me what you’re doing here, maybe I can do it too.
Aw sister sister sister.
The others look to PRISONER for a response, but there is none. They
busy themselves with their food, settling down and spiritually away
from one another. In the silence of their isolation, PRISONER begins
her speech, but not to them or for them. Rarely throughout this first
segment does she so much as acknowledge their existence, instead
directing her oratory outward, to the universe.
PRISONER: (To no one in particular) Friday afternoon. In a jail cell.
Rikers Island. This is a jail cell, but it may not be Friday
afternoon. Hard to tell, sometimes. I’ve been here too long. Two
long lonely weeks. I’ve already begun to lose all sense of time. I
depend on the kindness of the guard. But sometimes she thinks it’s
funny to lie to me about the day and the time. So every time I think
about it, I decide it’s Friday afternoon. (ASIDE) I’m not going
to crack up. I refuse.
SISTER SISTER: (To PRISONER) You don’t have to do it alone, sister.
You not alone.
MAD CONVICT: Shit, might as well be. Once they get through with her
ass at the trial, and she’s inside for GOOD, she’ll wish she WAS
PRISONER: Almost nobody knows I’m here. My family. One or two
friends. The lawyer the court appointed to handle my case. They say
it’s better that way. My family, the lawyer. A lot of people
coming to see me would just get me riled up. What I need most, they
say, is some peace and quiet. Until the trial. As if I could get
that in here. Solitude is not the same as peace.
LESBIAN AVENGER: I need a piece, baby. I need a piece bad. If I
could slip through these bars, I would.
MAD CONVICT: Why did the pair of lesbians cross the side of the road?
To suck my DICK! HA HA HA HA!
PRISONER: I wonder, if I was somebody famous, would everything get all
distorted like this? Not that I would want to be somebody famous.
After all, it’s not very likely. Definitely hard to think about.
Me being famous. (Pause) What do you have to do to be famous, anyway?
If you’re a black woman? Besides going to jail. I can’t sing.
That eliminates most of the famous black women out there. I could be,
what?--Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin; Jessye Norman,
Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle--all of ‘em. That wipes out a whole
entire category of famous right there. For a black woman. Billie
Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Bessie Smith. That’s
permanence for you. Put it on a piece of vinyl or a tape or a compact
disc and it’ll be with us for a while. How’d you like to be
famous for just opening your mouth?
She makes a few tentative musical sounds, mouth wide open. She
doesn’t sound good, and she stops
MAD CONVICT: (Derisive) Songbird. She’s a goddamn songbird.
PRISONER: (Ignores her) Of course, it’s much more than just making
sounds. But outside of that, how many black women you know that are
famous? Not like you’re having dinner every week with Sarah Vaughn.
She’s dead anyway. I mean, how many do you know OF? I know,
it’s not something you spend a lot of time asking yourself. But I
do. Think about it. And I can tell you, there’s not many. (Pauses
a moment, considering) But that’s beside the point. I’m not
anybody famous. I’m a typical black woman. That’s all I am.
Never threw a dinner party. Never had a honeymoon that lasted more
than a weekend. Never wore a white gardenia in my hair. Or anywhere
else, for that matter. Never even set eyes on a genuine diamond.
Never had a garden, a yacht, broke into a house, stole a car, made a
record, found a hundred dollars, LOST a hundred dollars, told anybody
to go to hell, and MEANT it, and I never sued anybody. I’ve never
been to Paris, London, Berlin, Copenhagen, Vienna, Florence, Buenos
Aires or Cairo. I never went up in a rocket, seduced a man that
didn’t want to be seduced, or had two sets of grandparents. At
least not living. Ain’t no hype no type no coil no spoil--typical.
Not fly not shy NOT bi, just why. Just why. I’m not going to go
over the list of whys. Once I start, I might not ever stop. And
then, it’s just not necessary. You know the whys. We all know
those big questions, floating just behind our eyes. Whys.
SISTER SISTER: Why, sister? Why?
LESBIAN AVENGER: Why not, baby? Why not?
PRISONER: Yes, I’m thinking about my life. Thinking about it in an
entirely different manner, my life. Because it’s jeopardized. My
life is in jeopardy. No surprise. Since you all have eyes you see
I’m a black woman. So you know, on some level, that my life must be
in jeopardy. I don’t have to be locked up for that to make sense.
On the “Jeopardy” board, the boxes “BS & Lies”, and “Justice” light up also.
PRISONER: My life is a game show with blue boxes that light up and
display interesting but largely unfamiliar categories, answers to
which I don’t know the questions. I’ll take “How to keep a man” for 400.
LESBIAN AVENGER: And the answer is, “Lies and B.S.”
SISTER SISTER: “What are the things you subject yourself to, feeling
humiliated by and wind up destroying the relationship anyway?”
PRISONER: Not just a game show, but a complicated game show. Just my
luck. Now, as a child, this did not inspire me to greater pursuit, as
you might imagine. No, I simply turned the channel. (ASIDE) When I
was a child, there wasn’t any remote. You still had to get your
behind up off that oh-so-comfortable couch and walk that looong three
feet over to the TV. You remember.
MAD CONVICT: You talkin’ to me? You not talkin’ to me.
PRISONER: (Ignores her, her tone becomes more ironic) I grew up in one
of those homes where the television was a multi-purpose instrument,
useful for a variety of things. Need to know the time? Turn on the
TV. Need to know the weather? Turn on the TV. Time to go to bed but
you’re just not tired? Turn on the TV. Want to cut off all
purposeful communication between you and somebody that’s getting on
your damn nerves? Turn on the TV. Need a babysitter? One you
don’t have to pay? Turn on the TV. So I watched everything on
there. My parents needed a babysitter all the time, it seemed. Of
course, I didn’t exactly COMPLAIN. Consequently, I saw the world
through that thick glass sitting twelve inches in front of me. When,
at age twelve, I discovered “Dark Shadows”, the fear of losing my
life to something with long fangs creeping in the night conversely
made me feel more alive than I’d ever felt. Wasn’t Barnabas
Collins like the creepiest real human being you ever saw? Euhh!
LESBIAN AVENGER (With the sexual connotation of the vampire) I vant to
drink your blood.
MAD CONVICT: (With utter conviction) I want to drink your blood.
PRISONER: “Dark Shadows” and “Lost in Space”. These were the
cornerstones of my existence. No wonder my life is in jeopardy, huh?
One time, I don’t know why, but for two days straight, no matter how
hard I tried, I could not get the theme music from “Lost in Space”
out of my head. For two solid days. Ever since then, whenever I feel
threatened, or alone, or have my period, or get a headache, it comes
back. (Sings the theme music from “Lost In Space” from the top, as
close to the original as she can, and with ironic relish) Dwinka
dwonka dwinka dwonka dwinka dwonka dwinka dwonka dwinka dwonka dwink.
Denna denna denna denna denna denna dennenana, daaaaaaaaaa
dennenenenenenena. Denna denna denna denna denna denna dennenana,
daaaaaaaaaa dennenenenenenena. Woo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo,
eeeehhhh. Woo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo, daaa, daa, da!
LESBIAN AVENGER/MAD CONVICT/SISTER SISTER: (With equal fervor,
accompanied by the actual music from the theme song) Dwinka dwonka
dwinka dwonka dwinka dwonka dwinka dwonka dwinka dwonka dwink. Denna
denna denna denna denna denna dennenana, daaaaaaaaaa
dennenenenenenena. Denna denna denna denna denna denna dennenana,
daaaaaaaaaa dennenenenenenena. Woo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo,
daaaaaa, daaaaa, da!
PRISONER: Well. Imagine THAT running through your head for sixty
minutes, let alone 48 hours. So that was me. Lost in space. Even
though the only space I had was my two-bedroom apartment on 189th
Street in Queens. Even though I knew everything there was to know
about the living room, kitchen, the bedrooms and the bathroom. Knew
all about the sunlight that came in the living room window at 8 am I
never saw, because I left the house at 6:30, walked nine blocks to the
bus, took the bus to ANOTHER bus, took that bus to the subway, then
walked another ten blocks to work. I knew every ounce of the grease
buildup in every nook and every cranny of the cramped little kitchen.
That kitchen was so tiny, you had to turn the gas burner off before
you could drink a shot. I even knew where the bugs were going. The
damn cockroaches. When they crawled up behind the cabinet, or into
that crack in the floor, I knew about it.
She spies a cockroach moving across the floor and stomps it to death
emphatically with her foot. The four of them begin stomping
cockroaches to death in a brief frenzy, then stop.
PRISONER: (Cont.) Not a single cockroach moved in that apartment
without my knowledge and express consent.
MAD CONVICT: (Keeping an eye out for them) Not a single fuckin’
LESBIAN AVENGER: (Keeping an eye out for them) It never moved...
SISTER SISTER: (Keeping an eye out for them) Not a single dirty one,
PRISONER: Didn’t keep me from being lost in space. Or lost in that
place. Just gave the place more depth, that’s all. Greater
DIMENSION. Which you can imagine was not particularly useful. So
what did I do? I turned to the TV. Now let me talk to some of my
friends here for just a minute.
SISTER SISTER: Aw, sister, you gonna talk to me now?
LESBIAN AVENGER: Talk to ME, baby. Talk to ME.
MAD CONVICT: I KNOW you not talkin’ to me.
PRISONER: I’m talking to the people in my every day, every afternoon
life. Those people that don’t live on my street, work on my job, or
at the grocery store I walk into four times a day to stare at the guy
behind the counter.
SISTER SISTER/LESBIAN AVENGER/MAD CONVICT: (In unison) Oh.
PRISONER: People who seem to breath deeper and live fuller than
anybody I really do know. Because they live on the TV in my living
room. If any of you are here--Roger, Holly, Vanessa, Josh, Reva,
Alan, Buzz; Erica, Adam, Liza, Noah; Lisa, Tom, Barbara, Margo, Carly,
John, Mike; Taylor, Ridge, Brooke, Sally, Eric; Victor, Nicky,
Catharine, Paul, Brad.
MAD CONVICT: Oooh, Ridge.
SISTER SISTER: Oooh, Brad.
LESBIAN AVENGER: Ooooh, Erica.
PRISONER: If you took time out from Springfield or Oakdale or Genoa
City to come and be with me today--thank you. From the very bottom of
my heart. Thank you.
PRISONER/MAD CONVICT/SISTER SISTER/LESBIAN AVENGER: (In unison) You
have saved me from more anxiety, insecurity, loneliness, anger,
frustration, longing, humiliation and just plain boredom than you will
PRISONER: If you’re here, I’d like you to come down here. I’ve
got something special for you.
She flips the hand towel over her shoulder, picks up the soap, the
tub, and the washcloth, and sets them forward. She kneels beside
PRISONER : (Cont.) Jesus did it for the disciples. It’s the least I
could do for you. I’m going to wash your feet.
LESBIAN AVENGER: (Very eager) Don’t have to ask ME twice! I’m
ready, baby. If I could slip through these bars...
SISTER SISTER: Aw, sister sister, not on your knees, sister.
PRISONER soaps up her hands, looks around at the audience, gestures.
LESBIAN AVENGER moves forward to the edge of her partition and waits
eagerly, but PRISONER seems not to notice her.
PRISONER: Well, come on. I want to wash your feet. Please, please
don’t be embarrassed. I’m a good Christian woman, so I know how
to do the thing right. Now don’t be shy.(Pauses as she surveys the
audience) Well, even though you are the most passionately alive
people I know, I can see how you might not want to show your dirty
feet to everybody in the place. (ASIDE) Whoopi Goldberg, Cicely
Tyson, Lonette McKee, Alfre Woodard. Actresses. (She smiles, rinses
her hands in the water, dries them on the towel. Sets the bucket
aside) Despite taking the holy words a little more seriously than
most, I am a typical black woman. I never marched in a band, went to
a harvest, picked strawberries, planted tomatoes, voted, wrote a book,
solved a crime, bobbed for apples, burned the flag, milked a cow, kept
a bird--or a snake--as a pet, missed a meal, climbed a mountain, built
a house, flew a plane, and I never, EVER burned my bra. Not once.
Course, I was a decade or so behind that one, but I wouldn’t have
done it anyway.
MAD CONVICT: I burned 35 bras, 23 G-strings, and 16 tittie tassels.
Look where it got me.
LESBIAN AVENGER: That’s okay. Sister has enough for the both of
SISTER SISTER: (Angry) If I could crawl through these bars, I would.
PRISONER: Well, what HAVE I been doing? When I was thirteen I was
going to parties at night in the basement of Jimmy Washington’s
mother’s house. Every chance I got. Snuck out when I wasn’t
supposed to go, stayed late when I was. It was worth it. Standing in
a hot, smoky room with a low ceiling, grinding hips with Jimmy or
Fernell or Fuzz or some other pretty fifteen-year-old with a boy’s
body and a man’s STRENGTH OF PURPOSE, (if you know what I mean).
MAD CONVICT: (To LESBIAN AVENGER) The jig is up, bitch. The jig is
LESBIAN AVENGER: That’s how we all start, fool. Don’t you know
As PRISONER speaks the next section, the other convicts slow drag with
an imaginary partner, to “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye.
PRISONER: Then, if I was lucky--and I usually was--leaning my sweaty
back up against the sweaty paneling on the wall just oozing moisture
down to the slippery tiles, while improving my education. What I
learned under those blue lights turned out to be much more useful than
anything I ever got from a book. Typical, typical, typical.
Jimmy’s mother would climb down the stairs in her slippers in the
middle of the best part of Earth, Wind, and Fire, Blue Magic or the
Manhattans, trying to get the jump on all that wickedness going on a
few feet below her living room floor. She even walked through the
crowd sticking a broom between anybody that got too close.
She sticks an imaginary broom between two imaginary dancers in front
of her. The other prisoners all jump back, separated. The music
ceases with an abrupt vintage record scratch.
MAD CONVICT/LESBIAN AVENGER/SISTER SISTER: (In unison) OW!
PRISONER: Those damn bristles hurt! Since I had got the jump on the
entertainment aspects of things, all the time up through the end of
high school was pretty much the same thing--more books and more
self-improvement parties. And of course, more television. Oh, the
movies started coming into it more and more, but they could never take
the place of television in my bedroom. But they got me out of the
house. Which was sometimes necessary, since my parents were a typical
black husband and wife in the 70s. They never moved far from the
place they grew up in, had four children that lived and needed things
all the time, three dogs that all died young and needed burying, drank
too much, and never did learn anything about “how to fight fair.”
She and the others sit, open the deck of cards, shuffle and deal a
hand. They begin playing as though with others. They stop when she
does, at the announcement of the winning hand.
MAD CONVICT: (Subdued) The first time my father knocked my mother
down--that I was aware of--I was seven. It was Saturday night. They
had been out at a friend’s house, playing cards. They were always
out at a friend’s house on Saturday night. Or at the rec. Or the
Elks Club. They’d leave us with the babysitter, the television,
around eight and take a cab. I had the responsibility of making sure
all of us were in bed by the time they got home. That night, as
usual, I flipped the lights out and rushed my brother and sister
upstairs just as I heard loud voices on the porch. My mother was
telling my father AND us AND the neighbors AND--it seemed like--the
whole goddamn world, how my father had severely disappointed her--to
paraphrase. My father, patient as a saint and drunk as a skunk, said
something like, “Shut your damn mouth or I’ll knock you into next
week”. Which I translated as “Have patience, my love, your timing
is bad.” That’s what I told my little brother, anyway.
[End of Extract]