by Orissa Arend

            The play is “Reparations with OT and Mama NOLA” commissioned for performance at the Justice and Beyond Reparations Town Hall on March 12 and then performed again at the Tennessee Williams Festival on March 26. Believe it or not, in that short time, the play evolved. Mama NOLA (channeled by Kathy Randels of ArtSpot Productions) got drunker. Oliver Thomas (Councilman, District E) got even more passionate and feisty as he spewed out facts and figures about harms to African Americans right here in our fair city.

            The therapy was meted out by OT to Mama NOLA and all of us, especially any whites in the audience, who try to deflect or look the other way when the subject of reparations comes up. We deflect before we understand the harm and the possible means of repair. After their tete-a-tete about who owes what to whom, OT’s parting shot to Mama: “I’m good for tonight. And I tell you what, I won’t charge you for this session. Let’s call this one ‘mutual aid,’” his voice dripping with sarcasm.

            The play moved the consideration of reparations for Black New Orleanians from the head to somewhere deeper, an emotional level where both characters gave free reign to their id, the basic instinct that Freud put a name on. From this perspective, it became clearer to me how and why many of us white folks deflect. Let me count the ways.

1. We get drunk on our power and privilege. We are addicted to it. Mama NOLA sold herself and her babies to that Faustian exchange. She learned to take instead of love. “ I let the money fuck me wherever and whenever they wanted to and I even learned to enjoy it. And I taught my baby girls, and boys, to do the same. What happened OT? What didn’t you learn and what didn’t you earn? Hmf!” Can she – or we, the collective white colonizer, — hit bottom, kick the habit, and make amends?

2. We are willfully ignorant of history. Money for plumbing in the Seventh Ward went to Lakeview instead in the 1930s because, in the words of a councilman, “Those niggas don’t need plumbing.” Combined with so many acts of systemic racism we now have a 30% difference in life expectancy between these two neighborhoods. Who knew?

3. We ask the victims to fix the problem. Is it up to Black politicians? Back story: Oliver Thomas was our shining hope – smart, accessible, larger than life, loved by many – probably our next mayor. Then he took a piss-ant bribe and went to jail. He learned a lot “on vacation,” as he calls it. He came back to mentor a lot of kids, be a strident voice on the radio, win another seat on the Council, and confront Mama NOLA.

            Black New Orleanians dominate politics. But the case can be made -and OT makes it – that white New Orleanians still dominate business and control the money. OT calls out Mama NOLA when she suggests that politicians should fix this mess. He keeps asking her to show him the money. And money, of course, stands for so much more.

4. We blame the victim. Mama NOLA picks on the Black Church. Maybe some of its prophets profit. Nice cars, nice meals. Maybe that’s where some of the reparation money should come from, Mama suggests. OT points out how “white” that argument is.

“Take some goddamn responsibility for what you set in motion,” OT exhorts. Are we who are complicit in these age-old crimes finally ready to do just that? 

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