Playwright Stacy Amma Osei-Kuffour has long known what’s in a name.
“I’ve had people ask, ‘Why do you have a Barbie first name and an African last name?’” says the Glenwood native, whose father is from Ghana and whose mother grew up on the South Side.
That type of cultural dissonance looms large in Osei-Kuffour’s Hang Man, running through April 29 in a world premiere at The Gift Theatre. The absurdist play centers on a Mississippi town where a black man, Darnell, has hanged himself “for pleasure”—and where he continues to hang, alive and speaking, throughout the play. We meet him in the show’s opening scene, when a white couple fooling around in the woods notices the stench, then the sight, of his bruised body swinging from a tree. “I needed a strong image so people would listen to the story,” says Osei-Kuffour, a Homewood-Flossmoor grad. “There are millions of stories about black men being done in by white people, and I didn’t just want to do another lynching story. I wanted to see a black man in control of his life.”
From that opening image, Hang Man follows seven vastly different Mississippians, including a white woman who takes up the fight for racial justice and, along the way, decides she’s black herself. “Rachel Dolezal was in the news when I started writing this,” Osei-Kuffour says. “I remember thinking, ‘Who is this person?’ Today, white people are sprouting up cornrows overnight and listening to Kendrick Lamar, but when I was eight, everybody wanted to be Christina and Britney. I know I sure did.”
The other news story behind Hang Man? That of Otis Byrd, a black man found hanging from a tree in Mississippi in 2015. His death was investigated as a hate crime for months, but ultimately ruled a suicide. “That they didn’t know whether it was a murder or suicide stuck with me, like the Dolezal thing,” says Osei-Kuffour, then a grad student at Hunter College. “I wanted to write about both, but I never thought I could do it in the same play.”
Nevertheless, she did—“in my bedroom, acting out all the characters in my underwear with Felicity playing in the background,” she writes in the show’s notes. And Hang Man is filled with supernatural elements: family curses, ghosts, and seemingly magical transformations. “I used to wonder if black people were cursed because of everything that’s happened to us over the centuries,” Osei-Kuffour says. “But curses have no power unless you believe in them—and I don’t. My ancestors fought for me to be where I am. And I’m thrilled to have my play open where I grew up.”
Go: Through April 29. The Gift Theatre, 4802 North Milwaukee Avenue. $30–$40. gifttheatre.org