On her deathbed, Michael’s wife makes him promise to marry his best friend Katy so that their teenage son will be properly looked after. That’s the basic scenario of African-American playwright Thomas Bradshaw’s The Bereaved, a black comedy of white middle-class sexual behavior in Manhattan that premiered off-off-Broadway in 2009. Bradshaw has described his plays as exercises in ‘hyperrealism’, or ‘life without the boring parts’, but this one could also be described as a collection of awful people presented in a parody of saccharine sitcom sentimentality.
Later on, but before the impending bereavement has actually happened, Michael and Katy discuss his wife’s request, and they sidle towards the possibility that they may be sexually compatible. She points out that he has a habit of staring at her bottom. Well, she does always wear tight spandex, including in this scene, and she does tend to drop things and then bend over to pick them up right when he’s watching. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘since you like my ass so much, I figure that you should have a good view. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with looking.’ And then she presses the conversation on beyond just looking: ‘What do you think about when you’re looking at my ass? What’s your fantasy?’
We’ll draw a veil over what his fantasy is – it’s not relevant, so if you really want to know you’ll have to see the play! Katy responds by telling him her fantasy: she wants to be raped. He offers her an exchange of roleplay: he’ll fulfill hers if she fulfills his. But there’s a slight problem with that – not because his fantasy is revolting, but because her fantasy rapist has to be black. That makes her ‘a bad, bad girl,’ says Michael. ‘A very bad, racist girl.’ So before any fantasies are fulfilled, she’s going to get… a spanking.
KATY: Ohhh, a spanking!
(He grabs her and lays her over his lap.)
MICHAEL: I want you to know that this hurts me far more than it hurts you.
KATY: I’m sorry, Daddy! Please don’t spank me!
(He slaps her bottom twice.)
MICHAEL: I told you that you were forbidden to wear skirts to school that are above your knee!
(He spanks her a couple more times.)
KATY: Please, Daddy! Daddy, I’ll never do it again!
MICHAEL: Too late! (He spanks her some more.) No daughter of mine is going to school dressed like a slut!
(He spanks her some more.)
KATY: Daddy, it hurts!
MICHAEL: OK, that’s enough.
And with that, it’s time for them to move on to other fantasies, which means it’s also time for us to leave them to it. Thomas Bradshaw seems to agree, because the curtain falls after only few moments more!
One of the fantasies does get enacted on stage later on, twice: Michael pretends to rape Katy, first in black-face make-up and later in a ski-mask. The second time doesn’t go well for him, because the neighbors think Katy is being assaulted and call the police, who shoot him dead. That’s not quite the end of the play, but it’s as far as we need to go.
So basically the spanking is a moment when they drop into father-daughter roleplay as, in effect, a more theatrically effective substitute for something we might not want to see actually happen onstage anyway even if the actors could be persuaded to do it! Part of the point is that the repertoire of the situation is rather unimaginative, a bit like spanking porn: how often have phrases like ‘this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you’ and ‘I’ll never do it again’ been repeated in imaginary spanking scenarios? And don’t suppose that the bit about going to school in short skirts belies that, because it comes straight from a discussion Michael had with his son earlier in the play. As Bradshaw points out in a preliminary note, the characters are completely invested in what they are doing, and it is left to the audience to appreciate the ironies that cut against them.
The play opened at the Wild Project, in New York’s East Village, on September 9, 2009, after a week of previews, and ran till September 26. Michael was played by Andrew Garman and the Malaysian actress KK Moggie took the role of Katy:
In all but one performance, that is. Because one night Ms Moggie was indisposed. And like many a small theater company the world over, there was no understudy. So the lady who had to step into KK’s role, and was spanked on her behalf, was none other than the director, May Adrales:
One reviewer felt the play was a bit ho-hum given Bradshaw’s track record for outrageousness:
The on-stage spanking scene hardly made me bat an eye. I can imagine the content would have been more surprising to audience members who didn’t know to expect it.
But Time Out named it one of the best plays of 2009, and it was picked up for a couple productions in Germany. It had to wait until 2013 for its West Coast premiere, courtesy of Crowded Fire Theater, San Francisco, where it ran for three weeks from April 4. It’s thanks to Crowded Fire that we can illustrate the spanking scene, with Lawrence Radecker as Michael and Egyptian-American actress and spa guru Denmo Ibrahim as Katy. Here she is:
Looks as if she’s just heard that her part involves…
… and for three weeks’ worth of performances too!
Crowded Fire evidently took the spanking scene seriously as a highlight of the show. It features in the online trailer for the production:
It was restaged for a publicity photograph:
And if you wanted to get a discount on your ticket, the code word you had to text to the box office was… spanking!