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Solange’s Feast

How ‘A Seat At the Table’ draws on black theatrical history

The journey to black empowerment begins at the kitchen table, so it’s no surprise that Solange’s third studio album is titled A Seat at the Table. The singer recently explained that she was focused on “healing” and the “journey of self-empowerment.” The methods she used to get there draw on decades of black theatrical tradition.

Playwright Lynn Nottage once said that “for me the journey begins downstairs at the kitchen table,” in relation to her 1995 drama Crumbs from the Table of Joy. The play focuses on a man named Godfrey Crump, who loses his wife and is left to raise two daughters, Ernestine and Ermina. As he grapples with this task, he finds a new purpose in accepting religion into his life. The spiritual growth of a father and his daughters is mirrored in Solange’s own relationship with her father as presented on A Seat at the Table, where she sings, “I’m weary of the ways of the world” and seeks her own spiritual maturation (“I’m gonna look for my glory”).

Glory is the point of Solange’s album, whether that means a relationship with God or merely a spiritual awareness of oneself. The same search has often been the subject of black theater, particularly in the work of playwrights born out of the civil rights era, looking for affirmation that their blackness was not a deficiency. August Wilson made an entire 10-play cycle about the lives of black Americans in the 20th century, with a different play taking place each decade from 1900 to 1999. And while an upcoming film adaptation of 1983’s Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, promises to put his work back in the news, the August Wilson play that feels most relevant to Solange’s music is 1984’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which uses magical realism and the specter of slavery to tell an epic story of black empowerment.

Set in a black boardinghouse in 1911 Pittsburgh, the drama introduces us to Herald Loomis, a displaced Southerner who was illegally held as a slave for seven years. A man possessed by rage, Loomis travels with his daughter, Zonia, in search of his wife. Bynum, a conjure man staying at the same boardinghouse, recognizes that the man is missing his “song.” Referencing the title character, Joe Turner — the bounty hunter who held Loomis in bondage — Bynum says, “What he wanted was your song. He wanted to have that song to be his. He thought by catching you he could learn that song. ... Now he’s got you bound up to where you can’t sing your song.”

“Song” and “glory” are interchangeable words in sentences such as this. They represent the self-empowerment and love of blackness that black Americans are owed in life, but often have stripped from them by a cruelly racist world. The loss of his song makes Loomis angry, twisted in hatred of African-American traditions like the juba, a dance borne on slave plantations that involves stomping and clapping because instruments were forbidden by slave owners. After a meal, the residents of the boardinghouse clear the table so they can “juba down,” singing and stomping in rapturous joy. The event drives Loomis into a fit of fury, and he lashes out at his housemates.

On A Seat at the Table, Solange recognizes the anger in not just her father, but many black men who’ve been beaten down by an oppressive country. In “Interlude: Dad Was Mad,” Solange’s father, Mathew Knowles, talks about his anger as a black man: “A state trooper caught me, put me in the backseat of the car. ... And seeing all of those parents, and also KKK members having signs and throwing cans at us, spitting at us. We lived in the threat of death every day. Every day. So I was just lost in this vacuum between integration and segregation and, and racism. That was my childhood. I was angry for years ... angry, very angry.”

Solange gives her father a space to talk about segregation and racism in the Jim Crow South, the kind that fueled him with rage for years. But then, just like Bynum the conjure man does in the second act of Joe Turner, she helps her father find his song. In “Mad,” she sings to him, “You got the right to be mad / But when you carry it alone you find it only getting in the way / They say you gotta let it go.” A Seat at the Table allows for release. It allows for expressions of black anger that don’t force us into stereotypes of “angry black man” or “angry black woman.” “I got a lot to be mad about,” Tweet replies to a hypothetical woman who always asks, “Why you always gotta be so mad?” Solange ends the song with “I’m tired of explaining / Man, this shit is draining.”

She recognizes that anger can be a burden on our souls, that it can keep us from our true potential as black Americans. This is why she invites her mother, Tina Lawson, to remind us that there’s “so much beauty in being black.” The conversations with her parents harken to a black childhood of hearing your elders sit around the kitchen table, engaged in conversation, sharing grievances, and laughing over joyous shared experiences. When Solange named her album A Seat at the Table, it wasn’t about black people clamoring for a seat at the proverbial table of whiteness. After all, as Erykah Badu once sang, “Don’t feed me yours / ’Cause your food does not endure.” We don’t need a seat at any other table — we have our own. And once we’re nourished, we’ll juba down.