The black and white dichotomy – an important binary in modern literature – is used extensively in Jean Toomer’s “Theater”. On the surface, this binary signifies the differences between races, but there is also a deeper significance based in what these colors represent for Toomer.
There is no doubt that the black/white binary is symbolic of racial difference in “Theater”. The story is set in a predominately African-American part of Washington D.C. in the early 20th century. All of Toomer’s characters in the story are black, defined against the metaphorical white walls that surround them. Toomer writes that the black people “dance and shout above the tick and trill of white-walled buildings.” This is an important distinction for Toomer: the passion and energy of the African-Americans in the theater suggests an important aspect of his self-definition against another race. He continues to use this interpretation of the binary in a sarcastic manner as he writes of John’s view of the “full-lipped, distant beauties” on stage. John reflects on how white is considered beautiful by the audience and how fake this definition of beauty is. Although white is usually considered dominant in a white/black binary, John’s definition mocks this white over black dichotomy.
Another interpretation of this black/white binary deals with love in the story. When the characters are shrouded in the blackness of the shadows, reason triumphs over love. On the contrary, the white light that illuminates John serves as a metaphor for feelings of love and passion. As the white light rises in the theater, so do John’s feelings of attraction and sexuality. Similarly, when Dorris is masked by the darkness of the stage, she does not realize her infatuation for John. When the spotlight shines on her, however, her feelings of lust overcome her. This white light implies a challenge to the rational thought of the characters in the story.
Among the different binaries in Toomer’s story, the black over white dichotomy is one of the clearest and most important. Toomer challenges the traditional view of white’s dominance over black – for him, blackness signifies beauty and rationality; whiteness is a representation of oppression and foolish lust.