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by Aaron Carter

Readers of this program feature are by now familiar with the premise: the author shares his or her personal connection to the play in the hopes of encouraging similar reflection from our audience members.With that in mind, I’d like to tell you about the time I was the Queen of France. Alright, I’ll admit it. I’ve never been the Queen of France. Nor do I have any experience with celebrity, the American version of royalty. Like most of you, being the focus of the public’s gaze is a completely foreign concept, limited to daydreams about getting four chairs to turn around on the singing competition The Voice. But I think all of us have experienced the particular discomfort of having someone attempt to make us into something. We’ve been the subject of an action more focused, more purposeful than being influenced by a mentor or a parent. Somewhere along the line, someone has set out to remake us to match an image in his or her head. “Hey son, c’mere.” Every interaction with my father that begins with that sentence ends in awkwardness. There was the time that he pulled me aside to let me know that he had noticed my interest in Asian women and predicted that I would marry someone from that background. I was 10. A predilection and a prediction that never actually materialized, by the way. There was the time he was frustrated that I didn’t know my underwear size while we were shopping for school clothes. So he called me into arm’s reach, and roughly grabbed the back of my pants and checked the size as we stood in the store aisle.And then there was the time he decided to straighten my hair. “Hey son, c’mere.” And I dutifully followed him into the bathroom where a tub a white cream sat on the sink. He scooped up a glop and plopped it on my head. “Tell me when it starts to burn.” And he started to comb it in. I remember looking into the mirror, flushed and embarrassed. Uncomfortable with the intimacy of the act, and having absolutely no idea what was going on. “You got that good hair,” he said. “This is going to look nice.” I don’t have the space for a full declension on African American hair, so suffice it to say I do have “good hair:” loose curls that with a little product relax into thick waves. My hair was a frequent source of friction with my dad. Mostly because I had the grooming habits of a typical teenage boy— that is, none. And I was a swimmer, which fried the hell out of it. I had a head full of split ends turning rust red. And to add insult to injury, I wasn't taking care of hair that some people might envy. I stood there, goo burning my head, trying to calculate how much discomfort was enough to say “stop.” I also felt a tightness in my throat that now I would call shame. Look, I didn’t have the framework for it then. Discussions of blackness and beauty were never had in my home. All I knew was that my father thought something was wrong with me that needing fixing. I was being remade to match an image I did not understand. I was being fed into a very particular slot in the terrifying machine that is black identity in America. I remember feeling that something huge and knowable loomed in the air over us, and it was coming for me. Then he stuck my head under the sink, rinsed the product out. And he was right. It did look good. It is probably too simple to draw a straight line between that moment, and what came next: the years of wearing my hair in the biggest Afro I could manage hanging at the Black Student Union at our local university, and joining their talent show in which I read Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” and experienced my first step routine; sewing my own dashiki. But there is a connection—and somewhere between and among those events there was decision: I was going to build my own image. At one point in Marie Antoinette, Marie observes “And I wasn’t raised I was built: I was built to be this thing; and now they’re killing me for it…” This line reflects Marie’s growing understanding that her status as Queen has served a larger purpose—one that she was unaware of or chose to ignore. While most of us aren’t facing death for what we’ve been made into, I think we can all connect with that dawning realization that we might not want to inhabit the role we’ve been assigned. A little later in the play, Marie’s self-awareness reaches a critical level of focus. “Has my life been a diversion?” she asks. I believe it is the act of asking that question that allows Marie to face her fate with some degree of control. Yes, she is now swept up in events set in motion long ago, events that she is powerless to stop. But she faces the oncoming sweep of history knowing who she is, and having the independence to imagine she could have made other choices. She will lose her life, but she is not a victim. Celebrity culture, that urge we have to rubber neck as we pass a wreck, tearing down those we have built up: all these notions are explored in Marie Antoinette. I also think the play is asking us—even those of us not in the limelight— in the moment you realize that someone else has shaped you, what will you choose to become?