Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence (1965) is set in any small town in the Deep South. The action begins on a quiet street where Clem and Luke, two country crackers, are seated on a sparse stage talking, when they suddenly realize that something is wrong. It finally occurs to them that none of the town's black people have been seen since the previous evening. When this fact becomes general knowledge, the establishment comes to the brink of chaos. Without its black labor force, the town is paralyzed because of its dependence on this sector of the community.
The only blacks who can be found are lying in the hospital—in comas. In a final effort to retrieve the missing black population, Mayor Henry R. E. Lee makes a personal appeal on television. He begs and pleads and threatens black absentees. When no immediate response is forthcoming, a white mob confronts him and bedlam races through the entire community.
The final scene opens with Clem and Luke in their favorite spots the following morning when Rastus, a slow-moving, servile type enters upon the stage. When questioned concerning his whereabouts on “yestiddy,” he appears not to remember. Ward offers no definitive answer.
Despite the serious message about the underlying economic importance and potential power of black people to this country, Day of Absence invites an audience to share in the experiences of these white townpeople through the devices of storytelling and slapstick dialogue. The text is interwoven with seemingly unrelated and fragmented actions, which move from farcical humor through sociopolitical propaganda to melodramatic insights that dramatize the subtext of what would be possible if black people just disappeared for one day.
The play received mixed reviews from the New York critics. Martin Gottfried of Women's Wear Daily summarily dismissed the play as “childish, dull and silly.” On the other hand, Howard Taubman, drama critic, for the New York Times, felt that “the most serious trouble with Day of Absence is Mr. Ward's failure to sustain a strong dramatic line. He is full of invention … and his satirical thrusts often find their mark despite the loose structure of the piece.” There was criticism by some blacks who felt that Ward should have chosen another comic form for propaganda rather than drawing what they considered to be a negative image of black stereotypes. In spite of this mixed criticism, Day of Absence ran for 504 performances, and Ward was honored with two Obie awards—one for his performance as mayor and one for writing the play.
A crucial component in the development of the African American theater during the 1960s was the necessity to cultivate sympathetic audiences who could share African American experiences from slavery through the civil rights era and beyond. Ward chose to accomplish this through the biting edge of humor. The external elements of colloquial and topical language, together with movement and gesture of farcical expansion, are funny to the core; yet just below the surface one can experience vicariously the hurt, suffering, and humiliation associated with this form and style of drama.