I was not actually engaging the question of "the state of black theatre." Reading the piece in the Guardian had certainly gotten my mind thinking about and thinking about why we weren't talking about it. Those are two separate thoughts. One thought is "What is the state of black theatre in the U.S. right now?" Another, separate thought is "Why isn't anyone asking or talking about it?"
To be honest, one of the reasons I didn't write about it here was because I wanted to write about it under my own name. I am a black playwright, working in the U.S., so I have my thoughts. But I was more interested in taking the temperature, reaching out to artists both more and less successful than myself, building a picture of the scene, the landscape. Because I know enough artists, enough playwrights and actors and directors and designers to know that, there is no one state, there is no single picture. But there are probably common threads, common experiences and maybe even common thoughts. I thought, "If I were a journalist or a social scientist, this might be an interesting project." I'm not, but you know what, I started to, anyway. I started reaching out to people I knew, especially people I knew who knew other people, in other parts of the country, to try to begin the process of checking in. This is a big diaspora and finding ways to check in is hard and time-consuming. Especially when you're writing and trying to build a career and working a wholly unrelated day job. But this project was, and is, important enough to me to try.
That meant I wasn't doing it here. And, to avoid sock-puppetry, or other less than ethical situations, I didn't bring it up again here. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the point of my post wasn't to say, "Hey, Time Out, you should be writing about the state of black theatre." It was to say, "Hey, Time Out, I like what these guys are doing. Why can't you do that?" That probably wasn't particularly fair, but that's what I was saying.
As an anonymous blogger and one trying to protect my anonymity, there's a fine dance to what I share and don't share. This is a legendarily, hilariously and frighteningly small world. I have told a few individuals my real identity, but opening that up further frankly scares me. But I didn't want to have this conversation anonymously.
For me, it is about the conversation. "Everything's fine" is a fine answer, but I need more to back it up than a list of recent productions. "Nothing's any good" is also a fine answer, but I would need more than a list of issues to back that up. I want to talk about the role race plays in our theatres and our institutions, about the experience of being a black playwright, about how that affects and informs your work and your career. It's not about glib answers like "It's hard" or any pre-decided things. In part because I see that black playwrights are getting produced with some regularity, but many black playwrights I know feel frustrated and limited in their subject matter. Why is that? What's your story about it?
My story is this: I'm an extremely assimilated black playwright. I live in a world of many races, all living together. In theatre circles, I'm often the only black person in any given room, and more often than not, the only black man under 50. When I write, I think in terms of multiracial casting and productions, but often, find that my plays wind up being all or mostly white actors. I don't write plays about "the minority experience" or where a given character's race is important (often), but I do think about it when I write. I used to try to specify races, even when it didn't come up in the play, but then that only lead to the question of "well, why do you need a black/Asian/Latino actor for that role?" So I started trying to do it in casting, casting "blind" for the first reading in the hopes that the impression would be made. I know it's not always the case, but I tried.
I write what I know and, yeah, my plays do wind up being about upper-middle class problems. But I'm eager to show that black people have upper middle-class problems. That when races mix on stage, the minority one doesn't need to be a servant or employee to justify why they're there. But I've found that doesn't jibe with the space provided to black playwrights: tour guide. It seems to me that the expectation on me is that, as the Black Playwright, it's my job to bring some foreign experience into a white theater in a safe, easy to handle way. If I'm just writing love stories or whatever, they can get that from a white playwright. I always feel weird sending my plays in for "minority" play contests because there aren't clearly identified minorities in them all the time. Sometimes I feel like I should use my middle name, which is classic 1970s Muslim, so they know I'm a black playwright.
And the same holds true for black theatres. I'm not actually mixed race, but I know how that feels. Not black enough for either side, really. And there are few places to turn to.
But I also know that's how I feel. And there may be a ton of reasons, beyond race, for that. The plays may not have been very good. I may be repressing years of racial anger. Who knows. I don't want to say that my experience is The Black Playwright Experience. But I want to know if I'm alone. If other people feel the way I feel.
For me, though, this is a starting point. Or it should be. But now I feel a bit handcuffed because if someone I approached or will approach reads this, well, the jig is up (so to speak). And I can't direct all of you to my own blog, under my name, to continue this conversation for the same reasons. This is something important to me and I'm not sure how to proceed.
Who's got answers?