Wednesday, October 14, 2009


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?


Tony Adams said...

It's a tough one. I know for a fact that you're not the only writer struggling with those questions.

It's a really tough conversation to have anonymously. Well, it's a tough conversation to have anyway. But so many facets of the questions deal with identity, that stripping away identity seems to be a non-starter.

I'll put our body of work up against anyone in the country when it comes to inclusion, both in terms of culture and gender. I can say what other artists are telling me, and what I'm seeing from my perspective. But for better or worse, as a white man, sometimes my words simply don't carry the same weight.

One the flip side, I get the very real fear that if someone puts them selves too far out on the line, some douchebag AD will pass them over for one of any of the thousands of other artists out there.

It's a tough one. I dunno, what if you guest posted at another blog that you're not necessarily liked to under the 99 moniker?

Tony Adams said...

er should have said "linked to"

joshcon80 said...

I didn't post on the original blog because I feel to ignorant to write about race and paralyzed by my liberal white guilt.

Not that I'm a barometer of what other people are feeling, but I can't be the only person who is TERRIFIED to talk about race.

Jack Worthing said...

You bring up a really common and insidious practice, 99: the desire (need?) for a black/gay/Asian/female/etc. writer to be a mouthpiece. It's bad enough when theatres practice it, but it's probably worse when minority artists try to 'Uncle Tom' their colleagues into submission. I've seen it happen. Of course we want new stories on stage, but do we have to create ghettos to do it?

99 said...

I think the ghettos are part of the problem. They're already there and the structures that keep them in place don't seem to be going anywhere, anytime soon. But there is a larger cultural issue: a single member of any minority is expected to be a symbol for that minority, usually because there are so few public representatives. But that doesn't take into account the actual human being inside, who is going to be more complicated than a mouthpiece.

joshcon80 said...

@Jack Worthing

That's a whole enchilada with no easy answers though. As a queer writer, I certainly don't think I'm creating a ghetto when I write an explicitly queer play. It's important to me to communicate the queer experience, but that doesn't mean I'm Uncle Tom-ing somebody, does it? Being queer is so much a part of my fabric as a human being that I don't think I could even write plays that aren't from that perspective, regardless of whether or not they have any gay characters in them.

And what's wrong with making theater for your community? I dream of having a cool queer theater in New York.

I'd be willing to bet a lot of Black writers feel similarly, even if 99 doesn't.

That said, I know there is a difference between being a queer writer and a writer who happens to be queer. I'm just playing devil's advocate.

99 said...

My dilemma is that I have hard time connecting to my community. I long for a theatre that reflects my community, but they're actually very rare. The majority of theatres I've encountered here in NYC have been either all-white or all-black. I don't really live in either of those worlds. I identify as black, but my cultural life is much more stereotypically "white." When I write for that community, that world, theatres don't seem to know what to do with it and try to push it one direction or the other. The short answer is probably start my own theatre company, I suppose.

Jack Worthing said...

I don't disagree with anything you said, Josh. I'm simply saying one should write the plays one wants to write. A queer writer writing a queer-themed play is just as valid as anything else. And yes, the queer sensibility is probably inseparable from that writer's work. But that's not enough for some people. I've witnessed certain minority artists openly questioning their colleagues 'commitment' to their 'people' because they choose to write from other perspectives. That's wrong. Commit yourself to telling untold stories, sure, but don't be so in love with victimhood that you try shame others into following the same path.

Obsidian Theatre said...

Isn't part of the issue that Black theatres by and large have this idea that they must somehow "always" stick to doing community type things. Here in Canada I call it the February play syndrome. If it works for Black History month then that is what playwrights should be writing. And that is just wrong, wrong, wrong. I have had to push playwrights to write about larger issues. To look up and around and write about that. Frankly if I read one more "self identity" one person show or "how some black guy invented a "golf tee so we should all feel better about our lives" etc I am going to start drinking again.
Playwrights, regardless of colour, race, sexual orientation should be able to write whatever they want and the theatres should be willing to produce that work. Sure you have to have a balance but I think that it is time to leaven all of the angst plays with a bit of humour and joy. How about some black plays where nobody dies.Lets start from there.

joshcon80 said...

@Jack Worthing

Gotcha. I think I misunderstood you at first.


99 said...


I feel like that really is the essential tension of the minority artist, but I'm wondering (and hoping) if it's time has maybe passed. I don't want to feel like I have to "uplift the race," but I'm also keenly aware that, with a background that can be perceived as moderately privileged, I don't want to ignore the effects of race on my life and work. There are other minority artists who struggle with it and many who handle it well. I know a few Asian writers who deal with these issues very well. (In fact, there's a very strong community of risk-taking, engaging and exciting Asian writers blossoming in NYC right now.) And there are black writers doing the same, I know. But it still feels like we're segregated in some way.

Tony Adams said...

on a related note-- there was an interesting interview this morning with Chicago Playwright Shepsu Aakhu about his new show with MPAACT and the idea of the safe black play.

D.L. Faulkner said...

I think depending on the generation, you’ll get a difference answer, a different understanding of what how race should affect theatre. I’m 22. My grandmother’s generation would want me to write a play empowering my power and fighting “the man” whereas I find that my thought process is drawn towards issues that are more universal. Things geared towards the 20-30 year old crowd about adulthood and mortgages—both are important identities to me. I think people who are concerned about the state of black theatre are too caught up in the term black. Tell me first what it means to be black and then I’ll tell you what black theatre is? Each black experience is different and therefore each definition of black theatre must be allowed to be different as well.

I agree, I find myself having to decide to write for an all-black or all-white audience and that comes in when I chose the language of my plays. What will both Smith and Brown find funny without offending anyone? It’s too much to think about and in the end I try to please myself—I’m a playwright. I want to write good theatre. I’m a playwright who just happens to be black. I’m a playwright who just happens to be a woman. I’m a playwright who just happens to be an American. If I were to close myself off to only one category of theatre (black, female, American) I doubt my plays would ever run!

Look, I am a young playwright and I might be caught up in the “glory” that is writing but I feel like the labels we put on our writings are only hurting ourselves. I’ll never know what it’s like to “fight the man” or drink from a separate drinking fountain but that doesn’t mean my thoughts (plays) aren’t important. The more I’m pushed to “write black”, the more I’ll push away from the craft all together.

99 said...

Thanks for sharing that, D.L. I completely agree that the place we need to be is the place where you don't have to cut off any part of yourself in order to be a successful playwright.

I think you're very right on about there being a generational shift happening. I don't know exactly how I define being black in today's world. It's something that's always evolving for me personally and something that I think we'll be defining in theatre for a long time to come.

Obsidian Theatre said...'s funny what you say about the generational gap. I guess for me it's strange that I, at 59, am pushing the young playwrights to expand their horizons.

D. L. Faulkner said...

@ Obsidian Theatre-

Again, it has to do with experiences. And I think also, in my opinion, the younger generation (my generation) doesn't see race in the same terms. It's there but I feel like my friends and I don't look for the things that make us different but try to find a common ground. And that could/does affect that way I write. In our world you can really be anything and race doesn't stand in that why should theatre? (if that makes any sense at all)

A.W. said...

Hey 99,
It is a hard question, and you are not even close to being alone on this one. It’s a question I’ve dealt with both in my art as a Black actor and in my life in general. I’ve been in design meetings where a TD or someone asked me questions like “Do Black people in this country feel this way or that?” or I’ve been asked to explain some aspect of Black culture as displayed on TV over dinner as though I can speak for all Afro-Americans.
I feel similar frustrations when I’m auditioning and the roles I find with stated characters of color are slaves, or servants, or have dialogue written in the urban dialect. Where are the characters who reflect the rest of us? I can can’t confirm that I have ever not been cast in a part for not being Black enough, but I’ve had enough people tell me I’m not in my personal life to suspect it has happened. I can’t confirm I haven’t been cast in a role for not being White enough, but again I have my suspicions. There are expectations people have that I just don’t fit. Actually a lot of us don’t fit them.
I think the answer, and the hard part is to draw your community. The one that isn’t defined by color but by those who respond to the story you tell.
Some colleagues and I are trying to do that. We got together and started our own company, so that we can put our stories out there. Between us we span multiple different communities so we’re going to see if we can draw an audience and a community out of all them.

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