To better understand this point we need look no further than the American “Race Play”. What does the topic of race look like in the Safe Black Play? First, it must not make the White audience, or the affluent Black audience for that matter, uncomfortable. Removing the story from a contemporary setting is the easiest way to accomplish this goal. A period piece, set anytime in American history before 1975, will typically get the job done. We can draw bold characters steeped in overt racial opposition without the fear of offending the great masses. I call it the “Thirty-Year Barrier”. The Thirty-Year Barrier represents old America - confused, obstructionist, unenlightened America. When the audience sees this America on stage, they see it as a politically or historically Dark Age and not an extension or commentary of themselves. This Dark Age was an unfortunate time, but it is not at all reflective of our present enlightened society.RTWT here. While I think Shepsu and I probably have stylistic difference, a lot of what he says makes sense to me. The next question is this: is everything written by a black writer a "race play."
For the Black community, it is anything but safe – it takes racism out of its usual institutional context and personified it instead. It is embodied in a flesh and blood character that exists as the antagonist. Any writing teacher will tell you that this is a good idea because, in theory, it gives the audience a clear villain and creates clear motivations for the protagonist. Functionally, however, this device undermines the Black community’s sense of reality. The obstructions of racism are rarely limited to one individual. We effectively tell the Black audience that what you know to be true will not be seen on this stage. For the white audience we go in the other direction; what you WISH to be true will be validated on this stage. White society has allegiance and responsibility only to the white individual.
In this scenario, the white audience is safe while the Black audience is not. The race play requires a certain truth telling. We have to see race in a contemporary context, with all of its complexity, and with an acceptance/understanding that we will be made uncomfortable from time to time.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
I can't leave well enough alone. Via Tony Adams in the comments below, I came across Shepsu Aakhu. You can hear him doing an interview for his new play, Ten Square, here. The piece Shepsu and the interviewer reference is this one, originally published in the BlaQ Market collection here. For the link-averse, a couple of key grafs from the essay (longish excerpts follow):