PLAYWRIGHTS ON WRITING
Can a white writer capture the black experience? Is it fair to try?
By Thomas Gibbons, Special to The Times
Can a person of one race write about the experience of another race with any claim to truth or accuracy? Are the stories told by a group's members a fenced-in territory, belonging exclusively to them and not to be trespassed on by outsiders? When we demand that our storytellers be "authentic," what do we mean by that word? Who qualifies, and on what basis?
One of my first plays dealt wiyh a political situation within a group of Australian aboriginies living in an outback community, the manipulation of their aspirations by dominant white members of that community and by aboriginal activists and the manipulation of both by a television documentary maker.
The idea for the play came from an incident that I, as a journalist, had witnessed and the whole play was written by a white man from a white perspective. It was widely praised, in fact won a very prestigeous award, but has never been produced. Producers who have been interested have submitted it to panels of aborginies to be told that I had no right to tell their story.
I'd suggest that, unless he or she is writing autobiographically, every writer is telling someone else's story. I've written a more recent play featuring two Asian actors in what is very much a play about anglo saxon attitudes to Chineese in Australia in the 19th and the 20th centuries... different versions of the same thing. I hope this one may enjoy better luck
I think this question comes up for several possible reasons: if a person of one race is the first (or only) playwright to write a play about an experience close to another race; if a play distorts the experience of a minority race by turning it into the experience of the dominant race; if a play is poorly written or researched so that it creates inaccurate historical records. The question, however, is not exclusive to race. Some years ago the writer of Impromptu, a film purportedly about the celebrated French author George Sand, was released to critical acclaim. Now George Sand's life may be the most documented of any historical figure (volumes of autobiography, journal entries, numerous essays, tens of thousands of letters as well as her novels and plays). When interviewed about why he set the film during a particular summer in Sand's life, the writer replied that it was the least documented time of her life, so he could make up whatever he wanted (!). Since Sand's extraordinary life is little known in today, a popular fictitious movie becomes the "historical record" for the general public.
I don't write documentaries, but I do write historical plays. I do not limit my characters to Caucasian Jewish-American women of Eastern European descent living in the present. I do, however, research EVERYTHING, whether the audience will know the difference or not. Most of the time, the only thing fictional in my plays are the characters. Sometimes I write encounters between fictional and real-life characters. Sometimes I write fictional but plausible situations for real-life characters. I enjoy playing like this. But I never make up anything that I can fact check or that I cannot back up with facts. I have had complaints about my work, but never about my right to write it. As a matter of fact, occasionally there have been people in the audience surprised to learn some things about their own backgrounds. But really, IMHO, it comes down to human behavior--finding the commonality among people and expressing it through a unique time and place and cultural practices.
As far as the article that started this thread, the horrible incident in Philadelphia that the play was about is recent, almost contemporary. I grew up nearby and remember when it happened. On tv they showed the government bombing a house in a congested urban neighborhood, I believe from helicopters. The resultant fire spread and destroyed a number of homes. Men, women and children were in the homes and were injured or killed. While it looked like a scene from a foreign war, it was in fact a local police action. There are many whose lives were touched by it and many whose only knowledge of it came from the propaganda of those responsible. Like any event, eyewitness accounts always differ for any number of reasons. And many people are suspicious of their stories being co-opted, distorted or ignored. The author seems to be sensitive and while I don't know his play, it sounds like he writes about what touches him, hoping he can touch the audience. Sounds good to me.
This question tends to come out about playwriting more than other forms.
For example, the TV show FRIENDS was often chided for not having a black "friend" in the ensemble cast. Feature films have gotten the same beef, "Where are the black characters?"
These are legitimate questions.
But when a playwright writes for actors outside of their own ethnic gene-poole (and I've seen this go for playwrights of any ethnic or cultural background), then the legitmacy of the story gets called into question.
I've met some dynamite black actors, and I want to be able to work with them, so I write plays that require diverse casting.
My current play, A YANKEE TRADER deals with a man denying his "mixed-race" heritage. The play calls for a diverse cast, and the LA ensemble does a bang-up job of telling this story.
Why the double standard of calling into question work written for theater when there is a clamoring for more diversity in film and television? I think it is because of the immediacy and intimacy of theater. The actors peform the piece right in front of you. Sometimes the playwright is in the room with you too, sometimes the playwright is just a biography or maybe a picture in the program, but when't the last time you read the screenwriter's bio while waiting for the film to start? The presence of the writer is more keenly felt and present in the theater than on the screen.
That's why I think the question comes up the way it does about plays and not about film or television. Theater seems to evoke a more "tribal" feeling from its very essence. We, the audience, merge with the performers and the production, becoming one thing that sits in the same room. It evokes a feeling of family and connection that witnessing a story on a screen cannot duplicate.
That's why theater isn't going to evaporate or become nonessential. It's also why the stakes are higher around creating an engaging, meaningful experience. And it's part of the heightened dynamic that has people calling into question the "right" of a playwright to explore a particular point of view. Stories told in a theater are more significant because the inherant intimacy of the stage amplifies EVERYTHING. It's why I write for stage in the first place.
I think almost 1/3 of my plays have probably been about the black experience, and I'm not black. I live in the Southern part of the U.S. and write a lot of historical/fiction based plays on slavery and the mix of white and black cultures.
I'm "white" and have written African, Afro-Caribbean, and Asian characters.
All were less difficult than trying to write the character of a surgeon when my knowledge of medicine is zero.
I don't know if they're effective "as black characters", whatever that means, but I was once told by the African-American actress playing one of them that she loved the play and was glad to be part of it. That is only one person's opinion, of course.
I find it hardest to write early teenagers and children - to recapture how they use language without making it formulaic. Seems odd, because that is the one demographic that we're not a part of, but we DO know what it's like to walk in their shoes.
You know, as an African American actor and playwright, I often find that the key to writing a successful "black" character is to write a color-blind one. As someone who grew up in a pretty wealthy set of suburbs, I often question the authenticity of my "black experience" in this country as I've been told it should have been. When I read the works of Wilson and Wright, Parks and even Hansberry I don't see myself. I've never seen myself. I was in a reading in NYC where I played a former gigolo and though the role was " intentionally black" there was nowhere in the script that he mentioned his race. There was an awkward moment with her mother where the question of race came up but other than that it was not mentioned. I'd be curious to know in what context your plays deal with black characters and why they must be black....
One of my plays is called Get a Move On and is based on a newsarticle in a 1904 NY paper. The title of the article was called a Georgia Negro Peon and was about a man who was born on a slave plantation, freed, vicitmized by his own family and later by the White plantation owners. He was almost still a slave in 1904 when he was finally kicked off of the plantation. He was 40 something years old. The story moved me, that's why I wrote the play.
One was an adaptation of a novel, another inspired by an event in history, and a third based on a folktale character that a friend told me about because she lived in the area where he grew up, at least according to legend. If you'd like more details, e-mail me and I can send you some links.
The article also brings up cross cultural casting. I know that a lot of time for me it tends to disrupt my concentration on the play. If I go to a theatre knowing that that is what they do, then I'm okay with it. If I'm shocked by the cast isn't that the same as having a person miscast for a part? If I write a piece I want the characters to be like I envisioned them.
I don't think it's a bad thing to be "shocked" in the theater.
I disagree that it's the same thing as being "miscast".
At a local audition for a big-budget community show of ANNIE there was this one girl who was hands-down the best. She was also African American. Everybody knew that this kid would not be cast as Annie. And she wasn't. That casting descision hung over the production like a cloud. That kid should've been given the role. But I live in Southeastern Connecticut where there have been articles written in the news paper about how we can't find enough African American actors to cast an August Wilson play, and that's why we don't do August Wilson plays. But what message was sent in that casting decision?
Would it have been a "shock"? Absolutely. Would it have been the right thing to do to cast the best singer/actor/dancer for that community production? Yup. I think so.
Dianna Son wrote STOP KISS with the intention of being multi-cultural in its casting. She wants to see things mixed-up a bit. She wants directors and production teams to be thinking about the ethnic mix as well as the color of the lights and the tones of the clothing. It is part of the texture of her play.
That's part of why I dig Diana Son.
She's also seen plenty of non-diverse casts since the premier of STOP KISS. She gets annoyed. She grumbles a bit in order to remind people about the intention. Then she moves on. She realizes that the play belongs to the group who's putting it on. She doesn't threaten to shut down the production (unlike Beckett's estate shutting down Godot cast with women -- another kettle all-together).
With your plays, see them the way you want them in the premier. Absolutely.
After that, leave room for the next folks that want to do your play, and make it their own (without changing the actual text, of course.) Artists love to push boundries. That's what's so cool. Things you never imagined will emerge.
Ahh, to have the problem of having so many theaters doing my play that they are really pushing it... yet another kettle.
Race in America is a terribly crippling topic for American audiences and therefore the writers who'd like to venture into world of writing for or about ethnicities outside their own.
As an actor, I've experienced the "non-traditional" casting dilemma on more than one occasion. Characters that aren't race specific should be "fair game" or so many of we actors of color have been trying to convince casting directors. Unless the play centers on some aspect of race/ethnicity, why would a writer be concerned with the race/ethnicity of an actor hired to play the role in a production?
Some on here stated it "was not how I imagined the role" or something to that effect. Does that mean if you imagine a 30 year old Blond haired, green eyed Adonis in the titular role of your play and the best actor in the lot was a 40 year old Brunette Blue eyed Castor, that you'd be up in arms about the casting?
I will always believe, if Laurence Olivier can play OTHELLO, any actor can play any damn role she/he pleases!
On to the point initially made--
It's interesting that the initial article presented involved Thomas Gibbons, whose Bee Luther Hatchee is being produced by my university's theatre department this coming spring. Mr. Gibbons, a white playwright, is doing a little bit of double duty within the the structure of the play which directly questions the validity of a written work about a black woman written by a white man and the effect it has on the black female protagonist of the piece. The doubling occurs as Mr. Gibbons creates both Shelita, the sophisticated New York publisher who happens to be a black woman and Libby Price, an older black woman, the character whose use of the titular idiom inspires Shelita to go on a quest to find her after reading her memoir for the play.
A white male writer creating a play about a black female publisher seeking after a phantom black woman whose memoir was actually written by an inspired young white male seeking to share Libby's story with the world.
Just about enough to make your head spin, right?
Well, what's wrong with that? We're supposed to be able to imagine outside our own borders right? The question is where does what we know about other peoples end and what we imagine, assume or suppose about other peoples begin?
I've been lambasted more than a few times for ultra-feminizing my female characters... Or worse-- making them men. As a man, will I ever truly know what it means to be a woman? Can a white man ever truly tap into an experience that will give him enough authority to write a black woman without some form of misrepresentation?
I don't have the answers to these questions, I pose them as I'd love to discuss this more.
I've been in a Theatre and Globalization class for a semester and have been exploring the fine lines of cultural appropriation, misrepresentation and the likes--