I am writing a play. I’m calling a new character I’ve just met Taza. But I cannot decipher Taza’s race. Is she Armenian? Is she Syrian? Is she Eastern European or Middle Eastern?
Or a better question: is she white?
Playwrights’ characters come from mysterious places. Sometimes we witness them commit acts of love and violence, and we accept willingly that the acts are out of our hands. We talk about them as if they are our friends. We say, “I have to sit down with him/her for a bit.” When a scene flies out of us, it can feel like running water. The faucet is turned on, and the water is flowing, but we do not have any control over its temperature, its composition— we just know that it’s running, and we are thankful for it.
By contrast, playwrights have a choice – like every other professional in the world – of who to hire. Yet this fact is hard for playwrights to accept. Receiving a character from the water is something that feels sacred, not to be tampered with. Most artists and writers experience this – that moment when something— a song, image, thought, sentence— plops into your head like a blessing from above. But for playwrights, that something deals directly with the visual presentation and representation of bodies on a public stage.
Look at American Theatre’s “The Top 10 Most-Produced Plays of the 2014–15 Season.” Study the list. Then study the actors in the production photos. The images alone say enough. If American playwrights wrote more plays about groups of people hardly represented, as well as worked to recruit underrepresented groups, then maybe regional artistic directors would face less criticism, and the stage might look the way it should.
When the ruling majority is white, the state of superior talent, the accepted mainstream stasis, and status quo of good work, cannot be anything but white. When you read a book featuring playwrights, purportedly the “best” in the country, it’s David Lindsay-Abaire and Tracy Letts and Tony Kushner. Then comes the non sequitur… here is Chinese-American playwright, David Henry Hwang, who accepts his whiteness! After all, that’s why he’s in the book— because he says, or someone says for him: I fit in, too!
David Hare poses a relevant question in his play Via Dolorosa: “Are we where we live, or are we what we think?” This question revolves around the play’s themes of religious conviction and the issue of land, but it bears a relationship to playwriting itself. We are as much our external world as we are our internal world. So if I come from a predominantly white world, it follows that most of my characters, if not all of them, will be white. Wrong. There is a second part to that duality, having to do with choice, conscious or unconscious. We choose what we see in our world. According to the aforementioned list of this year’s most-produced plays, we are only seeing white.
A common viewpoint shared by playwrights of color, such as myself, seems to be – I am this label but I most certainly will not be limited to telling stories about this label. I am so much more, and I can tell stories about being more. This label translates to a color (black, brown, red, yellow). More translates to white.
Upon our first encounter, amidst the magical and sacrosanct flow of water, Taza was white. So I have to trust my water. But to where exactly do the pipes lead?
When I was ten, I watched High School Musical for the first time. I was envious of Zac Efron’s blonde hair and I wondered where mine was. I took a pair of kiddy scissors and cut some of my hand hair off. When I was eleven, I came back from vacation incredibly tan and my class nicknamed me “Oompa Loompa.” They even gave me an end-of-the-year award, “Most Likely to Work in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.”
When I was seventeen, I visited my homeland. At Ben Gurion Airport, they took me aside; they badgered me with questions and my heart raced as if I was hiding a secret bomb under my shirt. They searched my luggage and tested it for explosives as everyone else with different skin colors, and different last names, passed by without a worry. A young man took me into a room and felt me up, and then asked me to undo my shoes and take off my socks and empty my pockets and lift my shirt.
Ways of sketching figures in a world of fear, I suppose.
Something is telling me to revisit the water; I need a second look. I think Taza is darker than I thought.