“Perhaps people will tell you that you have no way of understanding how to live in my shoes. On a certain level, I think that that is true. On another level, that should not prevent you from trying to understand.” -Phyllis Griffin
Eight months ago, I was assigned to be the assistant-dramaturg for The Theatre School’s fall production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson. Recently, I sat down with Phyllis Griffin, the show’s director, in an attempt to finally answer the two major questions that I have been struggling with for the past few months:
- As someone who is white, what right do I have to dramaturg an August Wilson play?
- How can I possibly do the play justice when I am so far removed from the lives of the characters and the world in which they inhabit?
As I approach the end of my journey as a dramaturg for this show, I have come to realize that, to some degree, I am racially and culturally unqualified to dramaturg a play that requires such in-depth knowledge and understanding of the African-American experience.
In his essay titled “I Want a Black Director,” Wilson recalls Eddie Murphy’s reaction to his suggestion that they hire an African-American to direct the film adaptation of Fences, the sixth play of Wilson’s ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle: “I don’t want to hire nobody just ‘cause they black.” Like Murphy, many of us immediately jump to the conclusion that the only qualification a black artist would need to have in order to fulfill such a request is the color of their skin. Wilson goes on to say that race is simply an added qualification to someone who is already a talented professional. But wouldn’t it be racist to deny a promising applicant on the basis of race? Of course. However, Wilson claims that with race comes certain lived experiences and that African-Americans have a deeper understanding of the cultural sensibilities of his characters.
We have different ideas about religion, different manners of social intercourse. We have different ideas about style, about language. We have different aesthetics. Someone who does not share the specifics of a culture remains an outsider, no matter how astute a student they are or how well-meaning their intentions. (Wilson)
Therefore, is it fair to say that Wilson declines a white director on cultural, not racial, grounds?
Various critics, including the noted scholar of African-American literature Michael Awkward, find Wilson’s portrayal of culture as a static and unitary entity to be problematic. How could blacks have more insight than any other race into a play that takes place over a century ago in a specific city? Experience is spatial, temporal and physical. Although cultural sensibilities change over time and vary from place to place, it is important to note that many aspects can still be transmitted from generation to generation and across borders. Even so, one could argue that not all members of a race are exposed to the same cultural experiences. However, one element of any experience remains consistent: it is physical. Experience is physical not only in a biological sense, but also on a tangible and personal level. Despite efforts to turn the world “color-blind” to different skin tones, people of a darker race are still perceived negatively. I am not only an outsider to African-American culture, I am also an outsider to the day-to-day experience of racism. In my interview with Griffin, she described how the world responds to the mere sight of her darker skin.
When people look at me, they look at me with certain circumspect. There’s a precondition in terms of how they might behave around me, serve me, pass information on to me […] You probably have not experienced people crossing the street because they see you coming. Or hearing doors click shut at a stop sign because the color of my skin reminds them that they might be in ‘a dangerous place.’ That assault on the central nervous system affects people on a daily basis, and [they] wonder why some of us are so angry all the time! (Griffin)
If people of different races undergo unique, lived-experiences, how essential are these experiences to the art of theatre? Theatre is an imaginative act. Actors, directors, dramaturgs, and audience members alike are invited to create a world together. Worlds depicted on stage often differ from our own, yet we are able to relate to them.
The same can be said of August Wilson’s plays. Although Joe Turner portrays the lives of African-American individuals in Pittsburgh’s Hill District during 1911, many people today—including myself—can connect to the play’s universal themes of identity, memory, and isolation. Why, then, does it matter whether or not a dramaturg or other theatre professional has actually lived through the same hardships or joys of a play’s characters? The answer is that the physical matters, and that imagination and empathy do not replace lived experience.
So, between a qualified white artist and a qualified black artist, who should be chosen to work on a play that depicts the life of black characters? If you consider how race brings along with it unique cultural and psychological experiences that can only be truly understood from the inside, then the African-American artist would be the better choice because he or she would have a tangible insight into the world of the play. In this hypothetical situation, I use the term “artist” and not “actor” because the question of racial qualification extends to the production team as well as to the acting ensemble.
The need for better racial representation on-stage is evident. This is especially true for Chicago where the White, Black, and Hispanic populations each make up roughly a third of the city’s total population and yet around 80% of Chicago’s professional actors are white according to a 2006-2010 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau (see charts below). However, the fact that directors, producers, designers, playwrights and other theatre professionals of color are also under-represented by a similar percentage is rarely given the same attention. Why should the race of production team members matter if they can’t be seen on stage?
Representation is more than displaying a diversity of race and gender. It is also about presenting the different cultures and mind-sets that accompany that diversity. In order to accurately portray a specific cultural experience, you need a team of artists behind the production who are the most familiar with that experience. Artists should be able to voice their own stories through their work, whether it is acting or managing or dramaturging.
Charts by Rachel Perzynski. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.
However, I acknowledge that the world of academia runs on a different set of rules. Although The Theatre School strives for diversity among its students, the fact remains that there is currently no African-American dramaturg student enrolled at DePaul. Therefore, my assignment to Joe Turner theoretically did not take away the opportunity for a qualified black dramaturg to contribute their voice to the production. Nevertheless, the question remains: How can I possibly do the play justice? While this question may apply to any production, it gains prominence when dealing with a play outside one’s physical sphere of experience. Even though the following list is in no way a comprehensive answer, it provides a starting point for dramaturgs and other artists in a situation like mine.
- Read history.
When I asked Griffin for her advice, she suggested: “Read history if you feel insecure about understanding a different culture. Read their history.”
- Discover what topics you don’t have authority over.
Because I do not understand what it is like to walk around in the world with dark skin, I do not have authority over the day-to-day experiences of the characters, including the effects of racism.
3. Be aware of your own biases.
As a dramaturg, I must be particularly mindful of how my background influences my research and the questions that I ask. Because I was raised Catholic, it was natural for me to pick up on the Biblical allusions in Joe Turner. However, I knew that African spirituality—specifically of the Yoruba people—was a major influence for Wilson. Therefore, I acknowledged the duality between the two religions, but focused my research on Yoruba deities and practices.
- Sympathize and empathize.
Without approaching another’s history with empathy, you can miss the implications of historical facts. During a dramaturgical read-through of the script, I presented the etymological origins of the Juba, a polyrhythmic dance performed by African-Americans in post-slavery times. One such origin referred to the song that plantation slaves would sing to mentally prepare themselves to eat their allotted slop, or mixture of leftovers. To my surprise, the cast reacted with shock and horror. I did not realize how different this juba was from the joyful celebration in the play because I forgot to consider the emotional implications.
- Be receptive to the input of others.
Throughout the process, I have tried to open myself up to the ideas and insights of both the members of the cast and of the production team. Theatre is a collaboration and we have a lot to learn from one another.
My situation provides as a case study for a larger ethical question: are there some plays we shouldn’t work on? If we only produce work that represents us, and the majority of theatre professionals who are able to find work are white, then the canon of work produced would be very limited. We must, on one hand, be willing to expand our knowledge of other cultures and experiences. On the other, we should not tell someone else’s story if they are available to tell it themselves.