Tuesday, August 21, 2007

White Guy Writing About Race (Part I)

I'm a white guy and an adoptive parent of two black children. I wrote material that dealt with race before we had kids, though after I became a dad it took on a whole new level of interest for me.

Still, it took a long time until I was ready to work on a full-length play that dealt with racial issues. By the time I wrote Pieces of Whitey, I'd already written my novel, Tornado Siren, and my screenplay, The Carrier, both of which deal with race. When I wrote Pieces of Whitey, my family and I had been living for a few years in Roxbury, a predominantly black neighborhood of Boston, and I'd also done a fair amount of research on interracial neighborhoods for a non-fiction book proposal I'd put together (that sadly didn't get published, but that's a story for Part II).

All of this is a long lead-in to saying I wrote this odd comedy about well-meaning white people. A lot of it drew on my own personal racial experience. As the play pulled together into something modestly coherent, I tried pretty hard to avoid the script becoming a white guy writing about black people, a sort of travelogue as comedy. I'd thought a lot about whiteness and I wanted to see if I could write something about it.

I also knew the realities of theatre (or so I thought) and realized that there are a lot of small, all-white theatres out there. I was hopeful that many of them, given the strong liberal tilt among theatre folk, might be interested in doing a play about race, but maybe didn't know any black actors. Theatre tends to be fairly segregated, after all (since people's social networks tend to be monochromatic). So I wanted to make a play about race that could have an all-white cast, so the places that most need to talk about race (the white parts) could have a script that would allow this to happen. The script itself addresses this issue of the whiteness of theatre directly--half the plot is about a white playwright commissioned to write a play about race for an all-white theatre company.

Also, by intentionally making a play about race using all white actors, it avoids the tendency to have racial plays be about black people (rather than about race or whiteness). If everyone you see on stage is a white person, even white people playing black characters, then everything you see about race has been filtered through a white perspective (for better or for worse). If I have a black actor play my white person's concept of a black character, that's something entirely different. The black actor gives some sense of authenticity to my writing, whether it deserves it or not, because he is, after all, a real live black person. In the case of Pieces of Whitey (as intended, anyway), that doesn't happen.

Thanks to my writing group, Rhombus, and workshops from Stage Left (Chicago), Write On (Boston), Attention Span (Baltimore), I came up with a decent script and convinced Rough & Tumble (R&T) and director Dan Milstein in Boston to work on it with me. We developed the script together over quite a few months of meetings and many weeks of rehearsals (this was in 2005). I was pretty (over) confident after the reception in the various readings, that this was a show that would be a big hit and might even be able to tour the following year.

We did have a sense that we were doing something that might get under people's skin a little. The tag line for on our postcards was: " A comedy about race by a bunch of white people. Could be a trainwreck. So you'll want to check that out." (The photo above, of Irene Daly) is from the post card.)

As a white guy, I was confident that other white people would get it, but I was nervous about the reaction of the minority community. Was the script offensive to black people? (It deals with race as primarily a black/white issue.) We pushed for publicity in the white press, but didn't make an extra effort in the black paper or media. I wrote a grant that paid for a Sunday afternoon series of discussions led by trained facilitators from two social justice groups. We also got a good group sale to the New England Alliance of Multiracial Families (NEAMF). The house, a converted rehearsal room in the spiffy new part of the Boston Center for the Arts, seated only about 50, so it didn't take many patrons to fill a good percentage of the house. (The photo to the left is of Kristin Baker and George Saulnier III.)

So what happened?

In terms of the production, we had very talented actors who were well directed, a production that sometimes ran well and sometimes struggled with pace and rhythm, and a script that was far from perfect but had something it was trying to say and offered up some laughs. The first couple nights were a little rough, as we made more changes and cuts to the script, and we worked out some production bumps (of course this is when the reviewers came).
In terms of audience reaction, this play was unlike any production I've ever had. The reaction of the audience was completely different almost every night. This reaction depended greatly, it seemed, on either the audience's racial composition, or on the amount of experience the audience already had thinking about race and whiteness.

The black people in the audience, the ones we'd most feared offending, totally got the play. The more black people (or other people of color) in the audience, the better the show went (the number rose over the course of the run, thanks to word of mouth). From the back of the house, it was especially interesting to watch the white people sitting near black people. The whites definitely were aware of where the blacks were sitting, and you could see them checking out black folks' reaction to certain scenes. In a sense this is what theatre does best--involve the audience not just with the performance, but also with each other. It was thrilling to watch this in action.

The night with the NEAMF group was a hoot. These people had completely lived parts of this play. And the Sunday afternoons, which tended to sell out, drew people from the social justice groups (coming to be part of the discussion), and they laughed and nodded and clapped. There were times when I said to myself, "This is exactly what I was after."

But when the audience was completely or mostly composed of white theatre goers (or theatre makers, as small theatre audiences often are, especially early in a run), we'd get a whole different vibe. It would seem like the actors were performing in molasses, so little energy would be coming back from the house. These were the nights when I wondered what the hell I was doing writing plays at all.

What about the press?

This is where it got really interesting. I'd originally thought we'd be able to pick up a feature article or two. R&T had been getting some great press for their unique physical performance style. But most of what they'd done was pretty whimsical and now they were taking on a play about race (though a comedy). And how many plays about whiteness come across the news desk? Not many, right? And stories about race show up in the paper every single day. Race is America's obsession, after all. For our show, we didn't get a nibble for a feature, though we did get a couple inches in the Globe theatre column.

And the reviews?

This is tricky, because I don't want to whine about the critics (playwrights do that a lot) or bad reviews. It's okay for them not to like the play (it definitely has problems), or even the production.

However, we clearly pissed them off. The reviews in the major papers weren't just pans, they were attacks (with the exception of the Boston Phoenix). Bristling. Here's where I was most blindsided, because it hadn't occurred to me (idiot) that white people might get mad. What's interesting is that there's a scene in the play where one character (Bill) has just had a racial awakening, and on his way to work, every person discounts what he has to say about race. "No, that's not true," they insist.

We got the same sort of reaction in the reviews, calling the play "pathetically naive", cliched or uninventive. One asked "Isn't it just as racist to stereotype white people from Weston as rich and shallow as it is to stereotype black people from Roxbury as poor and dangerous?" (No.) (Oh, those poor oppressed people of Weston.) Another wished the play had been a drama about a series of grim racial statistics. And was offended by a white family discovering, after genetic testing, that it isn't as white as it thought. One review's reference to the black playwrights of the 60s as having already probed this territory (and In Living Color) was telling--most of those plays and shows were about black people. This play is about white people, but the white reviewers didn't see themselves. The stuff around blacks they saw as cliche, and the stuff around whites they saw as unrealistic. (The Globe took great offense at an adoption agency offering a discount for black babies. Which was right out of my own experience.) The tone of the reviews was clearly intended to keep people away. (The good news is that despite the reviews, we still sold between 85-90% of the seats for the run.)

So what's the point, Pat?

Anyway, the point of this long (overly long, I know) piece (besides a good reminder not to read reviews) is to try to get at something that both interests me and confounds me. To me, it seems that theatre has some very definite ways it wants to deal with race. Plays about black people by black people are good (or by Thomas Gibbons is fine, too). Plays about black people and white people together should play up blacks as victims and whites as oppressors (white guilt). Plays by white people about white people are good, too, as long as they are racial (in that they're about white people--David Mamet, for example) without explicitly talking about race and their own whiteness. (I know there a few exceptions. And I also don't think that Rebecca Gilman's "Spinning Into Butter" counts as one.) In any case, make certain that plays about race are also plays about "them" (whether "they" are black or white) but don't create plays about race that are explicitly plays about "us."

And, what interests me about the POW production was that different audiences clearly experienced the play so differently. (My own white privilege and blindness made me reverse my expectations about who would understand the play.) This gives an interesting answer to many theatres who complain about racial minorities not showing up at their lovely (but all-white productions)--maybe their material isn't as universal as they (or the people writing their reviews) think it is.

As for POW, basically I've written a play originally intended for an all-white cast, in a world where most theatres are run by white people, and many white people don't get the play. Hmm. I guess that's some sort of accomplishment. A black friend wrote me this message after the play opened and the reviews came out:

"you were forcing these so called liberal white folks to take a good hard look at themselves, they don't like the man in the mirror. Thus the reason for the unfavorable reviews. As a Black person watching the play I saw nothing but the truth. Some acts were more powerful then others, I laughed hard because every black person knows a white person that means well but in their heart really believes that all young black males smoke pot, wear hoodies and will rob them by gun point if given a chance. Your audience(quite a few blacks) enjoyed the performance you could tell by the laughter and the times of reflection."

That helped. Though in some ways, this could prove the failure of the play, in that I was able to connect with one part of the audience, but not the entire audience. (Is that a fair goal?) The critics might say that it proves that I was pandering to the black and liberal white audience. But I think they were missing that I was saying in this play, "this is me, this is my experience of race". To them that came across as stereotypical (though I wrote in a character who's a white playwright writing about race--how can I be clearer that this is a personal play?). The other way to look at it is that white culture has a long history of glossing over the racial truth in America, and anyone who wants to pull away the veil is going to get his hand slapped.

It all leaves me wondering: what will happen to this play? (I've sent it out a lot and haven't had even a nibble.) And how do I write about the aspect of race that I know the most about, that seems the most important with regard to race relations, in a way that can be effective for the entire audience? Is that even possible? I'd be lying to say that it's not been discouraging at times, but I hope I'll find a way through it.

In case you're curious--I usually avoid posting full-length plays on-line, but here's a link to Pieces of Whitey, in case you're interested in taking a read. (I probably won't leave it up there for too long.) You can find the reviews on-line, with a little Googling.

Also, to undercut my thesis above a little--I just found a review from the on-line Theatre Mirror, by the late Will Stackman, who seemed to get the piece.


Adam said...

your play sounds fascinating. I look forward to reading it. Great post!

patrick said...

Thanks, Adam. Getting people's reactions has really been interesting.

Dan Milstein said...

Yo. Dan Milstein here (I directed the production Pat describes above)

And, can I say: man, but I'm glad I didn't read those reviews ;-)

A few other thoughts:

- I can totally, totally echo what you said about the vast differences in audience responses. I mean, audiences always react differently in theater and all, but for this show, it was off the charts. Like a totally different play on different nights.

Part of my sense from working on the play, and talking to people about it, is that I think a lot of well-meaning white folks (myself very much included) have this background sense that they "should" feel guilty about race issues somehow. And, y'know, no one likes feeling that way, so they (we) do something natural: we try to not think about it. And I think you were trying to use a funny, clever play as a way to get around that. To which I say, right on.

So what happened with the press / the liberal white audience?

I think part of what blindsided us was that, because we were doing a play about race, and since, in my humble opinion, a lot of strident, crappy plays about oppression get praise lavished on them, we thought we'd be okay. But it was kind of the opposite. Whether or not the play, or the production, were perfect (they weren't), you were asking the audience to put themselves in the position of the white people onstage, and to admit that they get benefits from their whiteness, and are able to avoid thinking about that. Which is kind of the opposite of sitting there comfortably saying "Look at us, this group of well-meaning liberals watching this play about oppression, aren't we all Good People."

So much of what I dislike about theater in general, and sanctimonious plays about race specifically is that it seems to be about watching a simplified morality play where, by sympathizing with the oppressed black person, you free yourself from your own vague guilt (those "other" bad white people are racist, but I'm clearly not, so I can feel good). There's an air of complacency about the experience, of self-congratulation, which has always turned me off enormously.

I think the one night when the play worked the best (the night you and I basically said "man, maybe that made the whole run worth it") was when that large group from the New England Alliance of Multiracial Families came. Because they were really a perfect audience -- they saw themselves depicted with sympathy onstage, saw struggles they had gone through. They neither saw themselves judged ("despite your liberal views, you, as a white person are still privileged and sometimes unknowingly cruel"), nor did they see it as a chance to judge others. They saw it as an honest depiction of a human struggle. A struggle to understand. And to be a good person.

Now, is there some way the play could have that effect for a white audience who weren't already so powerfully enmeshed in questions about race? I have no idea.

TJ (Joshua) said...

I have the same experience with my play TALLBOY WALKIN', which is about race, features mixed race cast and very confrontational.

Universally, when I have black folk in the audience, they love it.

And so do a lot of white audience.

But the white folk always seem to be looking around, as if it to say "Should I be enjoying this?" and then give in once they see black folk enjoying it.

When white people READ this script, they often imply that it may be offensive and / or alienating to other races, and look at me as though I'm crazy because I'm white and I'm writing about race.

But nonetheless, it never fails that audiences truly love the play . . . it's just all these day white people who approve the plays that are done that are the biggest hurdle . . .

patrick said...

Thanks for posting, TJ. It's good to know other writers bump into the same thing.

Unknown said...

I found your blog in a search about white people who write about the black experience. I met a friend of a friend who wrote a book about a white woman who had a past life as a black slave. (I know, I rolled my eyes too.) There seems to be this need by white authors who write about race to pretend they understand the black experience. Your play and its intent are SO refreshing in that regard! Thank you for the thoughtful blog and the link to the play.

Patrick Gabridge said...

thanks for your comment. I've continued writing pieces that deal with race, either as an issue in the forefront, or more as a background issue. Probably because race is an element of my everyday life, and in the same way, sometimes in the foreground, but often in the background.