What White folks say: “I know you wrote the play with Black characters, but it’s so universal, so relatable.”
What I hear: “Wow, I didn’t know that Black people are actually people.”
This shit makes me a little crazy. Truly. It induces two conflicting feelings:
On the one hand, part of the reason I got into playwriting is to create bridges between underrepresented people like me and the mainstream. So, I guess when people tell me that they can relate to my characters despite not being Black or a woman or queer or fill-in-the-blank other, it’s a type of success.
It never stops there. An extra layer then inevitably gets laid on, a kind of appropriation that threatens to burn my proverbial bridges. The heavy emphasis on the universal not only erases the specificity of the Black folks I’m depicting, it also allows white people to plant flags in their experiences and claim them as their own. They ask, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, why the characters have to be Black, essentially All-Lives-Mattering my play. Like this one reviewer who insisted that the characters in Dead and Breathing “could as easily have been white or any shade in between … ignoring of course the terrific rhythms of Black street dialect used here with maximum humor and intensity.”
Where to start?
First: good Lawd, please don’t ignore the terrific rhythms of my Black street dialect. That is the play. The words on the page, the ones that come out of the mouths of the actors? Yeah, literally the play. And let me just make it clear here that I would NOT be okay if anyone tried to adapt the language of this play into a less Black or more universal version under the same title. Not at all. I mean you could adapt it, if you were so inclined, but then title it something like White Dead and Breathing or Like Dead and Breathing, Only Whiter.
Next, let’s talk about how highly unlikely it is that a reviewer would question the necessity of a character being white. That just doesn’t happen. Or if it does, it’s rare and usually within a larger context of the entirely white season of some theater company that slept on diversity. Without such a context, no one publicly wonders why a character needs to be white if they’re not confronting their whiteness. But if a Black playwright presents a character who isn’t dealing directly and specifically with issues of race, reviewers question the shit out of it. They feel compelled to assert that there’s no reason they should be Black. Which I find odd. And greedy. Like dang, man, can’t we have this one? The Black playwright in this case is like a little kid who’s been saving up for an ice-cream cone—mowing lawns and delivering newspapers and shit for their two scoops—and then the kid of the guy who owns the ice-cream shop comes along and is like, “Gimme your cone.” Like wtf is that?
Finally, I’ll just say that if you read or see Dead and Breathing and don’t arrive at some understanding of how the very specific experience of feeling expendable—feeling that your life doesn’t matter—can make you an unusually devoted nurse, you’re missing half the play. Likewise, I imagine that six decades of class separation from the bulk of your race compounded with racial alienation from the people of your class might prompt a near sociopathic detachment from humanity, and if you don’t catch a whiff of that in this play, you’re not sniffing hard enough.
Or maybe you’re just not equipped to concede that type of nuance to black folks. We are, after all, conditioned to see blacks in preconceived generalities, in sit-com or MSNBC terms. A Black man on the news accused of a crime is just a thug. A White man gets accused of the same crime, and suddenly we’re all amateur psychologists trying to figure out what specifically about his upbringing led him to commit the atrocity. Did his mother not breastfeed him? Was he bullied in school? Trouble in the romance department? We engage with every aspect of this White man’s life. We give him the gift of humanity, in all its multifaceted glory.
We apply that same mentality to theatre. We watch a play with Black people in it and accept the “street dialect” as uniquely Black because that’s what our ear has been trained to do. This Black way of speaking is humorous and intense (apparently), and that’s the kind of Black we can readily process. But something more substantial like the distinct compassion that comes from being oppressed? Nah, son. That requires extra consideration that we are not prepared to offer.
Fuck that. I want the extra consideration.
When you read or see my work, by all means look for the universal. But don’t stop there. Find the universal, and then really try to understand what specifically about these particular Black people that makes them the ideal vessels for the narrative. Resist the urge to erase their uniqueness. Instead, embrace it, and see how individuality doesn’t deviate from the universal, but rather feeds into the larger human experience. We may all arrive at the same destination ultimately, but the path—aaaaaaall the different paths— that’s the interesting part. That’s what makes for good drama.