Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Black Playwrights - Tour Guides of the Theatrical Landscape

99 Seats talks a little about taking the temperature of the state of black theater in the United States. In an earlier post, he lamented how any discussion of this topic seems to immediately be perceived as complaining or a radical call to arms.

Here he tries to tell of his own experiences:

My story is this: I'm an extremely assimilated black playwright. I live in a world of many races, all living together. In theatre circles, I'm often the only black person in any given room, and more often than not, the only black man under 50. When I write, I think in terms of multiracial casting and productions, but often, find that my plays wind up being all or mostly white actors. I don't write plays about "the minority experience" or where a given character's race is important (often), but I do think about it when I write. I used to try to specify races, even when it didn't come up in the play, but then that only lead to the question of "well, why do you need a black/Asian/Latino actor for that role?" So I started trying to do it in casting, casting "blind" for the first reading in the hopes that the impression would be made. I know it's not always the case, but I tried.

I write what I know and, yeah, my plays do wind up being about upper-middle class problems. But I'm eager to show that black people have upper middle-class problems. That when races mix on stage, the minority one doesn't need to be a servant or employee to justify why they're there. But I've found that doesn't jibe with the space provided to black playwrights: tour guide. It seems to me that the expectation on me is that, as the Black Playwright, it's my job to bring some foreign experience into a white theater in a safe, easy to handle way. If I'm just writing love stories or whatever, they can get that from a white playwright.


Thomas Garvey said...

I'm no fan of 99 Seats, of course, but it's worth pointing out that his musings are in no way about taking the temperature of "black theatre" in this country. They're about his personal career problems, pure and simple - and particularly the odd knot of being a "highly assimilated" black playwright writing about "upper middle class problems" while trying to distinguish himself as "black" - but in "white theatre." I admit that sounds like a trick - and of course in his blog he's entitled to write about anything he wants. But it doesn't sound in any way representative of "black theatre" in general. It sounds like a certain niche of white theatre.

Art said...

Although, Tom, I think 99 is very clear that this is his own personal experience. Maybe I'm wrong, but I got a strong feeling from reading it that he knows he is in a unique situation.

Then again, maybe he is not. Maybe there are other black playwrights feeling very similar things.

He s asking for other people to contribute their experiences as well, if nothing else, as a starting point.

I think his overall point is a good and sound one: Just because Lynn Nottage has won the Pulitzer and August Wilson has passed away, let's not let the conversation close.

Thomas Garvey said...

But I'm afraid the problem is that, indeed, he's writing about his personal issues while insinuating that they are actually larger political issues. In a word, if you're writing about "upper middle class problems," and casting directors can't understand why the actors have to be black, then . . . you're basically a black guy writing white theatre. Or at least color-blind-casting theatre. Which is perfectly okay! Only I don't understand how much political feeling can be leveraged around what 99 seats seems to desire, which is that he be allowed to determine the racial casting of his work. After all, color-blind-casting is, I think, completely appropriate to the kind of play he's describing. So what is he arguing for beyond the power to assuage his own identity issues? Does he have a point about the aesthetic requirements of the work itself? If so, he should make that clear.

99 said...

I do know I'm in a very unique situation. And that particular part of the post (and the whole series of posts) is largely about my own issues. But the very fact that we're talking about a "black" playwright writing "white" theatre is the heart of the problem. What does "representative of 'black theatre'" mean? Can a white person write black theatre? It's exactly these sticky points that I'm trying to raise and discuss.

I know there are other black playwrights who have similar issues. There are others who have different, but overlapping issues. Art's right: I'm trying to get the conversation starting and to do that, I had to lay a little bit of myself on the line.

Tony Adams said...

I know 99's writing from his own standpoint, but what he is saying is a much larger issue. I've heard the same thing from many different writers from many different backgrounds for years.

And every time someone like Thom tries to shoot it down by saying it's simply them complaining about their own career problems or they're complaining that they're aren't getting produced (as if we're suddenly in some sort of meritocracy) it saddens me.

Thom your argument says more about your blinders than anything. It's a major issue for an entire generation of writers. You have to have your head buried in the sand to miss that.

Or is simply trying to start a conversation a problem?

Thomas Garvey said...

By all means, start a conversation! Start it! But if you think you've started it already, I beg to differ. I'm genuinely intrigued to see what aesthetic insights a frank discussion of 99 seats's apparent desire to (I'm paraphrasing here) "write theatre that is just like white theatre but is still black theatre because I'm black" might lead to. But please, let's skip all the jealous comments, like the ones on Parabasis, about how too many theatres are doing that black writer's plays, or that black writer's plays, instead of that black writer's plays (or better yet, your own plays). Because tit-for-tat P.C. squabbling always sounds so - what's the phrase? ah yes - "bitter and angry."

99 said...

I'm still eager to hear what your definition of "white" and "black" theatre is.

I think the conversation has already started. Maybe you'd like to actually put something on the table...

Thomas Garvey said...

Well, I'd feel pretty confident saying that I doubt I'd consider your plays "black theatre," 99. How's that for a kick-off? Of course you could always answer that by actually citing some of your work. But then that would blow your fetish for anonymity, wouldn't it? I'm sorry, but I'm just laughing out loud at the sheer - wow, there's probably not really a word for someone like you; you're actually insisting that other people discuss your problems for you, while you listen anonymously. Surely there's some sort of ironic, moebius-identity-strip limit that you're reaching here: you're an anonymous blogger who claims to be black who complains that people think he's writing "white" theatre and then begs other people to validate that it's actually "black" theatre (without knowing your actual identity or your work). Uh-huh. If you were gay, I'd call you closeted, but somehow I think you're actually in a closet inside a closet. Someone should definitely write a play about you; whether the play would wind up being considered white, black, or polka-dot would be an interesting question.