Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Diversity III: Actually Everyone Talks About Diversity

Having just hit "publish" on my somewhat irritated rebuttal to 99Seats I do want to mention that his posting on the subject of diversity has been pretty stellar, as well as the posting by Isaac, and Scott, and Matthew. It's been really challenging to read. As of yet, I don't feel like I see an answer I like.

Scott put out a great piece on how fear of change holds us back from action on diversity--which, even though I rejected his one idea, doesn't mean I don't agree with that wholeheartedly. As a matter of fact, I happen to think that the project that used to be called the Less than 100 K project is a far more persuasive and effective way to change the system -- if we create local community theaters in diverse communities, and then find a way to recruit or tour local breakout talent across the country -- rather than making them all apply to the same ten theaters in New York City and then ignoring them until they rot away, never having been given the chance to prove themselves -- I think we have a much better chance at finding talent than simply pulling names out of a hat.


99Seats has a fantastic piece about the tropes of Race plays, and about his own experiences with race. The one thing I might say is that the whole "when black people write about race, they write about their own communities, when white people write about race, they write about race relations" I think boils down to something like this: when people say "race" they usually mean "minority race".

Is August Osage County a play about "race"? It's a play about a white family, a white community, and therefore, it isn't about race. The thing that has always gotten me about Raisin in the Sun is that its plot is largely the same as Death of a Salesman -- it's not a play about "race," but it is considered to be a "race" play because it's about black people. (And don't get me started on the "Black Family adaptation", as its producer put it to me, of Death at a Funeral)

So if a white playwright wanted to write a play, he has two choices: to write a play about two races interacting, or to write a play set in a non-white community. The latter would almost certainly be terrible. LaBute's story of a small Latino family in the Bronx? Mamet's trilogy of plays detailing the struggles of a family of Cambodians living in Indonesia? Alright, now I'm just having fun imagining poor Cambodian refugees shouting "Fuck" at each other and scratching their balls, but the point is that a white playwright doesn't exactly have a lot of options of how to frame a play "about race" except in that "black meets white" way, or in the metaphorical way.

The pit-fall, of course, is trying to write a play about race. Usually if you see one of those terrible plays 99Seats (I wish he would give up his anonymity just because it feels odd typing 99Seats over and over again) is talking about, the pit-fall isn't just the racial insensitivity, it's the same problem playwrights run into when they want to write a play "about war" or a play "about science."

I'm speaking from personal experience. I saw a play listing once that was calling for plays from Middle Easterners "about the Middle East." I said to myself, "Oh thank God, finally some diversity I can participate in!" and I sat down to write a play "about the Middle East." Well I was born in the Middle East, my family is from the Middle East going back generations, my grandfather fought in two wars personally and was involved in Israel's campaign against the British before independence.

The play I wrote was garbage.

I resolved never again to be deluded into writing "about the Middle East" again. What I needed to write was about what I was passionate about. Eventually, I wound up writing a different play, not consciously about "the Middle East" but actually based on my emotional response to the 2006 Lebanon War -- not focused on the event itself, but based on the emotional manipulation in the media around it. It wound up being a movement-theater piece, and the focus turned away from the 2006 Lebanon War and onto political manipulation. Was it "about the Middle East"? No. But it was the best genuine response to the Middle East I think I've been able to muster.


Lastly, Isaac has a fantastic response to that post and the discussion in general in which, among other things, he discusses his own experiences with anxieties. I think one of the thing he's getting at (and which 99Seats is sort of getting at) is the fact that we can't control when something we think isn't "about race" turns out to be "about race."

I recall my own experiences, in my AP English class, how after every book we read, there was always an essay response by a famous black writer about race issues in the book. Chinua Achebe on The Sound and the Fury, Ralph Ellison on The Heart of Darkness, I forget who I read writing a race issues paper Araby. The arguments range from right-on-target (Ellison's The Heart of Darkness essay is pretty apt, and, well, Joseph Conrad was writing about colonialism and The Congo) to kind of weak, weak tea (Achebe's response to The Sound and the Fury didn't really convince me at the time). Worse than that were the feminist responses we read after each (the one about The Heart of Darkness could and should have just said "There were no women in this book.")

Obviously, there are significant race issues in these books, but what irritated me was the dismissal of any possible content in the play that was not about race. All of the descriptions were reductive.

On the other hand, Ta-Nehisi Coates over at Atlantic Monthly uses Clueless to talk about the real goal: the seamless integration of characters of diverse backgrounds into the story being told.

4 comments:

99 said...

I just semi-randomly wandered over here to see this. Very nice post and good thoughts and good criticisms. Thanks for the close reading and the rigor. I might have more thoughts right back at ya. But I just wanted to say: kudos.

CultureFuture said...

Thanks. I'm looking forward to your response thoughts when you get around to them! Happy Holidays, and thanks for giving me a lot to think about lately.

isaac butler said...

Hey CultureFuture,

Two things:
(1) Raisin in the Sun isn't only considered a play about race because it's about black people. It's also considered a play about race because much of the action in the play is somewhat determined/kicked off by the experience of being black in a white supremacist country. (I would argue that several of August Wilson's plays, on the other hand, are "Black plays" without being about race).

(2) I think August: Osage County is at least partially about race and about whiteness as a lived experience across class and generational lines. And most people of my generation who I've talked to about the play agree. That every single critic seems to have missed this is kinda dismaying. But the native american nurse character wasn't there for nothing.

(also: great post! and thanks for the shout out!)

CultureFuture said...

Hey Isaac:

Well, I'm willing to concede Raisin in the Sun does talk about being black in a mostly white country... maybe the way I read it is a product of me being "white", actually, feeling like the most compelling dramatic tension was between the dreamer who gambles and the everyday worker (see the monologue about eggs). That's the part that spoke to me, and the way I internalized the play, but maybe that's because the aspect of the play which is about being black in a white man's America doesn't resonate with my own experience.

I agree that August: Osage County could be read as a lived experience of race. I think I'd need to re-examine the play before I would decide whether I think that was the original intent of the play, or whether it's manifest of something else that the play was getting at.

Still, at the end of the day, I think the point still stands that any play could become a play about race inasmuch as it is full of people who have a race, and however that race informs their lives could be the subject. It's just a question of how deliberately the playwright decides to highlight the racial element, and if they do it too clumsily or heavy-handedly, it becomes one of those useless "race" plays.

(thanks for dropping by!)