Image by Selena Wilke.
Everyone, welcome to my new series, "In Conversation," which features stimulating, passionate, and honest social and racial discourse on relevant issues in theatre, television, film, recent events, etc. First up, D.C. performing artist Alexander Strain and I discuss the Netflix original television series, "Orange is the New Black."
On Friday night, an article entitled "White is the New White" by Aura Bodago was sent to me in a private message. I read it and found that this quote resonated with me:
"Slave narratives became most fashionable among abolitionist circles in the mid-nineteenth century. These narratives remain deeply powerful, yet each one is framed by a white introduction, which authenticates the black experience. The white practice of verifying the lives of black fugitives who were skillfully plotting their own liberation has changed in circumstance and in medium—but the role of white people at its center has not. Today, its latest manifestation is playing out in the Netflix hit series, Orange Is the New Black."
I posted this quote and the link to the article on my Facebook wall. My long-time friend and respected colleague, Alexander Strain responded:
ALEXANDER STRAIN: Perhaps OITNB handles aspects of its portrayals imperfectly, but I disagree that the show's narrative functions successfully only through white validation. the show is structured in two very importantly distinct parts, one in which Piper experiences prison through her privileged (and usually unsympathetic) ignorance (which has less to do with simply her whiteness, as there are other white prisoners on the show who share neither her perspectives or background) and more to do with her specific story. But more to the point, the 2nd part of the show's narrative (that the author here majorly fails to mention) is the flashback sequences told entirely from the character in question's POV, which Piper has no influence over. While she perhaps remains ignorant of those details, to the audience the characters are validated of their own accord, not at all through the lens of Piper's whiteness, or anyone else's whiteness for that matter. It's because of this I feel the show is tackling something very important in current entertainment trends, because we now have a popular show where all the major characters are women, of diverse backgrounds, some perhaps feeding into stereotypes, but many of similar ethnicities and backgrounds who simultaneously do not fit into accustomed tropes. It is a show where women talk independently of their concerns that aren't centered on men or romance, and it seems a tad reductive on the author's part to walk away calling the show racist, when the well-documented public critical response is many wishing Piper wasn't even on the show as she is neither generally seen as the sympathetic character or the gateway that audiences need as this writer suggests. The women of color on this show have stories that stand on their own, not by virtue of Piper. Is OITNB perfect in tackling all of these messy and complex concerns, of course not, but I'm hard-pressed to think of a show that's tried with more sincerity to show that audiences can watch stories about women, and furthermore women of color, without guide posts, and be compelled, moved, and challenged.
To which I responded:
JACQUELINE LAWTON: The social and racial discourse around "Orange is the New Black" has been fascinating. The energy around this writer’s passionate response is explosive and inflamed, but worth the read for the complex and unsettling truth of how the Black experience has been framed, contextualized, made safe, eroticized, negated, exploited, etc. through the white lens over the course of our history. The writer’s deeply personal response in addition to her profound inability to see the beauty that so many see in this new series reminds of my response to "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot.
Three people, who I deeply respect and admire and who are held in great esteem in the local, regional and national theatre community, told that I HAD to read this book and that upon reading it, I would absolutely have to adapt it. At the time, all of UDC was reading it as part of the Big Read and so, apparently, was the rest of the word. I got a hold of the book, carved out two days and commenced to read it. Only, I didn’t get past Chapter Two.
After learning that Henrietta’s cousin-husband had ravished, abused and disrespected her body by passing on one STD after another through his extra-marital affairs, I became physically ill and emotionally disturbed. I had to put it down. It was too much for me. And I couldn't see how so many people had made it through Chapter Two to complete it.
So this book, read the world over, sits unread on my shelf.
I’m intrigued by all of this discourse, and most particularly, by our point of entry … our means of escape.
Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset
Which prompted Alexander's following response:
ALEXANDER STRAIN: I literally just picked up the book you mention Jacqueline to start reading it! That's amazing. How bizarre . . . I'm so intrigued now.
It felt strange to take a contrary view to what the author wrote in the article, because the show obviously struck such a personal and hurtful nerve. And truthfully, taken on its own, the point you echo about how black experience in entertainment is made palatable through a white lens is a deep complexity (something I for one hadn't considered very closely) which as you say makes the article worthy of thought.
It's unfortunate that something that seemed so astoundingly progressive could cause anyone such bitter frustration. A mainstream show giving voice to an African American transsexual woman (the role of Sophia Burset played by Laverne Cox) where the powers that be actually cast a transsexual African American actress was personally mind-blowing. Among many other moments of entertained incredulity at such drastic steps forward, it's hard to step back and see the show as anything but positive.
It's clear that it's deeper than that though, there's more at stake, and as I say all this, honestly how I view this show is irrelevant because I can walk away culturally, sexually, and racially unscathed, the show costs me nothing. So perhaps the author here is rightfully expecting ideals, and I sadly wouldn't even begin to pretend I know what that would be. Objectively, OITNB felt like it might be getting closer.
In the end I think people are moved by the show, not because a white girl helps an audience understand black girls, I don't actually think that’s the show's concern, but because the collective set of stories speak to a breadth of experience otherwise unexplored in popular culture. It's a worthy attempt, if not always covering every possible angle or always getting it "right".
At which point, I emailed Alexander to see if he would be interested in sharing this conversation on my blog as I felt it would be useful for folks, who are struggling to see the beauty of "Orange is the New Black" and for those who are celebrating how revolutionary it is. A few hours later, I started to watch the show.
I'm five episodes in and while I'm not ready to say "great," I enjoy the multiple narratives and find it to be a good, fun, clean, safe and entertaining women's prison themed television soap opera with a healthy dose of comedy, romance and drama. It's not perfect. There are plenty of stereotypes to go around, but they are painted with brushstrokes of humanity. If you listen to this cringe-worthy NPR interview with Jenji Kohan, the woman who created the show, you would rightfully be afraid to watch it. Then again, if you listen to this revealing NPR interview with Piper Kerman, the woman upon whom the show is based, you might still roll your eyes, but you'll have a deeper understanding of the spirit that drives "Orange is the New Black."
Here's the thing, Piper Kerman's foray into the international drug ring was out of boredom, misguided love and a sense of adventure. She had other choices, other opportunities and enjoyed many advantages offered to a middle class white woman. What makes this show problematic and a slap in the face for many people of color, is that while the choices that lead us into prison might also come out of boredom, misguided love and a sense of adventure, our choices are often limited, our opportunities few and far between, and the onslaught of disadvantages stem from a lifetime of systematic racism and injustice.
Still. I find that having a television show, however flawed, that aims to give us a point of entry into both worlds, while highlighting the challenges faced by women, transgender women and men in this country, to be an extraordinary and worthwhile endeavor.
I'm going to keep watching and encourage others to as well. Of course, I'm curious to know your thoughts?
Alexander Strain is a performing artist based in Washington DC, where he has acting in and directed numerous productions, narrated audio books under a contract with the library of congress, and worked as a teaching artist in local schools and juvenile detention centers. Nominated for 2 Helen Hayes awards for individual performance and been a part of 4 nominated ensembles, he is currently developing an independent arts initiative 'archipelago' centered on stories of Washington DC and working on his 1st novel. He is a graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and lives in Washington DC with 3 lovely ladies: his wife Natalia and two very needy cats.
Photo by Jason Hornick
Jacqueline E. Lawton was named one of 30 of the nation's leading black playwrights by Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute. Her plays include: Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful;The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: the African Roscius; Lions of Industry, Mothers of Invention; Love Brothers Serenade (2013 semi-finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference), Mad Breed, and Our Man Beverly Snow. Lawton’s work has been developed and presented at the following venues: Active Cultures, Classical Theater of Harlem, Folger Shakespeare Library, theHegira, Howard University, Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival, Rorschach Theater Company, Savannah Black Heritage Festival (Armstrong Atlantic State University), Shakespeare Theatre Company, Source Theatre Festival, Theater J, and Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. She is published in Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic: Art, Activism, Academia, and the Austin Project (University of Texas Press). Ms. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener Fellow. She participated in the Kennedy Center’s Playwrights’ Intensive (2002) and World Interplay (2003). She is a 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color award recipient and a National New Play Network (NNPN) Playwright Alumna. She has been recognized as a semi-finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference and the Playwright's Center PlayLabs, and as a SheWrites Festival finalist. A member of Arena Stage's Playwright's Arena and the Dramatist Guild of America, Ms. Lawton currently resides in Washington, D.C.
NEXT UP: Critically acclaimed actress, Dawn Ursula and I discuss the relevance, impact and response to Bruce Nelson's Clybourne Park.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!