"You don't really write Black plays. I mean, there are Black people in them, but the play's aren't really about them being black."
"If you weren't sitting here talking about your process, I wouldn't know if this play had been written by a Black person or a White person."
Both sentiments were said in an attempt to praise the work, the writing, the characters, and the experience had in reading or viewing my work. I know this, because my facial expression in response to such statements have always led the speaker to clarify their meaning.
STUDS TERKEL: I'm sure you've been told a number of times, "This is not really a Negro play. It could be about anybody."
LORRAINE HANSBERRY: [Sighs.] Invariably. I know what they're trying to say: it is not the traditional "Negro Play." It isn't a protest play. It isn't something that hits you over the head. What they're trying to say is something very good; that they believe the characters transcend category. Unfortunately, they couldn't be more wrong.
I believe one of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay great attention to the specific. Not only is this a play about a Negro family, specifically and definitely, culturally. It's not even a New York family or a Southern Negro family. It is specifically South Side Chicago. That kind of care, that kind of attention to detail, to the extent that people believe them, accept them. They can become anybody. But it is definitely a Negro play before it is anything else.
So, I ask you:
- Who determines the cultural specificity of a play? Is it the writer? Or is it the reader, director or audience member who related so deeply and passionately with the work that they saw themselves in it?
- What happens when the universal, the "anybody" erases cultural specificity? Particularly in a world where the universal more often than not defaults to white?