As I mentioned in my previous post, I reached out to my friend and fellow playwright, Kia Corthron to see if she would contribute to my ongoing blog series about Diversity and Inclusion, which can be read here and here. She was excited about the series and wanted to share an article that she had written for the Dramatist Guild's The Dramatist magazine called, The Ethics of Ethnic, which brilliantly addresses the issue of artistic authority. In it, Kia asks colleagues to participate because she felt "there were as many different answers to my questions about artistic authority as there were playwrights." This article was originally printed in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of The Dramatist, the journal of the Dramatists Guild of America, Inc.
The Ethics of Ethnic by Kia Corthron
Did William Shakespeare, a WASP, struggle over the political fallout of creating Othello and Shylock? In homogenous Elizabethan England, I doubt it.
What about O’Neill with his Emperor Jones? The play was an instant success, quickly moving from the Provincetown Playhouse to Broadway. But Harlemite Charles Gilpin, critically acclaimed for his performance and cited by O’Neill as his finest Jones, was outspoken regarding his tokenism in the Great White Way, and he and the playwright finally severed their collaboration because of Gilpin’s insistence to alter O’Neill’s dialogue – written in O’Neill’s interpretation of black dialect.
While August Wilson’s views on color-blind casting are well documented, as well as his insistence on black directors evidenced by every Broadway production during his lifetime, I have not been able to locate any published opinion regarding his thoughts on writing outside of one’s own culture. Still, in his incisive 1994 essay “The Ground on Which I Stand,” he is quite explicit about cultural authority:
"So much of what makes this country rich in art and all manners of spiritual life is the contributions that we as African Americans have made. We cannot allow others to have authority over our cultural and spiritual products. We reject, without reservation, any attempts by anyone to rewrite our history so to deny us the rewards of our spiritual labors, and to become the culture custodians of our art, our literature and our lives."
Forays into other cultures (exoticism some would call it) have of course not been the domain of only white writers. In 1964 a playwright of color premiered her The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window on Broadway. In a less monotheistic era where there were numerous New York dailies carrying equal critical weight, the glowing Times review could not compensate for the confusion, if not outright hostility, from much of the rest of the press regarding Lorraine Hansberry’s decision, on the heels of the acclaimed A Raisin in the Sun, to focus on a community outside of her own – and the politically and economically advantaged white community at that. *
A few years ago my Tap the Leopard was being workshopped by the Guthrie Theater. The play had been inspired by my recent trip to Liberia as the nation was transitioning out of its brutal twenty-year civil war. There was a public reading of the first draft, and several local Minneapolis Liberians had been given special invitations, as I was interested in their feedback in this early stage before progressing further. Well! While most of them did not show up until Act 2, and some not until Act 3, their tardiness did not prevent them from expressing their opinions in ardent, often furious tones in the post-show disc as well as in many lively conversations during the reading. I learned a few very useful items to incorporate into my next draft, despite the excruciating pain of the experience. And despite the fact that it was evident that many, if not most, of the immigrants were angry before they’d ever entered the theatre: an invitation to hear a play about their nation by an African American (and I imagine quite a few would have finger-quoted “African”) written after the author's very brief stint in the country.
I understand that mistrust, suspicion. When I go to plays in which the characters are black but the author is not, particularly when the cast is all black, I tend to enter in an approach with caution mode. If the characters are well written, I can be won over. I want to be won over. This is not true for every black audience member.
Awhile back a white writer came to me, asking if I would read and comment on a draft of his play, a family drama, the cast of which was entirely African-American. I did, and was mostly complimentary in my remarks, though I remember having one question, a small section that did not ring true for me regarding the black family dynamics. The playwright was clearly annoyed with this sole criticism, and I realized he had never been interested in my opinion. Only my sanction.
Are we ethically entitled to write outside of our own ethnicity (however we define any of those loaded terms)? If we do, are there any ground rules? Are we obligated to educate ourselves (even minimally) about a culture before assuming the authority to give voice to characters of that culture? Or is any such suggestion a hindrance to the creative process, at worst tantamount to censorship?
Among the copious impassioned criticisms of Tap the Leopard by the Minneapolis immigrants was my setting the third of the three acts on one of the U.S.-operated Firestone rubber plantations that are located all over Liberia. While I was quiet and attentive for most of the talkback session, when the assertion that Firestone was “no longer an issue” was put forth, I had to defend my choice. I remembered the despondent faces I had encountered in the country, those desperately impoverished rubber tappers after another formidable workday, and the one young man who had just emerged from the forest, urging me to tell their story so that people would “finally know what’s going on here.” In Minneapolis I had to make the decision to give more weight to that former request than to the present dismissal of the topic by these fellow Liberians who, it must be said, had access to the financial means to bring them to the States and out of the war. The immigrants’ Liberian stories differed vastly from the tappers’ Liberian stories, and none of these was quite the story of the Liberians I created for the stage. But my fictional truth was profoundly enriched by my education in reality.
I believe we are the authorities of our own plays, and of every character in those plays regardless of ethnicity. But minus any inquiry regarding societal variances (even if the results of such an inquiry are then manipulated in skillful satire), we risk frustrating our audience by vagueness, or outright rubbish. Knowledge gives us the power to be creative: If I want an airplane to land in the middle of my 18th Century period piece, my audience takes the journey not because it’s willing to suffer a playwright fool but rather because it trusts I am fully aware of the lunacy of the situation and am using that absurdity toward a purpose. The old “Write what you know” should not be a limitation but rather an invitation: to learn more, to know more, to write more. We need to be humble. And then we need to be bold.
Or so I believe. What follows are the thoughts of a few of my colleagues. (To be continued...)
* When I scanned the New York Public Library website for Hansberry biographies, I fully expected to be sent to the Performing Arts library, to find Hansberry next to all her dramatist colleagues. Instead I discovered these books were all in the Schomberg (black culture library), placing her among all her black colleagues. The choice to locate her in the Harlem research library, convenient to many more black folks than the Lincoln Center PA in the posh West 60s, was on some level a considerate one, yet for some reason it rubbed me the wrong way.
Next we're going to hear from playwrights Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, Kristoffer Diaz, Marcus Gardley, Daniel Goldfarb, Karen Hartman, David Henry Hwang, Sunil Kuruvilla, Young Jean Lee, Qui Nguyen, and Marsha Norman.
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!