We're just a few days away from The Dramatists Guild of America's Playwrights: Taking Control of Our Own Fates workshop at the Kennedy Center. Organized by Brent Englar, Gwydion Suilebhan, and Noelle Viñas, this day-long workshop will cover a wide variety of subjects of critical importance to dramatists in the 21st century. Click here to learn more.
From 4:30-6:00 pm, there will be a Town Hall Brainstorming to discuss the fate of the DC and Baltimore playwriting community: the issues we're facing and how we'd like to address them. This should be a vital opportunity for connection, empowerment, and direction for all of us.
When the Town Hall was announced, I connected with my dear friend and fellow playwright, D.W. Gregory about her thoughts. We had such a wonderful conversation that I decided to reach out to a several others who are planning to attend. I wanted to hear their thoughts on what they hoped to discussed. Each of them has generously agreed to share their thoughts here as well.
Thoughts from D.W. Gregory
One of the hardest things for new playwrights to do is to meet actors and directors and to be taken seriously within the community. There is no question that writers who start out as actors or directors have a much easier time getting their work out in the world and getting productions. But there is a place in this world for playwrights who are writers only. What can be done to school young writers (young in experience) in how to work it? What opportunities can we create to help playwrights figure out the business of playwriting?
The obligation of playwrights is to learn the craft -- learn it well. It seems there is not a culture of craft development in D.C. -- and there needs to be. So what can we do to foster this idea -- we are all on a learning curve, all the time. How can we learn from each other--how we can we better, smarter, more efficient, more adventurous practitioners of our craft?
The other leg of the stool is learning to work collaboratively. This comes about mainly through actual work -- readings, productions, workshops. If you have few opportunities it is a critical part of your learning curve that is denied to you. So how do we create more opportunities to put playwrights, actors, directors, and designers in the same room? If it is not for purposes of production, that doesn't mean it can't be enormously informative and helpful to playwrights.
D.W. Gregory writes in a variety of styles and genres, but a recurring theme is the exploration of political issues through a personal lens. The New York Times called her “a playwright with a talent to enlighten and provoke” for her most produced work, RADIUM GIRLS, which has received nearly 300 productions worldwide since its premiere at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. A resident playwright at New Jersey Rep, Gregory received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for the Rep’s production of her drama THE GOOD DAUGHTER. Gregory is an affiliated writer with the Playwrights Center and a member of the Dramatists Guild.
Thoughts from Jenny Splitter
The crucial question seems to be how do we carve out our own space. That is both literal and specific -- how do we find and pay for performance, rehearsal and even advertising space -- and broader and abstract -- what kind of work do we want to do? How do we define ourselves as artists? How do we find and engage our audience? We might consider a model in which we work together to help everyone succeed (e.g., pooling resources, negotiating for space as part of a larger group, providing feedback and advice, creating an exchange to utilize our own intellectual capital and skills (legal advice, graphic design, branding, social media marketing, etc.).
Jenny Splitter is a storyteller, playwright and blogger living in Washington, DC. Her plays include The Dish (premiering at the 2014 Capital Fringe Festival), Birth Goddess and H Street Housewives. She has performed her stories for the Risk! podcast, SpeakeasyDC and Story League, and she blogs at groundedparents.com and mamaliciousinthecity.com.
How can we earn a living wage while also having time to create and produce our art? Some folks are in school. Some are raising young children. How can we stay faithful to our art-making inner child when we have a host of distractions (life events, TV and film to catch up on, love lives)?
I guess others have done it so we can somehow manage making work while living full lives. One playwriting professor, who had two young children, told me he wakes up at 5am everyday and does his work then.
When I was a younger, I felt this need for validation. So I went to graduate school to study theater. I also felt that a professional production somewhere would launch my career. Oftentimes, it can. But the older I get, I feel like producing and directing my own work at the small scale. If the play works in my living room, then surely it may on a larger stage. I just feel more D.I.Y. these days instead of sitting around hoping and fantasizing that someone will fall in love with my work and produce it.
Born in South Korea and raised outside Washington, D.C., playwright Soo-Jin Lee is the daughter of shopkeepers. She grew up speaking both English and Korean and immigrated to the United States in 1982. Lee holds a M.F.A. in Theater from the University of Texas at Austin (2008) and a B.A. in Communication from George Mason University (2003). Her plays include Peaches, Tigers, Dragons, and Other Wise Tails!, Holiness People, and Why Koreans Don’t Hug.
Thoughts from Patricia Connelly
Playwrights are in a unique position among theater artists: we spend much of our time working alone and, unlike other theater artists, we don’t have many opportunities to do our work in the local community where we live. Besides producing our own work and starting our own companies, are there other ways we as playwrights can make ourselves a regular and integral part of the local theater community?
Gender parity: are there more effective ways we local playwrights as a group can encourage and support efforts to bring about gender parity in the local theater community? Would it be to our advantage to organize formally – such as form a women’s committee within the DC-Area Playwrights group – to help raise awareness about gender parity and advocate for women playwrights among the local theater community?
Patricia Connelly is an award-winning playwright and director. Her plays have been presented at the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival and have been produced in Washington, D.C., and New Mexico. Her play, The Penny or the Stone, won the Robert Bone Memorial Playwriting Award at the Dallas Theatre Center. Other full-length plays include: What Happens in This Town, All the Sins of My Past Life, Harriet, Night Sky, and Princess Margaret. She has taught playwriting and theater and produced new play festivals at the University of New Mexico. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild and Playwrights Forum.
Thoughts from Paco José Madden
Access (the doors to get your script in front of a producer, director, AD is daunting for those who do not have the right connections, pedigree, and/or financial resources)
Diversity (whether men of color or women or working class or disabled)
DC does not have a playwright center to act as an advocacy group to voice issues and concerns of the local playwrights, provide resources, create opportunities, and foster community. Small communities exist such as the Welders and there is a strong on-line presence with the DC Playwrights Facebook Group, but there is not bricks-and-mortar institution that is the voice of DC area playwrights. (I don't necessarily believe a locally focused playwrights institute would solve all or any of the aforesaid issues and may just become another fjord that is difficult for playwrights to cross. However, without such a center to give, at the very least, some clout to local playwrights, we are little more than second class citizens in the minds of DC regional theater producers and decision makers.
Paco José Madden is a DC-native with a BA in Drama from Catholic University of America. He has self-produced three full-length dramatic works at the Capital Fringe Festival and has had his shorter works produced across the US. Paco has won several awards and grants from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in playwriting and screenwriting. Among other works-in-progress, he is writing a steampunk stage version of Frankenstein.
Thoughts from Brent Engler
There are countless issues facing dramatists--the gap between new play development and new play productions; fair (or, more frequently, any) compensation; online piracy--and I'm sure we'll touch on most of them. But the most interesting challenge facing me, as a dramatist, is to figure out what theater can be --- needs to be --- to remain vital for diverse audiences in the 21st century.
Brent Engler is the Baltimore Regional Representative for the Dramatists Guild of America. My plays have been produced throughout Maryland, including Baltimore, as well as in New York, Chicago, and DC. I am also the director of the Mobtown Playwrights Group, an offshoot of Baltimore’s Mobtown Players; our season consists of public readings of three new plays by local writers, culminating in a full production of one of the selected plays.
Thoughts from Ann-Marie Dittmann
Looking at theater and therefore playwrighting as a business, how to we make it more viable, lucrative, appealing to audiences and producers?
A challenge I see facing playwrights in general, and is only beginning to be addressed, is how to build momentum for multiple productions of a new work. Certainly NNPN has made a start, but are these playwrights seeing productions beyond the initial rollouts, and how do we build that sort of momentum on a larger scale.
Part of addressing the challenge of obtaining multiple productions for a given play is also capacity building with audiences. Producers, especially at the larger theaters, note that new plays are difficult to sell. How then do we as writers, dramaturgs, and producers make new plays and new play development more appealing to a broader audience, so that they seek new work? How do we make DC a reliable “pipeline” for New York or other larger producers? Or should we be trying to.
Having worked at Goodspeed Musicals, I know that there was quite a strong audience for their new work, but that was cultivated over time and largely due to Goodspeed’s reputation for sending workshop shows or transferring shows to Broadway. People were excited by the possibility of seeing the next big Broadway show before it hit New York. How do we build that sort of interest here? Or should we? Is it better to cultivate a larger interest in new work for its own sake? If so, how do we build that sort of audience interest/ buy in to new plays?
Ann-Marie Dittmann is a freelance Dramaturg. She recently began her fourth year as a Helen Hayes Awards Judge, this year joining the New Play Panel. Previous dramaturgical positions include: Audience Enrichment Manager at Arena Stage (2001-2004) and Literary Assistant at Goodspeed Musicals (1990-1992). She holds a BFA in Theater Studies, Dramaturgy from Boston University and a MA in Theater History and Dramatic Literature from Tufts University. She has recently returned to playwriting after a hiatus that has lasted since her undergraduate days, when her play, The Last Man, was produced as part of the Parkland College Original Playwrights Workshop.
Thoughts from Kitty Felde
The greatest challenge is time. The day job consumes me. There are only so many hours in a day. I carve out the early mornings – long before my Pasadena public radio colleagues are awake - for the work I care about, my characters and magical worlds that seem much more real to me than that white dome on Capitol Hill. I dream of long, uninterrupted days that I can call my own to be a 24/7 playwright.
By day, Kitty Felde covers Capitol Hill for public radio. But in real life, she's an award-winning playwright. Work includes a courtroom drama about the Bosnian war (A PATCH OF EARTH, winner Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition), an adaptation of stories by Nikolai Gogol (GOGOL PROJECT, winner 2009 LA Drama Critics Circle Award), even a one-woman show with a ghost (ALICE, an evening with the tart-tongued daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, named Washington Post "Critic's Pick" at the Capital Fringe Festival. She co-founded Theatre of NOTE in Hollywood and ran the playwriting program at HOLA Youth Theatre in LA.
While Playwrights: Taking Control of Our Own Fates workshop won't be livestreamed, there are several bloggers and tweeters in this group. To follow the conversation, use #PwFate #newplay.
On Sunday, May 4, 2014, the D.C. Regional Chapter of The Dramatists Guild of America will host the Playwrights: Taking Control of Our Own Fates workshop at the Kennedy Center. This day-long workshop for playwrights, which is now at capacity with 100 participants, will cover a wide variety of subjects of critical importance to dramatists in the 21st century. This event was organized by Brent Englar, Gwydion Suilebhan, and Noelle Viñas. While it won't be livestreamed, there are several bloggers and tweeters in this group. To follow the conversation, use #PwFate #newplay.
After a brief welcome address, the day will include:
Brief Welcome (11:00 am)
Dramatists Guild's DC representative Gwydion Suilebhan
Ask the Expert: How to Fringe (11:10 am-12:00 pm)
A panel discussion, moderated by playwright Brett Abelman, on the secrets to success in Fringe festivals far and wide. Panelists will include playwrights Stephen Spotswood, Ann Fraistat, Regie Cabico, Bob Bartlett, and Laura Zam.
Lunch/Mix-and-Mingle (12:00-1:00 pm)
Social Media for Playwrights (1:00-2:00 pm)
A presentation on the essentials of social media by dramatist and leading social media expert Devon Smith.
Playwrights Raising Money (2:00-3:00 pm)
A panel discussion designed to help playwrights understand the secrets of raising money in support of their work. Moderated by Jojo Ruf panelists include playwrights Kathleen Akerley, Jacqueline E. Lawton, Ari Roth, and Anu Yadav.
Break (3:00-3:30 pm)
Roundtable: Local Playwright Initiatives (3:30-4:30 pm)
A round-table discussion of local playwright initiatives: their models, missions, challenges, and opportunities. Moderated by Renee Calarco, participants include Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Allyson Currin, Danielle Mohlman, and Joanna Castle Miller.
Town Hall Brainstorming (4:30-6:00 pm)
Discuss the fate of the DC and Baltimore playwriting community: the issues we're facing and how we'd like to address them. This should be a vital opportunity for connection, empowerment, and direction for all of us.
The Dramatists Guild of America was established over eighty years ago, and is the only professional association which advances the interests of playwrights, composers, lyricists and librettists writing for the living stage. The Guild has over 6,000 members nationwide, from beginning writers to the most prominent authors represented on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in regional theaters.
For the Dramatist Guild of America's first special edition of THE DRAMATIST, editor Joey Stocks asked eleven dramatists:
What play, musical, or theatrical event – anywhere in the world – most excited/inspired you this season?
Here's my contribution:
Having experienced both IN THE CONTINUUM and ECLIPSED, the play I was most excited to see this season was Danai Gurira’s THE CONVERT at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. In fact, the previous two productions had been produced by Woolly as well. It’s encouraging to see a theatre devoted to supporting, developing and nurturing the work and voice of a single playwright. It’s exciting to see the work of the playwright grow under such focused attention. Danai’s writing is sharp and distinctive. Her ability to convey cultural identity is masterful and compelling. Her emotional landscapes are raw, bold, and provocative. Her sense of history, the way that history shapes, defines, obliterates and propels us forward is lyrical, palpable and honest.
While specific to Zimbabwe--to the formation of Zimbabwe’s cultural, historical and political identity as a colony--and set in 1895, THE CONVERT resonated so deeply and completely with me. Specifically, it was the women’s stories that spoke to me. I admired Mai Tamba’s stubbornness, humor and sense of honor. I championed Jekesai’s desire for a better life and for a choice in what her life would be. I also understood the push and pull of her sacrifice.
But the character who shook me to my core was Prudence, who was performed brilliantly, expertly and passionately by Dawn Ursula. Prudence is so dangerously clever. She understands perfectly the socio-political rules of her world. She knows that as an African woman, her education and achievement mean nothing in the face of African patriarchy or British Colonialism. And yet, she holds and wields the most power of anyone in the entire play. Her patient and unwavering gaze misses nothing and no one, and her ultimate grace offers a point of salvation where it is truly most needed and most deserving, but completely unexpected … we would have understood her decision either way.
The Convert is a story of survival. It is the story of social mobility; of access to education, opportunity and wealth; and of the ability to exercise personal freedom. Again, I truly appreciated how rich, challenging and dynamic the lives of the women were. At a time, when the reproductive rights of women are being attacked in this country, this play seemed to speak on some level to the struggles that women are facing today.
This was originally printed in the 2013 Season In Review issue of The Dramatist, the official journal of Dramatists Guild of America.
Of course, D.C. audiences will remember Woolly's powerful production of Danai Gurira's The Convert under the direction of Michael John Garcés featuring Dawn Ursula (Clybourne Park, Eclipsed), Starla Benford, Nancy Moricette, Irungu Mutu, JaBen Early, Alvin Keith, and Erik Kilpatrick. Please enjoy these wonderful production photos by Stan Barouh.
Now in its 33rd season, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company continues to hold its place at the leading edge of American theatre. Acknowledged as “one of the most influential outposts for the best new American plays” (The Washington Post), and “known for its productions of innovative new plays” (The New York Times), Woolly Mammoth is a national leader in the development of new works, and one of the best known and most influential mid-sized theatres in America.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I reach 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."
In Part Three of the Artistic Authority Blog Series, we will be hearing from playwrights Dael Orlandersmith, J.T. Rogers, Najla Saïd, Betty Shamieh, Stew, Caridad Svich, Naomi Wallace, Allison Warden, and Rhiana Yazzie. Of course, this article was originally printed in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of The Dramatist, the journal of the Dramatist Guild of America, Inc. Please enjoy!
The role of art / any art form means that we as the writers have to be mental and emotional travelers. Many groups interest me and that is UNIVERSAL, and I feel UNIVERSALISM is a good thing / The problem arises when someone writes about another culture/race/ethnic group and tries to speak FOR that group to that audience / as opposed to speaking TO an audience and by speaking FOR that group / They end up stereotyping. People are multifaceted and whatever group(s) one is drawn to / it is MANDATORY to find the HUMAN BEING(S) within that culture and look at the INDIVIDUAL(S)’ story(ies) within the story the writer is telling.
There is a writer/performer who has a made a living playing characters outside of that writer/performer's own race / There is nothing wrong with this but as stated above, this person tries to SPEAK FOR the races and by doing so not only does this person infantilize people / this person shows his/her bias. The work has sound bites but the people are not fully realized. For many people who do not step out of their own comfort zone / this person's work is seen as “DARING.” In ref to the people that are delineated in the work the ACTUAL GROUPS themselves / it's patronizing and non-informative.
I wrote a play a few years ago called Rawboys which was about an Irish family in south London. The play was beset with many problems and one critic opened her VERY racist review by saying “there are enough self-hating Irish / they don't need a BLACK WOMAN to jump on the cudgel for them.” People HERE in the States thought the language of the play was too much. Ironically I did a reading of it in Ireland where the IRISH thought it fine and many in the audience told me that I wrote “good stuff” and nailed the colloquialisms.
I do find as a woman and as a black woman writer the rules are not the same as it is for white writers male and female. Whites have written about ALL people of color but yet when the reverse happens / indeed the response is NOT the same. I write about ALL kinds of subjects and all kinds of people - not just black people. After writing Yellowman I think the expectation was to keep writing a certain kind of way. I cannot / will not do that / To do that means NOT to travel / learn – it means death to a writer.
Dael Orlandersmith is a performer/writer of plays and poetry. Her play Yellowman was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She lives in New York City.
J. T. ROGERS
Playwriting is in the details. So when I write a character who is a Rwandan pediatrician living in Kigali, or create both a devout Pashtun Afghan mujahideen commander fighting against the Soviets and the KGB officer trying to stop him, I have to make sure I know what I'm talking about. After doing research, I make up my story, and then – most crucially – before I send the play out into the world, I have it vetted by people who are as close to those I've created as possible. In the first case, I poured over the play with a Rwandan doctor who had lived through the Genocide of 1993; in the latter, I spent hours running things by both former intelligence officers and Afghan civilians who were involved with the Afghan-Soviet War. In every case, the people I talk with are generous with their time and their comments; their criticism is invaluable. But the one thing these non-theater folk never ask is, Who do you think you are to write about me? In fact (so far, mind you) the universal response has been the opposite: I'm so glad you're writing about this and taking the time to try and do it right. The story itself quickly becomes the subject of our conversation. Because an exciting, thought-provoking tale is something that interests everyone.
J. T. Rogers is the author of The Overwhelming, set in Kigali, Rwanda, which has been produced in London, New York, and around the world. His new play, Blood and Gifts, set in Pakistan and Afghanistan, premieres at London's National Theatre in September. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
One of the greatest challenges that a writer must face is that of writing from the perspective of another human being. The character may be fictitious or real, the same sex, sexual orientation, race, age, social class, ethnicity as the writer – or not. In my opinion, "ethnicity" is in the same category as all of the others I've mentioned. The artist's job is to create realistic characters whose truths and experiences are believable, period. This can be tricky business, especially if the writer sets out to tell the story of someone of a marginalized or underrepresented, misunderstood community. While I was writing my solo play, Palestine, about growing up Arab-American, a friend published his first novel. It was a first-person account of the harrowing childhood of a young African-American boy in the projects. When he first approached agents and editors with his manuscript, more than one person suspected him of not being the author. He was good looking, clearly from an upper-middle class background, and white. It seemed impossible that he could have written the story so delicately; so precisely and believably.
My friend’s experience got me thinking about the subject of who is "allowed" to write about what and why. My play was personal, and so even though I was bold in voicing my “controversial” politics and frank in my descriptions of the apartheid I'd seen in Palestine, I was met with very little opposition. Many people who disagreed with my politics were able to connect with my experience, and listen to my point of view. But I wondered what would have happened if I had pretended the story was fiction? People might have said, “How could the daughter of a famous outspoken Palestinian have grown up speaking Yiddish and hanging out with Jewish people in NYC? That’s ridiculous! And she says her Arab family was Quaker and Baptist? That’s insane and far-fetched!!” I myself have sat in the audience of many a play about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and grumbled about how the author has "no idea" what he or she is talking about because of the subtle inconsistencies and implausibility of the plot. But I have also sat in the audiences of such plays and been amazed to discover they weren’t written by an Arab. I think the issue is one of good, honest, thorough WORK, of talent, of sensitivity, of the playwright doing his/her homework and being open to critical suggestions as the draft is perfected. But the writer should be on top of all of these things whether she is writing about herself or about a transsexual from the farthest point on the earth. The only real "authority" there is, is the truth, and it is our job as writers to find the truth within the stories and the characters we create, and tell it.
Najla Saïd is an actor and writer whose play Palestine premiered in New York in 2010. She lives in New York City and is currently working on a memoir.
It is essential to remember that when we are talking about race, what we are often talking around is the other “r” word. Resources. I don’t think that many artists of color would care if white writers depict characters of color in their plays – nor would white artists complain that they don’t have a shot at many grants – if more people felt that the economic realities of American theatre were not structured in a way that was unfairly stacked against them. I believe playwrights must have the freedom and space to portray whomever they wish. In fact, I feel it is profoundly important for us to imagine those who are different from ourselves, and I developed a workshop series called “Writing the Other” for American writers of Arab and Jewish descent to write characters with each other’s perspectives as part of an NEA grant. The real problem in American theatre is the content of the work that is being produced, not the color of the writers. We are living in a time of war. Currently, the plays that deal with the most pressing and hot-button issues of our era that receive productions on major American stages are primarily those that tend to reinforce stereotypes and, in the case of Middle Eastern characters, sound the drumbeats of war, despite the intentions of well-meaning and oftentimes left-leaning writers.
If American stages were filled with gut-wrenching stories about how brutally and inhumanely the Vietcong leadership acted towards their own people during the Vietnam War, would that be neutral? So, is it neutral that the bulk of the American plays or British imports that get produced about the Middle East happen to highlight the horrors of living under the Taliban or Saddam’s regime? What would it mean if those same plays were instead set in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, countries which are currently our allies? Where are the stories that reflect the reality that the vast majority of Middle Easterners are not victims or perpetrators of unimaginably horrific violence, but simply human beings whose lives and concerns are not that different from those in the audience? Arab-American artists in every field, including myself, are currently primarily working in Europe. But, provocative white writers like Wallace Shawn have found it difficult to be produced in America as well. Why does that matter? Because we American playwrights are engaged in a cultural conversation. We are continually being influenced by and responding to the work of our peers. If our community of artists is not being exposed to the most challenging American voices of our time, we are all the poorer for it.
Currently a playwright-in-residence at Het Zuidelijk Toneel of Holland, Betty Shamieh’s recent productions in translation include Again and Against (Playhouse Teater, Sweden), The Black Eyed (Theater Fournos, Greece), and Territories (European Union Capital of Culture Festival). She lives in New York City.
I think artists have the authority to write about anything they want whether they know what the hell they are talking about or not. My favorite artists don’t attempt to frame reality as it “is” but rather as they see it and receive it. There should be no Art Laws. I would not want to live in a world where an artist had to be an expert on a race before he could depict that race in a work of art. For in that world, only anthropologists would be allowed to make plays.
I think American playwrights should be ENCOURAGED to write IGNORANTLY about races beyond theirs. Screw the Art Police. For the uninformed view can be just as enlightening, compelling, valid and truthful as the so-called “informed” view. I even think plays written “outside” of one’s race could help race relations and raise consciousness levels (cue orchestra swell). Because what is just as enlightening as how a group views itself is how said group is viewed by so-called “outsiders.” Even the “wrong” “ill-informed” view is still a kind of truth. And that is why it is feared. Besides, we have reached a stage where minorities are both capable of and fully willing to create minstrelsy all by themselves without the help or coercion of “the white man” so at this point all bets are off.
The European characters in Passing Strange were for the most part caricatures. I found this a perfectly valid way of depicting them and the kid’s experience of them in Europe. I don’t think caricatures strip characters of their humanity nor their truth. My approach mirrored the Youth’s tendency to “other” residents of whatever foreign environment he happened to be in. This is natural and it would be lame PC wrongness to pretend that we are not taken and enchanted by surfaces, by differences and by exoticness, before we get to the depth of the foreignness we are encountering, if we ever do. And Youth does eventually get beneath the surface of these individuals. I was also comfortable with caricatures because the kinds of people I was drawing (artists, radicals, etc) tend to “characterturize” themselves, if you will, before you even have the chance to do it to them. They very consciously want to live and be perceived by their ideals, which they wear on the surface of their bodies in their language and in their coded uniforms of cool. I prepared myself for accusations of taking the same reductive, stereotypical approach to white Europeans as all the white writers throughout the ages had towards people of color: using them primarily as conduits for humor. It might be a mistake to think that depth automatically tells us more about a character than the surface. The surface can be more telling than what is beneath it. In other words, there is a depth within the surface.
And I admit I was thrilled to have both Germans and Dutch people tell me that I nailed the people I was depicting.
Stew, resident of Berlin/Brooklyn, father of two, and co-creator of Passing Strange is still trying to figure out how he won the Tony for Best Book of a Musical.
As a writer, I believe you're almost honor-bound to write outside your ethnicity, sex, gender and history or else why write at all? I always tell younger writers Write what you don't know, explore and write from your fears, wounds, areas of doubt. We go to the theatre to go outside ourselves, to embrace Others and others, to understand humanity a little better, and be startled and amused and sobered up/awakened to truths. Where does authority come from? It comes from looking at a subject straight in its heart and speaking his or her truths as profoundly as the imagination allows, and from this exploration discovering the confidence of translating the subject's experience to the spatial and temporal planes of the stage. I've written characters older, younger, transgender, bisexual, male, female, Latina/o, black, Anglo, Cuban, Spanish, Chilean, animal, or robot, in this time frame and in times long ago, etc. The fact that I'm of Cuban-Argentine-Spanish-Croatian background enters into everything I write. You can never escape who you are. Know where and who you're from, and you'll know, then, where you can go...and how far you can push yourself as an artist and thinker and observer and chronicler and poet of the human condition.
The negative experiences have nearly always had to do with portrayals that are patronizing, victimizing, class-based, and/or rooted in stereotypes. I don't think, however, that writers within my multiple ethnicity are exempt from writing negatively about characters. I think it's too easy to castigate and blame in the ethnicity/identity-stakes game of authorship. An untruthful character, and of course this too depends on what the form and genre of the play is, will strike me negatively regardless of who writes it.
One of my first major plays Any Place But Here, which is about two couples struggling to make ends and love meet in an economically-depressed northeastern town, was produced, in its first version, at INTAR in New York City directed by George Ferencz. (It was later produced at Theater for the New City under Maria Irene Fornes' direction in its revised version.) I never say in the script what the characters' ethnicities are. During the casting process we called in as open and inclusive a line-up of actors as one could think of. In the end, due to the many vagaries of casting, the original cast was Jessica Hecht, Peter McCabe, Jim Abele and Mimi Quinn. All wonderful actors but not one of them Latino/a. I know that the play caused some degree of alienation within the community for the play to be produced at INTAR. And it saddened me. Not because my ego was wounded, but rather because I wrote the play to say a little something about the difficulty people have communicating with each other and sustaining lives with each other when they feel trapped by circumstances of poverty, mis-education, loneliness and on the edge of emotional catastrophe. Can't we just talk to each other and see what little light we can glean from each others' lives?
Caridad Svich is the founder of NoPassport theatre alliance and press. Her play The House of the Spirits, based on the novel by Isabel Allende, premiered (in her Spanish-language version) at Repertorio Espanol in New York City and its Latin American premiere was at Teatro Mori in Santiago de Chile this summer. It receives its regional premiere (in her English-language version) at Denver Theatre Center in fall of 2010. She is currently based in New York City.
When I write outside of my whiteness, I am not speaking for anyone. I am instead trying to write history through characters, discovering their agency and dramatizing it on stage.
What helped me in writing the black characters for Things of Dry Hours was firstly to acknowledge and examine mainstream American theater's legacy of peopling the stage with racist caricatures of Black Americans. White playwrights have too often created stereotypes of black people in order to impose a view of the world and its social relations that is as insidious as it is false. Secondly, I spent eight years, off and on, doing research for TODH. As the play came into being, inspired by Robin D. G. Kelley's brilliant book, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, various artists had an important impact on its evolution. Recognizing that I was hampered (and still am) by my own blind spots (nurtured by a society that thrives on what James Baldwin calls “the lie of whiteness”) I sought out the wisdom and learning of others. Collaboration was the core that drove the project. The historians Tera Hunter and Peter Rachleff gave me critical feedback on early drafts. Kwame Kwei-Armah, who directed the play at Center Stage, urged me to rethink the ending. Director Israel Hicks highlighted the relationship between Cali and her father, Tice. Actor Karan Kendrick confronted my use of language in terms of cursing within a 1930's black family, and sent me a wonderful list of substitute swear words, my favorite being "Hot-toe-mali-no." Ruben Santiago-Hudson gave the play a multifaceted inner and outer world that I could never have imagined at its New York premiere at New York Theater Workshop.
I have also written works for the stage that include Middle Easterners, Latinos, and Vietnamese. I don't know if I have the “authority” to create these characters. What I do know is that I am drawn to the still smoldering fires of resistance in American history, lit and stoked by many different people, working across lines of race and difference. In my journey as a playwright, I have been fortunate to have contact with the works of enormously intelligent minds. Alongside the writers and thinkers I have mentioned above, there is also Beth Cleary, David Roediger, Howard Zinn, Paula Giddings,
W. E. B. Du Bois, bell hooks, Anne Braden and many others. Their words and texts are still my teachers. Whether I have been a worthy student I leave for others to judge.
Naomi Wallace's work has been produced in the United Kingdom, Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. She was born in Prospect, Kentucky, and presently lives in North Yorkshire, England.
I believe that playwrights have the authority to write outside the bounds of their own ethnicity. I have encouraged a playwright friend of mine, a non-Native woman, to write a Native play, with complex Native characters. She's an amazing playwright and I would like to see more plays that focus on issues that our Native communities face and also more roles for Native actors. Ground rules that would work for playwrights would be for the playwright to write as honestly as she/he can, to trust their perspective and voice, and to also befriend a person of that ethnicity, a friend who can read the play during the process for technical authenticity. To ensure that the cultural aspects of the character reads as being authentic and believable.
I've experienced being an actress reading a role for another Alaska Native group, a play written about Athabaskan people by a non-Native woman. It was an interesting experience, mostly negative. I felt that she had aspects of the play that didn't accurately portray the culture well, and it seemed at times to be a surreal mockery of the strength of the culture. I felt that her intentions were not entirely clear, and that she didn't take the time to talk to and listen to people of the culture to make sure that it wasn't outright offensive.
I haven't written outside my own ethnicity, not yet. I would love to write characters outside my own ethnicity, specifically white, and also characters who are Alaskan Native, yet not Inupiaq. I would write these characters with complete conviction, pure intention and I would wait to consult with someone of the ethnicities until I have a solid draft that I could defend. I would talk to a person of that ethnicity, whom I trust, and ask questions – to make sure that I got the cultural components of the character right. At the end, I would trust my own voice and vision as a playwright and defend my authority to include these characters into my work.
Allison Warden is an Inupiat performance artist and playwright who tends to focus on issues facing her communities of the Arctic. Recently her Time Immemorial, co-written with Yup'ik playwright Jack Dalton, was performed in June by Los Angeles' Native Voices at the Autry. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
You absolutely can write outside of your ethnicity if you have a strong and detailed understanding about who it is you're writing about. You need to be sure you're not retelling old narratives that weren't created by the ethnic group you're writing about and instead were created by the dominant society's imagination. I don't think it's ok to bring in token characters to make the main characters politically correct. Also avoid blanket statements that seem to “give you permission” to write about another ethnic group instead of the detail and time needed to truly bring your character to life. I come from thinking about this subject in terms of the way Native Americans are often handled in non-Native people's plays. Sometimes there is a Native character (who by the way won't ever use contractions) who is used to make the non-Native characters and situations seem more ironic or juxtaposed, or is used symbolically. That is not writing with authority, that's writing with an agenda.
Often it seems when non-Native people write about Native Americans, they are somehow trying to work out in their minds that national code of genocide – and rationalizing their own historical relationship to it, good or bad, guilty or absolved. It's a complicated story to tell when 99% of all the images about Native people we see in the theatre were created by non-Native minds (beginning with The Tempest and ongoing with this year's hit Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) and most of those writers have never met Native people, nor spent time in Native communities, nor read work by Native authors. With all the information out there, there's no excuse to be misinformed. If you're writing about a group you don't know, talk to them first, and if you don't get answers you like from 9 out of 10, don't listen to the 1; listen to the 9.
I consider writing about other tribes that are not my own writing outside of my ethnicity. So I take a lot of time to try and get things right and talk to real people rather than relying on books or the internet. Because as a Native person I see my story being told by other people so often, I try very hard not to do that myself when I am writing. And when people tell me I got something wrong I listen. I am probably my biggest critic when it comes to writing outside my own ethnicity.
Rhiana Yazzie, a Navajo playwright based in the Twin Cities, is a 2010-2011 Playwrights Center Jerome Fellow. Her play Ady was produced by Minneapolis’ Pangea World Theater in July 2010.
And there you have it! Such a wide range of brilliant responses from a dynamic group of talented playwrights. It's been such a pleasure getting to read this deeply moving and insightful article. Much appreciation goes to Kia Corthron, the Dramatist Guild of America, Inc., The Dramatist magazine and these extraordinary playwrights for allowing us to read their great thoughts.
As I mentioned in yesterday's 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."
In Part Two of the Artistic Authority Blog Series, we will be hearing 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. Remember, this article was originally printed in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of The Dramatist, the journal of the Dramatist Guild of America, Inc. We have the great fortune to read it here with their permission and with the permission of the featured playwrights.
JORGE IGNACIO CORTIÑAS
I'll share something: Among the playwrights-of-color that I know, there are many, myself included, who go to the theater expecting to be offended. When we see an immigrant's accent mined for humor, when we see a character's dark skin imagined as inherently dangerous or fetishized as sexually taboo, when the countries our parents immigrated from are treated as two-dimensional metaphors for the chaotic or corrupt, when we are asked to identify with characters-of-color who are grudgingly afforded the backhanded compliment of being (inherently and inexorably) more in touch with nature, we are never surprised but almost always stung.
I'm not inclined to tell any playwright what they should or shouldn't write. But we need to continue to press for a national theater in which the staff and seasons of our producing organizations bear a more reasonable resemblance to the demographics of the cities they are located in. When that happens, I think we'll start seeing such a dizzying array of characters, in such new and unfamiliar plays, that the old tropes will start to appear more and more ridiculous. And they'll sting less. Maybe then we'll finally begin to glimpse what artistic freedom actually looks like.
Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas's play Blind Mouth Singing was produced by the National Asian American Theater Company using an all-Asian cast. That play then went on to be produced by the Compañía Teatral Rita Montaner in Havana, the first time a Cuban theater company produced a play by a Cuban-American playwright. Jorge teaches playwriting at Lehigh University which is located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Recently Jorge and a group of playwrights joined forces to found Fulcrum Theater (fulcrumtheater.org).
I think playwrights can write about anything they want, provided that we do the work to handle the topics with care and sensitivity. All of my plays contain characters outside of my ethnicity, because that's a reflection of the world in which I live. Whatever the ethnicity of the character, my ground rule is simple: don't define that character by his/her ethnicity. There's a whole lot more to a person's identity than where his/her family is from.
I've seen a number of plays where people of color (not just Puerto Ricans or Latinos) are wholly defined by their race or ethnicity. That's a problem. It's a larger problem when even that small portion of their identity is presented in an overly simplistic fashion. There is something interesting about being Black (or brown) in a white world, but it's rare to see that explored. We more often see a token character of color whose inner life goes unexplored.
One of the characters in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is a white businessman who is only interested in his company's bottom line. I've heard from some audience members (and an actor or two) that this character is a bit of a cartoon. My initial response to that charge is...well yeah. The play itself is kind of a cartoon. But I'm also mocking certain attitudes and ideas that I've experienced in American culture (and in the American theater, at that), one of which is the easy way that many citizens of the United States form stereotypical decisions of other cultures. It's all kind of meta, which sounds obnoxious, I know, but it at least shows that I've been giving a lot of thought to this topic, and ultimately, that's all I ask from others.
One last thing: as a person of color in the United States, I'm confronted by mainstream culture every day. An overwhelming amount of that culture is white, moneyed, and/or religious. I'm not really any of those things, but I'm constantly exposed to them, so to me, there's not really a question of if I'm qualified to write about them. The same isn't true in the other direction though. If a non-Latino writer has something to say about some portion of Latino culture, I'm expecting them to both do their research and prove to me that they have done that research.
Kristoffer Diaz is a playwright and educator living and working in Brooklyn. Full-length titles include The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Welcome to Arroyo’s, Guernica, and #therevolution. Awards: 2011 New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award; finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; winner, 2011 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play; winner, 2011 OBIE Award, Best New American Play; and the inaugural Gail Merrifield Papp Fellowship from The Public Theater (2011).He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
I believe that playwrights should feel comfortable writing outside of their own ethnicity. As with any character, playwrights should do proper research or have ample knowledge about the character's background. I don't think there are a set of ground rules but I find that complex characters who break or transcend stereotypes draw me in.
I have had both positive and negative experiences watching the work of playwrights from various backgrounds who have written characters with my same ethnicity. I have appreciated those who have told the truth and have been disappointed by work in which the characters were treated like carbon cut outs. I think most writers seek to tell the truth, the problem is that everyone's truth is not always the same. However, there is such a thing as pure ignorance or a disrespect for a culture which is where obvious non-truths arise. For example, I recently saw a play where a number of black characters were stereotypes for the sake of comedy. The characters did not struggle to break their stereotypes, there was nothing informative or complex about the fact that they were stereotypes – they were funny because they were made fun of. Only the white characters had any agency or made any change over time. And the play was celebrated! I think that American media culture has had a long history with black stereotypes that have evolved from minstrel shows and you rarely find any African-American comedic plays on stage because white America still does not understand or is uninterested in humor that honors black culture and breaks stereotypes. The last play that did this was The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe.
I have never been criticized for writing outside my ethnicity - at least not to my face. I think most people call my plays black plays and I am fine with that because I write in what I call an African-American aesthetic. I am proud of my voice which is distinctly black and I think that culture and difference should be celebrated. I realize that calling myself a black writer who writes black plays puts me in a certain box but I don't think that you can make art in this country and not be categorized. People will always put an artist in a box because that is the only way they call sell, buy or explain your work to the masses. So I don't mind being put in a box as long as I can decorate the box or jump in another box anytime my current box gets too cramped. And it is the decorating of my boxes that defines my aesthetic. My work is rooted in traditional black storytelling: it is not linear, it thrives on innovation and improvisation, it is soulful and spiritual and mythic, and finally it allows for the audience to have a sweet release, which is to say it wants to give people a cathartic finish that is as profound as the holy ghost in a black church. I write big plays like the Greeks and Egyptians and my work thrives in front of audiences who are interactive, and alive!
Poet-Playwright Marcus Gardley's new play Every Tongue Confess will premiere at Arena Stage in the fall. His recent play On The Levee opened at LCT3 in July. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
I do believe playwrights have the authority to write outside of their own ethnicity. But at the same time, I feel that writing from within your ethnic identity automatically gives your work a context, a depth, a knowingness. When something is in your bones, you can recognize it for everything it is in all its complexity and that usually shows in the writing. The worst kind of writing is when you can feel the research in the pages. When writing outside your own ethnicity, it’s more important than ever to make sure you can connect with your characters in a personal way. Your voice needs to shine through any story you are telling. There are lots of traps that are easy to fall into – you don’t want your work to feel earnest, inauthentic, insensitive, oversensitive, broad, false, wooden, or ignorant.
Daniel Goldfarb’s plays and musicals include The Retributionists (Playwrights Horizons); Sarah, Sarah (MTC); Modern Orthodox (Dodger Stages); Adam Baum and the Jew Movie (Blue Light); Radio Girl (Goodspeed); MartinShort: Fame Becomes Me (Broadway); and Party Come Here (WTF). He lives in New York City.
Tricky as it is to assume authority to write about people of other races, the alternative seems much worse: to people plays solely with characters of the writer’s own ethnicity. I suppose we draw the authority to write across race in the same way that we leap gender, age, or time period – compassion and research.
When I set out to write Goliath, a play about secular Jewish soldiers evacuating Orthodox settlers from the Gaza Strip, I knew there had to be at least one Palestinian voice. It was poetic license even to have a Palestinian character in Gaza (in reality they were barred from the area two weeks before the pullout), but to have the conversation only among Jews would be too insular. I also wanted to address the economics of the transition, so I created Ayat, the longstanding employee and friend of a Jewish greenhouse owner, Gittel, who is about to be evacuated. Ayat stands to inherit the business directly if the women can make a deal that will hold up in the legal quicksand of the changing regime.
Also, because Goliath grew out of my discomfort with Israel/Palestine as an issue that divides the left in this country, and specifically splits along racial lines, I made the most fervently Zionist soldier an Ethiopian Jewish immigrant. I wanted to explore the fact that half of Israeli Jews are of Middle Eastern or African descent. And, as a white Jewish writer, I wanted to avoid a cast dynamic where the one Palestinian character would also be the only actor of color.
I think it’s easier to get away with writing across racial lines when the context is international, lowering the probability that the writer will be stepping on the performer’s direct experience. But for me the reality check is always: Who will play this part? Will he or she be proud to play it? Will I be proud to be there when they do?
Karen Hartman’s play Goldie, Max & Milk will have a National New Play Network rolling world premiere next season, with productions at Florida Stage, A Traveling Jewish Theater, and the Phoenix Theater. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
DAVID HENRY HWANG
I absolutely believe that playwrights have the authority to write outside of their own ethnicity. Writers should not be surprised, though, if such stories receive particular scrutiny and even criticism from people of that ethnicity, who will have a greater investment in how they are portrayed than will the general public. Playwrights have the right to write about anything they want; people who don't like the result, however, also have the right to complain as loudly as they want.
I can think of several works featuring Asian characters written by non-Asians which have impressed and moved me; in these cases, I feel the authors really did their homework. For instance, I've always loved Sondheim & Weidman's Pacific Overtures. Conversely, there are many pieces by non-Asians to which I've had a negative reaction; M. Butterfly was in part my reaction to Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Given my feelings about Madama Butterfly, it is unsurprising that I also reacted negatively to Miss Saigon, which, in my view, recycled the Butterfly Trope with neither irony nor critical perspective.
I've never been criticized for writing outside my own ethnicity. If anything, I am more likely to be criticized when I write within my ethnicity, by other Asians or Asian Americans. As members of a group whose stories are rarely told in mainstream arts and media, Asians of course end up having a greater investment in seeing that they are portrayed "authentically." The problem is that no ethnic group is monolithic; therefore, no single writer can represent an entire community, only a community of writers can do that.
David Henry Hwang's theatrical work includes M. Butterfly, Yellow Face, Golden Child, and FOB, as well as the Broadway musicals Aida (co-author), Flower Drum Song (revival), and Disney’s Tarzan. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
I need to be distant: I write better about a place I know when I get away from it - the only time I can really write about my hometown is when I’m traveling – and things go best when I’m writing about places unfamiliar to me.
I wrote a play about an Indian boy growing up in Canada and a play about three Welsh women and their associations with a boxer. Acquaintances who have seen the play about the Indian kid think he’s me. But I feel that the play about the Welsh women is more autobiographical as the characters reveal problems I was having at the time of its writing, and I’ve always worried that close friends will discover me if they see that play. I think that Welsh play is better than the one set in Canada. I was able to write about Wales, a country I’ve never visited, more deeply than I ever have about Canada, the one I live in, because, paradoxically, I was less in the way. When writing about a culture that isn’t my own, I overcome my insecurity by researching. But when writing about a place I know, I’m too comfortable, and spend my time looking for clever metaphors. Ultimately, they don’t work because I’m lacking the details required to make them, and the story itself, feel real.
Sunil Kuruvilla's plays, including Fighting Words and Rice Boy, have been produced at Yale Rep, the Mark Taper Forum, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and elsewhere, and he is currently commissioned by South Coast Rep. Sunil lives in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, with his wife Lisa and son Isaac.
YOUNG JEAN LEE
How many not-of-your-own-ethnicity characters can you have before you are considered to be writing outside of your own ethnicity? I don’t think anyone would argue that white playwrights should only write plays with all-white casts, or that people of color have to only write about their own ethnicity. In the case of my show The Shipment, all the cast members were black and the show was specifically about black identity, so I was clearly writing outside of my own ethnicity, but I never felt I had the “authority” to do it. I asked the actors what they wanted to say about racism and what kind of show they wanted to perform in, and then I wrote something in accordance with their specifications. They had final approval on whatever ended up in the show. I would do the same if I wrote a play about white identity.
Thomas Bradshaw, a black playwright, has written some Asian female characters whom I love. I’m always thrilled when Asians show up in his plays. It feels like an honor.
I think there was one person who said I was exploiting black people in The Shipment, but he hadn’t seen the show. I don’t see how making a show to the requested specifications of your black actors is exploitative, but if someone can make a good case for it then I’m open to the critique.
Young Jean Lee is the Obie Award-winning artistic director of Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
I don’t write about my “race” too often and I realize this is something that can be pretty darn confounding to some artistic directors. A lot of them want me to fit neatly in some sort of exotic immigrant box where all my plays are in Vietnamese meditating on the homeland, rice fields, and the hardships of communism. Which I would love to be able to do, but unfortunately I was born in southern Arkansas where there’s a severe lack of rice fields and communists. And though I do speak some Vietnamese, it’s at a very elementary level. Extremely elementary. I mean I can’t even form a sentence in first person. It’s literally “Qui says hello. Qui is happy. Qui is hungry.” Not quite the vocabulary one needs to be able to spit out a poetic diatribe on the Vietnam War. In a scale from pho to football, I’m far more SEC than VC. Yet, regardless, theatres always seem to ask me about all my “Vietnam plays”. Um…what “Vietnam plays”? I have the one. But that’s it. The rest are about comic books, early 80’s hip-hop, and film genres that I find awesome. And even when I inform theatres of this fact, some lit managers still want to find a way to spin it to be a comment about race. “Do you write about geeky themes because Asians are often portrayed as geeks and this is your way to explode that notion?” Uh no. I write about geeky things because I find them interesting. That’s it. The truth is race occupies maybe 3 to 5 percent of my mind at any given moment, yet my work is expected to be 100% representative of that single thought. That’s pretty dumb if you ask me. This is not to say that I have anything against writers of color who do indeed write about their specific ethnic background, I just resent the notion that those are the only stories we’re allowed to tell. We’re all much more complex than just the color of our skin. Seriously, did we learn nothing from Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video? That video was awesome.
Qui Nguyen is the Co-Artistic Director of the Obie Award-winning Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
First, I think the question is broader than writing outside your ethnicity. I have seen many plays that failed to convince me because they lacked the actual details a writer would have observed had she/he actually gone to the steel mills or Sioux City or the 1840's. I don't mean that you have to have a time machine in order to write about the past. But you have to make me feel you are actually there, and that's only accomplished by details.
Writing outside your own ethnicity is not something you can just decide to do. You have to have a genuine entry point into a world that is not native to you, you must be invited in. You either have to have lived where your characters are from, or have someone who knows them as a guide. If you want to write a "Hispanic maid" into a play because you think your characters would have one, you need to ask a Latina playwright to help you with the dialogue for the maid, at which point you will discover that "Hispanic maid" is not even a description a Spanish-speaking person would use. In other words, you can't write what something looks like or sounds like, you must learn what it is. You must never use an online translation site and think that will pass. You must never fake a dialect based on what you've heard in the subway. Basically, you should accept that you can't possibly write the concerns and problems of someone you don't know firsthand.
For the musical, The Color Purple, they hired me because of my experience as a musical book writer, and my ability to navigate the musical world. For the actual dialogue, I had Alice Walker's book, so I was creating very little new dialogue. Also, my collaborators were an entirely African-American cast, and design team, and two African-American composers. Finally, I hired Tanya Barfield to help me understand the world and check every sentence I wrote for its truthfulness to the ethnic experience.
A long time ago at Actors Theatre of Louisville, I wrote a one-act play for Joe Morton.But that's because he asked me to. It's not something I would've done on my own.
Marsha Norman's plays and musicals include The Color Purple, The Secret Garden and ’Night Mother, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. She lives in New York City.
Next, we will hear from the remaining playwrights featured in this article, Dael Orlandersmith, J.T. Rogers, Najla Saïd, Betty Shamieh, Stew, Caridad Svich, Naomi Wallace, Allison Warden, and Rhiana Yazzie.
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.
Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is on my list of movies to see along with Lincoln and Sky Fall. Others, such as Anna Karenina and Les Miserables have fallen off the list for one reason or another. Regardless, I won't being seeing any of these films in the movie theatre. I don't enjoy that particular experience: fighting to hear/concentrate over talking; the crink-crink-crinkling of candy wrappers; the tap-tap-tapping of candy boxes; and the inundating smell of popcorn.
Nevertheless, I'm going to see Dgango Unchained and can only imagine that I'm going to enjoy it, as I have his previous films. As an artist and storyteller, I'm a big fan of Quentin Tarantino's vision and he's inspired my writing. I met him years ago in Austin, Texas when the SXSW Festival was our best kept secret. We were standing in line at a Starbucks (where else?) and I was deciding whether or not to attend a particular lecture, the following party and the much-anticipated after party. He encouraged me to attend all three and I'm glad I did. It was a great opportunity to connect with other artists, to talk, debate and praise the work being showcased; and celebrate a long, hard week of work. Since then, I've had a special place in my heart of Mr. Tarantino.
Now, as I'm sure you've read, Django Unchained has met with a great deal of controversy, mainly anger over the overuse of the "N" word and a boycott by Spike Lee for its depiction of slavery.
As to the use of the "N" word, I'm not a fan of it; conditioned though I was for its use when called it numerous time during my formative years. It's an inflammatory word. From slavery times to now, its use is meant to humiliate, diminish, and threaten African Americans. I don't like hearing it ad nauseam from the mouths of artists in rap songs or in every day speech on the metro, on the bus, in the CVS, etc. I also didn't appreciate being told by a white D.C. theatre artist that he would use the "N" word if, when and wherever he wanted and no one could stop him. Yeah, that happened. So goes my life. Apparently, the word is used up to 110 times in the film. Perhaps Tarantino would've been better served by only using it 65 times. Then again, maybe it wouldn't have felt authentic to the characters or the world of the film.
As for the depiction of slavery, according to the Guardian, Tarantino defended this accusation when speaking to an audience of British Academy of Film and Arts (BAFTA) members and film critics after the first UK screening of Django Unchained:
"We all intellectually 'know' the brutality and inhumanity of slavery," he said. "But after you do the research it's no longer intellectual any more, no longer just historical record – you feel it in your bones. It makes you angry, and want to do something … I'm here to tell you, that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse shit actually happened."
He goes on to say, "When slave narratives are done on film, they tend to be historical with a capital H, with an arms-length quality to them. I wanted to break that history-under-glass aspect, I wanted to throw a rock through that glass and shatter it for all times, and take you into it."
Perhaps if more Black artists were supported by the lions of the Hollywood film industry, one of "us" could have done this first. Alas, that hasn't happened and it's a damn shame. At the same time, Mr. Tarantino shouldn't have to wait to tell his story.
If I were leading a post show discussion after a screening of the Django Unchained, these are the social, cultural and historical issues I would address:
1. Black rage against White people - causes, consequences of justification/glorification
2. Sex slave trade in the U.S. - past and current
3. Depictions of Black women in the media - beauty, sex, love, exoticism and romance
4. Language of hate - the power and impact of words
5. Artistic Authority - Who has the right to tell the story of slavery in America?
As for the final point, I agree that it would've been difficult--if not impossible--for a Black filmmaker to get a film about black rage and violence against a white people made at this caliber in Hollywood. And that's really frustrating. It's just as frustrating as when Black playwrights aren't commissioned to write or adapt stories about black people and culture or when Black directors aren't asked to direct Black plays on Broadway. At the same time, I don't feel that the story of slavery belongs only to Black people. While Whites sold, owned and beat slaves, Blacks did as well. Free and enslaved Blacks lost their lives fighting for the freedom and independence of black slaves as did many White people. The story of slavery in America belongs to America. We all had our hand in it, forced or not, even those of us alive today, because the ramifications of slavery are still being felt, processed, legislated and debated.
No doubt, we will discuss this issue of Artistic Authority, who has the right to tell what stories, in depth for many years to come. In fact, I hope to facilitate that very discussion, because it's inherent to the issue of diversity and inclusion in the American Theatre. In fact, consider this my invitation. Please submit to your ideas for a feature here.
For now, I would like to share part of the discussion that has already happened. Back in October, 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." With permission from the amazing Kia Corthron, the generous featured playwrights, the encouraging and supportive Dramatist Guild, and the wonderful The Dramatist magazine, I'm going to share the article with you here as part of my Artistic Authority Series over the next few days. Please stay tuned!
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!