Recently, I've been in a number of conversations with playwrights interested in learning how to find an agent. When asked this question, I always share the advice that Beth Blickers gave to me when I first approached her about five or six years ago.
At that time, I was working freelance as a playwright, dramaturg, director, producer, and teaching artist. I was juggling a lot of contracts and working hard to find balance in my life. I already had several readings, workshops, and productions to my name. What's more (and by the grace of all the muses, word of mouth, and good networking), my plays were being read by artistic directors and literary managers at some rather exciting regional theatres. I was eager to become a part of the American Theatre in a more visible and viable way.
Beth, being the wise and generous playwrights' angel that she is, read three of my plays and was excited by my voice. She put me in her back pocket, as it were, and told me to be patient. She offered me excellent counsel from time to time and introduced me to a number of folks who also took an interest in my work. Each time we connected, she told me to focus on my craft. I did and years later, but exactly on time, an amazing agent, the incomparable Morgan Jenness, found me.
Officially, Morgan and I met at the 2012 TCG National Conference. I was there for the first time as a Young Leader of Color and she was my mentor. Morgan is someone who doesn't do anything in halves. We spent a year getting to know each another over lunches, emails, and at various conferences. She is someone I cherish deeply. We have similar values. I deeply admire and respect her fierce commitment to arts advocacy and social justice. In her actions and belief in me, she encourages me to be a better person. When she left Abrams Artists Agency, she made sure that I was in good and capable hands, which is how I came to work with the remarkable and talented Leah Hamos, who has been my source of strength, courage, and stability ever since.
So, for me, finding an agent was about finding a mentor, collaborator, and friend. It also had to do with shaping my voice, continuing to network, strengthening my position in the local, regional, and national community, and determining what my specific contribution to the American Theatre would be. But every story is different and so, without further ado and with permission, here's the invaluable advice that Beth Blickers shared with me:
“If you’ve only written one play and it hasn’t been produced then it is decidedly too soon to look for an agent. And bear in mind that once an agent passes on repping you, you go into their database of people to whom they have said no. And I know for a fact that at some agencies that database is shared within the department. Meaning if you get told no by one agent and approach a different agent two years later, they look you up and you can wind up getting passed on again without being read afresh.
The strongest moment to reach out to agents is when something nationally recognized is happening in your career, when you’ve built of fan base of people who know agents and can speak highly of you and when you are starting to bring in some income so they aren’t working entirely for free. At this point you’ll probably have met some agents in passing at theaters and panels, you’ll probably have worked with some directors who have agents (and are easy ways to get introductions), you’ll have artistic directors and literary managers who will make introductions on your behalf. And I hope you will have talked to represented artists about who they are with, who they know, who they like and why they like them, what agents are actually able to do for them, how they work well together (or don’t), so that you can thoughtfully talk with some agents and make a choice and work together happily for many decades to come.
Don’t (and I’m sure every literary manager will second this list) send us a play you have never heard out loud, even if it’s just in your living room. Don’t tell me about the 22 full length plays, 78 one acts and 592 sonnets you’ve written. Don’t list all of the famous people you know if they’ve never done a thing to further your career. Don’t tell me you’ve been produced by a theater when it was a one night event. Be honest and straightforward. I’d rather a fairly empty resume with a genius cover note then a dazzling array of information that when I start to pick at it, falls apart like dust. And trust me, we check. If you tell me a theater is strongly considering your play I WILL ask that theater about it. And 99 times out of 100 the “strong consideration” means the writer sent them the play that week. Makes the writer look bad to me and the theater.
Do network like mad, go to new play festivals, offer people a mid afternoon iced latte in exchange for an informational meeting, Google theaters, have a website, befriend writers and directors, invest energies in things other than theater, be interested in the world around you and be an interesting person yourself. Know what makes you unique and what you have to offer to the world of theater. The other day I chastised theaters who respond to queries about what they are looking for in a play with “good writing.” I’d say the same to any artist. If I ask you want you want to do in the theater please don’t tell me “write good plays and work with good people.” It tells me nothing about what makes YOU special. And if you don’t know what makes you special why do I care? To quote the great Liz Engleman “why this play, now.” I’d expand that and say agents are asking daily “why this writer, now.” The best writers have an answer. And my goodness they are a delight to represent.”
Beth Blickers is currently an agent at Abrams Artists Agency, where she represents such writers, composers, directors and choreographers for theatre, television and film. Before joining Abrams, she was an agent at Helen Merrill Ltd. and the William Morris Agency, where she began work after graduating from New York University.
Over the past few years, I've been asked to serve as a mentor to theatre students and emerging playwrights near and far. And recently, in a forthcoming interview, I was asked to share my thoughts on being a mentor. Here's a collection of thoughts I've shared over the years.
On Becoming a Mentor:
I've always been the one to beg a seat at the table with the smartest person in the room. This way, I could listen, learn, grow, and be inspired. Many of my mentors are the women I knew in undergrad and grad school at the University of Texas at Austin: Amparo Garcia Crow, Jill Dolan, Ruth Margraff, and Omi Olono Osum. Recent mentors include folks I've met and reconnected with since moving to D.C.: Beth Blickers, Teresa Eyring, Gregg Henry, Morgan Jenness, Jennifer Nelson, Mary Resing, and Dawn Ursula. Some are also my peers: Sarah Bellamy, Ilana Brownstein, Julie Felise Dubiner, Jules Odendal James, and Dafina McMillan. So, when I was asked to be the one folks sat by, I thought wait a second, "How can I be a mentor when I'm still being mentored myself?" Then, I got over that, stopped being both selfish and self-conscious, and shared everything these amazing folks taught me.
On Being a Mentor:
I think about this quote from Benjamin Franklin:
“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
I believe that being a mentor different from being a teacher. It’s a process of engaging another person in rich, inspired and challenging dialogue about shared passions, thoughts and ambitions. This allows each person to come to the conversation at different points of entry, different levels of experience and different points of views. You meet in a place of respect and admiration.
On Finding a Mentor:
I started with people that I knew and who knew me. People who could speak to my ambition, enthusiasm, and experience. People whose aesthetic vision I admired and respected, even when it didn't mirror my own. For me, ultimately, it's was essential to find someone who shared my core and practicing values. I found that I was looking for someone to walk with in strength and solidarity. Someone who would challenge and nurture me. These are folks that I trust implicitly.
Good Mentorship Advice:
1. It is essential that you learn how to talk about your work and aesthetic vision. You must be able to market yourself as a theatre professional. This will help with grants and interviews. Your narrative must begin with you who you are, what honed and shaped your voice and what you aspire to be. Be mindful, that there is a line between being clear about your path and being arrogant. It has to do with your intention.
2. There is no success without the community. I am who I am because of my spirit, ambition, drive, and vision, but also because many people along the way believed in me and lifted me up. It is a part of my life service and artistic vision to lift others up as well.
My time in Louisville is drawing to a close. I head back to D.C. on Monday. Being here, working as a dramaturg on brownsville song (b-side for tray) for Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New Plays, has been at once a remarkable, challenging, inspiring and empowering experience. I am thankful to Jennifer Bielstein, Amy Wegener, Kimber Lee, and Meredith McDonough for this affirming, educational, and career-defining opportunity. What I wouldn't give to come back, and oh what a dream to be here as a playwright! Click here to learn more and purchase your tickets. Also, please enjoy these production photos by Bill Brymer and click here to learn more about the cast and crew.
Yesterday, before attending our first first preview, I walked that bridge that takes you to Indiana, as I've done so many times. Only this time, I walked against, through, and into 35-45 mph gale force winds. At one point, I held on to the metal railing as cars barreled passed. I don't know the depth of the Ohio River, but I know that my ability to swim pales against the strength of the tides.
Step by step, gust by gust, I made my way across and back. All the while, I thought of Dorothy, whose story I'm in process of adapting for Adventure Theatre-MTC. This poor determined farm girl, who dared to dream and asked the universe for something more, something beautiful, something different. And so, she was scooped up by the wind and dropped somewhere new, magical, wonderful, frightening, and free.
I thought about her journey and all that she learned ... all that she wouldn't have learned had she stayed in one place. Then I thought about all of the change happening around me, all of the unbelievably amazing opportunities life has given me, and I felt blessed. I also felt really stupid for walking out on that bridge in the midst of a wind advisory. But honestly all of that is what I think it takes to make it through life: the audacity to dream, heaps of courage to embrace change, a lot of determination mixed with a bit of stupidity, a complete willingness to ask for help when you need it, and the humility to learn from all that you've experienced. This is also why your failures are as important, if not more so, than your successes.
Today, I'm going to finish my 10 minute play, SISTERS, BY WAY OF GRACE, which I've been commissioned to write for Theatre Ariel's 10X8: FOOD, FAMILY, and PHILOSOPHY Salon Series. It's an imagined encounter between Tziporah and Miriam. More on all of that soon!
When I finish, I'm not going to take on that bridge that takes you to Indiana. The wind advisory is still in effect. Instead, I'll just meander about the city and see what adventure awaits.
Last month, the National Symphony Orchestra presented NSO at UNION STATION, two train-themed" concerts at Union Station as part of their In Your Neighborhood Program. Under the leadership of NSO's Assistant Conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl, WUSA Channel 9's Andrea Roane served as mistress of ceremonies. I wrote the script, which consisted of short vignettes that not only introduced each song and composer, but also captured the spirit of the music and offered a glimpse of the vibrant landscapes one might see while riding a train. It was such a rich and joyous writing experience.
I sat front row at both concerts. Applause and cheers abound after each song. Every now and again, I'd look around to see a room brimming with people of all ages, races and multiple abilities. I was delighted to see so many families with children. I can't say enough how much I enjoyed working with the National Symphony Orchestra and hope that this is the first of many collaborations. And now, at long last, I have these wonderful photos by Josh Sisk to share with you. Please enjoy!
It's the rain. It's the joy of deeply held and lasting friendships. It's the blessing of a most beloved, patient and supportive family. It's the oddness of holding energy around the possibility of someone, who does not hold you in the same regard, and the courage to accept the unrequited feelings and the effort to release that energy. It's the humility of not being chosen first coupled with the gratitude of being included anyway. It's the excitement around upcoming work. It's the hope radiating around a career opportunity of a lifetime. It's that I'm in the dream stages of writing a new play.
These are my morning meditations and life goals:
And then there's the richness, power, and awe of this ... when poets, freedom fighters, and revolutionaries dance.
Writing legends Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou dance in the atrium of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, over the interred ashes of Langston Hughes. Highlighting the ancient African rite of ancestral return, on top of the tiled artwork titled, Rivers. Others poured ceremonial drinks from five rivers and read four poems of Langston Hughes. (Feb. 22, 1991) Photo by Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York Times.
"Revolutionary Hope: A Conversation between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde" is an article that Baldwin and Lorde co-wrote for Essence magazine in 1984. In this candid conversation, they speak of self-hatred within the Black community and the harrowing impact of social and economic realities of the times. They also address how their shared racial history may unite them in efforts towards freedom and justice, it neither erases the difference nor eases the tension between their genders. I read it for the first time a couple of weeks ago and it has stayed with me.
JAMES BALDWIN: One of the dangers of being a Black American is being schizophrenic, and I mean ‘schizophrenic’ in the most literal sense. To be a Black American is in some ways to be born with the desire to be white. It’s a part of the price you pay for being born here, and it affects every Black person. We can go back to Vietnam, we can go back to Korea. We can go back for that matter to the First World War. We can go back to W.E.B. Du Bois – an honorable and beautiful man – who campaigned to persuade Black people to fight in the First World War, saying that if we fight in this war to save this country, our right to citizenship can never, never again be questioned – and who can blame him? He really meant it, and if I’d been there at that moment I would have said so too perhaps. Du Bois believed in the American dream. So did Martin. So did Malcolm. So do I. So do you. That’s why we’re sitting here.
AUDRE LORDE: I don’t, honey. I’m sorry, I just can’t let that go past. Deep, deep, deep down I know that dream was never mine. And I wept and I cried and I fought and I stormed, but I just knew it. I was Black. I was female. And I was out – out – by any construct wherever the power lay. So if I had to claw myself insane, if I lived I was going to have to do it alone. Nobody was dreaming about me. Nobody was even studying me except as something to wipe out.
JB: You are saying you do not exist in the American dream except as a nightmare.
AL: That’s right. And I knew it every time I opened Jet, too. I knew that every time I opened a Kotex box. I knew that every time I went to school. I knew that every time I opened a prayer book. I knew it, I just knew it.
JB: It is difficult to be born in a place where you are despised and also promised that with endeavor – with this, with that, you know – you can accomplish the impossible. You’re trying to deal with the man, the woman, the child – the child of whichever sex – and he or she and your man or your woman has got to deal with the 24-hour-a-day facts of life in this country. We’re not going to fly off someplace else, you know, we’d better get through whatever that day is and still have each other and still raise children – somehow manage all of that. And this is 24 hours of every day, and you’re surrounded by all of the paraphernalia of safety: If you can strike this bargain here. If you can make sure your armpits are odorless. Curl your hair. Be impeccable. Be all the things that the American public says you should do, right? And you do all those things – and nothing happens really. And what is much worse than that, nothing happens to your child either.
AL: Even worse than the nightmare is the blank. And Black women are the blank. I don’t want to break all this down, then have to stop at the wall of male/female division. When we admit and deal with difference; when we deal with the deep bitterness; when we deal with the horror of even our different nightmares; when we turn them and look at them, it’s like looking at death: hard but possible. If you look at it directly without embracing it, then there is much less that you can ever be made to fear.
JB: I agree.
AL: Well, in the same way when we look at our differences and not allow ourselves to be divided, when we own them and are not divided by them, that is when we will be able to move on. But we haven’t reached square one yet.
JB: I’m not sure of that. I think the Black sense of male and female is much more sophisticated than the western idea. I think that Black men and women are much less easily thrown by the question of gender or sexual preference – all that jazz. At least that is true of my experience.
AL: Yea, but let’s remove ourselves from merely a reactive position – i.e., Black men and women reacting to what’s out there. While we are reacting to what’s out there, we’re also dealing between ourselves – and between ourselves there are power differences that come down…
JB: Oh, yes…
AL: Truly dealing with how we live, recognizing each other’s differences, is something that hasn’t happened…
JB: Differences and samenesses.
AL: Differences and samenesses. But in a crunch, when all our asses are in the sling, it looks like it is easier to deal with the samenesses. When we deal with sameness only, we develop weapons that we use against each other when the differences become apparent. And we wipe each other out – Black men and women can wipe each other out – far more effectively than outsiders do.
JB: That’s true enough.
AL: And our blood is high, our furies are up. I mean, it’s what Black women do to each other, Black men do to each other, and Black people do to each other. We are in the business of wiping each other out in one way or the other – and essentially doing our enemy’s work.
JB: That’s quite true.
AL: We need to acknowledge those power differences between us and see where they lead us. An enormous amount of energy is being taken up with either denying the power differences between Black men and women or fighting over power differences between Black men and women or killing each other off behind them. I’m talking about Black women’s blood flowing in the streets – and how do we get a 14-year-old boy to know I am not the legitimate target of his fury? The boot is on both of our necks. Let’s talk about getting it off. My blood will not wash out your horror. That’s what I’m interested in getting across to adolescent Black boys.
There are little Black girl children having babies. But this is not an immaculate conception, so we’ve got little Black boys who are making babies, too. We have little Black children making little Black children. I want to deal with that so our kids will not have to repeat that waste of themselves.
JB: I hear you – but let me backtrack, for better or worse. You know, for whatever reason and whether it’s wrong or right, for generations men have come into the world, either instinctively knowing or believing or being taught that since they were men they in one way or another had to be responsible for the women and children, which means the universe.
JB: I don’t think there’s any way around that.
AL: Any way around that now?
JB: I don’t think there’s any way around that fact.
AL: If we can put people on the moon and we can blow this whole planet up, if we can consider digging 18 inches of radioactive dirt off of the Bikini atolls and somehow finding something to do with it – if we can do that, we as Black cultural workers can somehow begin to turn that stuff around – because there’s nobody anymore buying ‘cave politics’ – ‘Kill the mammoth or else the species is extinct.’ We have moved beyond that. Those little scrubby-ass kids in the sixth grade – I want those Black kids to know that brute force is not a legitimate way of dealing across sex difference. I want to set up some different paradigms.
JB: Yea, but there’s a real difference between the way a man looks at the world…
AL: Yes, yes…
JB: And the way a woman looks at the world. A woman does know much more than a man.
AL: And why? For the same reason Black people know what white people are thinking: because we had to do it for our survival…
JB: All right, all right…
AL: We’re finished being bridges. Don’t you see? It’s not Black women who are shedding Black men’s blood on the street – yet. We’re not cleaving your head open with axes. We’re not shooting you down. We’re saying, “Listen, what’s going on between us is related to what’s going on between us and other people,” but we have to solve our own shit at the same time as we’re protecting our Black asses, because if we don’t, we are wasting energy that we need for joint survival.
JB: I’m not even disagreeing – but if you put the argument in that way, you see, a man has a certain story to tell, too, just because he is a man…
AL: Yes, yes, and it’s vital that I be alive and able to listen to it.
JB: Yes. Because we are the only hope we have. A family quarrel is one thing; a public quarrel is another. And you and I, you know – in the kitchen, with the kids, with each other or in bed – we have a lot to deal with, with each other, but we’ve got to know what we’re dealing with. And there is no way around it. There is no way around it. I’m a man. I am not a woman.
AL: That’s right, that’s right.
JB: No one will turn me into a woman. You’re a woman and you’re not a man. No one will turn you into a man. And we are indispensable for each other, and the children depend on us both.
AL: It’s vital for me to be able to listen to you, to hear what is it that defines you and for you to listen to me, to hear what is it that defines me – because so long as we are operating in that old pattern, it doesn’t serve anybody, and it certainly hasn’t served us.
JB: I know that. What I really think is that neither of us has anything to prove, at least not in the same way, if we weren’t in the North American wilderness. And the inevitable dissension between brother and sister, between man and woman – let’s face it, all those relations which are rooted in love also are involved in this quarrel. Because our real responsibility is to endlessly redefine each other. I cannot live without you, and you cannot live without me – and the children can’t live without us.
AL: But we have to define ourselves for each other. We have to redefine ourselves for each other because no matter what the underpinnings of the distortion are, the fact remains that we have absorbed it. We have all absorbed this sickness and ideas in the same way we absorbed racism. It’s vital that we deal constantly with racism, and with white racism among Black people – that we recognize this as a legitimate area of inquiry. We must also examine the ways that we have absorbed sexism and heterosexism. These are the norms in this dragon we have been born into – and we need to examine these distortions with the same kind of openness and dedication that we examine racism…
JB: You use the word ‘racism’…
AL: The hatred of Black, or color…
JB: - but beneath the word ‘racism’ sleeps the word ‘safety.’ Why is it important to be white or Black?
AL: Why is it important to be a man rather than a woman?
JB: In both cases, it is assumed that it is safer to be white than to be Black. And it’s assumed that it is safer to be a man than to be a woman. These are both masculine assumptions. But those are the assumptions that we’re trying to overcome or to confront…
AL: To confront, yeah. The vulnerability that lies behind those masculine assumptions is different for me and you, and we must begin to look at that…
JB: Yes, yes…
AL: And the fury that is engendered in the denial of that vulnerability – we have to break through it because there are children growing up believe that it is legitimate to shed female blood, right? I have to break through it because those boys really think that the sign of their masculinity is impregnating a sixth grader. I have to break through it because of that little sixth-grade girl who believes that the only thing in life she has is what lies between her legs…
JB: Yeah, but we’re not talking now about men and women. We’re talking about a particular society. We’re talking about a particular time and place. You were talking about the shedding of Black blood in the streets, but I don’t understand –
AL: Okay, the cops are killing the men and the men are killing the women. I’m talking about rape. I’m talking about murder.
JB: I’m not disagreeing with you, but I do think you’re barking up the wrong tree. I’m not trying to get the Black man off the hook – or Black women, for that matter – but I am talking about the kingdom in which we live.
AL: Yes, I absolutely agree; the kingdom in which these distortions occur has to be changed.
JB: Something happens to the man who beats up a lady. Something happens to the man who beats up his grandmother. Something happens to the junkie. I know that very well. I walked the streets of Harlem; I grew up there, right? Now you know it is not the Black cat’s fault who sees me and tries to mug me. I got to know that. It’s his responsibility but it’s not his fault. That’s a nuance. UI got to know that it’s not him who is my enemy even when he beats up his grandmother. His grandmother has got to know. I’m trying to say one’s got to see what drove both of us into those streets. We be both from the same track. Do you see what I mean? I’ve come home myself, you know, wanting to beat up anything in sight- but Audre, Audre…
AL: I’m here, I’m here…
JB: I agree with you. I see exactly what you mean and it hurts me at least as much as it hurts you. But how to maneuver oneself past this point – how not to lose him or her who may be in what is in effect occupied territory. That is really what the Black situation is in this country. For the ghetto, all that is lacking is barbed wire, and when you pen people up like animals, the intention is to debase them and you have debased them.
AL: Jimmy, we don’t have an argument
JB: I know we don’t.
AL: But what we do have is a real disagreement about your responsibility not just to me but to my son and to our boys. Your responsibility to him is to get across to him in a way that I never will be able to because he did not come out of my body and has another relationship to me. Your relationship to him as his farther is to tell him I’m not a fit target for his fury.
JB: Okay, okay…
AL: It’s so entrenched in him that it’s part of him as much as his Blackness is.
JB: All right, all right…
AL: I can’t do it. You have to.
JB: All right, I accept – the challenge is there in any case. It never occurred to me that it would be otherwise. That’s absolutely true. I simply want to locate where the danger is…
AL: Yeah, we’re at war…
JB: We are behind the gates of a kingdom which is determined to destroy us.
AL: Yes, exactly so. And I’m interested in seeing that we do not accept terms that will help us destroy each other. And I think one of the ways in which we destroy each other is by being programmed to knee-jerk on our differences. Knee-jerk on sex. Knee-jerk on sexuality…
JB: I don’t quite know what to do about it, but I agree with you. And I understand exactly what you mean. You’re quite right. We get confused with genders – you know, what the western notion of woman is, which is not necessarily what a woman is at all. It’s certainly not the African notion of what a woman is. Or even the European notion of what a woman is. And there’s certainly not standard of masculinity in this country which anybody can respect. Part of the horror of being a Black American is being trapped into being an imitation of an imitation.
AL: I can’t tell you what I wished you would be doing. I can’t redefine masculinity. I can’t redefine Black masculinity certainly. I am in the business of redefining Black womanness. You are in the business of redefining Black masculinity. And I’m saying, ‘Hey, please go on doing it,’ because I don’t know how much longer I can hold this fort, and I really feel that Black women are holding it and we’re beginning to hold it in ways that are making this dialogue less possible.
JB: Really? Why do you say that? I don’t feel that at all. It seems to me you’re blaming the Black man for the trap he’s in.
AL: I’m not blaming the Black man; I’m saying don’t shed my blood. I’m not blaming the Black man. I’m saying if my blood is being shed, at some point I’m gonna have a legitimate reason to take up a knife and cut your damn head off, and I’m not trying to do it.
JB: If you drive a man mad, you’ll turn him into a beast – it has nothing to do with his color.
AL: If you drive a woman insane, she will react like a beast too. There is a larger structure, a society with which we are in total and absolute war. We live in the mouth of a dragon, and we must be able to use each other’s forces to fight it together, because we need each other. I am saying that in our joint battle we have also developed some very real weapons, and when we turn them against each other they are even more bloody, because we know each other in a particular way. When we turn those weapons against each other, the bloodshed is terrible. Even worse, we are doing this in a structure where we are already embattled. I am not denying that. It is a family discussion I’m having now. I’m not laying blame. I do not blame Black men for what they are. I’m asking them to move beyond. I do not blame Black men; what I’m saying is, we have to take a new look at the ways in which we fight our joint oppression because if we don’t, we’re gonna be blowing each other up. We have to begin to redefine the terms of what woman is, what man is, how we relate to each other.
JB: But that demands redefining the terms of the western world…
AL: And both of us have to do it; both of us have to do it…
JB: But you don’t realize that in this republic the only real crime is to be a Black man?
AL: No, I don’t realize that. I realize the only crime is to be Black. I realize the only crime is to be Black, and that includes me too.
JB: A Black man has a prick, they hack it off. A Black man is a ****** when he tries to be a model for his children and he tries to protect his women. That is a principal crime in this republic. And every Black man knows it. And every Black woman pays for it. And every Black child. How can you be so sentimental as to blame the Black man for a situation which has nothing to do with him?
AL: You still haven’t come past blame. I’m not interested in blame, I’m interested in changing…
JB: May I tell you something? May I tell you something? I might be wrong or right.
AL: I don’t know – tell me.
JB: Do you know what happens to a man-?
AL: How can I know what happens to a man?
JB: Do you know what happens to a man when he’s ashamed of himself when he can’t find a job? When his socks stink? When he can’t protect anybody? When he can’t do anything? Do you know what happens to a man when he can’t face his children because he’s ashamed of himself? It’s not like being a woman…
AL: No, that’s right. Do you know what happens to a woman who gives birth, who puts that child out there and has to go out and hook to feed it? Do you know what happens to a woman who goes crazy and beats her kids across the room because she’s so full of frustration and anger? Do you know what that is? Do you know what happens to a lesbian who sees her woman and her child beaten on the street while six other guys are holding her? Do you know what that feels like?
AL: Well then, in the same way you know how a woman feels, I know how a man feels, because it comes down to human beings being frustrated and distorted because we can’t protect the people we love. So now let’s start –
JB: All right, okay…
AL: - let’s start with that and deal.
Essence Magazine, 1984. Retyped by lamaracuya.
This video is powerful and evocative. It moved me to tears.
Here's how it is described:
"A blind and homeless man sits by the side of a building hoping for some spare change, but no one seems to notice him or care. A stranger walks by and changes the message on his sign and suddenly the homeless man's fortunes change."
But it's not a PSA in support and awareness of the homeless and/or disabled communities. It's an ad for online copy writers. Thank you, A. Rey Pamatmat for sharing this useful bit of dramaturgy.
Confession: I silenced the little voice in my head that said, "Wait a minute, she didn't even ask if she could change his sign." I did so, because I found the compassion of people giving so touching. I have a heightened awareness to the homeless community right now for a number of reasons:
Mind you, using the poor and disenfranchised to evoke compassion is nothing new and it's where things get tricky.
Also, let's contemplate this woman's action to change his sign. It reminds me of a scene in Episode Six of the ever brilliant House of Cards when Claire Underwood sees a homeless man perched outside of her office and hands him a $20 bill. She tells him there is a cafe up the street and walks away. We see him look at the money, but he does not move. The next day, he returns the $20 bill to her as a beautifully folded crane. She takes the crane, contemplates it and learns how to make cranes of her own. I'd also like to think that Claire sees this man as a man and as someone for whom she should not make assumptions. Also, I hope we get more of him in this next season.
There is a space where the women in the video's actions could be applauded. She didn't just walk by or drop of a few coins. As someone good with words, this is what she could do or give. In my own arrogance, I have seen the signs of the homeless or experienced the pitches, and wanted to offer a few tweaks. Historically, much has been made of this space of not just giving, but of doing what you can. Colonialism is a result of this space as are the many welfare programs in this country.
And it is here where I want to focus this conversation, this space of knowing what is best for a community and therefore providing a service. It's troublesome as it relates to the work we do in theatre when we provide artistic programming FOR a community and not WITH the community.
With theatre, we are creating what we believe is a deeply powerful, important, and meaningful experience. But within that is the knowledge/working assumption that the community doesn't know what it needs and/or that it needs to be taught, and certainly that it needs to be taught a standard of excellence. But we are surprised and disappointed when the community doesn't show up, and because of our business model and need for sustainability, we are also panicked. We do our best to try to engage with the audience: surveys, post show discussions, marketing, etc. But something is missing. There is a disconnect in all of this somewhere.
I decided to write about this, because I've been a part of conversations about how in the nonprofit theatre world, we serve our communities by providing artistic programming for them versus with them. This is subtle, but marked distinction. Also, I've been a part of conversations about how theatres use people of color in their marketing, but their programming and artistic/administrative staff do not reflect the same level of diversity. There is a disconnect between the mission statement, the programming, and the community, which could account for dwindling audiences, the continued lack of diversity, and no doubt contributes to unstable capitalization. Click here to learn more about how all of this is intertwined.
There's so much to unpack here. I thought about deleting the video from my Facebook page, but felt the conversation was relevant and important to have. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
I started my day in conversation with Sarah Bellamy (a true blessing in its own right) about Penumbra Theatre Company and being able to live in a time where we can directly name the work we're doing around advocacy, social change, and eliminating racism in the theater. I am also sitting with the mourning and celebration of Nelson Mandela's life, work and legacy. He is a living testament to a time, space and energy when the fight for freedom came at a profound cost, but he lived long enough to see powerful change as a result of his efforts. Many of our own civil rights leaders and freedom fighters were not granted that grace. Of course, there is more work to do in many areas including theatre.
My conversation with Sarah also allowed me to engage more deeply with a series of personal losses that have happened over the past year or so ... which resulted in this morning meditation...
Growing up in Tennessee Colony was difficult. Racism, prejudice and attitudes toward poverty have done much to damage my self-esteem, optimism, sense of wonder and enthusiasm for life. Daily, I am reminded of the work needed to nurture my spirit. I don't always win, but having dear friends and a supportive family is a salvation.
Over the course of the last year or so, I have lost three people who have loved me for most of my life. These people were my god parents, Debbie and James, both to cancer, and a dear family friend, Alan, who we lost on Wednesday to a heart attack.
All three were friends of my father and mother. I loved speaking on the phone to Debbie and James when I was little. They lived in upstate New York and only visited a couple of times to my recollection. So, it was special to know that someone, who lived so far away, cared about me and wanted to talk to me. I was penpals with their daughter for a long time. Also, I have many treasured childhood memories in the home of Alan and his wife Mary. Playing on their living room floor, going on fishing trips, eating and laughing together, and watching them in friendship with my parents.
I remember asking my father once, "Why do they love us and want to spend so much time with us? Why do they love me?" They weren't family and so I didn't understand. Also, I had never met anyone on my mother's side of the family and so learned early that bloodlines don't automatically assume love. He explained, "They love you because you're you and you bring them happiness."
To be loved by someone outside of your bloodline for simply being you and perhaps for the joy you bring to their lives is a wondrous experience. To lose that love is equally challenging.
All of which led me back to Mandela Nelson, a man who was loved and admired by so many. I am one of those people. I was inspired by his fight for freedom and humbled by his commitment to peace and reconciliation. His spirit drives the work that I do around Diversity and Inclusion in the American Theatre. It's hard to contextualize all that I'm experiencing right now, but I want to thank Madiba for his life's work. I want to thank those who believed in me, even when I didn't believe in myself. I want to move forward in service. Thank you for all who give me the opportunity to do so.
“Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour ... If at my convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”
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!