January 22, 2010

Black writers, White theatre

See, this is what happens when you check out of the theatre blogosphere for a while: You miss going to stuff like the Black Playwrights Convening. I'll have to make do with what's been posted at the New Play Blog and Twitter. In other words, I'm officially pissed that I didn't get a chance to go.

In any case, the fact that I wasn't physically present doesn't mean I don't have to reflect on and respond to some of what did come out of it, particularly from Isaac and Adam, but I'm still looking for other blog posts about it (for obvious reasons).

Amongst some other really interesting things, there are a couple of things that really stood out to me about what came out of the Black Playwrights Convening. But in particular, Adam Thurman (The Mission Paradox Blog) said:

It became clear to me that there are a thousand different paths to "success" that these playwrights could take and that it would be important from them to not only pursue their path but to help others with their own journey. "My father always used to say to me 'Don't sleep on your brother's dream'", said one writer. "As long as we share vision, we can support each other's dreams."
It's really interesting to come across this right now. It's somewhat reassuring to have some of the things I've intuited and experienced validated, if only obliquely. I especially want to address what Adam's talking about here because it deals with one of my main frustrations with trying to get anything started in theatre and how that relates to Blackness and femininity.

Let me start with something you ought to know about me.

Despite the overall shittiness of my previous living arrangement, I learned something very important about myself: I'm an extraordinarily generous person. I freely give time, energy, and even money to people without thinking twice about it and sometimes against my better judgment. I've taken huge risks for acquaintances that would give close family members pause, and I've done it at the drop of a hat -- despite intense misgivings. I've learned to be more discriminate and judicious with my generosity to prevent being taken for granted or taken advantage of. Nevertheless, when someone I know needs something, my first instinct - even if never expressed - is to give whatever I can of myself.

Let's apply this to theatre, for a minute.

LaSmartOne is someone I know of through the Stuff White People Do blog. Both of us comment there fairly regularly. Very recently, LaSmartOne e-mailed me about joining or starting up a playwrights' group. I didn't know this person. I never met this person. We don't have the same social or professional circles. This person simply liked a few things I said, knew I was a playwright, and chose to e-mail me. What was my first response? Set up a time and place to meet. No expectations. No agenda other than reading a bit of each other's work. No angle. Nothing to prove. Just two people who have something in common trying to figure out where that can take us.

Here's what I think is very interesting. LaSmartOne, like me, is also a Black playwright. We both love theater and hate the mainstream media portrayals of Black stories and Black characters (aka ghetto lit and Tyler Perry - we never talked about the Wayans Brothers). We both grasp the intersections of systems of oppression and want to see this reflected in media. We both want more variety in the presentation of LGBTQ characters and relationships (no more Queer Eye bullshit).

Neither one of us comes from a theatrical background. Yet, in a two-hour meeting in the Starbucks at Union Square, we both decided to establish a writing group geared toward producing works by (presumably new) playwrights of color. I'll post a link to the Craigslist ad once it's up.

I don't think those details are incidental. In my experience, Black people are more willing to help people this way than White people. If I'm very honest with myself, the people who have taken the most interest in my development - whether personal, professional, or creative - have been Black. That's not to say that White people have not done me favors or been kind to me, not at all. But when it comes to mentoring and sharing  resources, the person doing that has almost always been Black.

In contrast, my experiences with White people have been confusing, uncomfortable, frustrating, and exhausting in this regard. I can't quite put my finger on why, but I always feel a kind of pressure to perform around White people. It's like I have to prove I'm worthy of their presence. It's proven very difficult to get a White person's attention, especially a White man's. It's even harder to maintain it for more than about 15 minutes. And if you're White, and you met me in person, I'm probably talking about you.

This experience points to very different modes of existing in the world. I'm not judging one way or the other. I'm certainly not alluding to racial separatism. But I will say that, as a Black artist and professional, I cannot wait for White people - including my friends and acquaintances - to decide when what I have to offer is worthy of paying attention to. In the time I'd spend trying to impress these people, I could be working on my craft, building relationships with people who are truly interested in me, and consolidating resources with others who share my passions and goals and concerns. I didn't pick up and move from Richmond to New York to do the same shit I can do over there. I wanted a change, and I wanted a chance to make real opportunities.

As the New Play Blog states:

Out of the frustrations, though, one of the major themes of the weekend began to emerge early: self-reliance. We would come back, again and again, to the idea that a black artist needed to find their own audience and bring them into the institutions. At least one person said there was a crisis in marketing to black audiences. So much of that affects the audiences and so much of that falls on our backs. There is work there, and an obligation, but also a lot of control and empowerment. We can and should develop our own audiences, know who they are and how to reach them and bring them along with us.
 That's what I'm talkin' about.

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