Earlier I talked about why you should care what queer Black women have to say. Now I'm going to talk about why a queer Black womanist liberation poesis matters to the people who seem most diametrically opposed to it, at least in principle - (presumably straight - but in theatre it matters a bit less) White men.
But first, a slight detour to provide a little context. Isaac is asking who the greatest living playwright of the English language is. Coming right on the heels of That Coversation, this seems a particularly intriguing juxtaposition. How many of us would be surprised if most, if not all, people on that list were White and/or male? Are we then to assume that the reason why we don't come across more Great Works of Theatre by women and/or people of color is because they simply can't hack it? If not, then what is it about our criteria for determining quality that makes it highly unlikely that a woman or a person of color (or - gasp! - a woman of color!!!) would appear on anyone's top ten lists for The Greatest?
It would be easy to dismiss this as a matter of taste, and I've often done just that. The fact of the matter is that in the world we live in, theatre is dominated by the tastes of well-off White dudes. There are already so many stories about how wonderful, special, and unique White men are (and how lucky we are that they're in charge!). But we already knew that. In my more cynical and self-doubting moments (which are more frequent than this blog makes apparent), I can get pretty down on myself for not being eager and/or able to make works supporting that fact. I can feel guilty and ashamed of myself because my energies are not spent toward silencing and erasing myself from my own stories. Yet this seems to be the exact reason why simply throwing up our hands and saying it's a matter of taste is the wrong way to go about it. It leaves the current system the way it is and limits opportunities for finding new ways of knowing and expressing - of being in the world.
I understand the desire to understand "pure" art uncontaminated by messy, chaotic life and dirty, nasty politics. I'm afraid that's impossible. Art for art's sake is dead, if it ever existed in the first place. This is especially true of theatre because it is the art form most intimately connected to life as it is lived (internally as well as externally). So, for me, discussing quality without addressing liberation is not wrong so much as incomplete.
Art does not need to serve a political agenda to be art. However, politics is a part of the human condition. I don't mean politics in the terms of law and government and policy, but in the terms of the power dynamics between people. As the art form that is, at its core and without exception, about people, theatre is - from initial concept to final curtain - innately political, even if particular political concepts and buzzwords are never uttered in the piece.
Personally, I believe that liberation is the most important act an individual or society can participate in. With various systems of oppression still in place, ideals like justice and freedom remain much too far out of reach for way too many people. Without justice and freedom, much of what we do is ultimately arbitrary and meaningless. I'm not here to convert anyone or convince anybody to agree, but if you want to understand how I define quality, you need to know this about me.
When I talk about liberation, I'm talking about what Chimamanda Adichie mentions in "The Danger of a Single Story." I'm talking about the power of stories to shape lives. The stories we tell to and about one another define the possibilities and limitations we accept for ourselves. As such, stories are absolutely vital to the process of liberation - from exploring the things that imprison us to giving us visions of liberated selves.
That's not to say I don't appreciate craft, but there needs to be more than that. I'm remembering a visit I made to Miya Shoji a few months ago. Looking at the shoji screens and tables and other furnishings, I saw more than craftsmanship. There was more to what's going on than the smoothness of a table's surface or the way parts fit together without using a single nail or screw. I saw creations inhabited by the values of a people. I saw a process informed by history and language and culture. I saw simplicity, elegance, a reverence for natural harmony. Yet each piece was vastly different from the others, even those of the same type, not by surface distinctions such as color or shape, but by the approach to these ideas. This was a liberated space - a space where each piece could freely be itself for itself, a space where each piece is appreciated because of rather than despite itself.
Without liberation, we cannot even approach the discussion of quality without acting out oppressive frameworks. I'm not arguing over whether there is or is not such a thing as quality. If we want our theatre to do more than ego-stroke the privileged, we need to examine what we bring to our understanding of quality. We need to interrogate our assumptions, not to shoot holes into them, but to name them for what they are and explore the possibilities and limitations they put in place.
For instance, in Aristotelian drama, there is not much room for the kind of playing that validates and affirms anyone except those occupying dominant identities. In Aristotle's time, it was wealthy, land-owning Greek men (One wonders what Aristotle would have thought about Lorraine Hansberry or Suzan Lori-Parks). Today, it's affluent White guys. There's nothing bad or wrong with it, but let's be honest and say that this paradigm doesn't speak for or about everyone - including White men who participate in and benefit from it.
Of course, contemporary theatre has long since moved away from Aristotle as the ultimate authority on what defines quality. But there are still people everyone should "just know" if they want to participate in the dialogue without looking or feeling stupid. They are often male and/or White. This in itself is not a problem, yet there seems to be an implicit understanding that in order for it to matter, we have to put male and/or White ways of knowing at the center of our conversation - even if those ways of knowing are in direct conflict with who we are (which includes a whole lot of White men too!). This way of knowing tends to prioritize the abstract over the concrete, the impersonal over the personal, mind over body, objectivity (or the appearance of objectivity) over subjectivity, education over life experience, reason over feeling.
A liberation poetics frees us from the expectation to act, react, and interact from only half (or less!) of who we are.