January 31, 2011

Why queer Black womanist liberation poiesis matters to straight White dudes doing theatre

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.

January 27, 2011

Helping each other out: Indie Theater Companion

Now that diversity in theater is (again) the topic of conversation (at least until people get tired of it and decide to focus on more important things), here's a chance to do what I talked about here. Remember when I talked about acting like an advocate and not a networker? Indie Theater Companion gives you a chance to do just that. Get more info about it here.

January 21, 2011

on having That Conversation

Around about the same time last year, we had That Conversation. You know, the hard one. The one where everyone leaves bruised and sore-throated, but nobody has changed their minds or understands each other any better.

If you've followed any discussion about race in any progressive space on the blogosphere, there's a clear indication where the conversation goes from bearable to shit. It goes like this: someone fails to check their privilege (often not maliciously), gets called on it (not necessarily politely), then acts like they were told they ate babies for brunch. After that, dialogue grinds to a halt.

The problem with how That Conversation progresses (or rather, doesn't) is that people expect it to happen spontaneously without reproducing the same dynamics that already exist. Now add the problems of communicating via social media in general, and you've got a discussion guaranteed to leave everybody all pissed off with neither clarity nor a plan of action. It's not because White people hate Black people, Black people are too angry, Asians too quiet, Latinos don't speak English, or Native Americans too - waitaminute, what Native Americans?

That's the bad news. The good news is that this outcome not a foregone conclusion. I've had That Conversation go well with the most "colorblind" and the most "conscious" people in the same room, all sharing their truths. Honestly, I would prefer having That Conversation with people who've gone through training with the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond and/or have familiarized themselves with the material at Anti-Racist Alliance.

Over at Parabasis, we sort of touched That Conversation, and 99Seats made a good point. That Conversation is important. It's necessary and urgent. But not everyone comes to it with years of experience with anti-racist analysis and organizing, and That Conversation is important enough to not wait until everyone can find the time and money to participate in the training before they have it. However, just jumping into it without a fucking idea of what's going on internally or externally is just asking for somebody to do or say something fucked up. Then, instead of That Conversation you want to have, everything grinds to a halt.

Here are a few guidelines I came up with on how to have That Conversation.

Establish clear goals.
If people don't know what they want to get out of That Conversation, it's a good chance that it's going to turn into a clusterfuck. Be honest. If you just want to show those PC bastards how wrong and stupid they are, admit it. If your goal is to see what everyone else thinks/feels and why they think/feel that way, make that blindingly fucking obvious. If you want to apply a personalized, structural analysis of systemic oppression, say so. Just for the record, that last one is usually what I'm trying to do.

Set common ground.
Everyone who agrees to That Conversation needs to be on the same page, though. If I'm trying to apply a personalized, structured analysis of systemic oppression, and people don't even know what that means, there's no way anyone would have anything worth saying to each other. It'll just be, "You're wrong!" and "No I'm not! And you're a fucking asshole for saying that!" That's boring.

That Conversation needs to have a direction, and there needs to be a shared frame of reference if it's going to go anywhere but all over the place. Whether it's a book, a website, a workshop, or what have you, That Conversation needs to be the common reference.

Get your 101 on.
I don't know about you, but I don't have it in me to try to convince White people that racism is real and has devastating effects on the lives of people of color. Google "racism 101" (yes, exactly like that), and thousands of things are right there at your fingertips. If that's too difficult, I give plenty of links below. Knock yourself out.

Keep learning.
Few things are more disruptive to having That Conversation than someone who thinks they know everything worth knowing about it. Tim Wise named you his successor in the anti-racist movement? Good for you. Now shut the fuck up. No matter how much you know, you don't know shit. You might know more facts than the next person, but a visceral sense of truth is a more powerful tool for understanding and challenging the status quo. Being able to read code is not the same as seeing through the Matrix.

Own your shit.
How the hell can That Conversation lead anywhere if you don't know where everyone is coming from? Where is the system stacked against you? Where are you privileged? What knowledge and experiences are you bringing to this conversation? What assumptions are you clinging to?

If you're a light-skinned Black person who dealt with color issues coming up, and you feel insecure about your Blackness, own it. If you're the White kid who went to a Black school and felt the brunt of the rage and pain of your peers, own it.

Keep it personal.
We can compare data all day long, but comparing data is not making connections. Claim your I-ness. It's a lot easier to have That Conversation when we see and treat each other as people first, not abstract ideas. If everything that everybody said in That Conversation began with IMO or IMXP (because you don't want to get zapped with a logical fallacy and look stupid, do you?), it will never get past hello. But don't act like people don't know what they went through or how they felt about it. You can be the most brilliant intellectual, the most devoted activist, the most persuasive orator but all that is bullshit if you cannot be fully present and fully human.

Opinions can be challenged. Facts can be found. Blind spots can be illuminated. But that can't happen if you strip the humanity out of That Conversation.

Helping to understand.
That Conversation does not work well as a debate. It just doesn't. That Conversation is not a game. It's not something you're trying to win (unless by win you mean make theatre more equitable). As I said around the same time of year last year:
[...] no one is on trial. This is not a cross-examination. Nobody's casting anyone as heroes and villains. In fact, it's just the opposite - I want you to be better Good Guys. To do that takes going beyond earning a little bit of good karma here and there. It takes creating a new way of seeing and existing in the world - and that's not a comfortable place to be in.

A better way to frame That Conversation is around helping people to understand. Fact: not everyone is going to see eye-to-eye on everything. It's not about agreeing or disagreeing in principle. It's simply about people being different. Instead of going into that agree/disagree tailspin, focus instead on seeing more clearly where people are. It's as simple as, "I'm not seeing what you're seeing. Help me understand."

No psychics.
This one is deeply personal for me, so I'll be here a while.

For some reason, when it comes to That Conversation, people act like they're telepathic or some shit and assume they know my feelings or beliefs about things without me telling them exactly what they are. I rarely get this from other women of color, but they're Republican. I can't tell you how many times I've said something like, "That's a pretty privileged position you're speaking from there [insert what's privileged about it]," and have people treat me as though I said, "FUCK YOU RACIST KKK SKINHEAD MOTHERFUCKER!!! YOU R  A PIECE OF SHIT & BE ASHAMED OF URSELF!!! DIE WHITEY DIE!!! Fuck your mama too."

If you feel confident about someone's emotional state or personal beliefs without them telling you explicitly, so confident that your amazing supernatural powers will work over the internet, chances are you're not owning your shit. Because chances are you're not seeing someone talking about something with great personal significance to them that they're very passionate about - you're seeing something else entirely, and you need to own it.

I don't own any tinfoil hats, so don't do this.

Thank people for sharing.
You may think that because I talk about racism a lot, that it's easy for me. It isn't. I really make myself vulnerable on this blog and in other places in ways that I cannot in my daily life. Of all the White people who've read and commented here, only one has openly acknowledged this. Act like it means something when people share their stories with you in That Conversation. When someone is patient enough to explain something you don't understand or to provide you with a resource that does, thank them. It doesn't have to be right away. You can do a follow-up post or comment. Give yourself time to make it count. But do it in a timely manner. Don't just take their stories and consume them for your own self-improvement without so much as a thank you.

For people allergic to Google, here are some resources.
Some required reading:

Some required viewing:

Further reading:

January 18, 2011

diversity in theatre - what you can do right now

I was originally going to comment in response to 99's post at Parabasis ("What We Need"), but I saw that I had a lot more to say.

To be very honest, I'm tired of having this fucking conversation. I've been saying the same damn thing for months! I'm tired of saying the same shit all the time! I don't make these points for my health. I'm telling you what I see so you can fucking change it because I don't necessarily have the clout or the resources to do that myself. So let me spell it out for everyone so we're all on the same page. You ready? Here we go . . .
The solution to the overwhelming Whiteness and maleness of NYC theatre is to get space and money and audiences to writers, directors and producers who are not White men.
That's it. Yes, it's that simple. There is no lack of desire or talent, only a lack of vision and resolve. We think and act too much in "Yeah, but . . . " instead of "Yes! And . . . "

We go . . .

  • "Yeah, I hear they wrote something great, but I never worked with them before."
  • "Yeah, I think this needs to happen, but I don't know if there's anything I can do."
  • "Yeah, I want to help, but it's so hard."

Yet we never go . . .

  • "Yes, this is exactly the kind of stuff we need to do more of, and I'm going to tell people that."
  • "Yes, my project could use someone like you, and I'm going to find a way to get you involved."
  • "Yes, I know someone who wants to put on something just like that, and I'm going to put you in touch with them."
We want the problem to get fixed, but we don't want to change the way we do things. We want the problem to get fixed, but we want to rely on the same methods and paradigms that exclude, exploit, and underserve us. So is it any wonder that we spin our wheels every few months (especially around this time of year), pat ourselves on the back for being appropriately liberal because we feel so bad about what's happening (and we raise awareness - never forget that!), while never challenging ourselves to do better or holding ourselves accountable for our (lack of?) efforts.

So here are some things you (yes, you, the reader) can do right now, right this second, to make things better. These are just things I was thinking about off the top of my head. They're just my opinions. Take what you can use. Leave the rest.

1. Stop pretending to be so goddamn helpless.

If you're reading this blog right now, you have a voice. That means you have power. Use it. I'm not saying to write a Pulitzer-winning article or make a submission to the New York Times. It can be simple and brief. Especially if you're not buying a ticket (or rather, not paying for a ticket). Show that you think it's important enough to talk about.

2. Show up and take it one step further.

Not hanging a sign outside the theatre saying "No Negroes Allowed" or making audience members use separate water fountains is not the same as reaching out to and developing new Black playwrights. You have to do more than not be in the way. You have to invite us to the party and tell everyone about the party. Blackboard Play Reading Series is very good about this. When they put on a reading of your stuff, it's not just your people who's going to know about it. It's going to be their people too.

3. Act like an advocate, not a networker.

If you meet someone, and they say, "I'm a playwright," the very first thing you should say is, "Tell me about your most recent piece." The next thing out of your mouth should be, "Would you give me your contact information?"

After that, come up with 3 people who'd be interested in this person's work. Just 3 people. You can include yourself, so that narrows it down to two. Your next job is to get the playwright you met in dialogue with these people. I don't mean forwarding their e-mail and saying, "Y'all talk. Bye now."

No, no, no, no, no. Bad! No biscuit! You say something more like, "I met Blah, this playwright who's working on Somesuchorother. This sounds like it'll be a great fit for Whateverthefuckyouaredoing. I thought you two should talk about possibly working together, as well as finding a home for Somesuchorother."

4. Come up with your own ideas to add to this list and tell people about them. 

Like right here, right now.

January 15, 2011

Why should you give a shit about what queer black women have to say?

This is my first conscious effort and establishing a queer Black womanist liberation poesis (as I've described here). Like I mentioned before, this is probably a lifelong work, and one that will probably change over time, so don't hold me to dissertation-level consistency and rigor because it probably won't be there.

Naturally, when it comes to creating a queer Black womanist liberation poesis, the first thing that comes to mind is: Why?

It's a legitimate question. Why should anyone give a shit what queer Black women have to say? At the moment, queer Black women can offer neither the promise of prosperity nor the threat of destruction. If I can't kill you or make you rich, what difference does listening to me make?

I admit that this line of inquiry can veer existentialist. I may as well be asking what the value of human life is outside of what people can do to or for each other. However, I believe that the question itself deserves better than for us to render it pointless through abstraction. So let's not do that, OK?

While the answer I'm probably supposed to give will say something along the lines of "diversity is good for you" ("Read stuff by Black women and eat your spinach!"), that feels more like regurgitating a slogan than an actual engagement with the question of why our voices are not just beneficial, but critical, to our plays, films, TV shows, and so on?

I think Toni Morrison says it best (emphasis mine).

Almost all of the African-American writers that I know were very much uninterested in one particular area of the world, which is white men. That frees up a lot. It frees up the imagination, because you don't have that gaze. And when I say white men, I don't mean just the character, I mean the establishment, the reviewers, the publishers, the people who are in control. So once you erase that from your canvas, you can really play.

As a creator, that ability to play is vital. I mean that quite literally. We've all come across various works that have been watered down for popular consumption, and in catering to our assumed ignorance and egocentricity, it has sacrificed no small part of its vitality. Now, instead of being a doorway into new ways of expressing and knowing and being, we are constantly faced with mirrors of the same old bullshit. The same old values, the same old ways of interacting, the same old ways of understanding. This makes our collective understanding of our art and audience stagnant, inert, decaying, dead.

When "you can really play," you can imagine - and therefore create - new possibilities. But all those possibilities cannot come from only one source of experience. Seriously, how many ways can you talk about how unique, special, and wonderful straight White dudes are (and how fortunate we are that they rule the world)? Even when there is not a single straight White man present in a particular work, that is overwhelmingly the perspective through which people must experience and interpret it. Without that pressure, without that weight, our plays, films, TV shows, and so on are able to exist with greater breadth, depth, and richness.

But as I mentioned earlier, we cannot express the value of our voices solely in terms of what we, the marginalized and oppressed, can do for everyone else. It must first and foremost have value for us. We've already had the experience where our worth as human beings rested upon our ability to play the roles the dominant classes prescribe for us. Yet rare is the case where we are affirmed as we are in our fullest humanity - pure, rough, messy, and beautiful.

For those of us who are silenced every day because the world we live in devalues and dehumanizes us for our gender, our color, and/or sexuality, to speak for ourselves as ourselves is an act of reclaiming what is often taken from us. Asserting our truth is radical. It is a transformative act and therefore a revolutionary act. This is not the way society tells us we're supposed to be like. We're supposed to be silent and invisible, content in our silence and invisibility, and/or afraid of what would happen were we to see or be seen as we are. Putting ourselves at the center of our lives threatens the status quo because it exposes it for the lie that it is. That there is only one truth worth knowing, one beauty worth having, one goodness worth becoming.

It's incredibly liberating to realize that our goodness, truth, and beauty comes because of who we are rather than despite it.

What about you? Questions? Reflections?

January 14, 2011

"Tulpa" available at Off Book Market

The most up-to-date version of Tulpa, or Anne&Me can be purchased here. Its only $5 for your own copy, which includes author's notes, production notes, and a cast and scene break-down. Off Book Market helps plays, theatres, and audiences to find each other in the 21st century. And there's the little fact that the author keeps control over their work (even in the small print). So if you've got $5, and you missed the cake and balloons back in November, you can still experience Tulpa, or Anne&Me for yourself.

January 3, 2011

Big projects for 2011

One of my goals for this year is to put together a full production of Tulpa, or Anne&Me. I'm looking into a festival that seems right up Tulpa's alley. Also, I'm working with a director who really believes in it and wants to make it happen. Go me!

The second thing I'm working on is a Black womanist liberation poetics (or rather poiesis). If I'm honest with myself, this is more than likely a lifelong endeavor, but at the very least I'd like to make significant headway on the guiding principles. I haven't yet decided exactly what form I want it to take, but I'm thinking that I do not want to take an academic or journalistic style. Aside from my lack of interest in it, that approach would only serve to undermine one of the chief aims of this project: to help develop works that reclaim the subjectivity of marginalized people. Part of this is reconstructing ways of creating and interpreting dramatic media such as theatre, film, and television. The main idea is to start from one's own lived experience as the center then work outward from there.

I also want to avoid any dogmatic assertions about What Great Theatre Should Be and focus instead on what works and how.

Here's the preliminary reading list I'm working with: