- The Struggle Continues
What is a black play? What is acting black? The truth is, I am much more interested in the questions—and more questions—that these questions set off. What are these questions about? What makes them so worrisome? What do they have to do with white people's desires? And will this inquiry call up substantial, ongoing critical looks at the wide range of work by black theatre artists?
Writing and playing black are hard work. That is the easy answer to these questions. Black playwrights and actors need inspiration, talent, and long-term connections to black voices—literally and symbolically. Both tasks require a willingness to play with language—the meanings and the music of it, and certainly a vulnerability to the lessons of black history and politics. And white people, as has been the case with music and dance throughout the last few centuries, are, I suspect, beginning to wonder how to write and act black because they see the value of blackness and have exploited it—both artistically and economically. One of the troubles with American-style democracy is that cultural appropriation reigns freely and continues to be subtle. Questions of appropriation, authenticity, and ownership must be constantly examined.
For this discourse I find it useful to look from a personal/bigger view (a practice of relating the personal experience to larger public topics), to color my offering with experiences that continue to help me see. I am reminded of the concerns for cultural genocide that need to be dug up from the heap of what was dismissed as "rhetoric" in the latter part of the twentieth century. I think of a couple of lines in my play Sally's Rape:
JEANNIE: What about rhetoric?
ROBBIE: Oh, yes, they learned rhetoric. My mother said rhetoric was learning to tell the truth over and over. [End Page 583]
I open my play, also, by observing the long, complex tradition that I humbly share with a number of mentors, friends, and colleagues who are workers and teachers in theatre. Ed Bullins, in his introduction to The New Lafayette Theatre Presents, succinctly describes "the dialectic of change" and "the dialectic of experience" as having sources in the "slave narrative/abolitionist/protest phases of Black literature." In the early 1980s, impressed by the power of theatre to change minds, I took the bold step of following my individual impulse and creating a character of myself, the actor driven to speak politically about the black working class. I am now thinking that what I call the personal/bigger is right in there. My characters and the stories are mainly true, partly powered by language and body play, and wrapped in social commentary. I had acted in plays by black writers, with black directors, and was taught by black teachers with other black actors, whose brilliance and boldness created an atmosphere I came to know and accept. Never embracing separatism, I had worked with quality white artists, too, most of whom knew I kept my own counsel to hold to my purpose, which was to continue to struggle for black liberation and the best of human potential.
Black playwriting is in the tradition of black poets—many of whom are also performance artists and playwrights. Naming names would take a whole article since the poetic tradition looms long and large in black life and art. Even black novices can trust their own impulses sparked by what they hear from within. I like Paul Carter Harrison's statement of "an apparent affinity between black music and black language" and his extensive discussion of the word song in his introduction to Totem Voices: Plays From The Black World Repertory: "Song here does not mean a song or a tune per se but rather denotes the intrinsic value of heightened language."
"Playing black" also, of course, pushes buttons. A woman I mentored recently questioned me about the scene in the film Crash (2005) wherein the black director was forced to get the black actor to play blacker in a power play with the white producer. She thought that during the age of Robert Townsend's 1987 Hollywood Shuffle this was a...