Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The "Post-Racial" World and Contemporary Playwriting

I wrote that the Hilton Als and Michael Paller talk last month left me wondering about a lot of things. In fact, afterwards, as the two men chatted with the public and signed books, I went up and asked them about something that their talk had made me consider. I'm afraid my question was too complicated to get across in quick soundbite form, and I think I just confused them – but maybe I'll be able to make myself clearer in this blog entry.

OK. When Obama was elected, there was a lot of talk about whether we live in a "post-racial" society. Subsequent events, of course (e.g. the Sonia Sotomayor and Henry Louis Gates controversies) have given the lie to that idealistic notion – at least for America as a whole. You see, I don't believe that America is a post-racial country, but at the same time, elements of my day-to-day life do feel largely post-racial.

A major example of this is my office: it's fairly racially diverse, and there's never any racial tension, or even much discussion of our ethnic differences. Now, maybe I would feel differently about this if I weren't white. And maybe this is uncommon: I work at a white-collar office, in an extremely liberal city, staffed mainly by people under the age of 35 – and not a lot of workplaces fit those parameters. Nonetheless, my experiences lead me to conclude that post-racial segments of society do exist.

And I'm currently working on a short play set entirely in a similar office environment – young professionals in San Francisco. (Don't worry, it's not a roman à clef.) So I would like a racially diverse cast, but at the same time, I thought it would feel false to assign a race to each character. I am always uneasy about writing characters of different races – afraid both to reinforce old stereotypes, and to self-consciously break the stereotypes. Like, if you write a black character who uses hip-hop slang, you're reinforcing that stereotype (even though these days, everyone uses hip-hop slang); but if you write a black character who doesn't use any slang, it feels like you're trying to send a politically correct message: "Look! I realize that hip-hop slang is stereotypical, so I'm writing a black character who doesn't use it! Aren't I enlightened? Aren't I smashing stereotypes?"

So. Because trying to choose races for my characters was tying me up in knots – and because the play is set in an environment where race doesn't matter – I thought "I'll write this play so that each of the characters could be played by anyone of any race." I planned to put a note in the script saying that I would like a racially mixed cast, but did not feel the need to assign a race to each character.

But then I remembered the experience of the playwright Diana Son. Her first big success was the play Stop Kiss, in which most of the characters are young professionals in NYC, and thus they, too, live in a post-racial environment. So Son didn't specify the races of her characters, but just put a note in the script saying "The cast should reflect the ethnic diversity of New York City." But it turned out that most casting directors ignored that and cast the play entirely with white actors, something that left Son "very disheartened," she said in an interview several years later. And so for her next play, Satellites, she specified the races of all of the characters.

So my questions for Als and Paller were: in our quest for more diversity in the American theater, is it better to write roles that can be played by actors of any race, or to write roles specifically for a certain race? What if you lack confidence in your ability to write for people of specific racial backgrounds? What if you remember Diana Son's cautionary tale and realize that even if you write "this character can be played by an actor of any race," people often interpret this as "if no race is specified, then the character must be white"?

I am no closer to answering these questions, and dealing with race in my playwriting still leaves me very self-conscious at times. Nonetheless, for the project I'm currently working on, I decided to go with the option of not specifying races for my characters, and simply stating that I would prefer an ethnically diverse cast. Does this mean that I'm just passing the buck to the casting director? Or that I am keeping an open mind and providing opportunities to actors from all backgrounds?


tim said...

What if you specified something like, "The cast is made up of two Asian-Americans, one African-American, and one Caucasian, who can play any part." Something that guarantees diversity but allows for mixing up the cast.

Marissa said...

Yeah, that's another possible solution, but it still leaves me feeling conflicted. I mean, a diverse cast is important to me because it reflects the reality of the city where the play takes place, and because I believe in this kind of color-blind casting. But I still hesitate to prescribe the racial mix of the characters. Maybe this isn’t a nice thing to admit, but your comment has made me realize that given the choice between having my play performed with an all-white cast, and not having it performed at all, I’d still choose the former.

We are lucky in San Francisco to be living in a racially diverse city with a diverse pool of actors, but lots of places aren’t like that. And I’ve seen how many headaches result when people in these places try to put on shows that require actors of ethnicities that aren’t really represented in the local talent pool. This is how, growing up in Portland (the whitest city of its size in America—NOT something I am proud of), I once played a role written for a black person—or how, at my college, we had to switch the race of a character in a play from African-American to Indian-American.

OK, I don’t really believe that this play of mine is going to be produced in dozens of cities all across America, but the hypothetical implications of this situation are something that I think about. In Portland there are a fair number of Asian-Americans, but very few African-Americans; in the South it’s the other way around. And I guess I’d want a theater company in any city to cast my play with the very best actors from the local talent pool, rather than having to jump through hoops to find people who met certain racial qualifications, or—even worse—deciding not to produce my play at all because they didn’t think they could achieve the racial mix I specified.