Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Kevin R. Free.
I recently worked with a (white) woman who said, upon seeing the title of a theatre piece (a title which I cannot mention here), that she hoped that the play wasn’t “about being mad at white people.” I (a black man) remarked, nearly simultaneously, that I was suspicious, when I saw said piece, that it featured no people of color. We didn’t speak at length about our reactions, or about our expectations, which I really think are the issue in this situation; but - as I knew I’d be contributing to this here blog this week - I decided that we’d wrestle the expectations in this forum.
So. Let’s talk about titles. What do they do to you? I learned how to title my plays when I wrote for Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (30 Plays in 60 Minutes). Often, I titled my plays to be provocative or funny, because I wanted our audience to see the titles and really, really, really really really (really) want to see them. So when I expanded my series of plays from Too Much Light into a full length called A Raisin in the Salad: Black Plays for White People, I am not sure what I expected, other than for people to want to see it. What kind of play do you expect when you read that title? Do you want to see it? Are you intrigued? Are you afraid of what it could mean* (dramatic music)?
Last week, I saw a friend’s musical play off-broadway. It was quite good: well-performed, well-written, and well-produced. But, as I watched it, I realized there was no representation of myself in it. I mean that not only in a where-are-the-blacks-where-are-the-gays way, but also in a where-are-the-smart-people-who-struggle-with-existence-and-identity-in-a-world-that-values-happy-endings way. Before I saw the show - because of its title (which I will not name) - I had a feeling that that would be my experience, but I bought a ticket and I attended anyway. I left the theatre depressed, because of how silenced I felt, but I also left feeling inspired to create more of the kind of work I like to see: challenging, thought-provoking entertainment that isn’t quite so easy to sum up, categorize, or dismiss.
I told the woman with whom I worked last week not to be afraid of provocative titles, and I hope she heard me. If you are white and you see a play that features angry black people shouting because they hate white people, or what white people do, or what white people have done and have plans to do, realize that those black people aren’t talking about YOU. They’re talking about WHITE PEOPLE. The monolith. The construct. They’re only talking about you in the abstract. BUT. They are talking about you if you aren’t there to hear it. But you know what they say: “If an angry black man shouts about white people in an empty theater - or in a theater full of black people - does anyone really hear it?”
I decided long ago that I like to see race or ethnicity in a title. Love it. It lets me know that I am in for a ride. I believe that - for better or worse - we are bound by race in this country. Your whiteness, your blackness, your asianness, your definition of those nesses (and all the other othernesses) inform my identity, because we have all enslaved one another; I cannot separate my history from yours, no matter how hard I try. So. I’m provoked just by seeing you, and I am silenced when I don’t see me (“you” and “me” both being relative and abstract).
I have never seen The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and I am trying to forgive myself.
*I wrote my first Black Plays for White People when I was in Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. I wanted to write parodies of classic Black Theatre, and there were no black people in the company for whom I could write.