Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Neverending Story...

Same old, same old. Another Sunday night. I'm at home, hiding out in my room from a number of things, not the least of which is my parents. And I'm reflecting on some things that never seem to change.

A couple of different things happened to me last week. Not exactly related, but somehow connected. As I've mentioned, I have a show running. The show opened last Monday, to a rather small house. We've been plagued with small houses; it's what happens to a show in New York, opening at the holidays especially and lacking any names in the production or something super-controversial that brings people out to see it, or a major publicity push. One of the many never-ending stories. Now this show is a bit different from my work in general, in that it's primarily concerned with black people.

I don't, in general, write a lot about black people. Nothing meant by it, it's just the way the world looks to me. For the vast majority of my life, I've been the only black person in any room I'm in. I moved from Brooklyn when I was ten to a very white suburb in New Jersey and have spent most of my time since then in the "mainstream" theatre world, which is overwhelmingly white as well. Somewhat obviously, most of my plays have one black person in the cast, usually in a more "observer" role, outside of the main drama. You write what you know, right?

Anyway, this particular play is different for me in that most of the characters are black and the main part of the story is about a particularly black issue: staying true to your roots. Again, I don't know normally write this kind of thing.

Well, at the party, the director, who is white, Italian from Connecticut, turns to me and asks me "Where your boys at? When they coming to the show?"

A couple of weeks ago, I saw this lame Barbara Walters special and one of the people she interviewed was Kanye West. He said something that really resonated with me, especially after working on this particular script. She asked him how he felt about the N-word and how it was used and if it was ever okay for a white person to use it. And he said that he didn't care so much about it, that it's just a word or whatever, but that he's more offended when white people use incorrect English or throw in a "be" in the middle of the sentence (as in, "He better not be doing that!"). That's something that lands with me, absolutely. It's a more damning thing that using one word. And that's how this guy tends to talk to me. I'm his "black" playwright and that's how "black" people talk. It gets a bit frustrating.

Especially since, in reality, I'm not very "black." I'm just not. I was raised in the suburbs, most of my friends are white, I've only dated white women, I listen to indie rock and pop. That's just how it is for me. And, yeah, it's uncomfortable and awkward sometimes, but it's never worse than when I'm expected to be some kind of stand-in for the black community or something.

Then, I had a meeting with a friend of mine who's an assistant at a major literary agency. She'd read a bunch of my plays and really liked them and is kind of taking me under her wing (which is weird because she's at least three years younger than I am). We had a good chat, but one of the things she said worked in my favor is that I'm a black playwright and right now there's a lot of pressure to diversify in theatre. (You wouldn't think theatre would need diverisification, but boy, does it. More on that later.) But that puts me in the position of being the "black" playwright more and more and wondering if my work is "black" enough. I've, less than consciously, set up my work and my plays to be...kind of color-blind, at least as far as who wrote it goes. I use my first initial, not my full name, or my middle name (which, since I'm a black man born in the early 70s is vaguely Islamic), so you can't really tell if I'm a man or a woman, from the page.

But all of that isn't great for my career. But how much do I want to trade on my skin color? How many times do I have to look awkwardly at my feet when people ask me when I'm bringing in the black folk? I don't know. It never ends, does it?

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