I teach theater appreciation at a community college in rural North Carolina, and I love my students. I love my students because they have no preconceptions about what theater is supposed to be (most of them have never seen a live production before taking my course). I love my students because they do not have a sense of entitlement. Mostly, though, I love my students because in this era (or error) of political correctness they are not afraid to speak frankly about any topic, so I was very excited to finally reach the subject of identity/community-specific theater in the textbook, and because this was not a matter of grammar or punctuality, my students did not fail to disappoint.

Our discussion began with A Doll’s House. I asked my students if they believed that A Doll’s House was a woman’s play despite the fact that its author was a man. With near unanimity, they said that it was because the play empowered women and fought against false stereotypes. No matter what I said my students refused to concede that the objective existence of the Norwegian master’s penis represented any impediment to his ability to write a woman’s play (at least as they defined a woman’s play). So then I asked them if I, as a white man, could write an African American play. The question prompted almost all of my students to do an about-face, and I was told in no uncertain terms that I could not write an African American play. One African American student moderated his position, opining that I could write an African American play “only after I lived a long time with black people.” Following this remark, I asked my students another question: “Does African American drama need to be by African Americans, about African Americans, or both?” My students maintained that it only needed to be about African Americans, but that it would be almost impossible for someone who is not African American to write credibly about the black experience. Thus, our entire discussion about community-specific theater boiled down to one point: sometimes it is possible for an outsider to accurately depict a community to which he/she does not belong and sometimes it is not. In particular, one’s sex is not a barrier to understanding but one’s race is.

On days when I teach, I commute two hours in each direction, so on my return trip I have ample time to contemplate the day’s discussion while listening to NPR. Initially, I was struck by the logical inconsistency in my students’ position. How could they say that sex, which is far more grounded in biology than race, does not constrain the imagination while skin pigmentation does? Their point of view made no sense to me. Then I began to think about all of the great plays and playwrights of the American theater, and pretty quickly I realized that the white men whose plays have dominated our stages over the last century have produced countless iconic women and almost no African American characters of note (I am sure there are more, but the only ones that immediately come to my mind are Porgy and Bess, Brutus Jones, and Belize). Next, I considered my own writing (not that my list of plays is extensive), and it dawned on me that I do not hesitate to write female characters yet I have never written an African American character. Why? What am I afraid of?

Marshall Botvinick.
Photo by Duke University.

Is it that I do not trust that I, as an outsider, can authentically capture the nuances and complexities of African American culture? If so, how can race serve as such a barrier to the imagination? The entire purpose of theater, in my opinion, is to foster understanding, thereby eliminating any notion of the other. Performance exists so that we can see the world through someone else’s eyes, walk in their shoes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our oldest extant play: Aeschylus’s The Persians. With The Persians, Aeschylus, who also happened to be a Greek soldier and a participant in the war against the Persians, still managed to insert himself into the minds of the vanquished foreigners. He identified with their suffering, and he dramatized it authentically. If Aeschylus can do it, why can’t I? (okay, maybe that’s not the best question for a fledgling writer to ask) Furthermore, how is it that my specific gender experiences place only a limited constraint upon my mind while my specific racial experiences act as a massive roadblock on my journey to creativity? I have no definitive answer to this question, but I do have several hypotheses about what makes race for many American playwrights, including myself, the last frontier of the imagination.

1. Authenticity/Fear of Misrepresentation
As anyone who knows me can attest, I have an obsession with being right. This pathology takes on an even more extreme form when I write because I believe that a writer, above all else, has a duty to the truth, and to be frank, I am not sure that I will ever be capable of writing truthfully about the African American experience. Much to my chagrin as a trained dramaturge, culture goes so far beyond what can be researched and studied in a book. It encompasses everything, including the smell of a place, a common life rhythm, subtextual/nonverbal cues, and more. Culture is all of the things that make up a shared, silent knowing between people. It is mostly intuitive; therefore, the value of study only extends so far. Once I concede the limits of my understanding, I must then ask myself if there is value in creating a work of art based on my limited understanding of a subject. Typically, I would say yes. We are all creatures of limited understanding, and the subject of our art, life, is only something we have just begun to comprehend; yet I find myself granting an exception when it comes to race and the African American community in particular. All too often African Americans have been misrepresented and stereotyped in the theater and on film. They are victims of false representation, and who can say if my limited understanding would lead to misunderstanding?

2. Ownership
Cultures are very protective of their stories. As a Jew, I bristle when a non-Jew, even a well-intentioned one, coopts the Jewish experience and uses it as he/she sees fit. By nature I am not a territorial or possessive individual, yet such acts instinctively make me feel as if my turf is being encroached upon, like someone is trying to take something that does not belong to him/her; as a result, I worry about doing the same thing to someone else, so perhaps I do not write about African American characters because doing so would necessitate taking an experience as well as a professional opportunity that does not belong to me. This feeling, I think, goes to the heart of the 2009 controversy involving Bartlett Sher’s direction of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. At question was not only the ability of Sher, a white man, to understand the culturally specific experiences of Wilson’s characters, but whether or not the chance to tell those experiences should even belong to Sher. Fortunately or unfortunately, life is even more complicated than the most opaque copyright laws, and since I cannot say with certainty when an experience of a person or a group transitions from the private domain to the public domain, I will continue to respect experiential property rights (is that a legal term?) even when it means limiting my creativity.

3. Lack of Interest
Although I do not want this to be true about myself, I at least have to ask the question: am I not writing African American characters because I am not sufficiently interested in the African American experience? We all write about the things that matter to us, and if I am not writing about African Americans, does this suggest that their experiences are not that important to me? Not necessarily. With matters this complicated, it is not sufficient to simply apply the transitive property of equality. On the other hand, this question cannot be dismissed simply because I find its personal implications to be deeply troubling. Like most of us, I gravitate towards the familiar. My life is a series of concentric circles beginning with the familial, extending to the familiar, and culminating with the one human family that makes up this planet. As a result, my interests, as well as my understanding and sense of ownership, reside in those small circles closest to me. Thus, the task before me is not expanding those circles closest to me but shrinking those circles furthest from me.

While writing this article, a series of other questions has cropped up in my mind:

Could my fears and limitations lead to an artistic separatism that I find morally repugnant? Yes.

What can be done about that? Continue to write colorblind characters.

Would that choice mean I am abdicating my responsibility to discuss race and culturally specific experiences in my work? Yes.

Are there some races that I am more comfortable writing about than others? Yes.

Is that feeling entirely arbitrary? No. If I write about Danish people, I do not, even though I am not Danish, feel as if I am mining and exploiting their unique experience for my personal gain, yet somehow it strikes me as crude and self-serving to use the African American experience for a creative endeavor. Perhaps it is “white guilt.” Interestingly, though, I do not have the same level of guilt when it comes to Latinos or Muslim-Americans.

Is that feeling irrational? Yes, but such is the nature of guilt; and what is irrational is not necessarily arbitrary.

Am I doing the African American community a service or disservice by not making more of an effort to write about the black experience? I don’t know.

Is it easier or more acceptable for members of one oppressed group to write about members of another oppressed group? Probably.

Does this extend to white women? I don’t know.

And finally, there is the question that I ask every time I sit down to write: am I alone in my anxieties, fears, and limitations?