The Benefits of Slavery
In the 1970s Dr. Howard Washington Thurman, a theologian and mystic, and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a lecture on “the benefits of slavery.” In it he focused on the mindset of the African people and how the creative center of their “being” developed, because of their closeness with nature and “the presence,” which they experienced everywhere and in every thing. He also talked about the fact that as a result of slavery, their creative, intuitive, compassionate, and forgiving mindset was spread throughout the world. He went on to suggest that the “hand of evolution” had something to do with the spread of this mindset so that it would be everywhere on the planet as the guiding influence for the next leap in human evolution.
My recent resignation as artistic director of Chicago’s Remy Bumppo Theatre Company has decidedly struck a chord in this theater community with regard to the entrenched reticence to talk openly and candidly about matters of (and perceptions of) race relations between blacks and whites. This discordant dance of avoidance is not unique to Chicago, as evidenced by my body of experience as a practitioner of theater across America. A prolific freelance career wherein much of the time I’m engaged as the director for a theater company’s ethnic production in a given season. And while I absolutely treasure the relationships I’ve cultivated with artistic directors across the country—all of whom I know engage me first and foremost because of my talents as an artist—my resume tells a very precise statistical story, which ensures that my primary professional conversation consistently surround issues of race.
While it is true that my principal reason for moving on from Remy Bumppo was based on artistic differences, perspectives on race and culture did indeed factor into my decision. As part of my agreement in merging with the company, I inherited six longtime artistic associates—all actors, and all of whom are white (as is the entire board and staff). During the rehearsal, performance, and season planning processes it became abundantly clear that we had fundamentally differing ideas about effective leadership, and how to create stories for the stage.
The majority of mainstream American theater has built its reputation by producing highly literate Eurocentric plays, and as a direct result, the majority of mainstream American centers for actor training build their pedagogical paradigms upon Eurocentric principles.
When pressed for details by the media and the genuinely curious here in Chicago on how race may have impacted my departure, I answer in this way: If you liken my creative-self to a gumbo, the specificity of my race and primary cultural influence is the equivalent of a dominant spice. Its presence is formidable, and yet its inherent function is to compliment and enhance the other ingredients. And though you can clearly taste and identify the specificity of the spice, once it has been added to the gumbo and allowed to simmer, it can never be extracted because it has fully blended itself into, through and around the other ingredients altering their nature forever. There were aspects of the “spice” I inherently bring to my work and leadership style that the prevailing palette at Remy Bumppo was unable or unwilling to digest.
The majority of mainstream American theater has built its reputation by producing highly literate Eurocentric plays, and as a direct result, the majority of mainstream American centers for actor training build their pedagogical paradigms upon Eurocentric principles. I had the good fortune of receiving my classical actor training at Yale School of Drama, and was blessed to do so during the tenure of Lloyd Richards, and counted as my primary acting teacher and mentor, the visionary Earle Gister (who just recently made his transition). In those days, one did not audition, but was simply cast in roles that the faculty felt would be best for the acting student to wrestle with at that point in their development. Of the thirty-three productions I performed in during my three years at Yale, only once was I cast in a leading role actually designated for a black man.
I’ll confess that I used to hold racial resentment about this until I had a revelation a few years back. It struck me that the most influential aspect of my training was in getting to deeply explore—by default—what it is to be “other,” while at the same time having to convey a genuine authenticity in each role. My white counterparts always got to “be white” without ever having to bring the concept of whiteness to conscious mind. They were allowed to simply build a character as part, and on top of who they innately were. In my acting I wasn’t playing “white” per se, but in each case I was most definitely (subliminally, but not subtlety) asked to suspend my innate “blackness” in order to accomplish the task at hand, and it was expected that I appear as authentic in my characterizations as my fellow actors who were melanin-challenged.
The most influential aspect of my training was in getting to deeply explore—by default—what it is to be “other,” while at the same time having to convey a genuine authenticity in each role.
My latent revelation lay in the fact that I actually received a phenomenally comprehensive exploration of cultural-craft at a depth far beyond those of my classmates, who rarely, if ever, were asked to explore outside of race and/or culture. Further, (if I’m to believe the assessment of my acting instructors) it actually makes me a more accomplished theater practitioner than my classmates because I succeeded in being able to authentically bring forth a living, breathing cultural-equivalence through craft. It’s why today I feel as confident in my approach to William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Beth Henley as I do when approaching Alice Childress, August Wilson, and Robert O’Hara … I know both creative worlds intimately and equally.
It is also why, when dragged into discussions about race and diversity in the theater, and the seemingly inexhaustible question surrounding “who has the right to tell whose story?” that I hold firm to a seemingly paradoxical double-standard of expressing full confidence and qualification in my directing the European classics, while holding suspect the motivation and abilities of my white counterparts when at the helm of an Afrocentric work. My objection isn’t across race lines, per se, and I am most definitely not saying that white directors should not direct black works—not at all. What I am standing up for is the integrity of storytelling itself, and insisting that the director possess the fundamental capacity to fully realize the foundational bottom layers of a culturally-specific work, and I don’t know how one does this effectively if one has not “lived” inside of it. I can tell you all about the properties of honey—its sweetness, stickiness, sensuousness of flavor, and its truly indescribable sensation on the tongue until blue in the face, but you will never “know” honey until you taste it!
In the recent case of the Broadway revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, I went on record defending every director’s right to helm any project they feel passionately drawn to, including Bart Sher—whom I consider to be a truly visionary, gifted, and accomplished director. As a colleague and admirer of his work, I fully defend every artistic choice he made on that production. Being said, I felt there were fundamental layers missing as a result of a basic misunderstanding of, or disregard for the cultural specificities inherent in that play. I had the benefit of having this discussion with some of the folks at Lincoln Center and remain clear that from the best of intentions one aspect of Mr. Sher’s appointment as the director was an act of a kind of diversity, which I can fully get behind. In my opinion, though, American audiences cannot yet claim they’ve seen so many productions of August Wilson’s plays directed by black directors that the time has now come for an interpretation or deconstruction of the work from a white perspective as the way of unearthing the deeper and nuanced meanings in the plays.
I do ultimately think it unreasonable to believe that the theater can or should be expected to satisfactorily and/or effectively address all the social ills of the world. For sure, part of our designated mission as its practitioners is to shed the light, ask the provocative questions, teach the hard lessons … and, oh yes—entertain. Still, the pressure is far too great to expect we can collectively bring forth meaningful paradigm shifts given the extremity of current world events. This is why I try and remember to regularly seek perspective by scrutinizing my work in the theater within the context of the world we currently live.
With regard to perceived differences, whites seem always to be looking to blacks for the answer to the “race problem.” The reason that black people so often appear to be frustrated about engaging in that dialogue is simply because we do not have the answer and are achingly weary of the question. The task remains for all of us as Americans to emerge from our psychic amnesia surrounding the unresolved legacy of slavery, and on a mass level finally admit that the ongoing conundrum between blacks and whites is a direct result of the overwhelming and desperate need for the healing of that festering wound—our shared former atrocity. Until the moment comes when there is a genuine attempt on the part of dominant culture to offer a symbolic apology on par, say, with the profound and prolific response to the Jewish Holocaust, we will continue to perpetuate the manufactured and ultimately imaginary rift between the races—on our stages and off.
The task remains for all of us as Americans to emerge from our psychic amnesia surrounding the unresolved legacy of slavery
The answer that whites are looking for is within themselves. If dominant culture could summon the integrity, grace, desire, and wisdom to “go inside” and get underneath that ancestral vibe that believed it was okay to enslave another people, all confusion about the nature of why and how blacks and whites have been relating to one another would be erased in that instant of revelation. I often wonder why this event has not yet happened? In turning the focus away from blacks to engage in their own soul’s search, do whites fear that we would rise up and engage in a massacre of retaliation? I happen to know the opposite would be true, because we as a people would be too busy enjoying the relief from all the scrutiny we’re perpetually under to provide answers we don’t have and have never had. Indeed we’d be too busy chillin’ with profound gratitude for the much needed break!
Perhaps this is the next phase of evolution that Dr. Thurman alludes to.