Can I Be Latina and Not a Playwright of Color?
On a recent playwriting submission, I was asked to check a box, yes or no, am I a playwright of color? I have always struggled with this term because I am a very light-skinned Mexican American. I have no problem checking the box that says: yes, I am Latina. But a playwright of color? Unless you’ve spoken to me about my race, or have met anyone from my mother’s side of the family, chances are you will assume I am white. Most people do. And if we break down the phrase “playwright of color” it seems apparent that the question is only interested in defining a person based on skin color. So it seems an obvious answer: no, my skin is white; therefore, I can’t possibly be a playwright of color. And I understand the utility of such a clear-cut binary. I’d have to be completely ignorant about the world we live in to not understand that my whiteness comes with advantages.
What does it mean, then, if I check the box no and say that I am not a playwright of color? Am I perpetuating the idea that the stories of light-skinned Latinx are not a valid part of the minority experience?
My skin color has allowed me to blend in with the racial majority and I’m not subject to the kind of racial disparity experienced by my fellow Latinos. I don’t ever have to defend the idea that I belong in this country, and I don’t have to provide papers to prove I am an American citizen. And even within our theatre community, there is evidence of huge racial disparity. One doesn’t have to look far to see the statistics on how white people are doing better in terms of positions of leadership and getting their plays produced in the theatre. If you don’t believe me, see articles like “New theatre season once again shows lack of diversity on Broadway and off” and “Why Are There So Few Women Leading Theatre and What Can Be Done About It.” It is for these reasons that I often feel I can’t check the box that I’m a playwright of color. I am not someone that theatres should point to and say that they’re filling their diversity quota because I have not experienced the same kind of racial discrimination that many of these programs are trying to respond to.
But I believe the issue is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no question would have us believe. My stories are a valid part of the Latina/o experience (I prefer using the term Latinx). I know I am not alone in my struggle to reconcile my outward appearance with the culture that is in my blood. And if a theatre truly wants to reflect the varied and diverse stories of the Latinx experience, then showing stories about being a white Latinx is a part of that greater narrative. What does it mean, then, if I check the box no and say that I am not a playwright of color? Am I perpetuating the idea that the stories of light-skinned Latinx are not a valid part of the minority experience?
As I grow as a writer, I have been writing more and more what its like to straddle the line between white and Latina. My parents have been divorced almost my whole life and so I’ve always lived in this space between my Mexican family and my white family. I’ve found it easy to compartmentalize them, switching into whatever role necessary depending on the situation. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve struggled with questions of my identity as a whole. And my writing often responds to this desire to reconcile the different parts of me. In this way, much of my work is about the Latinx experience told through this specific lens. To a certain extent, I am happy for my plays to speak for themselves without the need to identify myself as being a playwright of color or not. But the playwright of color question is unavoidable, appearing daily as I send my plays to calls for submissions around the country.
I believe the answer may lie with what the theatre company or program is looking for when they ask such a question. If the goal is to lift up playwrights who are often marginalized in their daily and professional life because of the color of their skin, then no, I am absolutely not a playwright of color. But if the company is searching for to find stories that differ from the standard white narrative and structure, then it’s possible that my plays can fulfill what they are looking for in creating programming with diverse voices.
I bring this forward to the theatre community because this is a question I struggle with on a regular basis as an emerging playwright. I often oscillate between both sides of the argument on whether or not to check the playwright of color box. The only solution I can propose is to ask theatres to get more information from playwrights rather than forcing them to answer an oversimplified question. That way the theatre can decide for themselves if a playwright is appropriate for their programing. And that when companies ask for only playwrights of color to submit to an opportunity, that theatre should define what that term means to them with the submission call. The minority experience is as diverse as the many individuals it encompasses. I don’t think we can hope to do justice to all the stories that need to be told by relying on the color binary created by a yes or no question.