Learning to Listen
“Political Correctness” and the Question of Socially Responsible Theatre
In online forums, on college campuses, stages, and screens, there’s been a lot of discussion recently about the concept of “political correctness,” especially as it relates to freedom of expression in the arts and entertainment. The issue of “who gets to say what,” as well as who has (or doesn’t have) the responsibility to be inclusive, has made its way to the forefront of conversations about performance art, both mainstream and on-the-fringe. Recently, a planned workshop production of a Prince of Egypt musical, based on the Dreamworks film, came under heavy fire when it was revealed that cast of the show, which takes place in biblical Africa, was overwhelmingly white. Rather than engaging in a discussion with those who were unhappy with the casting in an attempt to improve the production and do better in the future, the creative team cancelled the event.
Particularly as a white person, writing ‘raceless’ characters in works of realism can be just as harmful as writing stereotypical characters of color…there is no such thing as a ‘raceless’ person.
Still, with the popularity of productions like Hamilton, there are those who see these “white-washing” incidents, and the debates surrounding them as relative non-issues. After, all compared to the film industry, where just last year a white actress was cast as a Pacific Islander in a film called Aloha, the theatre community can seem like it’s at the cutting edge of cultural sensitivity. But despite #tonyssodiverse, the irrefutable fact is that much of the theatre produced in this country is overwhelmingly white and straight. And, as a community, we haven’t quite figured out how to have specific, productive discussions about this yet without eventually regressing into pettiness.
Fierce defensiveness, injurious as it can be, is a common and understandable result of how personal and emotional the creation of art is. Playwrights, directors, actors, and producers take great ownership over the worlds we create, and the characters that inhabit them. We tend to believe that we can imagine anything, and in many ways, we can. What we present onstage doesn’t always follow the rules, and this is often what allows exciting performances to materialize. As artists who work tirelessly to craft live stories, we don’t like being told that a character, a world, or a situation that we’ve literally helped bring to life is socially irresponsible. It’s not an easy thing to hear, especially when you’re not used to hearing it, and when you think of yourself as a progressive person.
Recently, I, a white female playwright raised in a fiercely liberal Jewish environment, discovered that—gasp—even I am not immune to stereotyping and racial coding in my writing. In the process of casting my play #Blessed, which was part of the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival, a pattern began to emerge when it came to actor submissions—a very white pattern. A few of the characters are people of color, and the casting call reflected that. However, a vast majority of the characters, particularly the leads, were not race-specific. The play is about religion and rape culture in a public high school, and I admit that it didn’t seem important to me in the three-year process of writing the play to ascribe racial identities to most of the characters. The issue was, that as a white person myself, I was ignoring the seemingly obvious reality that marginalized groups experience sexual awakenings, high school, and certainly religion very differently than cisgender, white, heterosexual folks.
The issue was brought to my attention by several members of the creative team. There was straightforwardness, but there was no finger pointing, no animosity. We were able to engage in a conversation about casting and racial coding that required me to do something that doesn’t always come very naturally to me: shutting up, allowing myself be talked to, to be taught, to be told I was wrong about something that had once existed only in my own imagination. I cried a lot, mostly selfishly. I called my boyfriend and my parents—the wisest and kindest people I know. I let them tell me what they thought about the situation. And when I stopped crying, when I had processed everything, I was so clear. I revisited the script. I thought to myself, “Oh. Yeah, this is problematic. If I saw this in someone else’s play, I would take issue with it. Thank God I was brought to task.”
At this point, I was able to do some really important work on the script. As a playwright, I experienced for the first time the miraculous, cathartic clarity of approaching a script that I had been working on for three years with a genuine objectivity. With the perspective I had gained, with what I had learned, I explored nuances, character motivations, and layers of the plot that had been completely out of my realm of thinking, because they were out of my realm of experience. Furthermore, having a difficult and ultimately productive conversation during casting set an excellent standard for open communication that was particularly healthy in the rehearsal process for a play about issues that include sexual assault and religion,
Simply put: the process of mounting this complex play was a powerful reminder to me that that while good intentions are often the seed of growth, they don’t mean much unless they’re paired with action. It’s not enough to say, “I didn’t mean to.” Particularly as a white person, writing “raceless” characters in works of realism can be just as harmful as writing stereotypical characters of color. This is because, in the world we live in, there is no such thing as a “raceless” person. As a storyteller, to ignore the implications, the beauty, and the difficulty of the cultural background to which a character or story belongs is an injustice to the play, the theatre community, and on some level, the world we live in.
If white, cisgender, heterosexual theatremakers want to take significant steps toward real inclusivity on a large scale, I believe it has to begin with a deceptively simple choice: Do we want to acknowledge our responsibility as storytellers to harness the truth, even when it hurts? Is it more important to tell the story exactly as we imagined it, or to be open to the reality that there are experiences of the world that we may be ignoring or belittling? As privileged members of this community, we have got to be willing to let those whose voices have been systematically stifled or silenced share their experiences, and tell their stories. We have to be enthusiastically willing to learn from them. It is possible to be “politically correct” and still create provocative and controversial art—but it will require open ears, and a generous dose of humility.