Creating from the Vanguard
The Sanctity of Ownership
This is a new regular column featuring musings, observations, and strategies from the frontline of cultural theatre-making in the 21st century.
A few weeks ago, Centerstage in Baltimore invited Lydia Diamond, Kirsten Greenidge, and I to the opening of artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Beneatha’s Place. We were also asked to sit on a pre-show panel to discuss the ownership of narrative, among other things. I was thrilled and honored to sit on the panel. I was also geeked to experience a live performance of Kwame’s dramatic imagining of Hansberry’s Beneatha—an imagining that sends the signature character to a tense 1959 Nigeria. Beneatha’s Place was bold and daring, particularly in its exploration of political and cultural ownership in Nigeria. Ownership was the theme of the night.
During the panel, Kwame asked about racial fatigue in context to playwriting—the idea that artists of color would grow weary of being pigeonholed as race conduits. You know, the idea that artists of color are not capable (or allowed) to simply tell a story without attaching a racial appendage. Kwame asked the panelists to rate our racial fatigue on a scale of 1 to 10. Without hesitation I answered with an 8. However, after some thought and post-panel vino, I realized my fatigue isn’t racial at all. It’s much more about ownership fatigue—a fatigue informed by holding up the conversation around ownership all by myself, or only with artists of color.
Ownership informed by privilege informed by institutional access to resources that are shared and bartered among the privileged.
However, after some thought and post-panel vino, I realized my fatigue isn’t racial at all. It’s much more about ownership fatigue—a fatigue informed by holding up the conversation around ownership all by myself, or only with artists of color.
Since earning my M.F.A. from Iowa in the late nineties, I have seen and endured plenty of institutional curiosities—playwrights of color overlooked for productions without explanation, playwrights of color denied production due to an unsympathetic or narrow-minded subscriber base, playwrights of color in competition with each other (as well as women and LGBT artists) for a production, playwrights of color dragged through development hell with no production in sight (read London and Pesner’s Outrageous Fortune), and plays of color written by white playwrights selected for production despite similarly-themed plays written by artists of color. Needless to say, a concerned member of the theatre community would want to make sense of this curious trend before jumping to racist conclusions.
During the Q & A after the panel, a woman on crutches came to the mic and asked about ownership of narrative. She was concerned about the amount of black content being written and directed by white theatre artists. She wanted to know our thoughts on the matter and what we were doing about it. Although we were all excited to finally dig into the big theme of the night, time was not in our favor. Kwame was counting down the seconds before his opening and the rest of us were looking at the clock as well. So the woman’s question was answered with brevity, and we concluded with a thank you and good night.
I wanted to say much more. I wanted to say this: yes, from the vantage point of most theatre artists of color, white theatre artists have a better chance of having their plays of color produced. Many white artists are deemed the owners of cultural understanding. Many are nurtured and developed (and often produced) by companies who physically own their theatre spaces, own the flexibility to engage with various demographics, and own the right to ignore the imbalance in produced plays by playwrights of color. I wanted to say there’s not enough conversation around the history of ownership in theatre (and America for that matter) and it appears to be the big elephant in the room.
A month ago, I attended an exciting salon-style think tank in Harlem called Blind Spot spearheaded by Obie Award-winning actor and LAByrinth member Russell Jones. Blind Spot is a courageous attempt to bring together artists from all walks of life to have discourse around privilege and ownership, its regressive impact on our collective community, and how to identify solutions for forward motion. During Blind Spot I met a self-proclaimed (and rather cool) progressive guy who was also white. He talked passionately about his theatre company and their attempt at addressing race. I told him I was aware of his company and admired them from afar. I shared with him that I was the co-founder of The New Black Fest, a theatre collective committed to celebrating and unearthing the diversity within the African Diaspora. He never heard of it.
I asked him why is it that most white theatre artists don’t attend theatre by and about people of color, but the assumption is that artists of color should know and support their theatre-making. His answer was deliciously honest. He said most white theatre artists don’t feel that theatre by people of color threatens their privilege because white theatre artists know (whether they articulate it or not) that they own everything. In a nutshell, if their ownership (or privilege) is not threatened, ignorance is bliss—there is no consequence for not knowing or engaging. After standing there in a moment of silence, he then said: “I need to work harder at challenging myself and my peers to look at our privilege so we can get out of our way and make room for everyone else.”
Like so many, I have spent a great deal of my life taking ownership of myself—personally, culturally, and artistically. This is why I deem the art of narrative a sacred thing. It’s my testament. It belongs to me. So when someone has the ability to appropriate my narrative—to own it—it blocks true cultural and artistic progress. Isn’t art about sharing what you know with others— not denying or ignoring what someone else knows?
It mattered to me that idea of ownership became crucial in the discussion at Centerstage. Notions of ownership permeate our minds, our beliefs, and our nations. From Beneatha’s Place to Clybourne Park to Kirsten Greenidge’s Luck of the Irish to Thomas Gibbon’s Permanent Collection to early America’s paper trail of bills of sales, deeds, and last wills and testaments, the power of ownership has left many people and places feeling voiceless, homeless. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that so-and-so white playwright has written a play about enslaved black people, or whatever. However, it does matter that more playwrights begin to understand that privilege, although institutional, and habitual, is often the culprit behind the imbalances in who truly owns and has the right to own what. Let’s all begin to look at this so we can get out of the way and make room for everybody.