Do White Playwrights Think About This?
This week on HowlRound, we are exploring Native voices on the American stage. I have deemed this week: "Instead of Redface" (#InsteadOfRedface)—as our voices collectively question why redface is more prevalent on the American stage than our own authentic Native voices. I have asked Larissa FastHorse to add her voice because I believe she is one of the most well known Native playwrights of our time. She has won numerous awards and recognitions, and most recently, her play What Would Crazy Horse Do was selected as one of the top ten plays by the Kilroys. Why isn’t anyone producing this play?! Larissa offers the important perspective that as Native playwrights, we are capable of writing more than just stories about ourselves. As Native Peoples, we are storytellers .—Mary Kathryn Nagle
A few years ago I won a national playwriting award and decided it was time to find a literary agent. I did a round of meetings in New York and was shocked at how they saw me. I saw myself as a published playwright who had received a second commission at a LORT A theatre and had two well-received equity productions. Instead I was told, “As a Native American female playwright…” and “You can’t ___ because you are a Native American female playwright.” Or…
Agent: As a Native American female playwright you’ll never work in LORT. I’d send you to college theatres.
Me: But I’m working on my second LORT commission.
Agent: Native American female playwrights do best in college theatre.
Me: Can’t I do both?
Agent: Not with me.
This was a major agent and my first choice. I was thrown. I started to doubt all of my career decisions. Then I met the guy who became—and is still—my agent. He brought my scripts to the meeting—a lovely touch—and never once mentioned “Native American” or “female.” He talked about my writing and what kind of artistic life I wanted and how he could support me on that journey.
It turned out well, but on the flight home I asked myself, do white playwrights ever have to think about this? Do they ever have an agent spell out their limitations based on their whiteness? Are they told they are not welcome in a whole segment of theatre because they are white? Are they relieved to have a meeting where no one asks them a hundred questions about their whiteness instead of their work? Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my ethnic identity and honored to share it, but I’ve got more going on.
Jump forward to this year: I’ve been working on the award-winning play with the LORT company. It began as an autobiographical piece and is the hardest story I’ve ever tried to wrangle. I’ve typed more on this play than all of my other plays combined. Along the way, the main character’s journey became my truth in experiences and obstacles and lessons learned. But that journey no longer matches mine chronologically or geographically. Several real people have combined into one character. Lessons that took years to learn now happen in weeks. Internal battles are externalized. But we finally have something that looks like an engaging play.
On a notes call the director says very carefully, “I’m not sure how being Native American serves the main character now. It seems to be forced into this world in a way that doesn’t feel honest to the story.” I think about it and have to agree. There is no reason for it to come up in this world. He continues, “If being Native American is important to the character, then there needs to be a better way to bring it into the story. If it’s not, maybe you don’t need that.” I feel like I’ve walked into a wall. But she’s me. She has to be Native American. I’m a Native American female—whoa. He reaches out to me in the silence: “Larissa, you know we don’t hire you because you’re Native American. We hire you because you’re a good writer.”
Tears fill my eyes. Despite my supportive agent, as a Native American female playwright I sometimes suspect that the things the trolls say online are true. That I get jobs I don’t deserve based on my ethnicity. That I am part of forced gender parity and if the numbers ever get equal, I’ll be out. That I can’t stand on my writing alone.
Do white playwrights ever think about this? Do they worry about losing jobs for white actors? Do they question if they are writing about enough white issues? Are they expected to be the voice of all white people even when they are just speaking for themselves? Do they fear their play about a girl who wants to be a ballet dancer is responsible for the genocide of their race?
Then the sincerity of the director’s words cascade through my brain and I am euphoric. It’s a freedom I’ve never allowed myself to have, and the limitless possibilities make me giddy. Maybe she’ll be ethnic, maybe she won’t. I will serve my play and nothing else.
I hang up and instantly panic. I can’t un-Native American a character. Do you know how many LORT contracts were available to Native American specific actors last year? I’m pretty sure it was two and I know who got both of them. (There may have been some lingering productions of August: Osage County, but you get the point.) I can’t waste this chance to give Native actors jobs and to represent my people. This country has spent hundreds of years trying to erase us and the genocide continues to this day. If I don’t write about the Native American experience, am I complicit? Being a Native American female playwright doesn’t feel like enough for one play.
I freak out for a few days until I’ve gone in enough circles that I can see myself from outside myself and finally ask, do white playwrights ever think about this? Do they worry about losing jobs for white actors? Do they question if they are writing about enough white issues? Are they expected to be the voice of all white people even when they are just speaking for themselves? Do they fear their play about a girl who wants to be a ballet dancer is responsible for the genocide of their race?
I see clearly the weird mix of hubris and humility I am living in. Can one play be that important? Should one play be that important? Is my one play really that important? It doesn’t mean we won’t cast a Native American actress; or she could be African American or Asian or Hispanic or white or a mix of colors that would look the most like me. So I take the ethnic specificity out and the play is stronger. It’s a choice I still struggle with, but it’s the right one for this story. Do white playwrights think about this stuff? I don’t know, but maybe they should.
Photo 1: Production still from Average Family, Children's Theater Company of Minneapolis. Photo by GW Mercier.
Photo 2: Director Edward B. Sharon and Larissa FastHorse in rehearsal for Cherokee Family Reunion, Mountainside Theater. Photo by Edward B. Sharon.
Photo 3: Production still from Landless, AlterTheater. Photo by David Allen.
Photo 4: Cast and creative team of Landless at AlterTheater.