Does It Matter that It Was Written by a White Guy?
Spurred by the controversies over the new adaptation of The Jungle Book that opened this summer in Chicago, this series of articles explores who is allowed to tell whose stories onstage. This series is curated by Rebecca Stevens, the Chicago Commons Producer for HowlRound.
In 2011, Ensemble member J. Nicole Brooks brought the play Mr. Rickey Calls A Meeting to the Lookingglass Ensemble for consideration in the following season. She’d heard a radio version of it, and thought it would be a thrilling match for the company and our audiences. So we scheduled a reading.
The play imagines a fictional 1947 meeting between Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ General Manager, and that era’s “leaders of the Negro community,” whom Rickey tries to enlist in his plan to move Jackie Robinson up to the major leagues. In addition to Rickey and Robinson, we meet boxer Joe Louis, entertainment legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and actor and activist Paul Robeson. For a taut 90 minutes we watch these five men in a small hotel room fire hard, fastball arguments about how, or whether, to integrate the country’s national pastime.
Nicky Brooks is one of the smartest, funniest and fiercest writers and directors I know—for that matter, one of the most fiercely alive people I know. She also loves baseball, boxing, and incisive, complex argument—all of which made her a perfect match for this show.
She brought in some of Chicago’s finest actors for the reading. They knocked it, aptly, out of the park. When it ended, we all knew we had a show with amazing potential.
But a question soon arose.
As Nicky soon discovered when she went to meet him in a Manhattan cafe, the playwright, Ed Schmidt, is a white guy.
Does that matter?
The theater artist is a kind of cultural anthropologist. We research and experiment endlessly, roll unfamiliar accents in our mouths, step into shoes and views not our own, adjust our weight or gait to become other people. We have one foot in the world of field research, one foot in the much swampier territory of imagination and inspiration. Then—if we have done our homework, and if the mists and fog in that creative swamp clear briefly, and if we are really lucky—slowly, strangely, a transformation begins, we have begun to cross over.
The theater artist is a kind of cultural anthropologist. We research and experiment endlessly, roll unfamiliar accents in our mouths, step into shoes and views not our own, adjust our weight or gait to become other people.
We are transgressors, but transgressors with a purpose: gaining a deeper understanding of lives we have not led, finding purchase in a toehold of empathy for people unlike ourselves, sometimes even those antithetical to ourselves.
Then we bring that work before an audience. Like a shaman, we travel across borders, interpreters of worlds past, present, and imaginary. Diving down into the world of the play and bringing back for the audience all the jewels and wares we have found, we demonstrate that this act of understanding, of gaining empathy for the other, is possible for everyone.
Who can better understand and give authentic voice to the experiences of a culture than someone from that culture? Aren’t there nuances and insights that an outsider will never know? And don’t white playwrights already have enough air-time on American stages, while the voices of artists of color still have too few opportunities to ring out?
Theater artists (and institutions) in America today constantly grapple with this messy duality: caught between a belief in this idealized vision of infinite potential to explore anything and everything; and the very real world in which everything tells us we cannot cross boundaries, where divisions in class and race are pervasive, where substantive engagement about divisive issues is hard, scary, and infrequent.
Mr. Rickey offered an opportunity to approach this duality head-on. Ed had approached the source material with humility, done meticulous homework, portrayed historic figures full of integrity and complexity, and his play asked all the important questions that still need asking. Nicky brought a deep and wide tool box of directorial skills, impeccable instincts, and her signature blend of humor and ferocity, fearlessness and compassion. As an African-American woman, she also brought her cultural background and deep personal life experience, steeped in the history and issues represented in the play. As they met in that café and bonded over baseball, boxing and a shared birthday, their mutual passion for the material would come to not only serve the story, but provide an opportunity for the theater to serve this dual function: to be both shamanic interpreter and interrogator of our great social questions.
Mr. Rickey Calls A Meeting had a lasting impact on the artists, audiences, and Lookingglass itself. With a rare combination of audacity and humility, Ed and Nicky formed a formidable team of border-crossing transgressors, and together forged an experience that brought us all on an unforgettable journey.