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. 

Five actors on stage--four in the background and one in the foreground
Lookingglass Theatre Company's Production of Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting

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.

Right?

And yet…

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.

 

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Thoughts from the curator

Spurred by the controversies over the adaptation of The Jungle Book that opened in 2014 in Chicago, this series of articles explores who is allowed to tell whose stories onstage.

Race and Representation in American Theatre

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I believe the title should be, "It only matters if its written by a white guy". Only then, the rest of the article would make sense.

I think it's a great idea for a play. It's also kind of meta in that a white guy wrote it, and it requires an artistic team of people of color to realize it: just the way Rickey called the "meeting" with the predominant African-Americans of his time. So, the question then becomes: does it serve the historical moment? Does it shine a new light on the change that marked "before" and "after" in major league sports? I'll bet if something felt wrong or dismissive in the script, the playwright would hear about it from the rest of the team. I also think it was a no-brainer to match the playwright with a director of color, because she (or he because there probably will be other productions) has an experience the playwright has never had: being a person of color in America. I'd like to see this play.

Joe, I'm not saying he can't, but the issue is complicated. If female playwrights and playwrights of color were equally represented on the stages of American, this wouldn't be a question. But since we live in a white male playwright driven world, it's complicated. It brings up the larger issue of who has access and resources to tell these stories and why.

And isn't that how "narrative domination" works? Those making the decisions think their perspective is the true universal art form without even considering the wide range of work and cultural values out there. For sure you can only choose what you believe to be suitable for your stage, but if the preponderance of "producers" have the same "Euro/white" backgrounds and adhere to that same specific cultural perspective (believing it to be the true universal vision of art), won't that tend to reduce the equal artistic opportunities of artists of color whose perspectives and values might be different? (and by the stories you want to see on your stage, is that your own artistic judgement or is it influenced by who your audience is and what you think they want?)

I had this amazing experience with my first play that I think reflects how a certain unwitting "group think" becomes the way the system works. I was with a fellow Asian American director running auditions in Toronto for the lead character in my play who was a hard nosed detective (think Humphrey Bogart) when an Asian American actor did the opening monologue in a Chinese accent. The director and I could hardly believe our ears and at the end thanked the actor and he left. Then we shared our amazement and decided to bring the actor back to ask why he would do the very thing I was trying to undermine with my play and lead character. And he said that whenever he auditioned at other companies, they generally wanted him to do "the accent" and so he presumed we did too. This was back in the mid 1980's and things have certainly developed since then, but only after considerable push, not from the "producers" who were simply looking for the best work, but from artists of color who have had to fight to explain and argue for the validity of their own experience, perspective, understanding and ultimately artistry. So certainly the work you deem most suitable for your stage should get onto your stage, but please be aware that there are many ways to look at that idea of what you think is good and the past has not reflected well upon the idea of equal opportunity when it comes to American "producers" and their particular perspectives. So what I love about this conversation is that we can explore these thorny issues and I hope to persuade "producers" or simply decision makers at every level to just think about this idea, that no one of us has cornered the market of the universal artistic framework and can we be open to a wider range of ideas and values. I think that's the way toward a dynamic future for American theater.

This is an issue we are about to dive into at InterAct Theater in Philly. Our next show, DOWN PAST PASSYUNK, is by A. Zell Williams, an amazingly gifted African-American playwright who lived in Philly for a year as our NNPN playwright-in-residence. He was inspired by his stay to write a play set in South Philly. There is not a single African-American character in the piece. Zell wrote the story that captured his imagination not the one he was "supposed" to write and for me, this is a triumph. Zell has written many beautiful plays about the African-American experience (In fact we produced one a few seasons ago), but his art and imagination are boundless, so his plays are too. As we claw our way towards more vibrant and inclusive stages I look forward to more boundless works from writers and makers from every background.

Great story of art and cultural collaboration. I think it's key that Nicky turned out to be an African American woman and not simply that "she also brought her cultural background and deep personal life experience, steeped in the history and issues represented in the play. Imagine how much more difficult and problematic this might have been without this experience, perspective and understanding of the African American characters and the situation from their point of view. So often in these productions the key decision makers/artists don't have this deep connection to the material itself and then we get into the "narrative domination" syndrome. So for me it's not so much "if you're white you can't write about people of color" it's more about where's your entry into that world and is it real or simply a convenience so you can say what you want. But congrats to all and wish I could have seen it.

The only reason this question so plagues the American Theatre is because we have drifted so far into the swamp that is issue-driven theatre. When issues recede to their proper place in the background and allow characters to step up front and center, theatre comes alive. And the problem is not exclusive to those of us who write, direct, act or produce. The problem lies most deeply in the way in which audiences have been taught to consume storytelling (in all its forms) in this country. First look for broad themes of class, race, gender, etc. Then judge according to a prescribed set of assumptions. Put another way: content must always trump form. Blech!

The most enduring stories are those that are driven first and foremost by characters who confound us while simultaneously reminding us of ourselves.

Issues of class, race, and gender may belong in the background for you, but that's certainly not true for everyone. Characters who never thought about institutional privilege and power wouldn't remind me of myself. I'm having trouble imagining a person without class, race, or gender. But it's easy to think of a person who never has to think about these issues. He'd be white, straight, cis male, middle/upper class, able-bodied, a citizen...It's true, he might attribute all his successes and experiences to his individual characteristics, and never examine the systems of privilege that gave him access to space, speaking platforms, wealth, etc. But I'd argue that these issues would not be in the background, but at the forefront, influencing everything he says and does.

This question generalizes all "white guys" as having the same experience. That is not my experience. I am a "white guy" survivor of child-abuse, generational alcoholism and crippling family poverty. Now, when I write about disenfranchisement will you simply dismiss that in-valid because I am a "white guy" or will you check the unwise generalization it proffers and consider me an individual (the aim of progressive politics). I accept that being a "white guy" should not offer me privilege in the art I've chosen but neither should it discount the experience I draw from in practicing this art. Nor should it make my desire to pursue the art I love something I'm disqualified to enjoy because of the color of my skin and the assumptions that judgment makes towards my personal history.

No, it does not matter, as long as the white guy does it well, tastefully, and sensitively. Is this the corollary to having doubts about cross-casting Blacks as Whites, or women in men's parts (if the playwright does not expressly forbid it)? I think some people are taking political correctness to extremes.