Five Artists Discuss Representation
I was invited by my friend and regular collaborator, Ken Urban, to dramaturg the American premiere of his play Sense of an Ending Off-Off-Broadway at 59E59's Theater C. The play concerns a disgraced journalist who goes to Rwanda to interview two Catholic nuns about to stand trial for their perceived role in a church massacre during the 1994 genocide.
Among the tasks I took on, I wanted to openly discuss where a new play with an all-black cast, set in Africa, and written by a white American playwright, fits into today's conversation about representation in theatre. Rather than dictate where the conversation went, I left it to the theatremakers I gathered—some of the most articulate and passionate thinkers on this topic currently working in our industry—to steer the conversation, using the production of Ken's play as a starting point. I gathered Adrienne Campbell-Holt, Founding Artistic Director of Colt Coeur; Gregg Mozgala, actor and playwright, and artistic director of The Apothetae; and playwrights A. Rey Pamatmat and Mfoniso Udofia to sit down with Ken and discuss the topic of representation in whatever way felt most pressing to them personally. Whether the race and culture dynamics of this play were of interest to them, or whether they simply were the instigation for a broader conversation, it felt worthwhile to make space for the topic, in a serious and public way.
I uncorked a bottle of wine and turned on the recorder, and we sat in a studio at The Lark to talk for a little over an hour. I hoped the intimacy of the discussion would allow its participants the freedom to be honest and genuinely engaged with each other, in a way different from either a more public forum, or a purely online interaction. In that regard, I think we succeeded. The following transcript records what it meant to five politically engaged artists, on that evening, to explore representation with their colleagues, in ways related to Sense of an Ending and beyond.
Parts of the conversation were redacted; some portions were edited later by the participants for clarity; and I trimmed it for length.
[Recorder goes on, mid-conversation. Laughing in the background.]
Adrienne Campbell-Holt: It's happening. Start the recorder!
Ken Urban: When Jeremy came on as dramaturg for Sense of an Ending, he asked me about the history of the play. Part of our conversation was: why did it take so long to find a home for the play? While I did rewrites in London [where it premiered in the spring] and a few here in New York, the play has largely been complete for a few years. No doubt, a play about the Rwandan genocide is not an easy sell. But it is also about a play for an all-black cast written by a white gay playwright.
Sometimes, theatres asked me about where I was in the play, implying that the play would be improved if Charles, the journalist, looked more like me. That is, they wanted Charles to look like a gay white man.
Gregg Mozgala: Why did people think he had to be a gay white man?
Ken: They weren’t always so bold in saying this, but sometimes a producer would imply or flat-out say that the play would be more “universal” if Charles was white, not black. I would politely tell them that wasn’t the story I was telling. I was telling the story about a black man who goes to Rwanda looking for the truth about what happened at this church, and for some redemption in his troubled career. I should add that these artistic directors or literary managers are not exclusively white, either.
Adrienne: Is [Charles's race made] explicit in the text?
Ken: Yes. There are a number of moments in the play that make no sense if Charles is white, and I did not want to write a play about a white American coming to Rwanda. Maybe I don’t have the right to tell that story, but that’s what the play is. I am a stubborn person and I insisted.
And I do think I am in my play, even though there is no one in the play that looks like me. As a gay man who was ostracized and disowned by his own family for being gay, I wanted to write about the experience of being somewhere where you feel that you will be accepted, or that you should be accepted, only to find that you are a stranger, an unwanted one, at that. That is my way into Charles. He comes to Rwanda thinking he will gain everyone’s trust because he looks like they do. But they don’t trust him. They see an American.
Adrienne: There are artistic directors who are, unfortunately, so scared of losing their subscribers and taking risks, and of the financial repercussions of producing bold and boundary-pushing work. The play that [my company] Colt Coeur produced last year, Dry Land, hinges on an abortion, and every theatre in New York passed on it. And the request from the artistic directors to the playwright was, “we really loved it, but would you take the abortion out?”
That's like the main event. It was just so shocking to the playwright that that would be suggested. The suggestion that we love you, we love the world of it, but can you just completely change the premise, and the conflict, so that it's more palatable?
It seems like a huge inherent contradiction within our field and the industry, because [theatre] is apparently a place where risks can be taken and where issues should be explored and made visible to an audience. And yet, it's a hugely risk-averse industry. —Gregg Mozgala
Gregg: It seems like a huge inherent contradiction within our field and the industry, because it is apparently a place where risks can be taken and where issues should be explored and made visible to an audience. And yet, it's a hugely risk-averse industry.
Adrienne: And I feel like every time producers do take risks, it at least gets everybody talking. And it's almost always celebrated, or at least people love it and hate it, and it's not just the same middling kind of … crap.
Rey Pamatmat: It's funny, because I was thinking when Ken was talking about how people wanted him to be written into the play, and when I was [doing publicity/engagement for the two recent Boston productions of my work] I was constantly asked questions that implied that I should be written out. Like not knowing why characters were Filipino. I was actually asked outright why a character was [Filipino], why I write about Filipino and Filipino-American characters. This was at an event onstage at the Huntington in front of an audience. I said to the journalist, “You would never ask a white playwright why they were writing white characters.” And it shut down the entire room.
I was actually asked outright why a character was Filipino, why I write about Filipino and Filipino-American characters. —A. Rey Pamatmat
I was told by another journalist that my plays are not Asian American or queer. And I was like, “yes, they are. They absolutely are. Just because you have a limited idea of what a queer play is or what an Asian American play is, doesn't mean that I have to be limited by your ideas.”
Ken: But do you feel like the theatre community was receptive and was more engaged and it was more the people—the sort of gatekeepers of The Boston Globe, the journalists—[that stirred up that negativity]?
Rey: The thing that was really brave was that the Company One and Huntington staffs saw over and over again the way I was spoken to or the questions that were asked, so by the time the review came out everyone was so distressed that Company One actually issued a response. Which is not typical. Because pretty much every time there is a bad review of one of my plays, something pretty racist is said. This is the first time that someone actually responded, though.
[pause—attention turns to Mfoniso, who seems to be seems to be searching for the way to articulate a thought]
Mfoniso Udofia: This is a … difficult conversation. And there are... I am actually fighting, within myself, discomfit. That I am uncomfortable. Because I think that this—I'm going to be as explicit and as integrous as I can be.
I am split and divided. I don't know that it’s anybody's right to tell you what to do internally within your play. But I’m also wondering, what is happening with gaze? Have privileges been dismantled? What is it to write a body you don’t possess? —Mfoniso Udofia
There are parts of me that wonder what it means to assemble a group like this, and what we hope to accomplish. And some of these questions are really big and multifaceted. There is a part of me that goes, you write what you want to write. But then there is a part of me that says you have to own the politics of what you write, as well. So Ken, when you were bringing up what you were talking about writing …the obstacles surrounding the production of your play, I am split and divided. I don't know that it’s anybody's right to tell you what to do internally within your play. I do clearly think the theatre’s reasons for asking you to change your play were wrong. But I’m also wondering, what is happening with gaze? Have privileges been dismantled? What is it to write a body you don’t possess? Exactly what was the lens from which...? And if your eye was in there, would that help me understand the frame from which...?
I don’t know.
I cannot help but understand that this is politicized, and … I'm having feelings. Because there are parts of me that go, until you dismantle privilege—and I, or we, understand that there has been a dismantling of privilege … and I don't even know what that looks like, actually—I can't say that I've seen that enough… What exactly does it mean to ask these questions? Are we asking to answer? Or dancing circles around even more critical unsaids? That is hard to grapple with, actually. But, I know if I don't say exactly what's happening within me then it's going to be this vortex over here.
Adrienne: I feel some discomfort too, and I also have some questions about what we're accomplishing. But at the same time, I feel like I'm really happy to talk to you all, because I've wanted to meet [those of you I don't know] for a really long time. And if nothing else, I'm just really interested in your points of view about these things.
Rey: Just having been in theatre for such a long time—certainly as an Asian American artist and a queer artist—you realize that the fact that you exist is politicized. And it's within the past maybe five years—or not even that long of a time, because before that I was just doing what I was doing and not giving a shit, which is a really good way to proceed in—but then I realized it was better to take control over the way people were politicizing me. The main stereotype of any Asian American person, not specifically Filipino, is that of the perpetual foreigner, so it is definitely political to write American characters that are Asian American. And the thing in Boston, they got confused. They're like, “I don't understand how an Asian American person has that story.” Filipinos are the fourth largest immigrant group in the US, and we're all over the country. Because of the brain drain, there are Filipino doctors in the weirdest cities all over America. This is the reality. And yet you're trying to tell me that we don't even exist. So, I get what Mfoniso is saying, but I feel like my existence is already politicized.
Mfoniso: Yeah, and what this is doing is asking us then to talk in and around it. And I guess a part of me was just like, if I said yes to doing this, then I must say yes to naming what I am feeling.
Ken: When I was working on the play, it was hard to engage me in these larger discussions because my first duty was to writing the strongest play that I could. And that means trusting that my instincts told me I was writing something powerful. Now it's done and out in the world, and these conversations are very much on my mind. But these conversations need to be constructive, not just angry postings on Facebook.
Gregg: If the conversation is offline and happening live and in person and in the flesh, what does that look like? I started this company [The Apothetae] to put on plays that explore the disabled experience, because that's a conversation I feel isn't happening a lot in the country, much less in the field. And I'm interested in our plays being platforms for conversation. Because I think it's a lot easier to have a conversation around an art piece that deals with issues, rather than just dealing with this heavy issue that everyone is anxious about or doesn't know how to talk about. I don't think that's particular to disability, but I love theatre as an exploration for disability in particular, because it demands that you show up, it demands participation, it happens in real time; you don't have that barrier of celluloid. If you put a disabled person onstage, you're dealing with a real disabled person live in the room.
Mfoniso: Something happened a while ago, where I truly felt invigorated. After seeing a play that made me unhappy—unhappy is not the word…thoughtful, pensive, maybe. The talkback ended up being more important than the play itself. The play was what led us into a struggle. And there were academics in the room who were breaking down critical race theory for us. There was the community. There were the artists themselves. And it was rough. It was not this clean, beautiful thing. But it was a something. That is probably the closest thing that I could name. Usually I see a bunch of artists. Or if I'm in a purely academic sphere I'm enmeshed in a lot of theoretics. It's funny because all I remember of this event are the people. I'm not remembering the play. And I think that might actually be the point.
Adrienne: I also feel like one of the things that's so hard about this conversation, similar to what Mfoniso said about feeling divided in response to Ken's play, is the divide I feel on so many of these issues. I feel full of hypocrisy in my position that I don't want to see a play about women written and directed by men. But I feel that I should be able, for example, to direct a play written about men.
Rey: Why do you think that's hypocritical?
[laughter all around]
Because I could tell you why it's not.
Adrienne: Because honestly every time I direct a play—especially a play with all men—the critics aren't so bold as to say it, but the board members and the artistic directors are. “What makes you think you can do this?” “Oh, you did this, you small woman, you?” So, I can certainly make an argument as to why it's not hypocritical. And I think as an observer, women have a perspective on men that men lack, because we're watching men our whole lives. There's this catch-22 I feel, where I grew up not around white people, but most people think I can probably only direct plays about white people because I am white. I'm also Native American; you can't tell I'm Native American, so no one would ever think I'd be able to... [to Mfoniso] if, for example, I wanted to direct one of your plays, what would make you feel I would be able to do that?
Mfoniso: Oh, Lord, that is a question. For me, as I said, it is about a sort of dismantling of privilege and/or gaze. And the amount of conversation that it probably takes to do that is a lot. And sometimes that defies what a theatre will want to allow. And so I am usually inclined towards someone whom with I have a vocabulary already. But there are directors who have been like, “No, I really think I could...”, and the kind of conversation we have is the kind of conversation that happened in that talkback I mentioned. It is, many times, uncomfortable, it is strange, and it takes a bit of time.
I'm going to say it right out: my predilection, what I'm going to veer towards, is someone with a first-generation experience, and/or foreigner experience, because that is where my plays lie. With another person, the kind of conversation that we have to have around what this collaboration will be is going to be extensive. And I'm at a point now that I'm pretty okay with that rigmarole. Because in order to direct the play you have to understand the play, you have to understand me. And in order to understand me, you have to be able to see me. And until I know that you see me, I don't know that you will see into my play, which is a whole other level of sight. So for me it takes time.
Adrienne: I completely understand that. And I think, though, in a way, the danger—and I'm so excited about some of the initiatives and the leadership programs and recent hires that are helping to make the field of artistic directors more diverse—but I feel like that's the problem with the programming. The artistic directors are like, “We see you. We see your plays. We're going to do your plays.” But not being willing to take the time, to ask questions. You know, I want to spend time, I want to get to know you, I want to open up my sense of, say, the Asian American experience. But people, I think, are so incredibly afraid. I feel like artistic directors don't even know they can say, “I don't know.”
Mfoniso: Those are some powerful words, “I don't know.”
Gregg: Something I say to all the writers we commission, and am very upfront about in all our rehearsals, is “I don't know anything about disability. Anything you feel you shouldn't say, say it.” I've made a point to create this place where one can feel free to go ahead and say it. We can course-correct if necessary. How much onus do you feel is on you, as playwrights and directors, to come into the room with that frame of mind?
The phrase that best describes my career? ‘I don’t know.’—Ken Urban
Ken: Do you mean, as a playwright do I feel responsible, or do I try to make a space for the “I don't know” part?
Gregg: Do you make a space for the “I don't know”?
Ken: Yes. I feel that’s the phrase that best describes my career: “I don’t know.”
Rey: I do think people are afraid to say that they don't know. And more than not, people—when they don't know—are afraid when they're then called out on something. And rather than continuing conversation, the conversation ends.
I was teaching a class at Hampshire, and the kids were terrified to write anything outside of their own experience. And the whole class, even though we were supposed to be talking about their plays, turned into: if you write a character outside of your experience, and you fuck it up, and someone tells you you fucked it up, then you try it again. They might be right. They're probably totally right, and you maybe did do something racist or misogynist. Then you just try again. You're never going to get it right if you never do it. Your first play was probably really shitty, but you tried to write another one of those, so... And that's where we've had a problem right now not just with American theatre but with the discussion of race in America. People are so afraid of fucking up, and then they just won't talk about it at all.
Gregg: Do you think some people do take the chance and then maybe there is difficulty or the production isn't successful, and they say, “well, we tried, and we won't do that again”?
Rey: Yeah, or someone will attack someone else, and they will be right in their attack, and the person who was attacked will crumble and never try again.
Mfoniso: Sometimes I think that crumbling is great. Because it is an accountability. If you're gonna write it, then stand by it. And if somebody is yelling at you, because they're like, “I'm that person you're writing about, and you wrote me with two dimensions,” you have to stand by that, and then make a decision. There was this thing that happened today, where I was talking with a professor at NYU, and he's helping me with the NOW AFRICA: Playwrights Festival that I'm doing. And he said, “I have not ever read your work.” And I'm sitting there shaking, because this man is huge, in terms of African dramatic writing. He said something like, “There's nobody around to hold you accountable for what you're doing.” I was like, “Well, I might not agree with you.” Defense mechanisms kick in hard because who wants to be held accountable? He said, “you might not. But we should be in discourse.” That is hard to hear when it’s spoken out loud, but yet it’s something that I knew. The next generation will have to be in discourse with me, just as I have to be in discourse with you and the generation ahead of me in order to know we're not these isolated bodies.
Ken: I think it's a terrifying thing that you would penalize or censor yourself, to write only characters that were just like you. I feel like the biggest problem with the way that “diversity” is framed by theatres is many large institutions think that if you produce one playwright of color a season, somehow you are a diverse theatre. But the problem remains: it's the same kinds of stories that keep getting told over and over again.
Rey: There will be a family fighting in the living room.
Ken: Yes. Definitely.
Adrienne: About a secret.
Ken: That's why I think young people tune out of theatre, because you can see so many more interesting stories elsewhere.
Mfoniso: And it makes diversity this thing where you have a white body and then you have a couple of different sprinkles in there and you call that diversity. That’s not diversity; it is still against the white backdrop. You have not dismantled the thing itself.
Rey: You know the most interesting thing about this New York Times article [discussing Manhattan Theatre Club's 2015–16 season announcement] is that when Lynne Meadow talks about diversity, she talks about plays that are not by white men. All her statistics lumped women and people of color into, “We did this number of people that were women and people of color.” And it was like, “Oh you mean they were women of color?” No, it's just that women and people of color are the same thing, because they are not white men. That’s the problem. Diversity, to MTC, is not a truer reflection of the world. It's a thing you take care of by presenting someone who is not a white man.
Mfoniso: In a weird way it doubles back on itself and becomes the exact same thing, which is one of my frustrations when we talk about diversity: I don't really know what it means anymore. It's actually a framework in some places to keep the same modules going.
Nobody's talking about Aboriginal Australian theatre, you know? There are pockets of invisibility. And they just go unidentified, because, “we have our female playwright.” And that is easy. It's actually quite easy. The thing to do is actually really difficult, and I don't know the way to go about it. It's not as simple as picking a play and going, “I did it.”
Ken: When I'm feeling cynical, I worry upper-middle-class subscribers just want to see themselves reflected onstage.
Mfoniso: Or they want to see the completely exoticized poverty porn.
Gregg: I'll use the terrible term “introducing something new,” but if you're going to take a risk on a play that's dealing with a population or a subject matter that your subscriber base is not used to, then why doesn't that company engage the community in which it takes place, and bring in those communities that wouldn't necessarily have the exchange to interface together?
Rey: The issue that always comes up is this weird, “We don’t care about you any other time except now when we can sell you tickets.” When we did after all the terrible things I do in Boston, I actually asked specifically for a night when queer youth of color could come see the show for free. I wanted the audience to be diversified by giving tickets away so people who may not typically come to the Huntington could see it. Which the Huntington agreed to. It’s what I was talking about before, where I’ve chosen to politicize myself in specific ways, because otherwise the American theatre at large will do it anyway.
And it can backfire. A theatre committed to doing one of my plays, and it had been awhile since they'd done a play with gay themes. They had a donor who was so excited about there being a gay play that he wanted to read it in advance, but the play says some uncomfortable things about queerness, so he threatened to take away his funding. And this theatre has very admirably been diversifying their programming, and it’s exciting to be part of that, but if this is the first play in a while with openly gay themes, and this is the only thing you’re saying about gay people, it’s understandable that people would be uncomfortable. There’s already a worry that you’re trying to appease a community rather than actually represent them, and then when someone reads the play and is like, “This is terrifying,” you don’t have a history of positive representation to address their concerns. In the end, the funder stuck by the theatre, the play was a success, and the theatre saw it all as a learning experience, both in terms of their willingness to take risks in their season planning and in their audience's trust and eagerness to go along for the ride.
But if it’s an audience that traditionally does not go to your theatre, and it’s not something you usually produce, when you reach out to that community, sometimes it is pandering. And as a member of that community, you could be reasonably upset and think, “You’re literally just doing this play so that I will buy a ticket or so you can get some kind of funding and check off a box.”
Mfoniso: Hit it and quit it.
You're in, you're out, and you're on to what you really want to do. And I think that out of everything I've said that's been like, trying to find its way into cohesion, this is true for me: the theatre is a microcosm of the outside world. These are the very same race issues, gender issues, etc. that are plaguing us outside of the theatre. It's not all the way unsurprising to me that this is still the question. Because this is also still America's question. And while I think that as artists and thinkers that maybe we can make some headway into it, it is also a far bigger issue than what is happening in just this house.
Ken: That's why I feel such responsibility, because I think theatre should lead the way. And if we can imagine a better world on stage, then maybe that world can exist outside of the theatre. What's so frustrating about the American theatre is so often it reifies what already exists.
Gregg: Is that because people are comfortable with those narratives? And afraid of different narratives?
Rey: I really don't think it's that people are afraid of that narrative, it's just that they've been told a narrative so many times that they think it's a quality narrative. And I do think it's a completely unexamined thing. It becomes a challenge because there are so many people in the theatre who have the same unexamined issues. Because it is a privileged set of people. So when someone confronts something like that, like, “why is this couple black if this play is not about blackness?” there's nobody to answer the question. Because it's a narrative that hasn't been told often enough. When you see black or African American characters on an American stage, it is usually about blackness.
Mfoniso: It's an issue-based play.
Rey: If you see Asian American characters onstage, it's about their ethnicity. If you see gay people, it's about their gayness. So people think that is the good narrative to tell about gay people. They haven't examined the idea that there are other narratives to tell.
Gregg: But just like this conversation has been termed difficult, that examination can be extremely difficult to grapple with, too. It doesn't mean we shouldn't keep showing people new narratives.
Gregg: Because that's essential. That's the only way I feel like you're going to move anyone. And of course you're going to come up against resistance. “This doesn't compute in my mind as an audience member, it's different from what I am used to seeing.”
Mfoniso: I for the life of me do not understand theatre institutions that are so big on their diverse programming, but there is not diversity in their offices. There's this weird cognitive dissonance happening. I think it's actually a very American problem. We can drop the “theatre” altogether. Until you really understand privilege and access and some of the supremacist rhetoric on which we are built, it is hard to dismantle yourself and then reach out. And I am doing it, I try within myself. It is very, very difficult. And it's the thing to do. Because this problem is inside all of us. A lot of the times what's easy to see is: this is all white men, let me put something in it. That is not actually the solution. It is: why am I only attracted to this? Why is it I only see this? Why does my body lean this way? Why is it when I see Mfoniso Udofia I'm seeing her as other? Those are different questions. Which make it then harder to go, “Oh, if I put her in the season, I fixed it. I fixed it. I have fixed it.” No, you've just taken a step down your natural path.
Ken: Connected to your comment about the American-ness of this problem is there is a real anti-intellectualism in our culture right now. You see that reflected in the theatre, the idea that theatre should be solely entertainment, and you don't want to see anything uncomfortable in the theatre. I want theatre to lead the way, to try to resist this culture of anti-intellectualism.
Mfoniso: A powerful thing is in the naming. Naming, “I'm uncomfortable.” Naming what is truly—
Gregg: —In a religious sense, that's the first creative act, to name.
Mfoniso: But in order to name, you also have to see. And so, I guess what I'm saying is, we're not naming the issue, because there are a whole lot of people who don't see all the components of it. And when you're together in a group of people who don't see, all you do is breed blindness.
Maybe I sound very pessimistic.
Gregg: And yet you pursue.
Mfoniso: Oy vey. Hopefully tomorrow I'll sound optimistic.
[laughter around the table]
Rey: That was optimistic.
Mfoniso: That was quite optimistic. I outdid myself.
Ken: On a good day, I understand how it is possible to change people and maybe even audiences, but I don't know how you change an institution.
Gregg: I don't think they're unwilling. I think they're so massive. They're slow-moving bureaucratic beasts that can't be the speedboat cutting through the waters—a poor analogy— they may purport themselves to be and we always want them to be.
Rey: Which is funny when you think about how they all started. They used to be really small. And now they're all trying to get Broadway houses … getting Broadway houses.
Ken: As I continue in my career, I feel more and more the need to be accepted by these bigger institutions for the sheer economics of living in New York.
Gregg: But if these bigger institutions have diversity, or equity and inclusion, writ large in their mission statements, then can they and should they be called out for being remiss in their mission if they're not doing that? I'd say yes.
Adrienne: I love that idea. When one of the old-guard artistic directors programs like they always do, is there a way the conversation can reach them, or show them, help them, rather than shutting them down or criticizing them? And I think we all have—I do this, we all do this—we have assumptions about people that are skin-deep. And I think if we can all try to be more present and actually engage and open up that, “I don't know. I want to know. And see you.”
I run a very small company that is very diverse, and the most unusual thing about it is that everyone in the company does not come from privilege. We are all just scrappy people who want to do this, and that's the hardest thing about theatre. There are just not enough jobs and opportunities to go around, which means that yes, you do things that are compromised, because you need to get health insurance. We have integrity, but it is our job to work. So often we sort of put it on a pedestal. But there are going to be flaws. It's work. It's not paradise.
Mfoniso: And also in addition to that, I think that it's not okay anymore to say that I don't have privilege. I have privilege. I am a very particular body that is afforded a certain set of privileges. And there are ways in which some of my playwright compatriots who look just like me do not get treated like I do. That is a privilege that I have to dismantle, a privilege that I have to call others who don't think it exists into seeing. All of us have them at one time or another. Some of us live in privilege in almost every facet of our life; some of us can only claim privilege in certain small sectors, yet it's there. And at any given point you might be operating on a high or a low, depending on whatever room you are in. So yes, it's an awareness, but that's also what I mean about the breaking down of self being extraordinarily important. And I do think that that is the job of an artist. First on your own body. “Privilege” is loaded. But as we're talking about theatre, which is getting more and more elite all the time, we have to talk about what that word is vis a vis each other.
[The conversation kept going for just a bit longer before some people had to head out, and we wrapped up. There was no neat conclusion, so I'm going to end the transcript here.]