Gasping Whiteness and New Play Development Inspired by Community Organizing

In the climactic moment of Gasping Whiteness, a play I have been developing since 2016, two children—one Black, one white—turn to the audience and ask a series of questions that reflect their exploration of race with their parents:

  • What will middle class white people give up to help end the era of white power?
  • Will all of us, regardless of our race, look at the complicated relationship between race and class, and will we keep asking questions even when it gets hard?
  • When we feel defensiveness rising up, will we realize we might just be afraid?

Close to Home

Gasping Whiteness explores how white supremacy impacts parenting in middle-class, majority-white communities, issues that are close to home. In 2016, I had begun helping my partner raise her then four-year-old daughter in a college community in Western Massachusetts. Like me, they define themselves as white. Prior to this, I had imagined that white children internalize racism by repeating what they have seen or heard. Although this does happen, what terrified me more was watching her sense—through the deep well of child intuition—what we were not saying, what hard conversations we were avoiding, and how communities like ours celebrate our progressive values amidst our race and class segregation. These lessons had as much (if not more) impact on her than our words. They also introduced me to the terrifying weight of responsibility placed on parents, who are often raising children inside systems that they, too, have internalized.

collage of close-up body images, including hands and feet

Gasping Whiteness community collage created and photographed by the ensemble.

By this time, I had spent over two decades creating community-based theatre on the subjects of race and class, often in partnership with community organizers. This work was grounded in reflections on my own position and identity and in a need to be accountable to folks of color as well as working class and poor communities. With the help of visionary mentors—like the people at Alternate ROOTS, the Southern activist-artist network; Hampshire College, where I teach; and Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ)—I’ve gained a clearer understanding of how this work is a small part of a much broader movement.

My earlier plays tell stories about our intersectional, cross-class, multilingual world and they attracted people from a range of backgrounds. That said, there has always been a core group of people who, broadly speaking, looked like me. I began to wonder how I might use the tools I’ve learned to explore how this particular audience—white, middle-class men—pass on white supremacy to their children and lose connection to their tenderness and humanity in the process. I also wondered how this work might benefit not just white, middle-class audiences but could support a cross-class movement for racial justice.

I also wondered how this work might benefit not just white, middle-class audiences but could support a cross-class movement for racial justice.

Community Organizing Model for New Play Development

From its inception, I imagined the play as a fundraising tool for Indigenous or people of color–led organizing groups working in local communities to address systemic injustice. I embedded my community organizing strategy into the dramaturgy: its small cast, its bare-bones aesthetic, its flexibility to any number of venues. Inspired by lessons from organizers I had seen build campaigns by empowering communities to take local leadership, I imagined a horizontal production model in which readings would be produced by many local hosts, the proceeds of which would benefit grassroots groups in their area. We would therefore not only be telling stories about the world we were imagining, but helping to build it in material ways.

Gasping Whiteness, the play that evolved from this idea, follows a progressive dad and his daughter (both white) as they encounter an African American family who moves in above them. When the man’s daughter (Sky) makes a racist remark to her new neighbor (Maya), and Sky’s father overhears it but does not have the language to respond, it sets in motion a series of events: the end of the girls’ burgeoning friendship, conflicts between their parents, and the emergence of the masked figure, “Gasping Whiteness,” from the raised bed of their garden. As the play unfolds through scenes both tragic and comic, it becomes clear that healing involves unearthing unspoken histories and fighting for systemic social change.

Collaborating with Children

After two years of workshops and readings with adults playing all the roles, it became clear that the heart of the play was about how racism is passed into the bodies of children—a subject we could not explore without children themselves in the roles. This was particularly important as parents made up a large portion of our audiences, a number of whom brought their children to the show. We eventually cast two young people, Willah Waldron (ten years old) and Farris Alder* (eleven years old), who rehearsed, performed, and co-facilitated dialogues with us for eight months, while we toured the play to communities across New York and New England.

A core concern of the rehearsal process was how to explore the racial trauma the play speaks about without passing our own wounds and fears onto Williah and Ferris. This work was essential foundation building for all of the ensemble, but was particularly vital for the actor playing Maya. Trenda Loftin (our co-director and one of the performers) noted she was “committed to engaging Black children in conversations about what it means to be Black in the United States,” as well as “balancing the harsh realities of the past and present with celebrating our lineage and our continued survival.”

We would therefore not only be telling stories about the world we were imagining, but helping to build it in material ways.

Holding all of this well involved years of building trust between myself, Trenda, and Angela Davis Johnson, who created the mask of Gasping Whiteness and collaborated on the project from its inception. It also involved formal and informal accountability partners including artists and organizers of color, white anti-racist organizers, and parents of many backgrounds and identities. The young actors helped our ensemble to hold this material as well, in particular by discovering rituals that allowed them to enter the roles and let them go: Farris sometimes carried a stone in the overalls she wore as a costume and put the stone down after as a way of releasing the pain of the story. Willah made a tiny arch out of tinfoil and asked us all to walk under it before beginning the reading and immediately after, so that “we could walk through the portal and we can walk out of our characters.”

We rehearsed as a full company and in small group sessions for each family in the play. These separate rehearsals allowed space for Black and white members of the cast to talk more openly about personal experiences that echoed the challenges facing the families in the story. Playing—both in rehearsal and outside of it—also became essential: the girls climbed trees, made dances for the play’s musical number (entitled, “White Dudes, White Dudes What’s a Dude to Do?”), held a fashion show after a particularly intense rehearsal, and had a sleepover. As their characters don’t become friends, the fact that they could do so in real life was a kind of sweet redemption. All in all, this work helped us engage with the two child cast members about white supremacy in ways that were loving, tender, and reciprocal. It also addressed, in our rehearsal process, the silences that led me to create the play in the first place. My hope is that this learning process has become part of the fabric of the play, so that it can help encourage adult and child audiences to have similar conversations.

Workshops and Partnerships

An early reading of the play, at Ko Festival of Performance, did not feature a structured post-play workshop, but many audience members expressed the need for one, given the content (Andrew Grant-Thomas, a co-founder of the group EmbraceRace, actually insisted on facilitating one himself one week later). After this point, facilitated post-play workshops, which included a people of color caucus, became a part of every show, many facilitated by Hampshire student Wize Angelique. Although these workshops were optional, most audience members stayed to attend. The workshops included reflective writing, sharing of personal stories, and discussions of tangible action steps—some inspired by the questions raised at the play’s climax. At one, three generations of the same family explored how lessons about race had been passed down and transformed; at another, parents spoke about their isolation and their fear about having similar discussions; after the final show, which was in our home community, the child cast members facilitated a workshop for their peers about racism.

Performances were done in eight communities and raised funds for a broad range of grassroots, Indigenous or people of color–led groups that focused on many issues: local and statewide racial justice organizing (CTCORE-Organize Now!), parental incarceration (Sisters Unchained), and Indigenous performance (First Nations Dialogues), to name just a few. Representatives from all of our partners attended the readings and spoke to audiences about their work. In addition, some partners facilitated post-play workshops; others offered feedback on the play as it evolved; and one partner organization used the gathering as a way to bring together many of their constituencies and mobilize collective action.

After one performance, an audience member made a large donation to a partner they had not been aware of prior to the show.

The demographics of the audiences varied, depending on the community, but the majority of the audiences were white, middle-class folks engaged (or looking to engage) in social change work. They were joined by diverse groups of audience members, many of whom were themselves artist-activists. Reactions were varied: some people shed tears, others felt gratitude for the community the play had fostered, and a few challenged us with questions about if we were re-centering whiteness in our attempt to challenge white supremacy. In many instances, audience members immediately signed up to volunteer for our partner organizations and, after one performance, an audience member made a large donation to a partner they had not been aware of prior to the show—specifically inspired by the line above that asks what white people are willing to do to end white power. This support helped the organization to secure long-term stability, which had not been possible previously.

Families of both children continue to reflect on how the work of the play extended to the dinner table and to the daily fabric of their lives. Willah talks about how every rehearsal was a chance to learn more and talk more about racism, conversations that weren’t happening at school. Farris talks about how much her eyes have been opened to things that were there all along: “I was younger and, as a white girl, I had a lot of privilege and I just didn’t think about racism. When this play came about I kept noticing it kept coming up.” My own ability to engage in these conversations grew exponentially, in large part because of the courage I saw modeled by the parents of our cast members.

To share our work, we’ve launched a website that includes open-source script selections and a community organizing toolkit, complete with step-by-step guides to developing partnerships and facilitating post-play workshops. Although these tools are specific to the play, we hope that they can help support other projects with similar goals. In addition, any community can use them and do the play without a fee, provided that they commit to donating the funds to local Indigenous or people of color–led organizing groups working to address systemic injustice. The process will begin this March, when Louisville’s theatre [502] will produce two weeks of readings to benefit Black Lives Matter-Louisville.

a distorted white mask against a black background

The mask of Gasping Whiteness. Created by Angela Davis Johnson. Photo by Will MacAdams.

New Possibilities

Trenda had taken the lead directing Willah and Farris in the climactic moment mentioned earlier, when the actors asked the audience questions about race and class. Several months after the final show of the tour, she shared with me what she told the young people when they rehearsed it: “How can you find it in your body? Your strength. Your power. Your commitment. Your community. Invite folks into that.” It reminded me of how we approached our entire process.

I know Gasping Whiteness has had a real impact, both in the money it has helped raise and the hearts that have opened, including my own. At the same time, I know it addresses only two stories—of so many—and is just a small part of the immense work needed to address racial equity and broader systemic injustice. I am heartened by the millions of other people who are imagining new possibilities and working to create a more just world, many of whom are artists and organizers working together in visionary partnerships.

Looking back on our process, I am struck at the parallels between theatremaking and community organizing: both involve imagining worlds that don’t yet exist and both involve bringing our bodies into public spaces to help make those worlds real. That said, artists and organizers have distinct gifts: the ways artists call on the complexity of our cultures, voices, and ancestries, and the ways organizers stand back and strategize, often over the long-term. Working on Gasping Whiteness taught me how much the two have to offer one another in the work of justice, and it has made me profoundly grateful to build community and create theatre at this crucial crossroads.

 

*Names of child cast members have been changed.

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