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The Ground on Which We Stand

In his 1996 speech “The Ground on Which I Stand,” legendary Black playwright August Wilson famously declared he wanted only Black directors to direct his plays. Wilson believed Black directors provide the necessary cultural nuance to direct black work and that opportunities for black directors were far less frequent. As a Black playwright (Michelle) and a white director (Claire), we agree with Wilson. A Black director does bring more cultural knowledge to a “Black play,” and there are not enough opportunities for Black directors. However, we also acknowledge that cross cultural collaboration is a reality. As Michelle says, “it’s not a question of if I work with a white director, it’s when.”

In fall 2016, we began an eighteen-month collaboration that culminated in the premiere of Michelle’s play, The Green Duck Lounge, at the University of Missouri. The play delves into Kansas City, Missouri’s civil rights history and is set in 2015 and 1970. Our partnership overlapped with an increase in public displays of racism, xenophobia, and the “normalizing” of white supremacist rhetoric in our national discourse. Artists and audiences are not immune to the current moment. In different ways, we both experienced the sharp rise in vitriolic behavior. And, so, it seems there is no more important time to acknowledge how cross-cultural theatre collaborations can be engaged and enhanced. The shifting ground on which we stand requires renewed attention. 

Claire Syler: How did your play come to be?

Michelle Tyrene Johnson: From the gentle pressure of a friend, Mike McGraw. Mike was a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist who helped investigate the murder of Leon Jordan, a Kansas City (KC) civil rights activist who was shot and killed in 1970 outside his bar, the Green Duck Lounge. Mike believed Jordan was a fascinating icon whose legacy needed revisiting. When I started researching Jordan and realized that the most recent owner of the Green Duck Lounge had just been shot to death in 2015—forty-five years after Jordan’s murder—I knew my story was broader than Leon Jordan. As sad as those deaths were, it was an opportunity to tell a more socially relevant play than mere historical reenactment. So, I wrote a play where five actors play nine characters in two different time periods, 2015 and 1970. Leon Jordon is the only real character. The play, with some Afro-Futurism thrown in, aims to show how #BlackLivesMatter parallels the Civil Rights Movement. 

two actors sit at a bar
Ethan Phillips and Harvey Williams in The Green Duck Lounge. Photo credit: Rebecca Allen Photography.

Claire: The University of Missouri (MU) is a predominantly white institution. What made you trust us with a production of such an important play?

Michelle: Most playwrights, especially during the phase the profession calls “emerging,” don’t have the luxury of deciding when and where their work will be done or well received. In MU’s case, I knew the school from my own history with it and from its race protests in 2015. For some, that would be a reason to not have my play there. But for me, MU’s interest in the play, combined with meeting you and seeing your passion for the play sealed it for me.

'To white directors working outside of their own cultural practices: I think it’s important to serve the play as its director, but, after that, don’t take up space that’s not yours.'—Claire Syler

Claire: When we met in Fall 2016, it was an interesting juncture. I had just moved to Missouri to teach at MU, but it was also a homecoming of sorts because I had graduated from MU about fifteen years earlier. As a white woman, I knew from personal experience that you could be a white undergrad at MU and never “see racism”—never recognize how microaggressions and blatant assaults impact the lives of students of color every day. Institutionally, the campus was still reeling from the previous year’s protests and, from what I could tell, there was not a strong sense of acknowledgement from the broader campus of the significance of those events. I knew performance could offer a meaningful way to respond to the voices, experiences and issues still stirring on campus, and then along came your play. I became passionate about telling a story that gave insight into Missouri’s civil rights history and our current moment.

Michelle: Your passion may have been the starting point, but for me the real issue is trust. I trusted you because you asked the right questions and never once took anything for granted. I don’t quite trust a director who does a play of mine but I never get one call, text, or email to ask me so much as one thing. New plays are imperfect and clunky, so a lack of communication can be problematic. We never had that issue, which is especially important for a play about race where the playwright and director come from different races. I’ve worked with white directors before, with varying degrees of respect and success, and one of the best things about your direction was that I never felt that you were trying to make some sort of statement that interfered with my play. I could hand my play to you and literally and figuratively walk away knowing that this piece of myself was safe. 

Claire: That’s so interesting, because I often did answer for you in rehearsal. I mean, you live two hours away, you couldn’t be in the room every night. So, when an actor would say something like, “I wonder why Michelle…?” I could usually answer their question because we’d had that conversation. I tried to be aware of my limits, and we often reached out to ask you a question. But hearkening back to Wilson’s point in terms of white cultural institutions that have not understood or valued Black performance, it was important to really talk prior to the production—to get to know not just your play, or you as a playwright, but you as a person, and your views on what you write about. 

'Talk to your living playwright, not just about the play but about life, about the world. Have a sense of the person who wrote the play so that you will be more highly attuned to when you are trying to drive outside your lane culturally.'—Michelle Tyrene Johnson

Michelle: And I’m aware that one of the burdens I put on you—and on a lot of the directors of my plays—is that in the early table work and rehearsals, there is a bit of a therapy session element involved because my writing deals with racial scabs. For example, in The Green Duck Lounge, the lone white actor plays a police officer in contemporary KC and a member of the mafia in 1970 KC where, in character, the actor has to say the actual n-word a couple of times. In this play, the young actor had to have time and opportunity to push through having to speak vile and hurtful language while in character. And he had to do that without the comfort of being in a majority white cast. The challenge you have as a director is that you have to get a good hold on that—you have to let people have those moments, those conversations, but then at some point in your leadership, you have to know the time to move on, get them off book, and create some damn theatre. Sure, it’s about cultural and racial understanding, but it’s also about being a competent and committed director who is a professional.

Claire: For me, part of being a competent director is developing a cultural competency with the world of the play. I assume this also means recognizing the aspects of the play’s culture you will never fully grasp. The way I tried to act on this awareness was in the spirit of “sharing power.” I invited Black designers and actors to feel free to correct me, or challenge my interpretation at any point, because lived experience matters.

I also wrote grants to bring in Harvey Williams, a Black Equity actor from Kansas City, to perform the role of Leon Jordan—and I have you to thank for introducing me to Harvey. I knew having Harvey’s age and experience onstage would be important for the play’s narrative, but also for the pursuits of educational theatre. Harvey could apprentice MU’s young Black actors into performance knowledges I could not. And, in terms of what August Wilson was concerned about, I think this is the kind of work white directors must engage in.

three actors playing pool
Ethan Phillips, Zahria Moore, and Harvey Williams in The Green Duck Lounge. Photo credit: Rebecca Allen Photography.

Michelle: I’m not going to lie, that was my initial fear with you and with MU, that I was going to have to—to paraphrase Wilson—fight for the ground upon which I stood as a playwright writing about some tense issues.

Claire: What advice would you give to white directors working on a play written by a Black playwright?

Michelle: I would say first of all do the play for the right reasons, because you love the play and believe in its issues, and not because you want to be a white savior. Second, invite as many people of color into the room as you can because there are a lot of roles to hire for in a good production and it’s important that you allow those people to have voices in the room. Even something as small as a costuming choice can avoid a cultural pothole. Third, and most importantly, talk to your living playwright, not just about the play but about life, about the world. Have a sense of the person who wrote the play so that you will be more highly attuned to when you are trying to drive outside your lane culturally.

Claire: What was your biggest challenge in the process?

Michelle: Distance. Living two hours away from Columbia, MO (where MU is) starting a new job, and dealing with the illness and loss of Mike McGraw as rehearsals were starting meant that I couldn’t be there for any of the early rehearsals. I had to rely on you to make sure that the younger actors had the guidance to do a play where some of the issues and urgency were before their time. And, also, because the racial protests had happened in recent years at MU, I worried if the students needed my approval and nurturing to reassure them that they were on the right track with a play mired in racial conflict. But honestly, between you and Harvey, it was a leap of faith, but not a huge leap. 

What was your biggest challenge?

Claire: Helping actors to create Black characters that could be truthful for Black audience members. Playwright and scholar Paul Carter Harrison advises Black actors, “Do not become seduced into what I call ‘performing Blackness.’” By that he means stereotypical portrayals of Black characters. He goes on to distinguish between “stereotype” and “archetype.” Of course, it’s white culture that created toxic stereotypes of Black life. So, because of this, I was mindful that my perceptions, despite my best intentions, were flawed. I knew what I wanted to avoid, but I also knew I couldn’t see everything. I relied on you, and you were generous in allowing me to ask so many questions. 

Michelle: What advice would you give a Black playwright working with a white director?

Claire: That’s a tough one. It seems like much of the burden already falls on the shoulders of a Black playwright in navigating their authenticity and their play’s truth when in traditionally white spaces. But, in general, allow room to build trust with your director. I would like to think that most white directors want to honor Black culture and represent it as truthfully as possible. To white directors working outside of their own cultural practices: I think it’s important to serve the play as its director, but, after that, don’t take up space that’s not yours. For example, think twice about whether your voice is really needed on that post-production panel.

What advice would you give a white director working with a playwright of color?

Michelle: Know that, up front, unless there is an already established relationship, a person of color writing a play that reflects their culture in any way may have a couple of pressures on their back. For one thing, the playwright may be concerned with whether a white director will have the ability and the desire to represent their culture as written. And, two, for some playwrights of color, there may be a concern that others will feel as if the playwright “compromised” in some way by not having a person of color produce and/or direct their work. While these concerns aren’t necessarily ones that every playwright of color will have, it’s really important for white directors to neither blow those concerns off when they come up or center any defensiveness they may have over the needs of the play.

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Chicago Shakespeare recently recently hosted Ireland's Druid Theatre in a highly-touted production of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's *Waiting for Godot*. It was okay, but not if you'd seen Ron O.J. Parson's direction of the same play at Court Theatre several years ago. August Wilson would have scarcely tolerated a "white" play directed by and starring black theater professionals. His narrow viewpoint has not won out, and the production was definitive.

This article led me to Wilson's famous speech, and thence to YouTube excerpts from the debate (or discussion) held between him and Robert Brustein in 1997, in which Wilson makes it clear that "I make the self-definition of myself as a black man and that's all anyone needs to know."

When asked about somebody whom Brustein would label "multi-racial," Wilson counters, "However that person wants to define themselves, fine. If they define themselves as black, then I personally think it is wrong for them to participate in the theatre that is something other than a black person's theatre."

Placing the agency of self-definition with the individual is liberating, and Wilson was ahead of his time.

Would Wilson have accepted the self-determination of a Rachel Dolezal (reverse passing per some vocabularies) with "However that person wants to define themselves, fine" and "that's all anyone needs to know" or rather demand that outside knowledge (or prejudice) be brought to bear?

Wilson will be remembered for his plays longer than for any erratic debate pronouncement delivered spontaneously. That is achievement enough.

Each age believes itself to have the final word on interpreting the world, at least until it doesn't. Wilson said, "[I]t is difficult to disassociate my concerns with theatre from the concerns of my life as a black man, and it is difficult to disassociate one part of my life from another." This is obviously and admirably true, but time winnows, and the future will have its own prerogatives.

Terence is believed to have been a slave, yet he is remembered not for the ground he stood on, but for the words he wrote (to wit: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto"). Epictetus is remembered less as an ex-slave than as a thinker. Wilson likewise will be remembered for his intellectual legacy, and especially that inherent in his plays, if he has done his job well.