Playwrights Nurturing Cultural Community

Pearl Cleage and Vera Starbard in Conversation, Part II

Read Part One Here

Vera Starbard: We’re in an industry where you cannot speak frankly about racial justice without negative impact from those at the top, whether they see it that way or not. Once, I went directly from an artEquity training into a social justice conference hosted by First Alaskans Institute, an Alaska Native organization. They had me up on a panel. A media guy asked me my views on certain social justice topics, and I was so fired up to speak about them. He printed what I said, and after my opinions came out, there were some gatekeepers, some white people, who were not happy. They had some power over my future, and I had to go to those gatekeepers and explain some of my ideas.

I’m still very aware of the gatekeepers, and what they might hear from us, and how they might take it. It’s not like they’re going to come at you because you said something and pull your grant. But…

Pearl Cleage: An institution might figure they don’t want to take on an artist of color because they’ll be raising uncomfortable questions all the time.

Vera: Here in the state, I’ve seen gatekeepers want to work with people of color who will change things but who aren’t as outspoken, or who are a little bit friendlier. In some ways because these people have even less power. The residency gave me a much stronger voice because I am an established staff member of an organization in the state, which has a very long record. That immediately gave me more leverage than artists who have to lobby for every single piece they have.

Even in the artists of color community, this only is going to last so long. What can I do so the next people have fewer struggles? So they don’t have to fight that fight, so they have a little bit of a leg up so they can fight the next several fights that need to happen? Something I’ve been doing lately that makes people uncomfortable is talking a lot about money, and being very transparent, saying to artists of color, “This is how much I’m making. Are they offering you the same?”

two actors onstage

Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous by Pearl Cleage. Photo by Greg Mooney.

Pearl: Nobody wants you to talk about money. But we have to talk about money the same way we have to talk about race, because when someone says, “Don’t tell anybody what the salary is.” It’s like, why? What does that even mean? Now we have a secret from other artists? Not good.

Vera: While I don’t have permission to speak for all Alaska Native people, in my culture it’s very much: you speak for your clan and that’s it. At the same time I do know all Alaska Native cultures highly, highly value artists. In Tlingit, there is not even a word for art. It is no separate thing—art is part of everything people do.

Pearl: There is no separate word for art, because it’s part of everything? It’s just part of life?

Vera: Yeah.

Pearl: I love that. That’s wonderful.

Vera: Every single thing from houses to clothing, to the spoons you cook with, will have “art” on them. Whether it’s virtual or practical, or a visual identifier, it’s so integral to the culture. Artists are really held up high. It was such a shock to me to get into what we call “American theatre” and see how not valued artists are in the current United States society. That has only been a realization to me since becoming a resident.

I am used to being in this really nurturing cultural community that looks at artistry as a noble profession, and now I’m working every day in this community that only looks at it as a noble profession if you can succeed commercially.

I had worked for so long in very nurturing all-Black environments, with audiences who were also all Black, that the idea of a white gaze was unknown to me.

Pearl: That’s why I hate those discussions where people are trying to defend the arts, saying, “The arts turn over every dollar that comes into our community three times, because people also go out to eat, and they also do other things.” That’s not a good reason for why artists are important.

You just reminded me of one thing I find difficult to grasp, which I see a lot in the young African American playwrights who are doing shows in New York, like Slave Play and Fairview. I was talking to some young Black women at the theatre, a couple of them from Spelman, one who is now a director with us. They kept talking about the white gaze, about how important it is for them to find ways to be aware of it and to combat it. They asked me how big of a problem that had been for me as a playwright. But I had worked for so long in very nurturing all-Black environments, with audiences who were also all Black, that the idea of a white gaze was unknown to me.

I didn’t think about it. I didn’t worry about it. That wasn’t my trajectory—I wasn’t trying to figure out what could get me to Broadway, or what white people in Manhattan would think was a good play. When young writers come into that environment in New York from graduate schools like Yale or Northwestern, or other predominantly white institutions, they have been trained in a places that weren’t necessarily nurturing for them as writers of color.

Then they come into a professional environment that is really not nurturing for them as writers of color either, so their creative ideas are always, even in their own head, bouncing off of that white gaze, bouncing off of what they perceive to be a Broadway audience, or an audience that’s going to further their careers in some way. It made me really sad to think about it, because it’s such a different way of approaching the work they do.

I can see the effect of all of that in the fact that most of their plays are not necessarily even talking to Black people. They’re talking to white audiences. Jackie Sibblies Drury, who wrote the play Fairview, was asked, “Will the play work with predominantly Black audience?” Because most of the audiences had been white audiences. She said, “No, it couldn’t possibly work with all-Black audiences.”

I was like, “Wow, what does that mean? You’re a Black playwright, but you don’t think your play can work unless white people are looking at it?” So many layers of information were disturbing to me about that.

They did a reading of the play at the Alliance, and I could see immediately what the playwright was talking about. The play was talking to white people about Black people, about how angry we are at them, because of that white gaze. That’s a really negative pool of energy to be drawing your ideas from. I would hate to live in that place all the time, trying to explain, or justify, or be angry at an audience that doesn’t look like you.

The challenge is to write what you would if you were writing whatever you wanted, not thinking about this white gaze. If playwrights of color can’t do that, it is going to have very negative long-term consequences for the American theatre, because it’s going to mean that everything is still skewed white, even if it’s written by a Black playwright; they’ll still be thinking about what the white reaction is going to be. That’s a different animal than if they were writing just to tell the truth of what they know. That makes me sad, because they’ve never had that experience of a theatre that’s nurturing, of an audience that’s nurturing. Instead their experience is, Now I’m going to throw this work in front of strangers and hope they get it, which is a different experience altogether.

Vera: The perspective you’re talking about… I’ve had that experience my whole life. Tlingit people have huge cultural practices of gift giving—most Natives groups do. So when I’ve been to big national gatherings of Native groups, there is always time put aside for gift giving, because that’s a part of the culture. It’s: You’ve shared knowledge, I’ve taken knowledge, that’s part of my clan now, therefore I’m going to gift you this thing in return.

A little over a year ago at a non-Native gathering—a racial equity training—I’d learned so much, so of course I needed to give something. In the past, at different events, I’ve experienced weirdly negative reactions, mostly from white people who were very uncomfortable and wondered about my angle, what I was really going to do. I get cautious in white places with gift giving, and while this training was a very mixed group, I still didn’t want to look like I was trying to take attention away or buy them in some way. They gave me the time to give the gifts, and I explained the cultural significance of what I considered a fairly formal gifting moment.

By the end the whole group was crying. I was looking at them, not knowing what had happened. I talked to a white friend who is married to a Native man. She just laughed, like, “Oh Vera, they don’t have that. That’s not something they’ve grown up with.” It made me so sad that a beautiful part of our culture, which I loved, I’d taken for granted.

We have to figure out how we can make everything from how people greet you when you come to the theatre, to the opening night celebration, reflect more than one cultural tradition.

Pearl: You take it for granted because you’ve always had that. And they’re so struck by it that it makes them weep because they have nothing that fits in that space.

Vera: Cultures they belonged to in the past probably did have versions of it. I actually made gift-giving part of the play I just closed: in every single performance the entire audience is gifted in a ceremony.

It became such an important part of the play. Even though that’s the only real interaction they have with the actors, they came out going, “I got to experience the culture.” Some of the audiences became very emotional.

Pearl: My husband and I laugh about this often, because we’ll go to opening night gathering at the theatre, and people are there, talking and drinking wine, but they don’t always have music. I don’t know how to have a party without music. You got to have food, you got to have music.

But there are different ways of celebrating. I think it’s the same thing you’re talking about, which is as a cultural thing: if a group of Black people get together, we’re going to have music. You’re going to give gifts. That doesn’t necessarily translate into what a majority white institution might think about in terms of how to celebrate a wonderful opening.

That is why there is the necessity for having writers of color on the stage to bring a different perspective, but we should also look at all of the other rituals we propagate, which are often based on the cultural habits of a certain class of white people. We have to figure out how we can make everything from how people greet you when you come to the theatre, to the opening night celebration, reflect more than one cultural tradition.

I think it will get better as time goes on, because you can’t go back once you start. It’s such an odd moment to be a part of, because there is always the challenge of trying to figure out how to push without being argumentative in a way that expands what people see as opposed to fussing at them because they didn’t see it before.

We’re in a big transition moment, because as much as we say it’s so much more diverse now, the gatekeepers are still pretty much who they always were. That’s the thing we’re all still pushing against as we welcome the next generation of people who want to do this work. Sometimes we can see clearly what needs to be done, and sometimes I just feel overwhelmed by it. Like, can’t I just write plays?

Vera: That’s funny, because if I just want to write, I can. I have to ignore everything, I have to put on blinders, I have to force myself to live in this inequitable world without paying anything attention. But I can remind myself that it is my choice to be in the fight. It’s not that I’m forced to do this. It doesn’t matter if it’s fair or not, because what is life? This is it. As a younger person, I would preach more and get angry more.

Pearl: Me too.

You can talk to people, make them cry, make them feel so guilty they run out of the room. I got really good at that! But I gradually said to myself, “I don’t think this is helpful.”

Vera: Some of releasing that anger was learning all of the ways I’m not aware. I mean, I don’t consider the disabled community at all. It’s not something I look at or know much about. That’s their thing. So why am I getting frustrated at people for not knowing that much about Native stuff when I’ve taken absolutely no effort to learn about the disabled community or the Black community?

The Alaska Native community and the Black community in Alaska, we’re both very small. We come together at certain points. First Alaskans Institute, which publishes the magazine I edit, hosted the Black Lives Matter rally. When we see incidents we’ll come together, but it’s not an ongoing effort for most.

We had some pretty big discussions last year of, “Why are we not doing this?” As a larger community, we’re going: “This isn’t just our thing, certainly there are Alaska Native people who are disabled, or there are Black and Alaska Native people.”

Realizing my blind spots have made me more patient. Now it’s about opening their eyes, because if anyone is preaching at someone else, the person being spoken to has to be really, really open to even hearing it.

I don’t mention white people in my plays. But audiences come out understanding Tlingit culture more, going, This is the same things I struggle with.

four actors onstage

Devilfish by Vera Starbard.

Pearl: Exactly.

Vera: These are universal issues. When they realize that themselves, it’s so much more powerful. It seems much slower, but is it really?

Pearl: I don’t think so, because you can talk to people, make them cry, make them feel so guilty they run out of the room. I got really good at that! But I gradually said to myself, “I don’t think this is helpful. Because it’s requiring me to get angry every time, and it’s not making any impact.” It just scares them to death because they’re being fussed at by someone who has been thinking about the issue way longer than they have. It’s an unfair combat.

That’s when I decided to retrain myself to not fall into the idea that I’m a part of the only group that’s ever been oppressed. That’s not true. Let’s get rid of that. It really is helpful to do what you were saying, which is to go, “I have to look at my own blind spots. How much work have I done to understand this group or that group that’s not my own, or the group I perceive as being antagonistic to me?”

It makes me feel less preachy and more curious to find out more, rather than lambasting people with what I think I’m sure about, which changes every day.

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Thoughts from the curator

This series pairs current and past participants in the National Playwright Residency Program (NPRP) for in-depth conversations about the impact of their residencies on their work, the theatre, and their community. In collaboration with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, HowlRound Theatre Commons established NPRP in 2013. The program provides three years of salary, benefits, and a flexible research and development fund for a diverse group of American playwrights at selected theatres around the country. More than a standard residency, we conceived this initiative as an intervention into the traditional relationships between artists and institutions, as a way of reimagining what institutions might look like when an artist’s voice is at their cores.

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Black theater always has such a different vibe, when you enter, during, and when you leave. I like seeing people like me on stage, it makes me want to be in front of people more.

Really powerful, an excellent follow up to Part 1 of your conversation. I so deeply appreciate you sharing these ideas, frustrations, and questions with the broader HowlRound community.