A Response to Timothy Douglas
I want you to be uncomfortable—at least some of the time. Muckraker Finley Peter Dunne wrote, “It is our business… to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Timothy Douglas’ eloquent, honest and provocative post about identity through his lens as a black male American director has spurred me to write. Each and every one of us has a right, perhaps even an obligation to tell a story beyond our lived experience. Not at the exclusion of others who claim ownership to tell their version, but in addition. To tell a story to even one listener is a place of relative privilege, for there are those among us to whom no one ever listens.
I concur with Mr. Douglas, that to be an “other” is to know the dominant culture more thoroughly than the dominant culture knows of an “other.”
Despite our cultural differences, my soul connects with James Baldwin's Another Country precisely because his words echo my own sense of otherness, and mirrors my rage against the confines of a hetero-normative patriarchal culture.
On the oft-asked “who has the right to tell whose story,” Mr. Douglas writes:
I hold firm to a seemingly paradoxical double-standard of expressing full confidence and qualification in my directing the European classics, while holding suspect the motivation and abilities of my white counterparts when at the helm of an Afrocentric work…. What I am standing up for is the integrity of storytelling itself, and insisting that the director possess the fundamental capacity to fully realize the foundational bottom layers of a culturally-specific work, and I don’t know how one does this effectively if one has not “lived” inside of it.
At first, a Yes escaped my lips. Then I felt the walls close in, for who is this arbiter of authenticity?
How do we know what we are meant to discover or illuminate if we do not risk crossing a threshold? It will assuredly not serve any of us if we do not encourage and enhance storytellers from the periphery to take center stage.
Is there a method to measure one’s understanding of the mindset of another? Are we limited by our given circumstances from deeply comprehending any or all things outside our lived experience? The lives of white men dominate multiple canons, have I not walked so many miles in their shoes as to think I might know them, might tell their stories? Mr. Douglas writes he is equally comfortable directing August Wilson as Beth Henley. After wondering about his experiences “living inside” Henley’s white southern women in Crimes of the Heart, I consider if he knows it as thoroughly as director Lear DeBessonet, a white southern woman? The thing is, he may; Ms. DeBessonet seems distant from Henley’s three sisters and closer to Chekhov’s Three Sisters. An external identity may not resemble the person within.
I am going to continue to write experiences far outside my own. Are boundaries so fixed that Kate Whoriskey (white) is not experientially qualified to direct Lynn Nottage's Ruined about women and male soldiers in Congo, a play that also references Bertolt Brecht's (male, white, German) Mother Courage? Would a Congolese female director have been a more authoritative choice? I wrote my play In Darfur about the genocide there because I had an inside track (columnist Nicholas Kristof was my boss) early on about the atrocities and I didn’t want to be a bystander. In Darfur is most assuredly not the authority on that genocide and anyone is free to write their own version, aren't they? Or might one argue if Lynn (African-American, female) or Winter (European-American, female) writes a play about Congolese or Sudanese:
a) one of us has a more legitimate birthright to tell the story
b) someone Congolese or Sudanese is the best candidate to tell any story from their respective region
c) it's too thorny, no one should write beyond what they have lived or can prove (to what or whom?) to understand deeply.
Consider the measure of authentic identity and whom you trust to be the arbiter in the communities and alliances we create.
Let us not simply say, write, direct, play, teach what you know, but instead ask, what if we look collectively and individually at all "others" and explore? By the rationale of experience, we might find ourselves confined to creating only what others assume we know, and what would that encompass given the complexity of humanity? We would be expected to dream within our own lived experience, which as Mr. Douglas illustrates, has professionally often tethered him to direct the “ethnic” play in a whitewashed season. (Is the “ethnic” play defined by the writer, the story, the protagonist or elements of each?) Can Mr. Douglas or I live inside the mind of a Korean man? A Palestinian woman? An adult with a second grade education, with few hopes and dreams? If not, what should any of us do—abdicate or seek to understand and be willing to make mistakes in the process?
There are days I don't feel qualified or compelled to tell the stories I have lived, much less try to imagine myself into the life of another human. How do we know what we are meant to discover or illuminate if we do not risk crossing a threshold? It will assuredly not serve any of us if we do not encourage and enhance storytellers from the periphery to take center stage. In what ways, small or large can each of us follow the Civil Rights credo of Lifting as We Climb?
Another day, we’ll get into the complexity the legacy that motto from the National Association of Colored Women raises. For along with our duty to uplift, can we make room to embrace and tell complicated, nuanced portraits that illuminate our protagonist’s heroism and flaws without being branded a traitor?
Mr. Douglas and I may agree, may disagree, but we cannot deny our educational privilege has brought us to this forum where we speak in a common language. This privilege is wrapped up in a matrix of variables—class, race, citizenship, mental health, physical ability, gender, sexuality, community, and expectations of ourselves from within and externally. For each of us, it takes a lot of inner work to claim our own power, even in places we personally or institutionally feel oppressed.
The questions we ask ourselves—if we are honest—are not comfortable. The beauty, the ache and the longing live in the discomfort. We rely on each other to remind us of our blind spots and our relative privilege within a given group. We lean on each other for the strength to look within with compassion as we make mistakes, as we harm others and ourselves. It does not come easy. Sometimes it does not come at all.
I admire Mr. Douglas’ clarity and courage to speak the truth. It is the same and it is different from mine. I appreciate the privilege of participating in this dialogue of sorts, there are many today who will rise without food, protection or safety and for whom comfort such as mine—to read and respond freely from a place called home— is beyond reach. Like us, they too have a story to tell.
The views above are my own and do not reflect those of the people mentioned.