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Seeing Double: Double Consciousness as a Black Theatre Practitioner

Five actors in black clothes stand on a dark stage.

Karl Kenzler, Elena Hurst, Wesley T. Jones, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, and Frances Jue in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith at the Signature Theatre. Directed byTaibi Magar. Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume Design Linda Cho. Lighting Design by Alan C. Edwards. Projection Design by David Bengali. Sound Design by Darron L. West. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Last fall, I attended a performance of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 at Signature Theatre in New York City. The emotionally evocative piece of documentary theatre chronicles the events immediately preceding and following the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Though the show's creator, Anna Devere Smith, originally presented the piece as a solo show, this particular production featured a multiracial cast of five.

As one might expect given the subject matter, this production insistently chipped away at audience members’ capacity to witness violence. The production captured this perhaps most gruesomely when the twin screens on either side of the stage rolled security camera footage of a beauty store owner fatally shooting Latasha Harlins, a fifteen-year-old girl, in the back of the head. Foreseeing what was coming, I closed my eyes and covered my ears until the audience’s collective gasp signaled that it was safe to reengage my senses.

This moment of the production left me with a distinct sort of confusion. On one hand, there was a morbid prescience of rolling black-and-white VHS tape of a Black person’s violent death some twenty years before cell phones began to fulfill that purpose. And yet, when we live in a world where the images of dying Black people do numbers on the internet, what does forcing an audience to add to their mental catalog of violence achieve? When we remember that New York City audiences are disproportionately white, who stands to lose?

The whiteness of the audience was then brought into full relief as the house rang with laughter directed at the East Asian accent of one of the characters. This actor had not said anything particularly funny. What’s more, given that this was documentary theatre, one can assume that the actor was rendering a true-to life rendition of a real-life person. This precious moment of comic relief in this two-and-a-half-hour meditation on the basest instincts of human nature rested on this person's perceived otherness.

When we live in a world where the images of dying Black people do numbers on the internet, what does forcing an audience to add to their mental catalog of violence achieve?

And now, to this day, my experience of the production—the text, the performances, the design elements—is overshadowed by my experience of being in the audience. That moment was merely a harbinger of what has now become a plethora of unfortunate experiences stemming from being one of few, if not the only, Black person in the house. To throw a further wrench into things, I act; if I intend on having any career at all, it will likely be built on me performing for audiences that bear little to no resemblance to me and my family.

Since then, I have been trying to make sense of the split-screen experience of producing a racialized story for a deracialized audience. And in this regard, The Souls of Black Folk is the gift that keeps on giving. In it, W.E.B. DuBois (“The honor, I assure you, was Harvard's”) articulates the concept of double consciousness:

“The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder”.

Speaking from a sociological lens, DuBois argued that African Americans are in a constant state of split focus. Black folks understand themselves both as individual members of the African diaspora, each with a unique point of view, and extrinsically as the targets of intense hatred and derision.

To bring it to our own pop culture discourse, when somebody tweets that Chris Rock deserved to be slapped by Will Smith for disrespecting Jada, but then someone else tweets that Will slapping Chris in front of all those white people will set Black people back, that is double consciousness (and respectability politics) in action.

And if art is merely a reflection of the society it exists in, then surely Black folks in the theatre are not exempt from carrying these “two unreconciled strivings.”

But whether you are a Black actor playing a Black character or a Black actor who has made your character Black transitively, the audience perceives your Blackness on stage.

To focus first on the performing of it all, Black actors find themselves on stage in all types of roles. Black actors portray characters divorced from racial baggage, such as Brittney Johnson as Wicked’s Glinda the Good and Emilie Kouatchou as Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera, both notable for being the first Black actors to hold these roles on Broadway full-time. Other shows explicitly engage the Blackness of their actors, such as Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s Cullud Wattah, which ran off-Broadway at the Public Theater, a reality made possible by a renewed interest in the work of Black playwrights; last fall, an unprecedented seven of the nine new Broadway plays were written by Black playwrights.

But whether you are a Black actor playing a Black character or a Black actor who has made your character Black transitively, the audience perceives your Blackness on stage. How does it feel to know that your ability to stay housed and fed in a capitalist society requires attentiveness to the whims of the audience? And what is it like to perform Blackness for a white audience that may or may not be interested in disturbing the primacy of their own lived experience when moving through the world?

Here, it is important to make something clear: attending theatre, even Black theatre, is not a substitute for a developed praxis. In my experience, the misconception that theatre can be anything other than a shallow facsimile has actually caused harm. I contend that audience members walk into the theatre and seek not to be better people, but simply to be better than the demonstrations of white racism presented in the plays they see. And while some productions present the minutiae of "benevolent" anti-Blackness with great subtlety (Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury and Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress come to mind), others depict anti-Blackness overtly as to submerge the bar of anti-racist living below the crust of the earth.

When I consider that as a Black performer, I may paradoxically enable white complacency as I present Black suffering, it becomes difficult to perform the capital W “Work” of acting. An incomplete list of the questions that may arise instead include: Am I a stereotype? Am I an educational tool? Am I a prop? Or a stepping-stone to someone else’s personal development? That doesn’t even touch the ways that other intersecting forms of oppression (like transphobia, colorism, fatphobia) dictate who even makes it to the stage.

When I find myself in houses that are painfully homogenous, I leave the performance twice as mentally fatigued because I, unlike most others sitting alongside me, witnessed two separate performances occurring on either side of the proscenium.

Now, let’s join the house for a second.

Through a serendipitous series of events that traces all the way back to my preteen Tumblr days, I have become a critic. As a result, not only do I see more theatre than the average person, but I am expected to have takes that surpass a simple thumbs up or thumbs down.

When I find myself in houses that are painfully homogenous, I leave the performance twice as mentally fatigued because I, unlike most others sitting alongside me, witnessed two separate performances occurring on either side of the proscenium. As someone who provides well-conceived opinions for my job, I am, again, distracted from the work at hand when I instead wonder at the enduring sameness of an audience in one of the most diverse cities in the nation. Even when a production battles against whiteness as a hegemonic force in theatrical audiences with efforts such as playwright notes in programs, the expectation of propriety is stifling.

At best, you find yourself with a mouth sewn shut, unable to act outside of the parameters of the “good” theatre audience, even when invited. At worst, you somehow feel personal shame and vicarious embarrassment because your fellow audience members laughed at a fellow person of color speaking with an accent.

I know that this piece may read as a critique of the mere existence of white theatre audiences. This is not the case; I actually believe that it is good to watch things that are not about you. I think any art is for anyone, so long as folks are down to accept the rules of engagement for said art.

That phrase “accept the rules of engagement” is the key to unlocking this conundrum. The double consciousness that Black folks experience, in theatre and in life, is result of having to measure ourselves against a hegemonic white standard. I would like to think that we could achieve some peace of mind in the absence of such a standard. That would require two major shifts. First, the white folks who already see theatre would need to decenter their own points of view in relation to the art that they watch. Second, theatre audiences must become more diverse. No matter how enlightened an audience becomes, book learning cannot replace the impact of a bevy of varied lived experiences.

I know these are not simple requests. For one, adopting new perspectives can be difficult. Further, it is not enough to tell Black folks and other people of color to inhabit spaces that exclude them. But a lot can happen from simply having the desire to do better. And just off the dome, doing better might include lower ticket prices, local outreach, and community stake in decision-making processes.

In the end, I just want to get away from the work of self-surveillance as a Black body in white space, and get to the work of making art.

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