We Have Suffered Enough
The Cost of Performing Trauma for Women of Color
Since the beginning of my career in the American regional theatre, I have been embodying roles from what the West considers “classical” plays. Beloved female characters have, through my body, been verbally, mentally, and sexually abused; mutilated, murdered, and exiled. I can count on one hand the times my characters weren’t harmed.
I have suffered enough.
I’m an Argentinian immigrant from Villa Caraza, Buenos Aires. I watched my father look for work in a town where there was none to be found until the day he died. I watched my mother clean houses for a living while she battled cancer. By the time I was eleven, I was an orphan. Eventually, not knowing how to speak English, my older brother brought me to the United States, where I lived with a foster family in Idaho.
The same body that lived through all that later began a career in the American regional theatre. Today, when asked why I am a storyteller, I often say it is because it gives my sorrows and my joys a greater purpose. But throughout the years I have noticed that, more often than not, I am sharing my sorrows and not enough of my joys.
Trauma in Performance
Men are quick to be praised for their work in theatre, called geniuses when they stage a scene I could have done with my eyes closed, told they were so moving when all they had to do was stand there and wield their power over everyone else. We, women of color, are praised when we suffer. White spectators from all over the country told me they loved me as Lavinia, and Claire in The Maids, and Lady Macbeth—particularly in the “mad scene,” they were quick to say. What is that about? Why do women of color gain space in someone’s consciousness only when we show them the depth of our suffering?
When I worked on The Maids a few years ago, a play by the French writer Jean Genet, the goal of the production was to show what life might be like for immigrants in the United States. To that aim, the maids were cast as Latinx and a white person was cast as Madame. Performing in that play was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
My scene partner and I hurled our hearts all over the stage every night for anyone who would listen. We beat each other and yelled at each other and hated each other for the sake of the story. After a while, I began to ask, “What’s in it for me? What do I gain by exposing my heart on the stage, drawing from a well of trauma audiences might never understand?” As an artist, I should love getting to play big roles like this and show off my acting chops. But when you’re an immigrant in this country and you are playing a maid in a play called The Maids to a majority white audience… the cost is personal. And hard to shake off.
Beloved female characters have, through my body, been verbally, mentally, and sexually abused; mutilated, murdered, and exiled.
Holding Our Trauma up to Nature
I want to protest the state of American theatre. Not in general, but for women. And not just for women, but for women of color. I am doubly traumatized by both embodying and seeing violence—physical and mental—inflicted on the bodies of women of color for the sake of storytelling. We carry the weight of grief on our shoulders so often that it is difficult to navigate when and where it is okay to allow ourselves to feel something else, to tell a different story—one in which we use our bodies to express the joy that makes us warriors and survivors.
The bodies of women of color are used to convey violent stories. On stage, we are expected to be invincible but not aggressive, vulnerable but not passive, Brown but not too Brown. To complicate things further, if we are stepping into a role that was written for a white woman, the challenge to accomplish those tasks becomes even more difficult. My proximity to whiteness does not make me part of that world.
For example, embodying a maid intended to be played by a white woman in a play written by a dead white man will not help me shed light on any part of my story nor my community’s. It is a dangerous practice on my body and one that should be the exception, not the rule. We cannot keep stepping into problematic stories that do not properly address issues of race, ethnicity, or gender without someone on the other side of the table who’s aware of the possible effects these stories will have on our bodies.
When you’re an immigrant in this country and you are playing a maid in a play called The Maids to a majority white audience… the cost is personal.
If the work we do on stage holds the mirror up to nature, then when the lights go down and we leave the theatre, we walk back into a reality that is just as painful as our make-believe world. A reality that has only gotten more difficult since the election of Forty-Five. Taking into account the current divisiveness of this country, as people of color are being brought into predominantly white institutions with majority white audiences, who is to say that the stage is a safe space to even practice our art, let alone embody trauma that might refuse to leave our bodies long after the performances have passed?
I know I am not alone in experiencing the way our current political divisiveness shapes the work we do on stage. It affects our bodies in a different way than it used to. Last year, the prolific powerhouse playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes gave a speech at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference in Boston, later published in American Theatre magazine, that gave me the courage to speak on the issue. Under the title, “High Tide of Heartbreak: Has theatre wounded me as much as or more than it’s healed me?” she weighs in on whether the stress the job has had on her body is still worth the ride and discusses her desire to keep her characters, who are also women of color, from fetishizing their pain.
In attempting to highlight a different side of women of color she was met with resistance. More suffering, is that what audiences want? How do we help them and ourselves seek something more? Until we undo this attachment to pain, we will keep telling stories—both old and new—in the same way we’ve always told them. This process has manifested in my psyche as anxiety and in my body as constant tremors, joint and chest pains—things that have led me to seek the help of chiropractors and physical therapists.
Suffering in the Eye of the Beholder
I just heard Kholoud Sawaf, a Syrian professional director and theatre artist who studied in Arkansas, describe the feedback she had received on one of the early drafts of her play 10,000 Balconies, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She was told she was misrepresenting Syria because she wanted to focus the play on a love story, leaving out stereotypes about Muslims and Arab culture. One critic accused her of “misrepresenting Syria by leaving out honor killings.” Women of color attempting to broaden the scope of our narratives are being met with resistance. The plays that do get written are seldom produced, with only a few exceptions.
Recently I acted in The Book of Will, which was written by white female playwright Lauren Gunderson and centers around the making of Shakespeare’s First Folio. For a play about two men, there was significant attention given to the often-unseen women behind the story. My character didn’t experience trauma the way I was used to feeling it in my body; she wasn’t supposed to be looking out for danger, she wasn’t going to be hit at any point in the story. I didn’t have to worry about protecting my body in any fear-driven way. My heart didn’t sink into my chest. My shoulders felt relaxed. My jaw wasn’t afraid to drop. There was nothing physically demanding about my role—it was really fun and free for me.
Have we seen so many stories that inflict pain on the bodies of women that, without it, the narrative feels incomplete?
Reviews across the country said the play was not as great as it could have been. Some criticized the structure, others the language, but I began to wonder if what they were trying to identify, in a veiled way, was the lack of suffering inflicted on the women. In Gunderson’s play, the lens is different. Women are living their lives until life leaves them, rather than struggling to survive.
Have we seen so many stories that inflict pain on the bodies of women that, without it, the narrative feels incomplete? Since The Book of Will is about putting a book together—a book of plays that have aided in both indulging our imaginations with beautiful poetry and also solidifying ideas of racism, classism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny—shouldn’t it include some of that history in there too? This made me wonder: If it did, would I be okay with suffering in another Shakespeare story, and a new one at that? I had to check my frame of reference. After embodying the pain of so many other characters, was I now feeling incomplete, like some of these critics were, playing a woman who doesn’t get traumatized?
Beyond the Suffering
As actors, our minds may know violence on stage is part of play, but our bodies don’t. The reality of what we do is such that, if a scene requires my scene partner to put shackles on my wrists, forcefully kiss me, or sexually assault me, there is no way to communicate to my muscles that I am not in danger. And for women of color there is no way to communicate that to the transgenerational trauma that may be present in the body.
Telling traumatic stories over and over is the reason I am afraid to take a space in rehearsals. It is the reason I don’t breathe deeply enough and my jaw clenches. It is the reason I am afraid to speak loud enough. My mind and body need space to create this trauma for the stage but I am still trying to identify what that looks like and how I can do it safely. It’s more complicated and more dangerous, because this country is more complicated and more dangerous. Is there a place we can actually go to suffer a little less?
I want stories about women of color that highlight resilience in a non-violent way. I want more stories of triumph and fewer stories about the trauma of triumph. The American theatre has pitched their tent next to the school of thought that tells us women are only as talented as the traumas we are willing to bring to life on the stage.
I am more than my trauma, more than the tension in my hands, more than my broken heart, more than my oppression, more than my survivalist nature, more than my shortness of breath, more than my pain, more than my screams, more than my tears. But it is hard to convince my body otherwise if that’s all I’m being asked to bring to the table.
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Thank you so much for this! I like your example of Gunderson's play and hope that as women playwrights get more traction/more productions there will be less actually traumatizing horror on the stage and more imagining of other outcomes and other ways to exist in the world. As a feminist playwright myself whose work is concerned with healing traumas, I try hard not to (re)traumatize my audiences or my actors while still trying to examine trauma onstage, and there are some very fine lines to walk.
Kholoud Sawaf earned her MFA at the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville Arkansas. Not Nebraska.
Thank you--It's been addressed!
Noted, thank you! We have made that edit.
This is dope.
What this makes me think of is responsibility and responsible art-making. We know whose responsibility it is to choose plays for the season. To cast it. To direct it. To promote it.
But who's responsibility is it to create safe space? Provide resources in the rehearsal room for personal and transgenerational (epigenetic) trauma? To diversify the audience base? To maybe even change the cost that audiences pay (monetary) to one of personal cost, specifically theatres with a historically and consistently predominately white audience base (which are most). And what does that look like? I dunno, being required to write a brief 300 word essay on the subject matter to enter and having that grade affect your ticket price? Burning a baby picture before the show? Reconfiguring talkbacks? Like I said, I dunno. I do know getting paid for my pain can sometimes feel exploitative when not met with understanding. And although money can buy therapy, hospital visits, that pint of ice cream, I do not perform with the primary goal for money (though I do expect to get paid). I can't speak for all artists, but after witnessing the power of storytelling to sway culture and community, I do it for the impact, especially if I've agreed to share my pain...so whose responsibility is it to maximize that impact? Should that be the goal or compromise for this kind of work?
I believe our pain has a place onstage because sometimes for me it is the most visceral way to recognize it in myself and in others (empathy). But I also believe that it must not needs live perpetually center stage and without support.
This is an idea I know you and someone else mentioned before, but having a therapist and maybe even a historical, social or statistical expert present could help bring accuracy, truth, accountability, and safety to the rehearsal room. I think that as we unearth new traumas, begin giving our stories new light, and add new bodies to the stage we must alter the system that used to house bodies and stories that weren't our own. Meaning, I think we need new positions and even professions within the theatre. Or at the very least, to broaden the scope and responsibilities of the ones that currently exist. I'm not sure what those positions look like (outside of EDI practitioners in theatres), but I think that's because they should change, vary, and depend on the work that's being made. The same way you'd call a fight choreographer to provide safety and structure to an otherwise dangerous and unmitigated section of physical violence, why not give our minds the same solace? Who is responsible for this?
Also, again, this was dope and thank you for giving voice.
Thank you for adding more insight. You know I believe that coming up with a plan of action is a crucial step to any issue. I appreciate you!