A few days ago, I overheard a fairly innocuous conversation about whether a white director can/should direct a play with an African American cast. The usual thoughts were bandied about: Would the director really understand the nuances of the story, from the inside? Would that white director be taking a job away from a capable African American artist? Why wouldn’t anyone ask the same question the other way around?
The stuff I was hearing struck me as largely tiresome, honestly—an exercise in everyone being cautious, fearful of saying the wrong thing. Not, I’m sorry to say, genuine honesty.
As far as I’m concerned, race is not an appropriate criteria by which we can judge whether a person is fit to direct a play. At the same time, people of color don’t have enough opportunities to direct, so I support actively setting aside more opportunities for them. Queue your favorite argument against Affirmative Action, if you have to, but leave me out of it. I believe in leveling the playing field rather than handicapping the players, and that’s that.
What I really want to talk about, though, is my own work, because it’s only a short jaunt from the questions I was overhearing to questions about which stories I’m allowed to tell as a straight white male playwright. I find those questions seriously troubling.
Of the last five plays I’ve written, three feature prominent African American characters: not tokens, mind you, but lead (or significant ensemble) roles. More and more, it seems, my imagination has been leading me in that direction. I don’t know why that is.
I suppose I could talk about the fact that I grew up in a mostly-black city and that I live in one now; I’ve always drawn clear inspiration from the voices I hear around me every day. I could mention that my father holds a master’s degree in African American history and that I minored in the same subject—that African American stories and culture were part of my upbringing and education. I might also make clear that my dramatic imagination has always been fired by genuinely American stories… and you can’t easily tell important American stories without African American characters.
There are probably several other influential factors, too, both innocent and tainted with the prejudices we’d all rather not admit to having… but why do any of them matter?
What should matter is that these are the stories I’m inclined to tell. What should matter is whether they’re good enough. What should matter is whether they’re genuine. Right?
I understand everybody’s caution, mind you. I, too, want very much to do the right thing. But I must ask that you judge my work on its own merits; you can even ask an African American director to do the judging, if that seems appropriate. (In fact, that’s not a bad idea.) Just please don’t dismiss my stories out of hand.