A few days ago, playwright Leah Nanako Winkler spoke out against a planned NYU Skirball Center production of The (heavy on the yellowface) Mikado and shut that noise down. Around the same time, Matt Damon interrupted Effie Brown, a producer who happens to be a black woman, to explain how diversity really works. If you belong to the group Official Playwrights of Facebook, maybe you’ve followed some disconcerting comment threads about gender and race of late. If you’re in an MFA program, or have ever had conversations about dramatic literature and the theater industry, you’ve likely also found yourself in conversations about gender and race. I think about these things a lot. This week I have been reflecting on the way writers (playwrights in particular) speak about power, identity and injustice.
I expect a lot from writers. Not that they will all be political activists, but that, as truth-telling humanists, they will not buy into certain fictions — things like “post-racial society” or “merit-based economy” or “white supremacy.” But then again, it doesn’t really matter what one's profession is. People don’t get to be bigots. And people who aren’t bigots don’t get to flee from discussions about the harm wrought by institutionalized bigotry. Finally, people who benefit from institutionalized bigotry don’t get to dictate the discussion about what it means for those the system oppresses.
What shocks me is that any writer would even want to.
There are plenty of writers who use their voices to shred these dehumanizing fictions and oppressive realities. Yet there are others — too many others — who respond to these conversations with doubts and arguments that must be addressed, once again for the many-thousandth time. This is going to take awhile.
If a playwright calls other playwrights’ attention to a matter of inequality, exclusion or stereotyping, often this is what she’ll hear:
It’s about merit, nothing else.
These writers would like to stop your protests about exclusion and bias in theater by reminding you that all that matters is the quality of the play. The color/sex/religion/gender of the playwright/characters/ director don't matter — just, is the play good? It doesn’t matter that the quality of art is subjective, nor that power and privilege may blind the arbiters of taste, that’s not relevant cause all we’re talking about here are the merits of the story. It doesn’t matter if you were actually talking about a separate issue, say, white men on a forum trolling you every time you mention the existence of tropes, what matters is the artistic integrity of the play. It doesn’t matter that the suggestion that “merit” may be affected by reductive tropes was actually your point — are you saying that only black people can write good plays? Is that what you are saying? That is racist. Why do you hate white people? Besides, all that matters is quality-control over the ineffable beauty expressed onstage.
For these writers, the fact that white people and male people dominate the theater and entertainment industry is a reflection of their superior artistic merits. For these writers, The Triumph of the Will is but a master class in breathtaking cinematography. It doesn’t matter that you think diversity and empathy are crucial to the survival of a vigorous, artistically vibrant theater culture, the point is what you say doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! What does matter? All lives, that’s what matters.
Diversity comes from the characters.
That’s what Matt Damon interrupted Effie Brown to say! It’s diverse because a white man’s imaginary black prostitute will be embodied by a living black woman who will have to say all the lines these dudes wrote for her in the way this other white dude directs her to. (Sidenote: Has everyone agreed on a new definition of “diverse?” There are sometimes these weird submission calls that are like “this is open to you if you are a diverse writer.” They mean, female and/or not white. But they don’t want to say that cause it feels vulgar so they use “diverse” as if it can apply to a single person. A single person can’t be diverse! That’s not a thing. But okay.)
Let’s just keep this about playwriting.
This one is the weirdest. It suggests that your critique is what “politicized” an otherwise sacred discussion. That’s right, your critique, not the play in which a bunch of white men compete for sexual possession of the only female character, who’s also the only character of color and has the least lines. “Let’s just focus on the writing, shall we?” These writers act as though speaking about the intersections of power, identity and human dignity are an alien seed you are planting in the virgin soil of True Art. That it’s a separate issue you have chosen to bring up — not something they’ve shoved in your face by reminding you, through their script, how your kind is not quite human the way their kind is. It’s weird because I am a woman all the time, and it’s just regular, not an “issue” separate from my life. Same with Hispanic people, trans people, gay people, native people. People don’t think of themselves as Special Issues, and they really don’t think of themselves as crude stereotypes, so when it appears in writing (again and again) it sticks out. Guys, one time in a writing class I had to explain to another MFA candidate (bro was a grad student!) that “beautiful” is NOT A PERSONALITY TRAIT. Come on man. You’re at word-school. Do better.
The need to be considered human is quite basic, and I’ll demand it everywhere I go. Even in a writing workshop. (And just cause there are no black people in this workshop doesn’t mean you get a pass on your Magical Negro character. Also, there should probably be more black people in this workshop!) The dichotomy between “playwriting” and “an honest discussion of human dignity” is false. And crazy.
What does this have to do with THE CRAFT?
Another variation on the Merit Stratagem and the Stick To Playwriting Gambit. Alas, it’s not about the classic 90s witch flick. This is more refusal to engage in any discussion about the racial and sexual pathologies that plague our culture by claiming they somehow have no bearing on the holy pursuit of writing plays. Like really? Someone’s speaking against oppression and you’re tapping on their shoulder to be all, excuse me, how does this relate to the proper execution of an Aristotelian arc? Racism is wrong and stupid, and nobody gets to do it. It’s not like there are two doors, one marked “well-crafted drama” and another marked “not being racist” and you can only go through one. Both are possible!
What’s especially disturbing about this derailing tactic is that in the history of the American stage, theater has specifically been used as a vehicle for the oppression of minorities. Let's not forget that one of the first distinctly American theatrical forms was the Minstrel Show. Let's also remember the immense popularity of minstrel shows among white audiences for years, and how their disappearance correlates directly with the rise in political power for black Americans. White audiences didn’t wake up one day and decide, “This is problematic.” The outcry came from the group being rendered grotesque onstage and subjugated in daily life. And aren’t we all better for it? Or is the “stick to the craft” crowd only concerned with the timing of Zip Coon’s dance steps?
So as a white man am I not allowed to talk????
The guys that say this are so, so beleaguered. They leave a billion comments about “I guess I’m a white man so my opinion means nothing!” on every thread. And when people patiently explain that of course, they can talk, but listening is also important and helpf—“OH SO WHICH IS IT CAN I TALK OR DO I HAVE TO SHUT UP AND LISTEN WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME.” Because, see, no white man has ever learned what a conversation is. You know, where sometimes there’s talking and sometimes there’s listening, and by actively engaging with your interlocutor you can move the conversation forward? Yeah, they don’t know about that. Meanwhile we’ve stopped talking about the matter of inequality in order to ensure Todd that his voice will be heard.
How can you say that no white men know what a conversation is. Way to insult all white men. That’s not a good way to get people on your side.
Are we supposed to be super thrilled that “not all” white guys are privilege-blinded patriarchal asshats? “Not all” isn’t enough! Know what is? Zero. That’s the number we’re going for. Zero racist, sexist, cissexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, classist white guys! That’s the only okay number, everyone! And this applies intersectionally. Zero racist white women! Zero homophobic black men! Zero intolerant people with disabilities! Zero is the only comforting number. And why do you need people to be really sugary and pandering and nice to “get” you to “their side”? Isn’t the shiny glow of “not being racist” alluring enough? Were you like, ooh boy, I was all set to support the rights of minorities, but I sure don’t like your tone! That’ll be a pass for me!
Related: I have received criticism from writing teachers for relying on sexist tropes in my own work. And I am a woman. What can I say, patriarchy’s a bitch. Do I wish those teachers had spared my feelings and not “politicized” their critique? Fuck no. They showed compassion and intelligence and demanded the same from me, and I realized I’d internalized a bunch of shit that was stunting my writing. I’ve been there, Beleaguered White Guy. I’m in the system too. Criticism can be a gift.
You’re being hysterical.
Please show proof that sexism and racism are real.
But just for fun:
This “safe space” nonsense is for babies! Grow a thicker skin!
This one is so zany because it’s almost always a tactic for evading criticism. Like, you should be able to take criticism and deal with all these microaggressions and aggro-aggressions but I, I most certainly should not. Honestly. In my academic program, just about every time some rando casual dehumanization came up, from a classmate or professor, I said something. I didn’t cry, I didn’t leave the room, I didn’t scream, I just defended my point of view in reasoned, academically-appropriate language. (You know, like a baby.) Then once, after a reading of a classmate’s particularly sexist trope-trafficking script, our professor critiqued it — again, in academic-appropriate language, and in a way that questioned the writer’s use of stereotypes but defended the humanity of the people skewered. It was so great! And the writer (white, male, straight, cis) responded by walking out. Later he demanded an apology. For receiving criticism from a professor in a writing workshop WHICH IS LITERALLY WHAT A WRITING WORKSHOP IS. The worst part? She apologized.
Safe space isn’t for babies. It’s for white men’s feelings.
We can all get along and should all be kind to one another.
I thought theater was supposed to be fun.
Yeah, all the not-being-racist is ruining the fun.
This is not relevant.
All of these are escape routes. The speaker uses them to escape, not from real harm or oppression, but from truth through someone else’s eyes. That’s a cowardly move for a writer. Recognize this: our rehearsal space, our writers’ forum, our laptop screen and our stage are not cordoned off from injustice and inequality, and privilege operates there too. Recognize our vulnerability. We're all failing all the time, that's what theater's about, so let's not be so terrified of it. Consider listening, reflecting and questioning instead of evading, derailing and discrediting. Imagine... it's like a writer's workshop. White writers male writers straight writers rich writers cis writers, all kinds of writers will talk about their right to make audiences uncomfortable —perhaps by having a character from a marginalized group brutalized onstage — but they don’t think it’s fair for you to make them uncomfortable with your critical response. Then you are invading their space, violating their boundaries, disrespecting their authority. And we can’t have that.
Here is the credo by which I write, from Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev:
“As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it.”
It’s not a philosophy of censorship or hypersensitivity or whatever it is that the beleaguered writers might expect. In fact, it’s full of ego and fiercely independent. But I take that shit about truth seriously. And the truth as I see it is this: Everyone’s humanity is equal to everyone else’s humanity. Much of the world is structured around a lie that tells us otherwise. I write toward that truth, to varying degrees of success, exposing myself to criticism, owning my words.
Playwrights have to talk about humans. Playwrights don’t get a special pass to dehumanize others. When people bring up race or gender or class or any other matter of power and identity — they are not unfairly imposing “issues” onto your comfort zone. They are just talking about human beings. That is what we’re here to do.