In For a Penny: Label-mates

Charles Lewis III, breaking his own format.

“I wonder if anyone ever notices the cross and Virgin Mary in my hand?”

“I wonder if anyone ever notices the cross and Virgin Mary in my hand?”

“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
– Toni Morrison, Beloved

This is about race. You don’t wanna read about it, click on something else. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

In all my years working with the SF Olympians Festival, I can’t recall a year where there were so many divisive; plays that made the audience grateful for the imaginative power of theatre alongside many plays in which the audience felt their lives ending by the minute. I didn’t catch every single play this year, but if there’s one that still positively resonates with me weeks later, it’s Half-Breed, Veronica Tjioe’s one-act based on the myth of the Minotaur. It’s about a mixed-race (half-Asian/half-White) woman coming to terms with her ethnic identity after a none-too-pleasant encounter with her White father.

Lots of thoughts went through my head watching this reading. It reminded me of my own Olympians one-act from Year 3 (also centered around a mixed-race individual coping with his identity). It reminded me of how some of the best works in the festival can be ones that eschew the grandiose nature of the original myth for more intimate character studies. Most of all, it reminded me a lot of bullshit questions I’ve gotten all my life, like “What do you call yourself?” It’s never enough to just exist, some people need to have some frame of reference (read: “stereotype”) in which to fit you; otherwise you don’t exist.

I’ve never been too keen on the term “African-American”. I was an ‘80s kid/‘90s teen, so I was around when the term first came into vogue. It’s always struck me as too clinical and too broad to describe me. It’s a term that describes nationality in such a way as to avoid specific ethnic phrasing. Charlize Theron was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and later became a citizen of the United States – that is an African-American. I’m a Black man. That’s the way I’d be described in almost any other country in the world, so that’s the way I’ll describe myself in my home country. I was born in San Francisco, raised both there and Daly City. I grew up around a lot of Filipinos and a great many of them described themselves as “Pacific Islander” – a term the US Census uses for those of Hawai’ian/Samoan origin. My category isn’t as complex: Black American – end of story.

And I get that there’s a lot of – a Chimamanda Adichie recently called it – “baggage” associated with that term. It’s stifling. It’s myopic. It suggests that a particularly diverse group of people are capable of only one type of representation. As a performing artist, I’ve learned that such terms give audience members, critics, and whomever an easy frame of reference for what they’re about to see. At the same time I hate the idea of being handcuffed to any one particular performance category – especially “Black theatre”. I’m not the first person on this site to mention that this sort of specific theatre (Gay theatre, Asian theatre, women’s theatre, etc.) tends to be pretty damn awful, and Black theatre is no exception. Black theatre usually consists of over-the-top, stereotypical performances of plays that fall into one of two categories (broad comedy or overwrought drama – both usually ending with some awkward mention of Christianity) and spend their entire running time reminding the audience of what they already knew: that there are a bunch of Black people on stage. Film-maker Gina Prince-Bythewood recently told NPR that she’d love to eliminate the term “Black film” if she could. I get where she’s coming from.

It’s one of the reasons I’m also a writer and director in addition to being an actor. I don’t know what’s worse: terrible Black characters written by other Black people or terrible Black characters written by non-Black people. I’ve mentioned on this site before that one of the worst scripts I’ve ever auditioned for was one in which the sole Black character was so cringe-inducingly “perfect” that he lacked any sense of realism. The writer – a White woman – had clearly gone so out of her way to make him politically correct that she didn’t bother to give him a personality; he was just a list of statistics and accomplishments dumped into a Black man’s body. That’s just as bad as if he’d been the worst Stepin Fechit or gangsta caricature because you’re still thinking of them as a category, not as a person.

And God forbid you actually bring that up in conversation with a non-Black theatre professional. Even here in the “Liberal Utopia” of the Bay Area there can be some ass-backwards thinking (and speaking) in regards to race. After all, this is the epicenter of post-racial America under a Black president, where everyone is judged purely on their merits and the people who live here “can’t see race” (a claim that science has conclusively proven to be absolute bullshit. It sucks that I almost never get cast in shows with primarily Black casts (and the last time I was, the idiot director fired me anyway), but it’s equally frustrating that White directors and producers are clearly thinking “Where can we put the Black guy?” whenever I actually am cast. I’ve never gotten a romantic lead, if I’ve gotten a lead at all. I’m usually cast as someone’s father or other asexual authority figure. Having been on both sides of the audition table, I know that there are a million other mitigating factors contributing to such decisions. Still, it’s annoying to be thought of only as a Prospero or a MacDuff, but never as a Romeo or a Bassanio.

Still, when Norm Lewis can headline roles like Javert in Les Misérables and the eponymous Phantom of the Opera, then I think there just might be hope for me yet.

“My audition for Equus didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped.”

“My audition for Equus didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped.”

I understand the need for labels in both a practical and professional sense. Not only do I gravitate more towards the term “Black” because I feel it accurately describes me, but categorically it’s simple and direct enough that I’d like to think an intelligent person can give it the slightest glance and move on from it without being dismissive. I don’t prefer the term “African-American”, but I’m not offended by it either. I don’t equate it with the horrible epithets I could be (and have been) called. In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, actress Raven-Symoné put a lot of emphasis on the fact that she didn’t want to be labeled as “African-American” or “Gay”. I don’t know what the reaction was amongst the LGBT community, but Black people were pissed. Really pissed.

On the one hand, I get what she means about not wanting to be held back by any particular label. On the other hand, comments like this by her and Pharrell Williams (who recently dubbed himself – I shit you not “The New Black”) don’t suggest an evolved sense of thinking so much as a sense of superiority. These are the comments from people who have achieved enough money and fame that they can separate themselves from problems of people who look like them, but don’t have the money to make said problems disappear. That’s not the same as Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining why he’s not an atheist [/LINK]. This is a look into the thought processes of people who truly think the rules of the world don’t apply to them, and that’s dangerous thinking.

In fact, it can be outright deadly. As I write this entry – which I’d written, finished, and then re-written several times over now – we find ourselves in the aftermath of a legal decision that essentially regarded the life of a Black American as worthless. This is the second such decision in the past two weeks and the umpteenth one of my entire lifetime. As someone who regularly reads classical Greek and Shakespearean prose only to be “shaken-down” by the SF or Oakland police departments that same night, I can’t afford to forget lessons like that. Raven and Pharrell live in a world where racial profiling is unthinkable. For those of us not blessed with such ignorance, their dismissal is insulting, to say the least.

When I finally decided to become a regular columnist for this site, one thing holding me back was the thought that I’d be “the Black writer”. But I’m gonna be that no matter what I write, so I took on the role knowing that if my opinion on any theatre topic is shaped by the knowledge of me being a Black man, so be it. When I started writing today’s piece, it was supposed to be the entry that ran last time. As I mentioned in that entry, Allison’s piece had me in a contemplative mood and I felt more comfortable commenting on that. But I also didn’t want to let loose the angry stream-of-consciousness version of this entry which I was originally writing. In the time between then and now, the policemen who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner have gotten off and I’m starting wish I’d gone with my original version of this entry.

As I said above, I wound up rewriting this entry quite a few times before sending it in. I didn’t want it too sound too angry, because an “angry Black guy’s” opinion can be easily dismissed, but I wanted the seriousness to be felt in every word. I wanted a bit of levity to shine through, but I didn’t for one minute want the reader to think I was just trying to put a happy spin on a topic that doesn’t get enough attention. I wanted it to cover as much as possible without being a long-winded screed throwing in everything including the kitchen sink. Most of all, I wanted it to reflect the broad scope of my column and the specific goal of this entire website: theatre.

We are artists: we comment on the world in a way that makes sense to us in the hopes of connecting with someone who feels the same way. Do we simplify, exploit, filter, and manipulate in the hopes of getting our point across? Abso-fucking-lutely. That’s the great paradox of what we do: when we do it right, our simplified material will leave you with a complex emotional response. It might make you happy, it make you angry; but the point is that we were afforded this opportunity and this forum to make our voices heard and you chose to listen, so the least we can do is make it count. As much as I abhor the broad stereotypes that tend to pop up in a lot of Black theatre, I take a lot of comfort in the knowledge that a topic like this would most likely be able to find a home there. From Lorraine Hansberry to Lynn Nottage, no one reflects us as well as we do.

As an artist, I’ve learned that the only thing worse that the labels put on you is when you fall into the trap of letting those labels define you and everything you do. Very little of the theatre work I’ve done in recent years would easily fall into the category of “Black theatre”, but there is a self-assured Black man behind each and every one. I’d never let my race be the sole defining factor of my work, but I won’t shy away from a piece where it’s vital to the outcome (I’ve recently started writing a full-length in which race plays a considerable role with the characters). Most of all I’ve made a certain amount of peace with labels others use for me – whether I like them or not – because I know that it’s based on their frame of reference, not mine.

Besides, if there’s one thing the world is starting to get wind of, it’s that “African-American” isn’t the worst label that could be placed on someone like me.

Photo by Pamela Moore

Photo by Pamela Moore

Charles Lewis is a celebrity look-alike. He’s often been told he “fit(s) the description of a suspect”.

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2 comments on “In For a Penny: Label-mates

  1. Reblogged this on The Thinking Man's Idiot and commented:
    In which Yours Truly ponders the labels we have placed upon us, the restrictions they create, and my own place in a world gone mad.

  2. Megan Cohen says:

    Glad to hear you’re working on your full length!

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