In For a Penny: What do I Stand for?

Charles Lewis III, wondering where he fits in.

A square peg forced into a round hole. 3D render with HDRI lighting and raytraced textures.

A square peg forced into a round hole. 3D render with HDRI lighting and raytraced textures.

“The moment when someone attaches you a philosophy or a movement, then they assign all of the baggage and all of the philosophy that goes with it to you. And when you want to have a conversation, they will assert that they already know everything important there is to know about you because of that association. And that’s not the way to have a conversation.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, 2012 interview with BigThink

It’s funny what little things leave a big impression. Last night I attended a show for the sake of merely escaping a number of
responsibilities piling up (running lines before my next rehearsal, prepping for auditions, job-searching, finishing a “spec” assignment for a potential new job, etc.). Indeed, the show was a welcome distraction and it was nice to see people I knew on stage.

During the post-show decompression, I chatted up both the folks I knew in the show, as well as those I knew in the audience. One of the latter was a bit surprised to see me and was a bit taken aback that we were both there to see the same show. Without hesitation, one of the actors chimed in, “Charles is here to see us because he’s a good friend and really knows how to support local theatre.”

I didn’t say anything in response, but it punctuated a stream of thought I’ve been having lately: What do I represent to this theatre community? Aside from the labels I have listed on my CV and my TBA profile – actor, director, playwright – what does the sort of theatre I actively support say about me personally?

These thought were most intense this past Saturday, when I attended the African-American Shakespeare Company’s penultimate performance of The Colored Museum. Maybe the most resonant segment of George C. Wolfe’s play is the one that has aged much better than I thought it would: “Symbiosis”. In this scene, an upwardly mobile Black man (the kind I knew growing up in the Reagan-‘80s, when the play was written) attempts to bury all evidence of the radical youth he once was. This includes him throwing away his old records, his afro pick, his activist symbols, and verbally berating his younger self, who has physically manifested in the scene. He concludes that the “sell out” extreme he’s become is unable to co-exist with the extreme he once was.

The post-show speech included the usual “Thank you for coming” lines, but I wasn’t expecting to hear the specific donation push that followed. It seems that dubious forces are at play, attempting to push Af-Am Shakes out of their home in SF’s Burial Clay Theatre. With the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre having been kicked out of their longtime home years ago, the expulsion of Af-Am Shakes would create an even greater dearth of Afrocentric theatre in the Bay Area – particularly in San Francisco.

It’s moments like this when it once again drives home how much a simple act of consumerism – in this case, purchasing a theatre ticket – is a political act; that supporting an independent business financially gives greater voice to the proprietor of said business, even if you don’t particularly agree with them. There’s a popular Twitter phrase that often pops up on politically active profiles: “RT is not an endorsement.” That may be true, but the fact remains that you’ve still exposed this person’s words to an audience it wouldn’t have reached otherwise.

And I’m someone who’s constantly aware of the fact that his purchase represents a specific shift in the demographic of a business. Of all the possible categories into which I could fit (Black, cis-gendered male, mid-30s, neither Democrat nor Republican, etc.), I would never in a million years claim to be The Voice of My People™. But I bring all of those things with me – whether consciously or unconsciously – and they will color how I react to a purchase I make and a piece of art I observe.

As the author of a theatre column, my attention is occasionally drawn to how I and my fellow columnists distinguish ourselves. I’m unaware of who reads my column regularly, but I’m conscious of the fact that talking about ethnicity can transform me from an anonymous collection of words into an avatar of a race and all that a reader believes about that race. Granted, such entries are few and far between (I really wanted to do the last two for Black History Month), but I don’t suddenly lose my other distinguishing features whenever I write. Or see a show. Or wake up in the morning. I might not wave a flag declaring myself any of those things, but they’re no less a part of me than the things in which I do blatantly declare myself (actor/director/playwright).”

And yet, this is all a part of theatre, which means that no matter what sub-category into which I fit, I’m still an anonymous face in the crowd when the lights go down. As long as I don’t heckle, fart, or snore from boredom, what you think of my face when the lights come up is your problem, not mine. After last night’s show, I was seen as a friend and supporter of indie theatre. I like that label. I’ll take it.

Also, “Take Five” was used as transition music and I nearly fell out of my seat, wanting to shout “Are you kidding me?!”

Charles Lewis III is currently rehearsing for a show that goes up in April. He expects you, and every demographic you represent, to be in the audience.