“A wise man told me ‘Don’t argue with fools
‘Cause people from a distance can’t tell who is who’ ”
—Jay Z, “The Takeover”, The Blueprint
This past week I went to the Berkeley Rep to catch a preview performance of Jeff Augustin’s Last Tiger in Haiti. The story revolves around a group of “restaveks” (child slaves) and the stories they tell themselves to cope with the horrors of their daily lives. The first act takes place 15 years in the past, the second in present day, with the shadow of the 2010 Haitian earthquake looming large. Incidentally, this show was in production as Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti earlier this month, resulting in a death toll estimated between 1,000-1,300. As such, the curtain call features the actors asking for donations to help with relief efforts.
As I began putting on my coat, an older White man behind me began complaining to his female companion about being asked for donations. “It’s just like being in church: if I don’t put something in the collection plate I look like an asshole,” he said before ranting about how his having attended the performance should be “donation enough”. As I began making a mental list of just what obscenities I’d yell at him, I asked myself what the point would be in doing so. I put on my coat, dropped a fiver in the donation basket, and walked to BART.
I thought of that old man’s casual racism this past Tuesday when I went to The Magic to see Campo Santo’s final preview for Nogales. The play uses the story of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez – a Mexican teen killed on the Mexican side of the border wall by trigger-happy border agent on the Arizona side – as part of a wider examination on US-Mexican immigration. As I settled into my seat before the start of the show, a White couple in their 20s began talking about theatre around the country. The young woman said that she found Chicago “too insular,” but was willing to “tolerate” SF and LA. The young man ranted about how much he hated New York, really loved Cleveland, and lamented that in his short time in SF (he said he’d been here a week) he’d only seen “these kinds of ‘ethnic’ shows.” I didn’t turn around, but I could hear in his voice the way the word “ethnic” left a foul taste in his mouth. In fact, it’s probably for the best I didn’t turn around – I’d have been too tempted to punch him. I sipped my free wine and got ready for the show.
Neither of these incidents were a first for me and I know they won’t be the last. I also know from experience that if I were to engage them, odds are that I’m more likely to be painted as the bad guy. I’ve been in enough arguments at events for Intersection for The Arts and Z Space to know that what I call a debate has been described as “this Black guy just attacked us”. That can make someone a bit gun-shy about wanting to engage in such a debate again, leading to the misconception that he doesn’t have an opinion at all.
In my defense, my not hesitance has less to with how I’m perceived (although I do admit that I think about it) and more with my not wanting to “feed the trolls”. The old man at the Rep and the young couple at the Magic were, to my knowledge, nothing more than theatre patrons (ie. the lifeblood of our industry). They’re allowed to have opinions – passive-aggressively racist though they may be – so long they paid for their tickets; for full-color casts, no less. As much as I’d love to strap them in chairs Clockwork Orange-style as they sit front row for my long-planned production of Jean Genet’s Les Nègres, clownerie (The Blacks: A Clown Show), I take comfort in knowing I’m entitled to speak my opinion as freely as they, but that would be no different than engaging the anonymous randos who send me racist tweets. I haven’t been on Twitter since August, why do it in real life?
If I’m going to spend time and energy voicing an opinion about theatre, both are better spent on actual theatre artists. Granted, this too will occasionally get me in hot water. A few years back I was at the developmental reading of a show by a popular local theatre with whom I’d recently gotten on very good terms. I’ll never forget how offended I felt when the longest sequence in the show was dedicated to one of the few White characters/actors getting a subplot only tangentially connected to the main action and characters. At intermission, I was pissed. Really pissed. I mean go-to-a-corner-away-from-your-colleagues-so-they-can’t-see-the-scowl-on-your-face pissed. They second act was… a bit more tolerable, but still problematic. I sat in my chair thinking “I could just leave now, accept that I saw a shitty reading, and let it end there.”
But I didn’t do that. As the cast (all of whom I knew well) took their seats, the first few “questions” were really just shallow praise for the White writers and directors for telling a story about people of color. One of those praises came from someone higher on the Bay Area theatre food chain than I; someone whose opinion I respected; someone whose opinion of my actually could influence how further I got in this business, so it would have been in my best interests to stay quiet. Instead, my inner Kanye told me “Fuck it” as I raised my hand and (calmly and rationally – there were witnesses) explained everything I found wrong with the two hours of White privilege I’d just witnessed.
My comments immediately divided the room: half agreeing with me; others saying they were out of line; and all the while, the row of actors scowling at me from their seats on the stage. I eventually saw the full production and sure enough there were changes made. Overall it wasn’t a great show, but I felt better about speaking up when I did.
It’s no secret that lots of local theatre companies are struggling just to keep the lights on, but it obviously has a stronger effect on me when I see PoC theatre artists having to struggle even harder. Just as Campo Santo had to leave their longtime home a few years back, so too is Af-Am Shakes raising funds to find a new home and support their upcoming season. The importance and necessity of theatre companies like these becomes all the more apparent when I think of asinine opinions like the ones I mentioned above. In fact, they become apparent whenever some otherwise-progressive White theatre artists asks me why the Bay has “no Black actors/theatre”. In 2016 – the 50th anniversary year of the Black Panther Party (spawned here in the Bay Area) and the final year of the first Black president of the US – we’re still looked at in a “liberal” arts community as if we’re Klingons.
Here’s a hint: it’s not for a lack of trying, it’s because we seem to be easy to ignore. Whenever we do make ourselves visible enough to where we can’t be ignored, we’re told that we’re being over aggressive and threatening. Right… I’ll remember that the next time someone pretentious White theatre artist limply defends their show by telling me “if it offended you, it’s done its job”.
Charles Lewis III’s latest project is directing a script about a bunch of crazy White people.
You can see it tomorrow night at The EXIT Theatre as part of the SF Olympians Festival.