Well over a month ago my good friend Bob Williams posted something on Face Book that set me back on my heels and caused me to realize that back when I was doing theatre, and most specifically, when I was sitting at the casting table, I often did not pay close enough attention to the biases of the people making the decisions, myself especially.
Bob has been a dear friend and treasured collaborator since we first started hanging out and doing improv together at the University of Maryland back in the mid-1980’s. He’s been a cast member of some of my favorite productions of my plays, including Annex Theatre’s An American Book of the Dead – The Game Show and “White Boy can Take a Punch” in Brown Box Theatre’s Hoodie’s Up. Bob’s a terrific actor and a deeply generous person and not exactly known for living on a soap box (unlike some of us - *cough*). So I feel strongly that his words deserve special attention and bear repeating. To that end, I asked Bob if I could republish his Face Book post here at Just Wrought, and he kindly acceded. Part of me is sorry it took me so long to get this up on my blog, the other part isn’t sorry at all, since it’s good sometimes to reemphasize a call to action that may have been otherwise quickly forgotten.
From Face Book, posted, August 19 at 11:37pm
My main Point last night at the forum on artistic freedom and artistic responsibility at the Seattle Rep was that, 50 years after the civil rights act removed the signs that told us that Black people were Colored and White people were not, no color at all,(What if the signs said "Black" and "Bleached"?) we still have a culture that normalizes White as neutral, or of no particular ethnicity. And that informs how we cast roles in the arts community and how we see ourselves as a people.
If a White actor is seen as ethnically neutral, they can play anybody. And non Whites are only seen as their ethnicity. A White guy can play everyman and I can only play Black man, and if a writer does not specify an ethnicity for a character, the default setting is to see that character as White, straight, able bodied, Christian. Should the actor with an eye patch only show up for pirate roles?
Two guys walk into a bar...
What color are they? Did one of them use the ramp to enter?
Our default cultural setting says "White unless specified as other."
After all I didn't say two Asian guys walked into a bar.
So many people in the Bagley Wright Theater last night are tired of being the other. And we are getting tired of explaining how it is still employed, or having to explain that it still exists.
This is how you get Jake Gyllenhal as the Prince of Persia and the Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise.
Or the film honoring Navajo code talkers "Windtalkers" starring Nick Cage.
Or the film about Indian ballplayers coming to America "Million Dollar Arm" featuring mostly Jon Hamm.
Or Cotton Club starring Richard Gere.
Or Mississippi Burning with very few Black characters.
Or Ghosts of Mississippi with barely a line spoken by a Black actor.
Or Matthew Broderick as the main character in "Glory"
Or Matthew Broderick as Simba, King of the plains of Africa, and Jeremy Irons as his uncle.
It's this rich history that in no small part brought us to The Mikado controversy, and brought all of us to the forum last night.
White people can be anything (even Japanese), our shared culture tells us that.
Edgar Rice Burroughs gave us a template:
Abandon a White baby in the jungles of Africa. Now come back 20 years later and where's that baby? Anywhere he pleases. He's Tarzan, King of the whole damn place.
And the IMDB page for this second animated feature Disney chose to set in Africa,(Disney's Tarzan) Has a sea of White headshots on the cast listing. (Seriously, go look.)
If you are producing this "2 Guys in a Bar" play are you open to guys of different ethnicities? Do either of them have to be a guy? Can two PEOPLE walk into a bar? Do they both have to walk?
Mostly I wanted to show the room these two photos, taken Saturday at the lower Queen Anne Bartell's drugstore, a couple hundred yards from where we had gathered. Aisle 12: Ethnic care.
And the products on Aisle 12 in the other shot. How many ethnicities are represented in the ethnic care aisle? Where should I look for soap, Ethnic cleansing? (Seriously, go look. Take your time, it will still be there. Aisle 12.)
White/Colored, Ethnic/ non ethnic, how far have we really come?
Thanks Kathy Hsieh for calling on me and facilitating a discussion. Thanks Annie Lareau for showing us how it can be done right. Thanks Andy Jensen for reminding us all that not every family looks the same and thanks Pamala Mijatov for making Annex one of the places where these issues don't flare up, and for reminding us what a local treasure Courtney Meaker is.
I'm getting older, and I'm getting tired of walking some of my White brothers and sisters through the baby steps of "Your people aren't the only people that are people."