I attended a weekday matinee of Idris Goodwin’s And in This Corner: Cassius Clay! at SCT. The script covers pivotal moments of Muhammad Ali’s life from his 1950s Kentucky childhood through his 1960 Olympic victory, and several scenes unapologetically address racial prejudice and acts of domestic terrorism toward African-Americans. During the cast’s talkback session with the school group audience, a child about eleven years old asked: “Do you like the part you got to play?” Direct and lighthearted, asked of the entire cast of nine, most of whom were people of color.
The one white female actor immediately drew in the full room’s attention when she audibly inhaled; we could also see her react physically, resituating a couple times on her chair. Despite her failed attempts to form words, she didn’t pass the invisible mic to her fellow cast members, so we watched her wiggle and writhe for what felt like five minutes, waiting for her to nod or do something definitive. She was costumed as the diner waitress who angrily refused service to the protagonist. Something about that imagery combined with her visible discomfort created something tense and electric in the air; I doubt I’m the only one who detected it. And it’s always much easier to note moments like this as an observer, not as the person in the middle of it. This moment of uncertainty and confusion, of saturated racial subtext, stood out — screamed wildly — as an enormous, brilliant opportunity for a real conversation.
Allow me to press pause and speak directly to her for a moment, as a witness to the entire charade, as a side-coach to cheer her toward her edge. A Ghost of Conversation Present, if you will. Pssst. I saw your impulse to speak before the rest, and you (and I mean me and all of us people seen and treated as “white” who sit in that chair with you — making this a collective “you” in addition to the singular “you”) needn’t be the first one to jump in. I appreciate that you seemed to catch yourself because we need to stop being the dominant voice in the room. Especially when we feel exposed or uncomfortable.
Pssst. Here is an opportunity to address the reality of the situation, even if you can’t yet identify what’s going on or to what you’re reacting. (Sound familiar, Clown Lab folks?) How about speaking to these 300+ young people from a grounded albeit raw place of awareness? Take a brave breath, mentally check any feelings of shame or guilt (those common representations of a white person’s internalized racial superiority), and say something like, “Wow, I just got really uncomfortable. Did anyone else feel that big shift? Did something get weird? What was it?” We’re all in the same room, so the acknowledgment would be extremely satisfying.
When I press play and review the event again, there were in fact TWO opportunities. The initial one was within her ten-seconds-or-ten-hours of confusing silence, which was thankfully interrupted by the actor who played Cassius Clay; he chimed in that he loves his part and he’s very happy about it. But then, remarkably, I watched both cast and audience check back in with the white actress. Why? She had a second chance to tackle this generous, gentle elephant pacing the stage in a broad parade of “Over here! Pick me!” The audience, the majority of whom were children of color, waited again in another elongated moment of suspense.
Unfortunately, the moment played out as an opportunity thoroughly missed. In the second go-around, she eventually muttered something like, “No, I didn’t like my part,” gesturing down at her blue and white ’60s waitress costume as if it was covered in vomit, as if it should’ve been obvious to us that of course she wouldn’t like that role. Why did she only mention that bigoted character when she’d said she played a “bunch of characters” minutes earlier in her introduction?
Her smoothest option was to detour completely: “Yes, I liked playing the boxing match commentator.” Or, more bumpily and boldly: “Yes, I’m glad I got to play a bigoted person because she is part of our country’s history” — hopefully with the addendum — “and I’m working on understanding how that history continues to affect the pervasive racism that people of color still encounter in 2018.” Better yet, with another: “And how I as a white person play a part in that system right now.” I can think of at least twenty more options to have either included or varied within this short snippet of an answer. An answer that would’ve ideally acknowledged her character’s impact (then and now), rather than one that indicated an embarrassment of embodying a racist everywoman who walked the earth back in the day (and who, incidentally, continues to occupy all fifty states).
I don’t know if the children shared my disappointment, but the overall lack of pachyderm-pointing unleashed a deflated exhale with the reality check that we still have a lot of work to do together, just like when one hopes for the most incredible professional magic trick and instead has a cold coin dropped on their shoulder by their amateur uncle. Is there an internal obstacle interrupting or blocking her — my, our — ability to show up as a whole, articulate human in the room? I ask this insistently and lovingly of everyone who benefits from systemic racism. I’m not looking for accolades by asking, either; I seek answers. Real, authentic answers, which inevitably lead to deeper questions.
If the child’s inquiry set off a sub/conscious reaction within the actress — indescribable and incapacitating as it may have been, perhaps linked to the constraining costume she wore and confusions she bore — then the onus wasn’t on her to facilitate this opportune conversation. The onus was on me and whomever else witnessed her discomfort, particularly any of the other twenty to thirty educators and chaperones in the room. We all shared the responsibility to notice that she was stuck, then take the baton to the finish line as a team.
We (I) could’ve sustained the question, voiced the energy shift in the room, and given time for each actor to answer. We (I) then could’ve returned to the bigger picture to ask what happened within ourselves the moment the actress inhaled. What stories did we (I) instantly project onto her that heaved a weighted suspicion out of a child’s innocuous question? Here was an opportunity to be honest, non-expert role models to the children, and regard the arduous work of undoing white supremacy in the US. Can we please give these youth an ounce of hope that the process is underway?
Speaking of which, are we committed to that work, or not? Are we ready yet to observe the fact that white people (myself included) owe our lifestyles of increased comfort and safety and accessible provisions to the millions of people of color who’ve had the concept of being “less than” literally beaten into them? Perhaps not on purpose, hopefully not consciously (though certainly not all white US citizens can be credited with good intentions), we nonetheless all participate in and profit from the imbalance of power informed by prejudice, as fellow “separate but equal” products of the systemic racism that founded this country. We are complicit. Yes? Yes.
As a teaching artist, I missed my opportunity to feel uncomfortable and pipe up from the back row. Why did I expect and wait for someone else in the room to address the issue when I was fully capable? I sat out the chance to invite everyone to maintain a childlike curiosity throughout their day-to-day lives and within their personal interactions, especially on the topic of race. If this work is so important to me, why didn’t I use my voice?
I have to thank Kevin Jones, co-founder and Artistic Director of the August Wilson Red Door Project in Portland, for his deft pivot of my out-bound mirror back toward me. Not one of my white family members or friends who proofread this blog pointed out my own miss in the moment. To those beloveds and everyone who identifies as white, let’s relieve the educational load from our beloved country-people of color who’ve never volunteered to take it on, yet who’ve been struggling — and dying — every day under the incessant pressure of racism for at least three hundred years. Let’s happily (or earnestly) take on the task of learning for ourselves where we have been anesthetized by centuries of systemic racism and where we’ve disconnected from own humanity.
The common, ongoing white denial with words of “I don’t like playing her” which is to reject association, as in “I’m not her” which is to squirm “I’m not racist” — these are all thorny evasions and veiled lies obvious to an innocent-yet-wise audience of children. We have to agree that these avoidance tactics are old. We have to agree that these maneuvers must lose their footholds as more and more white people accept accountability and finally insist upon evolution (and revolution). We have to agree that there’s no time to squirm and shrug in the held focus of hundreds of intelligent, impressionable young minds — who already know of and personally experience racist words and actions, whether via microaggressions or macro — because their lives are at stake. We have so much work to do. Let’s please begin by answering a simple question with a “Yes, and –”
Note: I invite readers to participate in community conversation, and I understand that this topic can shake up emotions and confusions and defenses. Since I am responsible for this platform, any cruel, violent or otherwise harmful comments will be deleted. Let’s embrace the work with our hearts and mindful thinking.
As atticus finch once said, “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.” (Chapter 9, To Kill a Mockingbird)