By Ahtiya Liles
No, I’m not talking about Abraham Lincoln or John Wilkes Booth. I couldn’t care less about them (a post on why that statement pertains to Abe Lincoln will come at some point). I’m talking about the characters Lincoln and Booth in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog.” This is the third and final play that my Acting Scene Study class is working on this semester. Parks is known, as a playwright, for creating black characters who do not harp on the fact that they are black in a society dominated by white people.
A few classes ago, my professor handed out an excerpt from a pork of Parks’. I am unsure what the book is entitled, but I the section that most caught my attention was An Equation for Black People Onstage. I’m not going to quote the entire section, but I’ll break it down as best I could. Simply put, Parks believes that “the bulk of relationships Black people are engaged in onstage is the relationship between the Black and the White other.” When I read that, I was like WHOA. It’s one of those things that seems so common-sensical, right? Like, duh, of course a drama surrounding black people is going to focus on them being black and under a white gaze. I had always knew that at the back of my mind, but reading it in an essay kind of sent me into a shock. Parks then goes on to say: “I wonder if a drama involving Black people can exist without the presence of the White…the mere presence of the other is not the problem. The interest in the other is. The use of the White in the dramatic equation is, I think, too often seen as the only way of exploring our Blackness; this equation reduces Blackness to merely a state of ‘non-Whiteness.'” And that’s where I had to stop reading and do some reflection. Am I only black because I’m not white? I mean, think about it: would I think about my blackness if I didn’t live in a world where being white was ideal?
I digress as I’m going to break this back to the title and how it connects.
In the class after the one where we received the handout, the professor had the two actors of the first scene we were working on do a table read. For those who do not know, a table read is when the entire cast sits at a table and everyone reads their designated parts from their seats. No acting, no blocking (movement and direction), no nothing, really – just maybe some interjections, clarifications, and questions. The two actors who were reading are both white males. When they finished, our professor confessed that something about making this a mandatory text for us all to performed didn’t sit right with her. (This is irrelevant to the story, but my professor is an Asian female.) She went on to say that, knowing that Parks wanted these characters to be played by black actors, was it disrespectful for us not to cast that way? (I’d also like to point out that we only perform these scenes in class and for nobody else.) A debate ensued where most of the class agreed that it was an uncomfortable topic and that, if we were staging it, than the characters would absolutely not be cast as white because it takes away the authenticity of the roles and what Parks wanted. Another person in the class argued that it was the same as a woman playing a man and vice versa or a woman playing a rape victim when she’s never been raped. The class promptly told this person that it’s not the same, and the professor posed the question: why? Why is it not the same?
I’ll say here what I said in class. I don’t really care if two white guys get up in class and portray black characters. Now, if we were staging this to be viewed and enjoyed by an audience, then I’d have a major problem. First of all, a playwright’s wishes are a playwright’s wishes, and something as delicate and specific as the race of the characters is just something that shouldn’t be touched. Second of all (and my biggest problem with it) is that why is the default race white? How come when the race of a character isn’t specified or they’re not talking about their race, it is automatically assumed that a white actor should play them? People take issue with James Bond being played by Idris Elba or Annie being played by Quvenzhané Wallis because they’re black and the those characters were always white, are currently white, and should just stay white. Are black people (and other people of color) only allowed to play characters that are specifically black?
The answer to that question is a simple ‘no’ because roles that are clearly not white but do not address race usually end up being played by white actors and actresses. For a person of color to be “justified” in playing a role, the role must be in someway oppressed by outside racial/white forces and they must overcome the boundary that is their race.
And I’m not saying that every black actor or actress only plays roles like this, but usually, it is questioned when they do not. They’re usually thrown a bone, and they MUST mention the fact that they are black (I’m using black because I’m a black person and this is what I identify with). Black people can’t exist in this world just as people – we have to remind ourselves and everyone around us, constantly, that we are black. That’s just how it works, and that’s how it’s always worked.
So, no, Lincoln and Booth (in “Topdog/Underdog”) should not ever be played by white actors. Let black actors have roles on stage where they don’t talk about or acknowledge the fact that they’re black. Black people do not have to validate their existence on a stage by talking about race and oppression. They can have a storyline that talks about love and relationships and family and money and greed without race ever being mentioned. It’ll be the same story as if a white person were playing the role, but the only difference will be that it is a black person on the stage.