By Ahtiya Liles
In my first blog article, No, White People Shouldn’t Be Cast As Lincoln or Booth, I touch on how Suzan Lori Parks, a black playwright, talks about how black people are usually only deliberately portrayed on stage if they are talking about their blackness or their lack of whiteness. That is, when we see black people on stage, it is because they are either talking about being oppressed by white people or how their blackness is affecting their lives. Parks, in her writing, strives to break this mold, and I plan to join her.
My characters, whether they are in novels, short stories, or plays, will always have a race. It does not matter if they talk about their race or not, but it will be made clear whether they are black, asian, white, etc.
When it comes to my playwriting, however, my characters’ race will most likely always be a person of color.
It was a hard concept for me to swallow, making the decision to write characters of color who do not talk about their race. I found myself asking myself, “well, if they’re not talking about race, why can’t this be anyone’s story?” or “their race isn’t important since they’re not talking about it,” and I realized that I had fallen into the very trap that Suzan Lori Parks had talked about. I, subconsciously, was perpetuating the idea that people of color are only relevant on stage when talking about white oppression or their lack of whiteness. It was an absurd moment for me and quite heartbreaking.
I consider myself pretty aware of how race permeates our society, and I had missed and was feeding into a major downfall in my field of study. It’s no secret that theatre is pretty white, and some people’s solution to this is to have more playwrights who write “our story” or stories “for (insert minority group here).” What does this mean, though? I think that when people say these things, they mean stories where being (insert minority group)/not being white is talked about ad nauseam. But why are these the only stories for people of color? Why can’t we be the center of a romance where race isn’t involved? Why can’t we be stuck in a family feud over a dead relative’s money without race coming into play?
The answer: WE CAN. WE ARE. WE WILL BE.
Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way saying that storylines directly talking about race should not be put on stage anymore or that they’re not interesting. I find these storylines deeply interesting and entertaining, as well as relevant, and I may even and probably will write some of these stories myself. In fact, I already wrote one. I do want, however, stories surrounding people of color where the only time race is talked about is when the director reads that all the characters are of color.
I’m not perfect. I know I will have this debate with myself the more I write plays where race is not the main topic. I believe, however, that I will stick to my guns. I will keep my promise to myself and hold myself accountable. I mean, who else will? The likely thing to happen if I don’t specify a race for a character is that they will be played by a white actor. And this especially will happen if the storyline does not touch upon being a person of color or white oppression. As an actress, it’s hard enough finding roles and reading roles that I am able to play or that I even have a shot at playing, since the default race of a character in this country is white. I’m not being bitter about it; it’s just the sad reality of the society we live in. Seeing a black person (or any person of color) on stage where they’re not talking about being black/not being white is such an oddity, and it shouldn’t be.
So, until we live in a time where there is equal representation of people of color on stage in stories that do not pertain to race, I’m going to push this agenda. And the only way I know how is through my writing.