I was preparing for a performance of a play I wrote about the brutality catapulted towards blackness. Of course I was anxious. Every time members of the audience begin to roll into the theater, I experience a moment of humility and think to myself, “Each of you scheduled time in your busy lives to come here today to engage with a world I created. Dang that’s crazy.” But there’s still awareness that your work can be dismissed as didactic, aggressive, or the ever so present: another Black play by a Black playwright about being Black in America. Which by the way seem to be the “Black plays” most theaters show interest in producing. But I digress.
When my director waved me over to the steps inside the theater to quickly chat about the talkback question my mind was already scattered. I sat on a step and began to chat with a couple of members of the production team. As the audience began to wander in, one white woman patron walking down the stairs bellowed in an assertively superior pitch, “Excuse. You.” Not excuse me but excuse. you. Her phrasing was intentional, a simple and fast statement expertly wielded to put me in my place, to remove me from her path, and to position herself as superior to me and more deserving of space in the theatre. Microaggressions like this are commonplace in the theatre world, and form a cacophony of messages that remind Black folks that we are mere guests in this predominantly white space
I know this because I’m a Black American, which is to say, I have grown up in a society that uplifts whiteness and reserves for its Black constituents the most vile and violent expectations, perspectives and attitudes. Save your, “but you don’t really know” white fragility. In her mind I was out of place and in a place where she belonged. Yes, I was sitting on the step. Yes, there was enough space for her to walk by me. I quickly jumped up, apologized with a smile she had neither the manners nor motivation to return, and walked far out of her way.
My colleagues had witnessed that interaction and for some reason, we three women, two Black and one White, chose to say nothing to this patron.
Moments before the show began, I asked my director? “Did you hear that woman?”. She responded with an eye roll, “Yup. And you’re the freakin’ playwright.” It was a lackadaisical response, not because she didn’t care but because she knew better than to engage. And so even though her “yup” was laced with, “I wish we could give her a piece of our mind,” we both knew what was at stake: our careers, reputations and most importantly, our, not yet approved, acceptance into the theater.
The show began. My show began. And I? I slipped out the theater, past the usher, past the ticket window and right out the front door. I walked for blocks and blocks, not out of protest, anger or pride, but to process. I’d been triggered: reminded of the time I sat in a play only to be asked by my seatmate if it were my first play because I didn’t appear to understand the humor. I was reminded of when my friend was asked to take his hat off the second he sat down. I was reminded of when I was instructed by a patron to turn off my phone before the show began.
I am constantly made to feel like an outsider, a guest, and a child, lectured constantly on the rules of the white ruling class. When these triggers send me walking, shake me from my sleep, and snatch me from the present moment, I wonder how that knowledge and fear impacts the types of plays I write for these very audiences.
I know this is a shared sentiment amongst a number of Black American playwrights, and since anti-blackness is global, I posit it influences British writers as well. That’s what I expressed to Suzanne of the Royale Exchange Theatre, Manchester as we sipped tea in a New York City café. We’d gotten into a rather curious discussion on why POC British writers might not be writing political plays as audaciously as Americans.
Because it’s dangerous. That’s the truth. There is danger in writing your truth for White artistic directors and audiences when you know what’s on the other side of your truth: A biased critique heavily weighted on pleasing the aesthetic palate of well-meaning liberal subscribers. An appetite that often sifts through nonconformist voices, opting to savor only the flavors reminiscent of comfort food.
These days, if you’re in or around the theater, you can’t escape the chatter of equity, diversity and inclusion. Theaters are making an effort to include folx that are non-binary, differently-abled, woman and/or people of color, and to produce plays that center the experiences of these folks. We have targeted commission, development opportunities and a slew of other initiatives sprouting left and right. While this is a step in the right direction, that alone does little to mitigate the violence experienced by artists from outside of the dominant group within the theatre community.
Before you can discuss accepting new voices into the theater you must first think about ways that you discourage our bodies and existences from being equal stakeholders in a system where you still consider us guests.
In order to authentically and effectively welcome the fresh voices, perspectives, and ways of knowing and sharing that you’re looking for, the theater has much work to do unpacking biases and making ALL writers feel AND KNOW that the space to express themselves freely is theirs. They are not guests and you (theater gatekeepers) are not here to place judgment, funnel their thoughts through a white lens or make their stories more pleasing to white audiences. Their stories are worthy of being expressed organically.
And check your audiences. Make sure they understand that intolerance, elitism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ageism, White supremacy (and all the other ignorance I’m unable to name right now) are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
And seriously, don’t tolerate them.
Let your subscribers know that you value them so much that you want to bring them exemplary theater and so things are changing and you hope they are just as excited about the changes as you are.
Consider your positionality, and speak up when you notice behavior that is in direct conflict with the progress your theater is aiming to achieve. It’s a much smaller task for those with privilege and power than for those whose bodies are already seen as unwelcome.
You want the brave plays? The untainted voices? The brilliant forms and inventive structures? Then do the brave work you’re asking your playwrights to do.
Fellow writers, I won’t postulate to identify with your exact plight, my words are an offering of love and respect for choosing to spend some life creating theater. I hope we keep doing just that. I hope we write audacious, self –satisfying, outrageously bold stories, continue to learn the rules of playwriting to break and re-write them, to write what we want for the people we want, to tame the reflex of self-censorship and to gravitate towards theaters that celebrate us.
Theaters, here is my charge to you: Once you open your doors to us, realize that we are bringing more than 100 pages of a play. We are bringing our speech, culture, clothing, hair, laughter, artistry, demeanor, ideas, morals, history, questions, concerns, essence, complexities, life… we are entering through those doors, carrying our existences.
Be ready for us. All of us.
That’s the progress many of us are looking for. The freedom we ache for. That’s the theater that will embody and produce the most magnificent work the world has yet to see.
Ya’ll ready or nah?
Tori Sampson’ plays include If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka (Playwrights Horizons, 2019), This Land Was Made (Vineyard Theatre, 2018), and Cadillac Crew(Yale Repertory Theater, 2019). Her plays have been developed at Great Plains Theatre Conference, Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Ground Floor residency program, Victory Garden’s IGNITION Festival of New Plays, Playwrights Foundation, and Ubuntu Festival. Tori is a 2017–18 Playwright’s Center Jerome Fellow and a 2018-19 Mcknight Fellow. Two of her plays appeared on the 2017 Kilroys List. Her awards and honors include the 2016 Relentless Award, Honorable Mention; the 2016 Paula Vogel Award in Playwriting from The Kennedy Center; the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, Second Place; the Alliance Theater’s 2017 Kendeda Prize, Finalist; the 2018 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, Finalist. Tori is currently working on commissions from Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, and Atlantic Theater Company. She holds a BS in sociology from Ball State University and an MFA in playwriting from Yale School of Drama.