(This post is more about the art of playwriting and less about traveling)
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about what kind of stories I’m allowed to write.
Honestly, it was already on my mind as I’m working on two new commissions but it’s almost like the universe could sense I was struggling with it because three different pages I follow on Facebook got into HEATED debates about how trans stories are told and who gets to write them.
Right off the bat, I’ll say I do not believe writers can write any story they want. I think there are some stories, because of privilege and circumstance, you cannot write authentically and it’s best to leave those stories to people who can. The example I use the most is while I’m very interested in the narrative forming around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I cannot write that story. It’s not my story to tell. And if I were to write the story, I would write it dishonestly. There are just some stories that don’t belong to me. And I accept that. I understand some writers believe they can write absolutely any story (usually cis/het white male playwrights) but I strongly, strongly disagree. No amount of research can provide an honest perspective. #sorrynotsorry
With all that said, I comfortably sit under a couple of “labels.” I’m Afro-Latinx, Black, and queer. Though I use she/her/hers pronouns, my gender identity is more complicated than that and I’m still figuring where on the spectrum I sit (that’s for another time).
I have structured my entire writing style on these “labels.” Every play I write centers on a queer woman of color. 80% of my plays have a trans character. And most of my protagonists are Black, Latinx, or both. I think I use my writing as a way to explore my identity and how I relate to it. In all honesty, as narcissistic as that sounds, all of my plays start with me, my identity, and something about myself that I’m struggling with.
But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if I am not holding myself as accountable as I should be. Especially when I think about how trans characters are represented in my work.
Maybe I’m overthinking it but going back to the “whose stories can I tell,” I don’t feel right writing a story from a trans perspective. I don’t feel right about writing about someone experiencing body dysmorphia. There’s no way for me to tell that story authentically without relying on shitty tropes and bringing my own messiness in regards to my gender into it.
Inclusivity is important but not if it only exists to validate and confirm a false narrative.
I think a lot about the plays Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar and Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire. I had a visceral reaction to how black women are presented in the plays. When I tried to explain to my white and non-black friends of color, they didn’t get it. But I was livid. I still don’t know that I can completely explain it but it felt like both playwrights were operating under very specific tropes and no one seemed to care. And true, of all the things to call out in those plays, the black characters aren’t the most jarring BUT it was for me.
I don’t want anyone to feel that way about my work in regards to how trans characters are portrayed.
What if someone can’t enjoy Well-Intentioned White People or You Were Mine because there’s something unconscious I’m leaning into that’s offensive?
The easiest answer is to always have a trans person in the room and every time I’ve had a say in the casting process, I’ve insisted roles be cast as written (sometimes playwrights don’t have a say). I tell actors that I want them to have autonomy. And I believe in creating a rehearsal room that’s open to feedback from the actors. I’m collaborative. If an actor questions something or think something rings as untrue, I wanna know. Honestly. And then I want to make it right.
I don’t believe the playwright should have the last word. I think of my plays as the ground floor plan, the outline of a play. And I depend on actors, and on their authentic experiences, to help me iron the play out.
But is that enough? Am I taking up the space that I shouldn’t?
I am by no means a famous or even well-known writer. I’m still fighting for the space I do have and trying to justify that I belong there. I am 100% still an emerging playwright. To be honest, I don’t even think I’m emerging yet. I think I’m the step before it but as more opportunities come my way I want to continue to check in.
Is my inclusivity toxic?
Currently, I don’t have an answer. It’s something that is literally blocking me from writing because I’d like my play, Last Night, to have a trans character, especially since it’s about a shooting in a queer bar and we can’t talk about LGBTQ+ violence and not talk about the overwhelming violence the trans community experiences.
But I want to make sure that as I continue to tell these stories, I am telling them in a genuine, respectful way that relies on emotional honesty and not at all on conscious (and subconscious) misconceptions/bias.
I want to keep pushing theatre to be better and I understand that includes me. To be honest, I’m re-evaluating my intentions and reviewing my work. I’m going back into older plays and changing some of the harmful language (like when I’ve said MTF in the past instead of trans woman).
But I’m also truly taking some time to consider: How do I make sure that my insistence on creating diverse characters for the stage is moving the conversation forward and not stalling it?
I write to tell stories I don’t see on stage because growing up, I thought theatre was white people sh*t. But I need to make sure that I am not creating work that is now cis people sh*t.