So first, omg, I had no idea how many people read this blog. I always thought this was just something I did to record my progress (and lack thereof) as I navigate what it means to be a playwright. So if you’re reading this of your own volition, thank you!
(I also wrote this blog to document my travels while playwriting, which in 2020, is a bit sad because I haven’t really left Madison since January.)
I had a troubling thought recently: am I a token? I’m starting to realize that I’m in a lot of white spaces and I’m the only person of color there. And in these spaces, some really problematic things get said. Lately, it’s been that we need to extend our hands and forgive neo-Nazis which, no. Pass. But it’s also been other subtle things. Spaces, where I know my friends who are also Black women have been harmed, are somehow incredibly welcoming to me. And there’s this subtext of “you’re not like them.”
The first time a white person said to me “You’re not really Black. I’m more Black than you are” I remember being…proud. I was like 15 and didn’t really understand how racist and fucked up that was yet. I thought it meant I wasn’t like the Black folk who were “on drugs” or “uneducated.” Even typing that and admitting that is painful.
There’s so much I still needed to learn about how to be myself. It’s not an excuse but I grew up in a multicultural home. My dad, who’s Black, wasn’t around as much so I was primarily raised by my white stepmom (who’s been in my life since I was 4 and calls me her daughter) and my Afro-Latina mother. It created a cultural crisis in me. I didn’t know what I was or what culture I most aligned with.
The last time someone white told me “I’m more Black than you are” I popped off. Because, again, that’s racist. And then I remember I was immediately labeled as angry or “sassy.” It was like if I tried to stand up for myself, I would be disregarded as angry because I couldn’t “take a joke.”
As theatre companies start to think more inclusively and invite more Black playwrights into their spaces, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about which ones, which Black playwrights. The quiet ones? And what if I’m part of the problem? I try to leave the door open behind me. Anytime I work with a new theatre company, I tell them about other Black playwrights (usually women). And I’ve written two different lists here on this blog about playwrights who I want to lift up.
I’m also incredibly aware of all the times I’ve been silent. Zoom makes this even easier. I can just turn my camera off and disengage when something incendiary is said. I can remove myself from the situation and have.
But does that mean I’m staying silent and enabling them?
When I was 22-27, I had no issue popping off because I had nothing to lose. I was pretty convinced that I would end up being a Literary Manager and/or Artistic Director by 30 and I’d be a failed playwright who had networked early on with the playwrights who had made it. This was always supposed to be the plan. I went to the MFA Playwright’s workshop at the Kennedy Center and now I see those names everywhere. There are other playwrights I’ve met along the way who are blowing up right now. So I always kind of figured that I’d write a couple of okay plays but really the intent was to meet the real artists. So, because it wasn’t really about me, I had no issue loudly calling people out.
But the other side of that is how it isolated me. I didn’t feel very close to many of the people I went to grad school with. I definitely had the reputation of speaking my mind but I’m not sure I had many friends. Not really.
And then in 2017, I had my first playwriting contract. And I got paid for my work. The reviews came in and they all loved the play. I could google myself and my play would show up. Suddenly the dynamic changed. Suddenly I had something to lose.
There was hope that I could be more than just the friend of great playwrights. I could maybe be a great playwright too.
And as time passed and I got more contracts, more paid work, what should’ve felt really liberating and exciting, felt like I was being silenced. Because the further along I got, the more afraid I was of speaking out. I didn’t want to lose these “opportunities.” I wanted to at least have a chance to prove myself wrong; that maybe I was also a great playwright.
I tried so hard. But I’m not good at being quiet. It would lead to explosive conversations and me just going “Oh well. I guess I don’t need to work with that company anymore.” But that’s not helpful to the person after me.
Sometimes I stayed silent for survival but sometimes I stayed silent because I wanted the opportunity and wanted to be a bit selfish for once. And I hate that this is something all BIPOC playwrights have to deal with and no white playwrights have to. I’ve seen white playwrights throw tantrums in the lobbies of their own shows and no one has once ever called them “angry.” No, they get to be “passionate.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking “was it really worth it?” There have been times where I closed the door behind me, turned off my camera when something explicitly racist was said, and where am I now? I was in a program where we had to write down her goals. By 2020, I was supposed to have a show at the Goodman. By 2026, I’m supposed to have a Tony and a MacArthur. All of those seem laughable now. And even more impossible than they did before.
But something I had never even considered, even if they weren’t laughable, at what cost would it take to get them? Did I have a line or was it by any means necessary?
I want to always be known as someone who lifts other people up. Who makes space for others. I don’t want my own ambition to blind me so much that I can’t see how my actions contribute to uplifting white supremacy. Even if that means I have to step away and just be that boss b*tch who may be a failed playwright but is also a spectacular AD who understands what it means to create an environment where everyone can thrive.
I wanna get better. And like James Baldwin* said, “I am not your negro.”
PS This blog is early because I’ll be on the road this weekend.
*While I admire James Baldwin, he was a misogynist and we need to address that more.