About a year ago now, I wrote an article on my blog called Race and the New Generation of Musical Theatre Writers. In the article, I called out to my white colleagues to ‘stretch’ their worldview to a point where they were able to see that our communities are not just populated by white people; to step outside of our unconscious biases and take an active part in truly ‘holding up the mirror.’
This recent Op-Ed in the NY Times by Kaitlyn Greenidge struck me as an interesting extension of that call to arms. It asks the question, “Who Gets to Write What?” and examines the tightrope of cultural appropriation.
It struck me, particularly, as I have been working the last two years on two projects that involve cultures foreign to my own. My newest musical Passing Through tells the story of a young man walking through the American South and encountering a melting pot of people. It examines, among other things, America’s racist past, and asks how do we move forward.
In it, we gave voice to a myriad of characters of color. One in particular was a 102-year-old black woman, who shares her experience growing up in the racist south. I recognized it as being a delicate moment, and one that I wanted “to get right.” I researched, I stayed open, and I did my best to connect to the universal humanness that is only achieved through the most uniquely personal.
Whether or not I achieved the verisimilitude I hoped for will remain to be seen – and will likely only appear through the input and development of the casts of color that will eventually workshop and inhabit our piece. I want to know that I have done right by the culture who has endured the situation I articulate. Because I respect that culture, and it is important that I don’t unintentionally disparage or short change.
But this article in the Times, brought up an important point about writers who attempt to culturally appropriate: Why do I want their approval so badly?
The article goes on:
A writer has the right to inhabit any character she pleases — she’s always had it and will continue to have it. The complaint seems to be less that some people ask writers to think about cultural appropriation, and more that a writer wishes her work not to be critiqued for doing so, that instead she get a gold star for trying.
Whenever I hear this complaint, I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s cool assessment of “anti-P.C. backlash” more than 20 years ago: “What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.”
It’s an important reminder for those of us who step outside of our known territory (something that I am a huge advocate of for ALL writers). And self-reminders are the only way to truly break down the barriers of systemic racism. We can never simply sit back and rest on our good intentions. We must be vigilant, and brutally honest with ourselves. We must come with open hearts, open minds, and an eternal willingness to listen and accept when we are wrong.