Monday, October 31, 2011

Writing Beyond Racism

For many Americans the idea that they will be treated unfairly simply because of the color of their skin never even crosses their mind.
Unfortunately, the same is not true for all Americans.

Nearly a half century after the Civil Rights Movement many black Americans are still finding themselves underrepresented in nearly all aspect of American life. You can see this most clearly when it comes to the entertainment industry, specifically film and television. But you can also see it on the stage, or rather, behind the scenes.

Playwrights have been presenting American audiences with a distinctly "white" perspective of life because for the most part they have all been white themselves. The parts available for black actors have mostly been as character actors, stereotypical "black American" roles.

It would be great to see all perspectives of American life represented in live theater. Not just the lives of white Americans, or even black Americans, but ALL Americans. Writers have the ability to tell stories, share emotion and help us to learn how to relate to the characters we read about, or see on a stage or a television screen or in a film. Writers are a powerful force for cultural change, but only when they actually write something which is produced, read or shared.

This season, for apparently the first time, the American theater’s most visible platform will host as many as four distinct works written or adapted by African-American women.

Already running is The Mountaintop, about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., by young playwright Katori Hall and starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Next month comes Stick Fly, Lydia R. Diamond’s upper-middle-class family drama featuring Dule Hill, Mekhi Phifer and Tracie Thoms, with music by Alicia Keys.

December will bring a new edition of the Gershwins-DuBose Heyward opera Porgy and Bess, with a revised book by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog /Underdog).

And angling for a theater in the spring is By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, by another Pulitzer Prize recipient, Lynn Nottage (Ruined).

Playwrights such as Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote A Raisin in the Sun, and Ntozake Shange, author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, were forerunners of the current Broadway blossoming. But the fact is that few black women through the years have broken through as Broadway dramatists. (Nine plays by the most celebrated African-American playwright, August Wilson, have had Broadway productions.)

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