Monday, August 13, 2007

The Safe Black Universe

THE SAFE BLACK UNIVERSE was originally published in the BlaQ Market collection available here.

It is reprinted here with permission from the author, Shepsu Aakhu.

My voice has its own metronome. It comes from an amalgam of my personal experiences, as well as a deep commitment to introspection. I essentially write a world that is populated by the people I have known, and the many facets of my own spirit. I do not write to sell. I write to explore, discover, and reveal.

In this practiced art of mining my own soul, I have found freedom in style and subject. I have since discovered it to be largely unappreciated, unheralded, and unrewarded on the American stage, especially as it relates to the diversity of Black stories.

I define a Black story as a story where Black characters are central to the narrative. That is in contrast to the common practice of placing Black characters in the periphery of the narrative. In such stories, the Black characters exist only to support others (typically the white characters). These characters rarely have a rich internal life and are rarely motivated beyond simple ethnic stereotypes. They certainly are not reflective of the Black people that I have known, feared, loved, or admired. Essentially, they are only tools to tell the story of someone else and not people in their own right.

There is a book entitled: Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks by Donald Bogle. The book has a simple yet effective premise. Black stereotypes (i.e., Toms, Coons, etc.) were the only characters we were permitted and encouraged to create or portray. Unfortunately, over twenty years later audiences are still being fed a steady diet of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks. The cultural landscape has not changed significantly enough to erase those pervasive archetypes, but enough to create an equally detrimental alternative. I call it the Safe Black Play, full of safe Black characters inhabiting a safe Black Universe. Ironically, however, that safe Black universe provides little actual safety for the Black audience as to not offend White sensibilities.

To better understand this point we need look no further than the American “Race Play”. What does the topic of race look like in the Safe Black Play? First, it must not make the White audience, or the affluent Black audience for that matter, uncomfortable. Removing the story from a contemporary setting is the easiest way to accomplish this goal. A period piece, set anytime in American history before 1975, will typically get the job done. We can draw bold characters steeped in overt racial opposition without the fear of offending the great masses. I call it the “Thirty-Year Barrier”. The Thirty-Year Barrier represents old America - confused, obstructionist, unenlightened America. When the audience sees this America on stage, they see it as a politically or historically Dark Age and not an extension or commentary of themselves. This Dark Age was an unfortunate time, but it is not at all reflective of our present enlightened society.

The thirty year barrier facilitates the notion that the evil has passed, which may be unintentional on the writer’s part. The work may have higher aspirations, but inevitably exists as a work that does not directly force its audience to examine themselves within a contemporary context. The audience is given an out and allowed to cloak themselves in a well worn deception. “Those people back then had it bad. Boy, aren’t things better now?” This disconnection allows the audience to empathize without taking any responsibility for the issue being explored, thus the “Safe Black Play.”

For the Black community, it is anything but safe – it takes racism out of its usual institutional context and personified it instead. It is embodied in a flesh and blood character that exists as the antagonist. Any writing teacher will tell you that this is a good idea because, in theory, it gives the audience a clear villain and creates clear motivations for the protagonist. Functionally, however, this device undermines the Black community’s sense of reality. The obstructions of racism are rarely limited to one individual. We effectively tell the Black audience that what you know to be true will not be seen on this stage. For the white audience we go in the other direction; what you WISH to be true will be validated on this stage. White society has allegiance and responsibility only to the white individual.

In this scenario, the white audience is safe while the Black audience is not. The race play requires a certain truth telling. We have to see race in a contemporary context, with all of its complexity, and with an acceptance/understanding that we will be made uncomfortable from time to time.

In American theater we are allowed to be angry, violent, impoverished, anti-social and generally self-destructive. We are allowed to be comical. Our comedy, no matter how subversive the creator’s intent, is largely consumed as a docile or passive diversion. From this comes the concept of the coon. We are allowed to be objects of lust and exoticism. Can it be healthy to think of oneself as exotic? This is by definition an outsider’s viewpoint. Forming one’s self-image from an external viewpoint has to be considered a destructive practice.

None of this imagery challenges audiences to view us with any depth. As BLACK artists we have to OWN and utilize these images. I am not of the school of thought that purports all representations of Black culture have to be positive and uplifting, but we have to be more complex than this. We have to be more than what makes others comfortable when they interact with us. We have to be the conflicted, contradictory, profoundly heroic, and deeply flawed people that we all know and share our lives with. We must be and represent our true selves.

Do we exist in American theater outside the boundaries of the race play? The answer is yes. Are these stories widely produced? Not really. Why? Because once the race play is put aside, Black characters exist in a world with conflicts that are not bound by our relationships to white America. The white audience does not see itself in the story. Their interest in a Black story typically declines sharply when their experiences, culture, and sense of superiority, are not referenced textually, or within the greater subtext. Simply put – if the story is not clearly about them, they tend to divest. If you doubt it, ask yourself this question: how many reviews of Black stories do you see with the following line buried in the body of the critique: “It is a universal story about...”. Decoded, this simply means that white America doesn’t need to worry, because they will see themselves (their culture and values) in the story.

When was the last time you saw those words in reference to Hamlet, Death of a Salesmen, The Producers, Blueman Group, or UrineTown? We are not allowed to be ourselves yet. We are not allowed to tell our stories for their value to us. In the Black Market, we exist largely to entertain and amuse white America. This is a problem, one we help to create and reinforce.

We have to value our own stories. We must come to view our art as a reflection of ourselves. We must view our work as more than an opportunity for escapism. When you give your time and your hard earned money, you deserve more than just a laugh. You deserve a good cry whether in joy or pain. You deserve the tingle of self recognition when characters that look like you and share your experiences move across the stage. You deserve to be challenged instead of pandered to by the production. You deserve to be welcomed by a sense that your stories are valued in this space, upon this stage, by these performers. The Black universe should portray a world that is populated by the people you have known, and the many facets of your own spirit.

You’ve been getting short changed. Frankly, the industry doesn’t think that we have been paying attention. And quiet honestly, far too many of us have not.


David Moore said...

Aaron, this is great. Thank you for putting it here, and thank you to Shepsu Aakhu for sharing it so freely.

Many, many thoughts and reactions, one of which is this (and worded completely inarticulately):

The description of the safe race play (safe for whites, not-safe for blacks), or safe black play, finally, finally nails for me something I think many other black writers and artists have been trying to communicate to me -- but either I've been unable to hear it or they've been unable to articulate it (or both), so the attempt at communication has failed.

Forgetting about obviously racist plays, for the moment:

I've seen and read plays that were later described to me as being racist. I've known playwrights (black and white) who were called racist because of what they've written. (That includes writers who were accused of being unintentionally -- or unconsciously -- racist.) And in some cases, I just haven't understood the charge, haven't understood the basis for the accusation -- and the accusers haven't been able to provide a rationale, at least in a way that I understood.

But Shepsu's description goes a long way toward helping me understand that charge. Perhaps this is what friends have been trying to say when they couldn't find the words to describe what they wanted to say. And it provides a framework -- for me -- for analyzing such plays myself.

Sharp turn: A couple of days ago, I re-read "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf." It seems to have met, in 1975, this description of a non-safe Black play: "We have to see race in a contemporary context, with all of its complexity, and with an acceptance/understanding that we will be made uncomfortable from time to time."

Are there other non-safe Black plays that you would recommend? Especially contemporary plays?

Devilvet said...

Is there a contemporary Amiri Baraka? Working in theatre? Who is published?

(I fear I have made too tough a request)

I seem to remember Susan Lori Parks getting a lot of static for not speaking to a black audience, rather speaking to an NYC avant-garde artist clique audience.

It seemed that she couldn't have one foot in James Baldwin's camp another in Richard Foreman's. That to do so made her work less than "black" theatre...Does anyone else remember this? Right around the time America Play was done in NY? Am I misremembering this?

Anonymous said...

What is a contemporary Amiri Baraka? Wasn't the vast majority of Amiri/Leroi's work so period specific as to defy present day sensibilities?


Once you place the restriction on the work that it "needs to be published", then aren't you in effect asking for the work/author which defies Market pressures but still has managed to be embraced by the publishing industry? Talk about a catch -22.

That's a lot like looking for the best jet pilot at a "walk-athon". You're probably looking in the wrong place.

Susan Lori Parks--

was she criticized for her work being "too dense" -- yes.

Did that density call into question her "Blackness"? -- Not really...

She was called out because she had written work about black people that was not accessible to the vast majority of "Black folk". That does not mean that it was not "Black enough".

Eventually her work helped to expand the notion of what is acceptable for "Black writers" to write about.

Similar arguments have been made against Lydia Diamond for writing about "affluent/intellectual Blacks". (Apparently they are too rare to deserve to have their stories told), and Nambi E. Kelley for characters/language that is too complex to allow for easy categorization.

There are extensive numbers of Black writers creating vibrant viable contemporary theatre. among them are Addae Moon, Carla Stilwell, Javon Johnson, Shepsu Aakhu, Lydia Diamond, Nambi E. Kelley, Christopher Moore, Jeff Stetson, Issac Holter, Inda Craig- Galvan, Kevin Douglas, Keli Garrett, Aaron Carter, Joe Plummer ...and most of those operate out of Chicago.

The question is not does the work exist. It does.

The question is who will produce it and will come to see it. and now apparently, who will publish it.

Devilvet said...

The reason I ask about work being published is becuase of the points anon brings up.

The authors don't have to be published, but then they need to find a way to distribute their voice. It sounds to me like there are a lot of them who are writing and hopefully working (i.e. getting produced) They need only be published if they want the work to be considered as literature. If they aren't concerned about that then bully for my mind...yes they need to be published or self published or pdf'd or sending out the work by passenger pigeon, or some how getting the words and images in front of spectators. Without publication and/or national or even regional distribution then you are just the tree that falls in the forest and no one hears.

"The question is not does the work exist. It does.

The question is who will produce it and will come to see it. and now apparently, who will publish it."

Who will distribute it. Yes.

Why not the playwrights themselves?

"What is a contemporary Amiri Baraka? Wasn't the vast majority of Amiri/Leroi's work so period specific as to defy present day sensibilities?"

Maybe, but I would argue that a well done production of Dutchman for a crowd that didn't know the ending still has the power to scare the crap out of a multiracial audience today.

I guess what I mean by a contemporary Baraka would be someone who writes an intelligent, visceral, piece of theatre that confronts the audience. From my perspective Baraka is (or was) a quintessential example of someone writing the non-safe race play.

Anonymous said...

"I guess what I mean by a contemporary Baraka would be someone who writes an intelligent, visceral, piece of theatre that confronts the audience. From my perspective Baraka is (or was) a quintessential example of someone writing the non-safe race play...

...I would argue that a well done production of Dutchman for a crowd that didn't know the ending still has the power to scare the crap out of a multiracial audience today."

My response--

Baraka was/ and still is marketed as exotic anger. Actually now he is marketed as nostalgic exotic anger. Your response indicates as much.

This is not the "Black view" of "Black art". We are not here to scare anyone. The article's point was that the voices must be honest and true and valid to "Black people". As stated, I don't think the article was supporting the notion of the race play- it was an example of how whites/others most often consume Black work... The critical point of the race play is that it references white America. The article was purporting a world where that was not necessary to get Black stories on stage.

Thus the notion of Black artists "still or every being able to scare whites/multiracial audiences" is off the mark. Scaring/marketing to, or otherwise co-opting your voice for white America is antithetical to the point of the article.

If you are looking for authentic Black writers who are not preoccupied with altering "Black stories" to suit the needs of a predominately white marketplace- then I've given you a lengthy list from which to draw. An there are many more one the printed page they just may not be on the shelf at your local Borders.

If you are looking for someone to scare "multiracial" audiences in the style and manner of Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones then I think the notion of "contemporary" has been lost. Leroi is period and his anger is period as well. Black folk are certainly still angry, but not necessarily for the reasons that white america thinks, and it's precisely those reasons that rarely find their way to the stages of LORT Houses or Broadway, and certainly not to the printing presses of Random House, Applause, or Sam French.

Devilvet said...

I wish I knew who I was talking with anon...I'm guessing this isnt Aaron or he would have probably posted by name.

I appreciate the list of playwrights you've given. And I think I have a better idea of why my Baraka allusion is off point. In fact I suppose if there ever was a play that demanded a white marketplace, one could argue Dutchman was that play.

And for those of us who are not black, do we have any way to appreciate the "black stories" non altered for a white market?

Or, are we (caucasians) effecting the work in determental way by even attempting to witness...i.e. if enough white people enjoy it has it been co-opted then by the white marketplace and hence the catch 22?

Can there ever be a diverse marketplace or is the best to hope for "seperate but equal" marketplaces?

I'm getting the sense that my questions and/or langauge may be offensive to some, not my intent...I'm just working with what I got.

Aaron Carter said...


Nope, not me. Although if I recognize the syntax of the author, I'm guessing that the Anonymous has more to do with not being a fan of creating online identities than remaining unknown.... perhaps the author will enlighten us.

When Panther Burn was in production, I had a moment when I realized I had written a black play. It wasn't due to the subject matter precisely. It was that suddenly I didn't have to explain certain references and contexts. The play was situated in enough shared experience that there was an layer of knowledge that some folks didn't have to "work" for. They knew it as part of who they are.

Now, I'm not setting up a shibboleth here - I'm not saying that people who felt that were black and those weren't. Rather, I'm trying to say its this sense of tapping into shared knowledge that creates an ADDITIONAL layer of meaning.

So rather than falling into Black v. White and who is a play for in some sort of all or nothing way...

not that anyone is advocating that, just that its often the general drift of race discussions

...rather than falling into that, I'd like to inject the thought plays operate on multiple levels.

I go see plays by About Face, and sometimes the audience erupts into laughter and I just don't get it. Sometimes Teatro Vista runs a few lines in Spanish and don't bother to translate. I hang in there, and I still enjoy the overall experience.

If more theaters believe that audiences (black, white, and other) were willing to do that, maybe there wouldn't be as much pressure to make sure that everyone gets everything.

Which, on one level, is what I think the Safe Black Play is about: make sure the majority doesn't feel left out.

But combating that doesn't mean shutting the majority out...

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Seemed like fun, so I tried it, and now I rather enjoy it.

As to the quetion of can whites witness black work without co-oopting it. Absolutely... The co-opting doesn't happen at the point of sale (viewing). It happens during creation, development, and marketing.

The presure to change the work is excerted by the developmental theatres who nudge (read shove) or dilute the work to make it more palitable for mass consumption. This is similar to the way that A & R guys and record labels devlop musical acts. Take a good look at who gets airplay and label deals. Are they the only voices out there? are they even representative of our diversity in musical interest? The acts more or less conform to a particular content, style, and format.

Then there is the marketing... "How can the industry reduce this work in a way which allows it to be easily consumed"? -- In the Black world this marketing requires the label " the next" --As in who will be "the next" August Wilson or "the next" Amiri Barak.

Creatively it means --how can I reduce you to something comforting and familiar to facilitate sales. It's less about what does this voice have to say --and more about elimanating risk in the mind of the consumer.

In the music metaphor, this is evidenced by the way Hip- Hop has been reduced to Sex, Violence, materialism, and mysogeny. And boy does it sell... It's not particularly true to the experiences of most "Black folk" but it can certainly generate revenue.

Last and perhaps worst of all is the artist who alters their work at the point of creation in pursuit of acceptance. This is the worst kind of co-opting because it kills the art before it ever has a chance to exist. This is why so many little Black children sit in their basements generating hip -hop that is pre-occupied with Sex, Violence, materialism, and mysogeny. They want to make money, and they are willing to forgo their stories to generate what they believe the "market" expects.

Black Playwrights are no different than hip-hop artists. They are a million voices out there with something to say.

But who is listening?

You-- buying/witnessing the authentic art makes it more viable. The rest is up to the artist to resist the forces that say over-simplify it, reduce it, alter it, and you'll sell more of it.

When that happens your local theatre looks an aweful lot like top 40 radio. The artist may be black, but are they telling "Black stories"?

We have come full circle back to the the article-- "Black stories are stories by Black people" with some sense of the subject matter, perspectives, lanuguage, and structure, in Black culture.

It is not defined by it's consumption, it is defined by it's existance. Black art is like any art-- it has a right to be appreciated by anyone with an interest in it. It also has a right to exist on it's own terms regardless of who consumes it.

(This is why Susan Lori Parks is considered a "Black writer" even though her audience often is not Black)