Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Swamp Baby was High Yella

When I started this blog, I was hoping to have discussions about the nuts and bolts of playwriting. I'm still finding my way towards that specificity. I am interested in theory and general principles, but hope to connect those principles to live work.

In that spirit, over the next few days I will detail specific choices I've made as a writer that were consciously influenced by my ethnicity (as generally discussed in yesterday's post). I do this in hopes that other writers might offer their own similar specific instances.

Before I begin, I'd like to be clear on a couple of points.

1) I'm not complaining. Navigating my mixed-race status in relation to my work and in relation to the concept of blackness is just something I have to do. At times I find it frustrating, at times in brings me great joy. So as you read the choices I've navigated, please don't read "forced to make" or "oppressed by."

2) I consider conscious choices in relation to identity, audience and marketing to be part of the artistic process. As I become familiar with other theater blogs, I notice that there seems to be a dichotomy underneath discussions of the artists relationship to the audience: either you're thinking like a marketer, or thinking like an artist. That is, either you're worried about numbers and what the audience likes -and are therefore not an artist. Or you're just working from your gut and putting out there what you want to see -and therefore are an artist. There are echoes of that in this interesting post on Paul Rekk's blog. This subject probably bears addressing in a separate post, but I wanted to make it clear: for me, these choices are part of the artistic process.

Swamp Baby was High Yella

You can read a blurb and brief sample of Swamp Baby here.

Swamp Baby began life as an experiment in adaptation. I was scanning short stories that were in the public domain when I came across Desiree's Baby by Kate Chopin.

The brief story details the courtship of the orphan Desiree and plantation owner Armand, followed immediately by their marriage and birth of their first son. After a time, it becomes clear that the baby is mulatto. It is assumed that Desiree - who never new her parents - carries the taint of African blood. Armand banishes Desiree from the house, and Desiree walks into the bayou to drown. In the final moments of the story, we learn from a letter that it was indeed Armand whose mother was black.

In the library book I was reading from, someone had scrawled "Ooooo .... not!" in the margin at the final revelation. I felt compelled to somehow bring the shock that Chopin intended into the contemporary world.

A brief perusal of college discussion boards set up by English teachers teaching the story supported my initial assumption - that young Americans considered themselves so "post race" that they failed (refused?) to see what all the fuss was about.

At this point, my project jumped the rails of adaptation and became interpretation. I wanted to start where the story left off - I imagined that perhaps the baby had lived through the ordeal in the swamp. Combined with the poem Swamp Baby by Cassie Sparkman, the play became an exploration of the Freak.

So my tactic was to raise questions about the connection between biology and identity, while removing direct reference to miscegenation and race. Rather than try and move through the preconceptions about race and identity, I tried to move around them. This had an interesting effect: Swamp Baby is probably my play that says most about my identity as a black person, but due to its subject matter it is not easily positioned as a "black" play. For example, I won't ever be submitting Swamp Baby to the Theodore Ward Prize.

Is the tactic successful? I don't know. Friend and contributor Shepsu Aakhu contends that I've offered the audience an "out." That by making the play about something so fantastical as green skin, I've allowed the audience to avoid confronting the reality of the situation. In feedback after readings, there are plenty of audience members who see the analogy to race - but curiously their responses feel academic. I've managed to get across that A comments on X, but some of the more disturbing implications of that commentary (the sexual activity in the play) are missed or ignored. It is almost as if once the initial connection to race is made, the audience feels their work is done, and can jump straight to "racism is bad" without considering what obsession with biological identity has done to both the protagonist and antagonist.

So I was drawn to create this play because I had a personal connection to the source material that I wanted to get across, and in the process have managed to obscure the question of racial identity in both the play itself and my ability to position it as a black play.


Devilvet said...

Sounds like an excellent premise and I read the text over at new dramatists as well.

Have you considered the possibility that audiences are smart enough (maybe smart isnt the right word) that audiences are enabled, empowered, subconsciously saavy enough that they just wont go where the writer sometimes wants them too?

Or that the majority of just have the desire or ability or stamina to go past "Racism is bad"?

If one were to look on say Death of a Salesman, they can say "Yeah the American Dream can eat you alive" but do they start a serious examination of alternatives to capitalism, or do they just go "Wow times are tough"?

Do we as playwrights sometimes want to degree of examination from an audience that lay people just arent willing to commit too?

I dont know the answers to these questions

Aaron Carter said...


I hear you on savvy audiences. What I meant to put under a microscope was the technique - not the failure of the audience.

A while back I read a great piece in the Guardian that included the rule "Thou shalt not bore." I'll find it and link it when I'm back home. But the thing I felt that piece said so articulately was that playwrights need to take more responsibillity for the reactions of the audience.

So yes, I think that if the audience doesn't want to go there, than I either have to accept that or try another tactic.

Lately I've been thinking less about the kind of metaphor building in Swamp Baby, and more about confounding the expectations generated by archetypical narrative forms. For example, in my mining play I "mind-mapped," I'm place a young, supernaturally gifted man in a tough working class situation. But instead of the expected "how can I escape" storyline, I'm trying to explore the desire "how can I make a better life here."

Maybe in the end, that will let me communicate with the audience better than metaphorical sleight of hand.

Aaron Carter said...

Just to be clear, I should have put "failure" in quotes in the previous comment.

Devilvet said...

when I say that lay people aren't willing to commit ... perhaps I should have have said are willfully refusing to commit.


Could it rather be "success" on the audience's part in that great arm wrestling match between a playwright's desire for the audience to perform self reflection while they would rather their playwrights just give them something simple, emotional. Rather than watching Medea, they want to watch something that makes them miss their mom.

Are the willfully neglectful of reflection, only commiting to catharsis regardless of the author's content, form, intent, or what have you...

Does it matter if we lead the horse to water if it in the end it will only drink from a river that doesn't challenge its notion of identity.

Anyway, I want to read that Swamp baby play. I also want to get a beer with you sometime and talk some serious shit!!!

all the best

Aaron Carter said...


My favorite kind of discussion: those that involve beer.

Sounds like a plan. You should check out Instant Theater which Christopher DePaola and I run at Dramatists. I'll email you directly with info.


Tony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony said...

Sorry link didn't seem to work first time


Devilvet said...

"Sounds like a plan. You should check out Instant Theater which Christopher DePaola and I run at Dramatists. I'll email you directly with info."

love to get the data