Everyone’s aesthetics are different, and what seems hollow to me just might be revelatory to others. So I think it’s worthwhile to go ahead and define what – in my book – would constitute insightfulness, in the hopes of pushing the dialogue forward a little. I don’t mean to sh*t on any one play in particular. Rather, just like how one critic felt compelled to draw attention to the trope of the “manic pixie dream girl” in film, I feel compelled to point out certain tropes and patterns that are being repeated in race plays. Because I think we’re settling for too little complexity, and we keep telling the same old story.
Here are my thoughts on that, in four parts.
1) The plays we herald as “a fiercely provocative, insightful mediation on race” tend to keep coming from one race. Let me be clear on what exactly I'm saying: I’m not saying that white people shouldn’t talk about race. They should absolutely talk about race and have important insights to offer. Also, I’m not saying that other races don’t talk about race. It's just that those plays don't as often end up in the zeitgeist. Inevitably, the most prominent, talked-about, celebrated race plays are most often plays by white dudes. But if we hope to glean further insights on race, we ought to be hearing and championing more than just one perspective. Artists are going to create the art they're most passionate about. But we as audience members (and producers and critics) need to be far more omnivorous in what we want to consume.
2) A play in which male protagonists devolve into racial epithets is not provocative or insightful. It’s sensationalist, but not insightful. Too often with race plays the critics and audience conflate a strong emotional response with insight. These racial epithet scenes are essentially a melodramatic, hollow depiction of race in extremis designed to elicit a gut response from the audience. But in my heart of hearts I just don’t believe that at base we’re all a bunch of incorrigible bigots who would happily scream racial epithets at each other were it not for the polite veneer of society. The trope of “everyone is a deep-down racist” is hundreds of years old. Seeing it onstage again and again only reinforces our sense of “the other,” deepening our animosities and suspicions. Sure, it’s titillating and dramatic, but what’s going to move the dialogue FORWARD?
3) Most onstage depictions of race politics in America are far too simplistic. Invariably these plays consider black-white relations only. Which is fine – that’s a powerful subject with deep historical resonance. But if our entire canon of “fiercely provocative, insightful mediations on race” consists entirely of black-white relations, where do Asians and Latinos fit into that picture? What about immigrants, and the effects of immigrant populations? What about the after-effects of colonialism? Most importantly, where does biracial/multiracial identity fit into that picture? Biracials are the fastest-growing ethnic group in America, but you rarely ever see it depicted onstage, because we like to categorize people as one-race-only. In other words, when it comes to depicting race, we’re thinking too binary, too black-and-white.
4) This is true for all plays, but for race plays in particular, I think we need to consider VERY CAREFULLY: what is the meta-narrative that is being presented in this play? Ultimately at root, thematically, does this play further our understanding of race, or does it play into our already-held assumptions? These heralded plays have a whole lot of craft: good characters, strong emotions, plot twists, etc. But that craft distracts us from a dangerous meta-narrative that’s providing very little in the way of real insights. From an analytical perspective, by and large you’ll find that a whole lot of race plays are essentially telling the exact same story, which is this:
"I don’t mean to be racist. But sometimes I say stuff that you think is racist. But hey: you’re a little racist too. So let’s just call it square. Are we square??"
Our race relations are far too complex and the pains too deep to just wash over everything, call it post-racial, and essentially say, again and again, “Hey this political correctness stuff is a burden: can’t we all just move past that?” It's the same dangerous argument that we place onto women in regards to our gender politics. “We did all that women’s lib stuff! These culture wars are exhausting! So let’s just call it square. Are we square??”
No, we’re not square. And it's not going to be square, ever. And the worst thing we can do given the still-persistent racial (and gender and sexual) inequities in this country is keep presenting narratives that essentially gloss over the problem. The worst thing we can do is champion a set of plays that provide only the narrowest of perspectives.
We settle for too little when it comes to a race play. We see a big fight with a lot of dirty words and we gasp and we call it insightful. But what would actually provide insight, what would actually be provocative would be hearing perspectives and stories we haven’t heard before, so that we can adapt our ideas about race, so that we actually learn something. We move on from racial tensions not by pretending we're past them, or by pretending that race doesn't exist, or by relying on stale old tropes. We move on by addressing race in a thoughtful, considered, proactive, nuanced way. Pluralistically.