Cheryl West (1994)

The whole multicultural drive in theater — with theaters getting grants to do more culturally diverse work and to try to bring in more diverse audiences — still means, at best, only one play by a person of color getting done a season. The reason most quoted is it’s a matter of economics. In my opinion, that’s only part of the equation. Racism and sexism play a larger, more insidious role than most producers care to admit.

I have heard more than once from theaters, particularly when I was starting out, that they couldn’t do more than one black play a season, because they were afraid of exhausting their black audience. The assumption was that the black audience for a theater, assuming there was one, could only afford to go to one play. I don’t think that is true. The larger question should be: are play seasons offering diverse enough work to attract a diverse and appreciative audience? I don’t think so.

What is behind this thinking as well is the presumption that my plays will only be of interest to a black audience. The foundation of my work is very black and exploratory of family. But I believe very strongly in the idea that the more specific you are in your writing, the more universal your work will become. I may be writing about a specific black family, but it will touch on needs that are in common to all families. There are universals to what a family is that transcend culture and race.

Even more, as a female writer, I have often heard that my work is too personal. In other words, that it is not universal enough. It’s as if male writers are just assumed to be dealing with bigger issues and will automatically attract more people. Again, economics is the most quoted excuse; however sexism plays a big part in how women writers are perceived in the theater. Even if we allow that women’s work may be more personal, who’s to say audiences, both male and female, won’t enjoy and be challenged by work that reflects a female sensibility. The fact that I am black, female and possessing the gall (on most days) to call myself a writer clearly mandates that I accept the challenge to confront, ignore, laugh at, and hopefully find strength in overcoming the challenges, prejudices, presumptions, and obstacles put before me as a writer.

Of course, there are presumptions from all sides. I write for the black community, I am writing to and about my community. From within the black community, there are people who wonder about how I am portraying that community. I call them the positive police. And believe me, they’ve earned their badges. Black people have earned the right to be suspicious of the images depicting black life. We have been so stereotyped and maligned in film and theater and television for years. Yet, that pressure can also have the effect of censoring what you want to write, what is true to your experience. It’s a constant balancing act.

With my play Before It Hits Home, there was a feeling from some within the community that I should have been ashamed, as a black woman, to have written that. Well, first to put AIDS and black in the same sentence. But also to show a mother, a black woman, who can’t deal with it. Black women are supposed to be the ultimate martyrs, able to bear anything. But isn’t that itself a stereotype?

We don’t have a range of stories about black life in the performing arts. Gang and drug-related stories may be a part of black life, but where are the movies like Terms of Endearment or Quiz Show of the black experience? We wouldn’t be so sensitive about images that are supposed to represent our community if there were such a range of them. The fear is that white America will look at those few images and generalize from them that these are the stories of all black people.

Where are the other images? It’s not that people don’t want to write them, but producers don’t accept them as readily. How many black writers are being produced in the theater? If you look at the season preview list in American Theatre, you see it is very few. How many of those are black women? Four or five? And we have the burden of telling the stories for a whole race? I don’t think so. The same holds true for Asian Americans or Latinos or other writers of color.

Everything in my writing starts from character and language. It is very specific. Even regional accents can be jarring to the rhythm and ultimately the poetry of the characters I write. It is very different hearing a person from the Midwest or the South read my words. Usually the nuance of the language is already a part of their history.

I have not only written African American characters, but I have never written a character that could be just anyone. Culture is very important to me and I am very interested in how race changes the mix in a play. In Before It Hits Home, for example, I specifically wrote a white, Jewish doctor in the scenes with Wendal, who is HIV-positive. With all the questions about race and AIDS, the history of experiments against black people and the general distrust of the medical establishment among the black community, it would have been a very different scene if the doctor weren’t white.

Black women writers are always emerging. You could be working at your craft for years and still not be out of the water, while some white guy’s first play becomes a hit and he’s a writer forever. I don’t know when I will be completely emerged and standing on dry land. But I hope that as we proceed in this, theaters will get beyond approaching these issues economically and there will be more genuine opportunity for all writers, that there will be an increasing and increasingly diverse audience for their work, that staffs will become more diverse and that all of us will be given the respect we are due.

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