If you look at my resume, you’ll see that I’ve worked with some regularity at African-American theater companies; I recently worked with Negro Ensemble Company, I spent many years working with Classical Theatre of Harlem, etc. If you then navigate over to my photo gallery, you’ll probably notice that I’m Caucasian. It’s therefore safe to infer that I’ve spent a good portion of my acting career playing the “white” roles in black theater pieces.
I play a lot of racists, is what I’m saying.
This isn’t a particularly hard thing to do. Oftentimes these roles are fairly small, there to provide a moment of menace and either provide context for the story or fuel its conflict. If you’re playing the corrupt policeman who busts the title character in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, or are menacing the lead as the second guard or third townsman from the left, you typically don’t have to do much besides shout, glower, or sneer. This holds true even with a more complex character, like A Raisin In the Sun’s Karl Lindner. I don’t believe there’s a more finely drawn miniature portrait in American dramatic literature than Lindner, and the essence of it is the contrast between the polite face he’s putting forward and the fear, resentment, and racial entitlement which is just below the surface. But it’s those negative emotions which are the character’s fuel, some version of which you’re tapping into in order to play the character.
Simple, right? Racism is just the most negative elements of our psyche, which we turn against people who look different from ourselves. If you’re playing a racist, just tap into your own inner reserves of anger and hostility – we all have them, so you might as well put them to constructive use. You get to purge them from your system by performing the character, the audience gets a timely reminder to keep their own worst impulses in check, and the world grows steadily more progressive and enlightened.
Not only is racism on the rise in a way I’ve never seen in my lifetime (seriously, read a paper or look around you, it’s freaking terrifying), but the folks we once would have dismissed as racists are demanding that we begin taking them seriously. Insisting that they have legitimate grievances informing their world views. Building whole edifices of political, economic, and social philosophies atop their beliefs. Stating with a straight face that the act of calling them racists is itself racist and therefore something only racists would do. And underneath it all, insisting that we empathize with them, and saying that our refusal to do so proves they have the moral high ground after all.
A few weeks ago, I took part in a developmental reading of a new play. It’s called Class, and it’s about a frustrated young student confronting a professor whom he believes, not without reason, to have sabotaged his academic career. The professor is African-American, while the young white student, a lifetime of his father’s bitter rhetoric still ringing in his ears, has embraced the most feverish elements of white rage and racialist nationalism. The playwright herself is African-American, and constructed the play as a sincere investigation into the phenomenon, giving the student legitimate grievances and allowing him to expound on his beliefs in detail while giving the professor serious flaws of her own. The play functions as a debate between two equal participants – precisely the sort of respect and consideration these disaffected white voices say isn’t being afforded to them.
I played the student (since it was a developmental reading, we’ll conveniently ignore the fact that college was a loooooong time ago for me). I read that rhetoric allowed, used every tool in my arsenal to empathize with this lost soul, allow him to speak for himself. And in whatever official capacity I may have as professional empathizer, let me say this. A good faith effort to understand the hurts, frustrations, and grievances fueling this portion of our society doesn’t excuse them, doesn’t ameliorate the racism at all.
It makes it a thousand times worse.
I have never been more physically pained by the words I’ve been asked to speak. No cathartic bursts of anger here, no – this was a gnawing, poisonous ugliness that I’m still having trouble shaking. Providing a rationale for his behavior, providing a context to humanize him, did nothing to mask that ugliness. It only amplified it. I mentioned “edifices of political, economic, and social philosophies” above to describe this sort of rhetoric, and that may be how these people see their ideas, but the foundation on which those built is too twisted to be stable. It is, instead, a funhouse hall of mirrors, with their own ugliness endlessly reflected back at them.
Again, look around you. Look at the damage these people are causing to our society, our institutions, everything we say we hold dear. We’re past the point where we need to wring our hands over whether calling them “racist” is hurting their feelings. Empathy and understanding may be critical, but only insofar as they help the rest of us to figure out how to defeat this ideology. And we have to be willing to say that defeat is indeed the ultimate goal.
Because I’m getting tired of playing these jackasses.