Saturday, January 26, 2019

Who Owns the Story? (panel discussion)

From left: Bobgan, Ortiz, Coble & Salter
My friend and colleague Eric Coble sat charmingly tilted to one side between playwrights Milta Ortiz and Nikkole Salter during last Saturday’s panel discussion on appropriation and authenticity, Who Owns the Story?

Presented as part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Entry Point weekend of new works, and produced in association with the Dramatists Guild and HowlRound, the event was moderated by CPT artistic director Raymond Bobgan.

Ortiz is Outreach Director for Borderlands Theater in Tuscon, AZ, and a playwright whose work-in-progress Water (co-created by Marc David Pinate, a co-production between Borderlands and CPT) was presented in part at Entry Point this year, one of the plays for which I helped facilitate post-show discussion. I have also read her powerful and timely work Más on New Play Exchange.

Salter is an Obie Award-winning writer and Pulitzer finalist (Continuum) who is currently working on a commission from CPT and the National New Play Network titled Breakout Session, a play inspired by the Cleveland Police Department consent decree from the U.S. Justice Center.

The topic was who owns the story. But the real question is who tells the story. Ortiz, a Salvadoran American, and Salter, an African American, told several nuanced, relevant stories about their experiences with appropriation, including those where they themselves were the appropriators; which is to say, where and when they were telling someone else’s story.

I myself have appropriated. I mean, anyone who has a retold a told has appropriated. Right? Like Eric I sat charmingly tilted to one side.

Further, the more important question may be not who owns the story, but who gets to tell it. Today, if a white man tells a story, any story, it is much more likely to get produced -- and to get attention -- than that from a person of color. So if a white person chooses to tell the story of another race, walk, culture, or so on, you must ask not only why they are telling the story, but why isn’t a person from that race, walk, culture the one telling it?

It is, as Salter pointed out, about the power dynamics in our nation. As writers, we must ask ourselves, "why am I writing this?"

Take the recently-announced Academy Award nominations, which include Blank Panther and Green Book. The first is an Afro-Futurist adventure created prominently by Africa-descended artists, the other a story of segregation created by a white director and screenwriters which has been criticized for being a typical “white savior” movie.

More people came out to see Black Panther, but Green Book has already won a best drama award at the Golden Globes.

Does that mean that one is limited to writing only characters from their own ethnic, racial, cultural background? I don’t know. Maybe? Why are you writing that character?

Coble wrote the outrageous satire Fairfield, about the worst Black History Month pageant ever, to examine issues of race in the American middle-class, and by his own account his first draft was criticized by African American readers as being too kind to the black characters, that he needed to be an equal opportunity offender.

This is my basic criticism with Clybourne Park, the acclaimed, unauthorized sequel to A Raisin In the Sun. It is ostensibly about race (for which its white playwright received a Pulitzer Prize) but the script is peopled with terrible white people who talk too much and blameless black people who talk very little.

I would like to write about the world around me, and include all the people in it, be they black, white, Latinx, gay, straight, trans, Muslim, atheist -- everyone. So, how does a playwright like myself know when what we are writing is appropriate or appropriating?

“Are you asking for a rule book?” Bobgan deadpanned, which got a laugh. Because it’s true. We want guidance and permission. We want a rule book. And we can’t have one. Why should we? How is it someone else’s responsibility to train me in sensitivity, to tell me it’s okay, or worse yet, to do the work to fix my play?

It is the white playwright’s responsibility, any playwright’s responsibility, to know their job, to know what they are doing, to be in the world and to be aware of what it is they are writing, and why.

Watch the entire panel discussion here:

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