Let’s put the cards on the table: I’m a 70 year-old white guy. I’ve benefited from my skin color, my privilege, my whole life. Let’s not pretend this country hasn’t endured several hundred years of systematic belief that certain races of people are by birth and nature superior to others. The genocidal wars against Native Americans (“The only good Indian is a dead Indian”), over two hundred years of legal slavery (not to mention over one hundred more of legal segregation), and immigration laws and walls that, to this day, are intended to discriminate against people of color are ample proof. The fact that I am a Jew and was mostly raised by a black woman the first 12 years of my life doesn’t give me a position of authority to know what racism means first hand. But I do have experience living as one of “the others” – people who are different due to race, color, or creed, for example – and I am intrigued by how classic theatre explores the differences between “us and them.”
Shakespeare’s plays are full of characters who represent The Others. The most classic example is the lead character in the tragedy Othello, The Moor of Venice, who is a Black general in service to the Duke of Venice. Othello’s military record has been outstanding but that doesn’t protect him from the racist slurs of his father-in-law or the hate-filled intrigue that causes him to ultimately distrust and murder his white wife Desdemona. Were he a white character, the play would lack much of its power and drama to be more than a simple tragic soap opera. But Othello as a black man becomes a character whose downfall has elements of pathos and loss that link us all: “One that loved not wisely, but too well.” I think we’ve all been there.
There are numerous examples of other Shakespearean characters who blur the lines between us and them: Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in The Merchant of Venice; Malvolio, the pompous servant in Twelfth Night; and the Capulets and Montagues – the “two households both alike in dignity” who continue the ongoing deadly feud that only ends with the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. What’s exciting to watch and understand through each of these productions, when well directed, is that Shakespeare is reluctant to write his characters as wholly good or evil. Othello is noble, but insanely jealous. Malvolio is an insufferable prig, but horribly bullied and abused. Shylock is spat upon for wearing his Jewish gabardine, but bitter and vindictive (like most of the other characters in the play). Of course, without different costumes, audiences would not know a Capulet from a Montague as both are alternatively loving of their families and hateful of the others.
What really engages the audience, or the director or an actor embodying the roles, is the tension between these different facets of each character. It’s no fun playing a character who’s totally good or evil (well, except maybe Iago, the villain in Othello, who is just so rotten and devious to the core); performing artists love that liminal space to explore the moments of right and wrong and find truth in the uncertainty of both. It’s fun for the audience to see that if only Othello had seen through Iago’s racist treachery, or if only Juliet had been able to confide in her loving mother about her marriage to the “enemy” Romeo, then senseless tragedy would have been avoided. To understand ourselves, Shakespeare is saying, means we have to gain some measure of understanding and acceptance of those who are not like us: the others.
In the spring of 1969, at the height of anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights protests, the university I was attending was overrun with local and State police in response to the peaceful takeover by several Black students of an administration building. There were no lives being threatened and no damage I could see, upon returning to the building days later (except one of the students had evidently written with a marker “White Only” over a drinking fountain). Nonetheless, the tear gas flowed, overwhelming the typical beauty and somnolence of a North Carolina spring day.
During the several days of marching and protests, a group of Black students got together to stage a production showing what it was like growing up Black in the South during the 1950’s and ‘60’s. The production was entitled God’s Trombones, based on the book of poems written in 1927, and it was played in a relatively unused building on a remote part of the campus, not a place normally considered a theatre. The building was packed with students of all colors but it was clear from the stories that the Black students could “Amen” the meanings while the rest of us were quizzical, shocked, and horrified. For a while, a few hours of suffering from the gas or listening to these recollections, we got to experience what it was like to be The Other. The power of understanding was life-changing. It is what has inspired me to continue to make theatre over these last 50 years, hoping to give audience members a view of what others experience, to give life to the stories of others, to be able to tell or listen to someone else’s story as if it were your own.
How does this apply to the performing arts in Steamboat Springs? When Piknik Theatre first began in 2008 and in the first few years following, each year’s cast included a number of Pacific Island actors from New Zealand. The cultural differences with American audiences were unique and inspiring in many ways, asking the audience to view our “island” community through the lens of another island culture. Our youth theatre workshops included Pacific Island music and dance, giving local kids an insight into both art and ethnicity. We no longer have that connection but there’s no reason we can’t include other uniquely American cultures into our performance by diversifying our acting company, our leadership, and our artistic programming. Our work can reflect our world community and enhance our understanding of the walls outside the Yampa Valley to the betterment of our lives within these friendly confines.
I would challenge all of our performing artists and organizations (and visual artists for that matter), to begin or continue to explore concrete ways to do the same: bring in more museum exhibits exclusively devoted to artists of color, feature more musicians of color at our venues, include more people of color on our boards and in leadership positions. We’re a white bread community for the most part and that won’t likely change. But the opportunity to give our kids and ourselves the opportunity to experience the lives and cultures of others, to grow through the stories of those others different from us in color and other ways, is beyond value.