“Not only did we disagree, but we disagreed vehemently, with partisans on each side of the divide unrestrained in the vitriol they hurled at opponents. We disagreed, on the scope of our disagreements, the nature of our disagreements. Everything was contestable, whether it was the size of the deficit or the culprits to blame for the deficit. I had watched campaign culture metastasize throughout the body politic, as an entire industry of insult emerged to dominate cable television, talk radio, and the New York Times best-seller list.” -Barack Obama, “The Audacity of Hope”
As a playwright who focuses on giving space and voice to marginalized communities, one of the most challenging, though intriguing, parts of my job is to also write for characters whom I fundamentally, as a human being, disagree with. Whether these characters represent the U.S. government or law enforcement, or even just city planners who built on top of immigrant communities, I am uninterested in writing them as simple antagonists. And instead attempt to understand their points of view, their belief systems, as well as focus on the good in them.
Take Clara Odell, for instance.
A wealthy, Caucasian woman, from around 1915, who set out to fight against the schooling and housing inequalities facing immigrant communities. However, in her attempts to come up with solutions, as well as fight against male-dominated systems in city planning, she goes down in history as one of the founders of a fully segregated school, leading the way towards Separate But Equal.
When I bring the first several scenes of Clara’s story into rehearsal, when all Clara’s done, thus far, is empathize with injustices and feel moved to take action, her character is met with immediate distaste, people just do not trust her, do not like her. Of course, I am immediately embarrassed that I didn’t write her dimensionally enough, that my own bias against what Clara will wind up doing later in life is somehow showing up. So, I go back and rewrite, to the best of my ability, a woman who truly wants to help, who truly wants the world to be better for not only her own children, but all children.
But rewrite after rewrite, my intelligent, talented, and trusted collaborators can’t help but see Clara as someone who is clearly hiding prejudices, whose dialogue is full of subtext for her quiet intention to better the world for whites only.
And so, I have to flat out ask the creative team, is there any way for us to see Clara as having honest-to-God good intentions? Is it possible for us to allow a character like Clara to be flawed, blindsided even, but without malicious intent? To be a human. And let the larger story of the play explore how good intentions can give way to injustice.
But it feels as if we the global majority have just been through, or seen, too much,
and we will never trust even those claiming to be an ally.
So, I will have to accept that while some audiences might be moved by Clara’s attempts to help those in need, others will glare at her from the moment she steps onstage. I will have to accept that the play’s reveal of what Clara actually winds up doing will not be the gut punch I had hoped for when I first thought up the play. As audiences might instead be saying, “Yup, I knew that woman was up to no good.” Disappointing, yes, but most plays wind up completely different from when first imagined.
However, instances like these have become a more common thread in my work, as of late;
having collaborators and audiences just refusing to see the good in specific “antagonist” characters.
Of course, if it is simply the way I am writing them, then understood.
But regardless, it strikes me as something larger. In an artform that we, the artists, insist helps to spread empathy into the world, I am struck how often people, myself included, can’t help to lead with accusation, as opposed to conversation.
Having worked for years within an arts organization, as well been a part of many as an individual artist,
I have been steeped in proclamations of open dialogues, of safe spaces, of truly listening without judgment.
But is any of that even possible?
For every EDI or community conversation, there are often other “quiet conversations” which surround it.
Where people actually share what they thought about said incident.
And I’m not referring to some person who lets loose all their racist jokes at the bar afterwards.
I’m referencing thoughtful people with thoughtful ideas, even idealistic people,
but people who were nervous that their opinion might not be accepted by the group,
who were scared that if they didn’t repeat the same right vs. wrong sentiment,
they might be perceived as part of the problem.
Who didn’t want to be accused for only wanting to be part of the conversation.
And so, are “community conversations” real?
Or are they actually people saying what they believe they are supposed to say?
Illustrating just how on the right side of history they are.
How is our artistic community supposed to actually hold open dialogues or safe spaces,
when we are all still human beings who struggle with honesty, especially when not with our closest friends or family who we know will hold our true opinions to themselves?
When we are still human beings so full of flaws and insecurities, each of us complete with our own unique biased prejudices, and all of us so easily capable of having our own good intentions somehow turn into something that hurts someone else.
And for myself, I often wonder why I feel more able within the worlds of my plays to find space for true empathy, but struggle with it in my day to day. I, for one, would love to hear what similar struggles other artists are having. Even if anonymously.
Author's Bio: The writer is a west coast playwright who dreams of one day living further out into the ocean…