Photo from "All the World's a Stage. Is it Mine?" diversity panel at Sierra Madre Playhouse.
January 26, 2017.
Essays & Speeches
A Thirty-Two-Year-Old-Nigerian-American-Twin-Professor-Playwright-From-Bakersfield’s Thoughts on Identity Politics
["All the World's a Stage. Is it Mine?" diversity panel
Sierra Madre Playhouse, Winter 2017]
Sharing my perspective on where I stand as a Black female playwright in 2017 requires three narratives from my own experience. These are:
The Matt Damon Story
The Adichie Story and
My Own Name
Story one: Matt Damon.
Oh goodness gracious Matt Damon.
Yes—Matt Damon is a film guy, not theatre—so why does this matter in a dialogue about theatre? Because Matt Damon is tied to my own identity, and I am a maker of theatre. Of course I’ve never met the man. But: HE. WAS. IT. for me growing up. My favorite films throughout high school and most of college were Good Will Hunting and The Talented Mr. Ripley. I was fascinated by the emotional depth of his performances and even more enthused by the fact that Amazing Matt and his best pal Ben had written the former with such recognition at such a young age.
I had been over him for some time because let’s face it—Jason Bourne is getting old and so is Damon, when the whole Project Greenlight Diversity Scandal broke out about a year ago.
Matt Damon decided—in a producer’s room with all Whites and one Black woman—to tell this Black woman what diversity meant. I’m not going to explain the entire scenario, but they had selected a film with one Black character who is a prostitute that gets slapped by a White pimp. The Black producer in the room suggests to the group that in the selection of a director, they need to be conscious of how he/she deals with this moment, and Matt’s response is that “when we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film—not the casting of the show.” To translate: Matt Damon, my hero since forever, couldn’t give less of a care about having bodies of color off-screen. Ouch times a billion. My hero is contributing to my struggle. If the belief of those who hold my opportunity is that they don’t need me to tell my stories, then how will I ever get to prove them wrong?
Story two: Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Nigerian novelist and activist.
All of my students know that I am obsessed with this woman. Her 2009 TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” is a staple in all of my classrooms—whether it’s English Comp. or Art, Culture and Society, she makes it in there. This woman GETS. ME. times a billion. First of all—she’s Nigerian (which is part of my third story to come). But her confidence on racial dynamics in storytelling is THE. BOMB. The issue with representation in stories—in theatre and elsewhere—is that we—people of color—HAVE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO TELL OUR OWN STORIES ON A MASS SCALE. This is something that defies genre. It’s true in every level of artistry that exists.
Before. Now. Continuing.
Adichie argues that Africans have never been given the opportunity to create our own stories because they have been told about us by others (read: White people) in a way that everybody (read: White people) is comfortable with and doesn’t question. Those in power control the proliferation of stories and those in power do not want to proliferate stories of STRONG. INDIVIDUALS. OF COLOR. They want to create slavery stories or starving African stories to maintain the myth of otherness.
Adichie tells it like it stinkin’ is. She says:
“I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar” (TED).
When I think about diversity and my role and responsibility as a playwright of color, I think about Adichie’s suggestion that outsiders engage with ALL THE STORIES OF THE OTHER. I think about the fact that there are SO. MANY. BLACK STORIES. To tell. We are as complex and varied as any other group, and I find it my mission to enter these stories into our cultural mythology in order to allow for the embracement that we all long for.
A friend of mine who is a gay White man and a filmmaker once told me: Julie—stop writing Black plays. You need to show that you’re diverse. This hurt because it showed a lack of understanding of Blackness.
Nobody ever tells a White writer to stop writing White plays.
Nobody ever tells a White writer to stop writing White plays.
Our experience is as diverse as yours—as complex—as beautiful——and it’s not all struggle either. It’s not all complaining. But LET US SHOW YOU THAT.
Story Three: My Name.
Hello—my name is Julie Taiwo Oni.
Surprise—I’m BLACK! But really.
Several years ago—when I was pretty fresh out of grad school—I was participating in a ten-minute festival for a local theatre. I had written a script about a homeless Black couple in downtown.
The director told me that he had a friend he was interested in casting to play the lead, but that she wanted to have a chat with me first.
I called her and we talked a bit about my ideas for the play, and then a few minutes into our conversation, she says:
“I’m sorry. I just have to say it. Who do you think you are as an Asian woman writing Black characters?”
“Huh? I’m Black.”
“Oh—OKAY. HEY, GURL.”
I get it. I really do. This is what made this play you’re doing here so interesting for me to ponder. I get that it’s hard to separate the writer from the story. I get that my name apparently sounds Japanese and so there would possibly be more ease for someone who doesn't know me to see a story set in Tokyo.
As writers of color, do we have to only write about the struggles of our respective minority groups in order to gain recognition?
I realize that this is somewhat of a contradiction to my frustration with my friend I mentioned earlier who asked me to stop writing Black stories.
But what I’m trying to say is this: there is something that unites diverse storytellers. Something that is immediately recognizable that cannot be totally fathomed by somebody on the outside.
When Doaker Charles in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson tells the story of family history carved into the piano, we can feel the isolation of a forced loss that might not be fathomable otherwise.
When Clay in Baraka’s Dutchman sits tall and firm as can be while Lula calls him a nigger and an Uncle Tom because he’s not the aggressive Black man she wants him to become, the blood writhes in our veins in absolute synchronicity.
When the Mexican mother gives herself to the guards in order to get her family across the border in Luis Alfaro’s Mojada: a Medea in L.A.—our hearts ache until they cannot ache anymore.
These stories are all of us.
WE ARE THE ONLY ONES WHO CAN SHARE THIS OUTSIDER PERSPECTIVE WITH AUTHENTICITY.
Here’s another thought I have, if I may be so bold.
I suppose this is actually Story Four. It’s about bell hooks.
I’ve heard the name and seen her face but have only just read a piece of her writing this week thanks to a lovely friend and coworker.
I’ve just read “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination” from 1992, and goodness gracious Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie now has a run for her money versus this genius.
hooks essentially claims that Black people are aware of Whiteness and its various components, but that Whites are unaware of how others perceive them. She argues that since White citizens are in a position of power or assumed superiority, they find the idea of people of color having a complex understanding of their psyche to be impossible.
But—I believe that hooks comes to the conclusion that Black people are MORE AWARE of Whites than the other way around. And this is where my responsibility and the issue of playwright identity politics comes into play for me. She says:
“Since most white people do not have to “see” black people…and they do not need to be ever on guard, observing black people, to be “safe,” they can live as though black people are invisible and can imagine that they are also invisible to blacks.”
I find this to be an appropriate instigator for a conversation on race and playwriting.
I believe that writers of color often—not always—have a more complex understanding of the White mind than the White writer has of the thoughts and experiences of a person of color. This is why I believe that one writer of color can more effectively write a character of another color than a writer who is not of color can do.
My identity as a writer of color is tied to the shared experience of the Other, and there are so many storytellers I find to be kindred spirits that I can only list a few here:
Tarell Alvin McCraney
Maria Irene Fornes
And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And not Matt Damon anymore.
As a final note—I am inspired by the current interaction between Black playwrights and broader society. Moonlight. Fences. I am extremely hopeful as a writer of color right now. Opportunities like this conversation show this to be true.