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Defying type

Can a white writer capture the black experience? Is it fair to try?

January 15, 2006|Thomas Gibbons | Special to The Times

I'VE come to think of them as the Two Questions.

Because I am a white man who writes plays that feature African American characters and explore issues considered by some people to be "black," I hear one of the questions often. Whether it comes while talking with audience members after a performance, in the course of an interview or in a conversation with an actor during a rehearsal break; whether the questioner's inflection is puzzled, intrigued or merely curious, the Question is usually: "Why do you do this?"

To this Question, my reply is simple: Because I'm a writer. This is what we do, or try to do -- step outside ourselves, relinquish our own perspective, try to glimpse the world through other pairs of eyes.

Originally, however, the Question took a much thornier form. I first encountered it on opening night of a documentary play I wrote several years ago about a notorious episode in Philadelphia history: the bombing by the police department of a house belonging to the radical group MOVE. In the ensuing fire, 11 MOVE members (including five children) died and 62 houses were destroyed. During the tumultuous discussion that followed, an African American man rose and expressed the opinion that a black writer should have written the play. Angrily, he demanded, "What gives you the right to do this?"

I have to confess, I was taken aback. In the two years I spent writing the play, it had never occurred to me that this story -- which took place in the city where I lived, which included both white and African American characters, which was history -- could be considered, by some people at least, off-limits to me. I said something to the effect that I didn't see the play as a "white" or "black" story but one that touched every citizen of Philadelphia. I had been forced to recognize, during the frequently tense rehearsals of the play, that the white and African American cast members had startlingly different interpretations of the events we were enacting. But this gulf seemed bridgeable -- perhaps naively, I saw the act of staging the play as serving that very purpose. Clearly, this audience member saw it differently.

But the Question he posed that night infiltrated my imagination. As I thought about it, I found myself being led, inexorably, into a thicket of related issues. Can a person of one race write about the experience of another race with any claim to truth or accuracy? Are the stories told by a group's members a fenced-in territory, belonging exclusively to them and not to be trespassed on by outsiders? When we demand that our storytellers be "authentic," what do we mean by that word? Who qualifies, and on what basis?

Artistic concerns, yes -- but also, in a nation of immigrants, peculiarly American concerns.


Frozen on the fringe

THESE seemed to me to be fascinating theatrical topics, but there was never a moment of realization in which I thought, "Ah, I've found my subject. I, a white man, will write about the African American experience." I found myself being drawn to plays that examined the dilemma of being American but not fully American, not fully accepted into the American consciousness. One play traced the life of an African American agronomist who immigrates to the Soviet Union in the 1920s to develop a new strain of cotton, marries a Russian woman and has a son. After his father's death, the son, a "black Russian," journeys to the country his father renounced to discover his American-ness.

Still, I continued to hear, in my mind, the Question: "What gives you the right?" I realized that I needed to be able to answer this -- to my own satisfaction, at least, if not to anyone else's. So when I read a news article about an Australian literary scandal, I seized on it. The autobiography of an Aboriginal woman, which had won widespread praise and a literary award, had been revealed as the work of a white man. Was the book a fraud? Or was it a remarkable work of creative imagination and empathy by a writer who had grasped a culture not his own? Could it, somehow, be both? The play I wrote relocated this incident to America and had as its main character an African American book editor who discovers that her most successful project, the autobiography of an elderly Southern black woman, actually was written by a white man who not only knew her but is related to her. Their confrontation explores the tangled issues of ownership, authenticity, blood and racial history.

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