Seeing Double: Double Consciousness as a Black Theatre Practitioner

To focus first on the performing of it all, Black actors find themselves on stage in all types of roles. Black actors portraying characters divorced from racial baggage, such as Brittney Johnson as Wicked‘s Glinda the Good and Emilie Kouatchou as Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera, both notable for being the first Black actors to hold these roles on Broadway full-time. Other shows explicitly engage the Blackness of their actors, such as Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s Culud Wattah, which ran off-Broadway at the Public Theater, a reality made possible by a renewed interest in the work of Black playwrights; last fall, an seven of the nine new Broadway plays were written by Black playwrights.

But whether you are a Black actor playing a Black character or a Black actor who has made your character Black transitively, the audience perceives your Blackness on stage. How does it feel to know that your ability to stay housed and fed in a capitalist society requires attentiveness to the whims of the audience? And what is it like to perform Blackness for a white audience that may or may not be interested in disturbing the primacy of their own lived experience when moving through the world?

Here, it is important to make something clear: attending theater, even Black theater, is not a substitute for a developed praxis. In my experience, the misconception that theater can be anything other than a shallow facsimile has actually caused harm. I contend that audience members walk into the theater and seek not to be better people, but simply to be better than the demonstrations of white racism presented in the plays they see. And while some productions present the minutiae of “benevolent” anti-Blackness with great subtlety (Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury and Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress come to mind), others depict anti-Blackness overtly as to submerge the bar of anti-racist living below the crust of the earth.

When I consider that as a Black performer, I may paradoxically enable white complacency as I present Black suffering, it becomes difficult to perform the capital W “Work” of acting. An incomplete list of the questions that may arise instead include: Am I a stereotype? Am I an educational tool? Am I a prop? Or a stepping-stone to someone else’s personal development? That doesn’t even touch the ways that other intersecting forms of oppression (like transphobia, colorism, fatphobia) dictate who even makes it to the stage.

When I find myself in houses that are painfully homogenous, I leave the performance twice as mentally fatigued because I, unlike most others sitting alongside me, witness two separate performances occurring on either side of the proscenium.

Now, let’s join the house for a second.

Through a serendipitous series of events that traces all the way back to my preteen Tumblr days, I have become a critic. As a result, not only do I see more theater than the average person, but I am expected to have takes that surpasses a simple thumbs up or thumbs down.

When I find myself in houses that are painfully homogenous, I leave the performance twice as mentally fatigued because I, unlike most others sitting alongside me, witness two separate performances occurring on either side of the proscenium. As someone who provides well-conceived opinions for my job, I am, again, distracted from the work at hand when I instead wonder at the enduring the sameness of an audience in one of the most diverse cities in the nation. Even when a production battles against whiteness as a hegemonic force in theatrical audiences with efforts such as playwright notes in programs, the expectation of propriety is stifling.

At best, you find yourself with a mouth sewn shut, unable to act outside of the parameters of the “good” theater audience, even when invited. At worst, you somehow feel personal shame and vicarious embarrassment because your fellow audience members laughed at a fellow person of color speaking with an accent.

I know that this piece may read as a critique of the mere existence of white theater audiences. This is not the case; I actually believe that it is good to watch things that are not about you. I think any art is for anyone, so long as folks are down to accept the rules of engagement for said art.

That phrase “accept the rules of engagement” is the key to unlocking this conundrum. The double consciousness that Black folks experience, in theater and in life, is the result of having to measure ourselves against a hegemonic white standard. I would like to think that we could achieve some peace of mind in the absence of such a standard. That would require two major shifts. First, the white folks who already see theater would need to decenter their own points of view in relation to the art that they watch. Second, theater audiences must become more diverse. No matter how enlightened an audience becomes, book learning cannot replace the impact of a bevy of varied lived experiences.

I know these are not simple requests. For one, adopting new perspectives can be difficult. Further, it is not enough to tell Black folks and other people of color to inhabit spaces that exclude them. But a lot can happen from simply having the desire to do better. And just off the dome, doing better might include lower ticket prices, local outreach, and the community stake in decision-making processes.

In the end, I just want to get away from the work of self-surveillance as a black body in white space, and get to the work of making art.

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