Monday, June 08, 2020

"You are Not Wrong, But Not Now"

My wife and I spent one of our last evenings out before the Covid lockdown enjoying a performance of August Wilson's play Jitney at the Seattle Rep. It was a rich, emotional, poignant production, and not just because of Wilson's brilliant material. The cast was remarkable as well, with many veteran actors playing roles they've played before. Indeed, several of the actors have performed in all of Wilson's 10 plays (alternatively, Pittsburgh Cycle or American Century Cycle) multiple times. In other words, we were in the hands of masters, artists who knew how to squeeze every drop from the great American artist.

Making the evening even better was that we were invited to attend a small after-party with the cast. I arrived on fire from the play, wanting to talk with any and all about it, but held back at first thinking that maybe after months on the road and dozens of performances, these artists might be more interested in distraction, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Not only did they want to talk about the play, they were eager to talk about August Wilson, his legacy, and to share their stories, insights, and interpretations. There are few things more electrifying than to be among artists talking their art.

Wilson's plays feature all Black casts and his work, while universal, examines Black American lives and experiences. At one point, one of the other guests brought up the idea that there are precedents for non-Black actors to play Black characters, Othello for instance, a character that has often been portrayed by white actors and opera singers. After all, the reasoning goes, isn't that the art of the actor: to convincingly embody another person, to empathize so deeply that they "become" a character who may not be at all like the actor themself? Why couldn't a white actor be cast in an August Wilson play? Poor actors play wealthy people. Mentally healthy actors play mentally ill characters. It's what actors do: become something they are not, be it firefighters, waitresses, or action heroes.

The question made me uncomfortable and I imagined that it would make the Black cast members uncomfortable as well, but it didn't seem to phase them in the least. They had heard it before. Calmly and without malice, Steven Anthony Jones, said, "You are not wrong, but not now." He explained that he hoped that there would come a day when it would be acceptable, but that world was not today.

"But not now."

I've been thinking a lot about his response this past week as I've heard white people respond to "Black Lives Matter" with some version of "all lives matter." I've resorted to metaphor to explain why this retort is dismissive and cruel. For instance, I've used Doug Wilford's comparison of a spouse who comes to her partner in obvious pain and asks "Do you love me?" and he answers "I love all people." In that context it is without question a dismissive and cruel response. It may be true that he loves all people, but now is not the time. I can think of nothing more illustrative of the day-to-day white supremacy underpinning our society than the fact that it requires a metaphor to get some white people to understand why "all lives matter" is a dismissive and cruel response to "Black Lives Matter."

Of course, all lives do matter, it's true, but now is not the time to offer it up in response to a world on fire. Black citizens are telling us about their experience, about their pain, about what it means to be Black in America right now. It's our part to listen, to amplify Black voices, and to commit ourselves to the hard work of making a reality of the promise embodied in the cry, "Black Lives Matter."

A couple days ago a white reader, angrily asked me, "Let's assume Black people get everything they want, then what? Will it be brown lives matter or green lives matter or gay lives matter? When will it end?"

It will end some day in the future when all lives really do matter. But not now.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. We're working to find our distributor for Australia and New Zealand. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

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