It’s getting on midnight on a cold November Wednesday and I’m sitting at the Brooklyn Diner in midtown with my good friend Em. We’ve just come from an original new musical that might not have been for us. We’re both okay with it, except I am totally not okay with it. I’m actually kind of infuriated. She’s confused as to why. I start in.
“If this playwright wanted me to sympathize or identify with his protagonist, as all playwrights do, I think all he needed to do was acknowledge that his character was inherently privileged. That the very belief they can leave their latte on a counter and walk away is an act of privilege. Because where I come from, leaving a latte on a counter isn’t something people take lightly. And acknowledging that there are places in this world, no- this country where leaving a latte on a counter is unheard of, would have made me feel a little more included.”
Obviously, I’m not talking about an actual latte. I am talking about a much larger, much deeper action around which someone could, and effectually has, structured an entire theatrical narrative. But this is a real show, with a real writer, so for anonymity’s sake let’s just pretend I am talking about a latte. (It’s still not about the latte.) Em fires back.
“Okay first of all, this isn’t Broadway. This is a forty show run and a fifty seat house, and the contracts are different. Slow your roll. There are no names above the title here, no swings, no understudies, and I don’t get to ask for my money back if someone calls out.”
“Just because it’s Off-Broadway doesn’t give it license to be ill-considered. In fact some might argue it has to be even better considered if it’s going to be Off-Broadway.” I reply. She ignores me, continues.
“Second of all, are you saying it’s unrealistic that a college aged character would be insensitive to the magnitude of sacrifice involved in leaving a latte on a counter? You’re surprised by this?”
“No,” I say, “I’m saying that addressing that privilege, in some way, in ANY way does not compromise the narrative or the character. Why leave it out? It only adds to the inclusivity of the piece as a whole. And conversely, not addressing it at all, suggests that either the writer was blind to it or only wrote for people to whom leaving a latte on a counter is commonplace.”
Em stirs her black and white milkshake with the straw that very well may be her last. We’ve been friends since college but she’s heard this speech about twenty five times. In her defense, she doesn’t disagree- she just doesn’t see how my problems are her responsibility. This would probably be fair, except they aren’t just my problems, and that’s exactly why I think they’re her responsibility: Are you living in America in 2018? Do you have a social media account? Know anyone who is gay, Black, Trans, Asian, Latinx or CIS female? (That last part is particularly apropos.)
“In my world, you simply couldn’t walk away from a latte. Your parents worked too hard for you to leave that latte for someone else. And you certainly couldn’t make that sacrifice as if the only thing at stake was your own time, money and future. For many people, this is a reality. Our lives are not wholly our own. And to not have that acknowledged is the same as having invalidated it.” We’re worlds apart now. Em knows it too, and I see what’s coming next.
“Yeah,” says she. “But that was your world. This writer doesn’t come from your world. This writer doesn’t even claim to be from your world. It’s unfair you should expect them to include you. Isn’t it? Like, why can’t they write their show, you write your show?”
Em poses an interesting question, and one worth addressing, but first it needs a little unpacking. For starters, she is conflating inclusion with representation, but more on that in a minute. I reply in the only way I know how.
“Because when I write my show, people call it ‘an Asian show.’ When they write their show, people just call it ‘a show.’” What I’m getting at, and she knows this, is that in every case where an under-represented artist seeks to represent a marginalized people or experience, the mainstream marginalizes it further by giving it a qualifying descriptor. It is defined by its relation to what is assumed is the norm. Therefore it only ceases to become “other” when someone within the mainstream takes it upon themselves to integrate it into their own work.
“The question we should be asking,” I continue, “is ‘who within the mainstream will identify it as their problem if every time they stare it dead in the face, they refuse ownership over it?”
“So… what?” Asks Em. “Make the character walking away from the Latte an Asian person? You’d just say that’s unbelievable and a misrepresentation.” She’s not wrong there…
“Okay. Let’s go back to definitions. This conversation isn’t about representation so much as inclusion. The former is the act of putting someone ‘other’ in a show or film because that other exists in the real world and as such, should be seen. Should be represented. This is a personal choice for any writer and one I can do for myself. The latter is far simpler, less costly, and should be on everyone’s to-do list: making sure no one in your audience has to work any harder than anyone else to experience your show. Because right now friend, the contracts are different, and they shouldn’t be.” I’m on a roll.
“You posit that this writer should be free to write this show and this show should be free to be what it wants without the responsibility of including me, the guy who’s never left a latte on a counter. Let’s look at that model for a moment. The thing that happens when writers, producers and artistic directors in the main stream take a pass on being responsible for inclusion is a thing that has actually happened. Slowly and surely no one else gets represented. Or, as you hypothesize, people like me get represented poorly. You with me so far?”
Em slurps her black and white, the irony lost to her.
“But then when someone like me writes for faces like mine, as I have perpetually and without apology for the past fifteen years, if I’m not writing with an eye towards including you, I’m simply writing an unworthy script that no one ever sees. That seem right to you? We finally put a name to this phenomenon. It’s called institutionalized racism. Perpetuated by something else we didn’t know had a name until recently: unconscious bias.”
“That is pure conjecture.” Says Em. “No offense Tim, I think you’re really talented, but what if your earlier work in those days just wasn’t good enough?”
“Em, my work from yesterday wasn’t good enough. It can always be better. But the numbers are documented, and historically, the ratio of produced work is hugely disproportional in favor of white men. Do you really believe that whenever ‘those days’ was, that the work of every single person of color, every single female, every single intersection was simply not good enough? Is it that hard to believe they were systemically overlooked?”
This hits a little close to home. Of course she knows what it is to be systematically overlooked. She might not ever wonder why in a five show season at a regional theater company two shows about Chinese people can’t co-exist. Or two shows about Gay people. Or two shows about Trans or Gay or Black or Latinx people… but she does know what it feels like to have her own experience invalidated. And if I were inside her head (which I am) I would tell you what pisses her off more than anything, is the knowing that she has no control over it. Except she does. Her half empty milkshake, now a murky gray, is actually half full.
“Yes, the contracts are different. Some people get to walk in, and take ‘leaving a latte’ on its own terms while others have to adapt. The great news is you don’t have to put up with it. You can choose to see exclusivity for what it is, and not endorse it. You can be openly critical about any show that runs counter to the ideology of a living and inclusive theater! You can also share that Youtube of Neil Patrick Harris opening the 2013 Tonys where he basically says it in a rap penned by Lin Manuel Miranda, because it really holds up.”
“It was actually James Corden in 2016.” She fires back. And just like that, we’re back into it.
“Nuh-uh, sorry, NPH did it first, and did it better.”
“Are you kidding me?” Says Em, flicking her straw wrapper my way. “That part when the rainbow kids become that year’s nominees is magic.”
“Fine, share them both. They’re both great.” I say, just as our waitress comes by, checking in.
“Do you want anything else?” I ask, “It’s on me.”
“No,” says my good friend. “It’s on me.”