Can A White Guy Write Black Characters?

by Daniel Robert Sullivan

in Fox Fellowships

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I’m a privileged dude, no question.

White privilege, male privilege, class privilege – I’ve got it all, so I’ve got to be careful how I use or abuse it. In a thousand barely recognizable ways, I have advantages that are difficult to recognize while they are happening. Looking back over a day, however, I can tick off every item on a privileged-person checklist. (Can you? Here’s just one.)

This is something I need to keep in check. I’m not always entirely sure how to do that, so please feel free to help me.

Here’s the deal: I’m currently at the helm of a devised theatre project funded by TCG and the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship. I’m using the resources of Roundabout Theatre Company to create a play about an urban high school experience. Why? Because I’ve been a teaching artist in New York’s public high schools for years and notice a lack of plays that are

  • age-appropriate,
  • ethnically appropriate,
  • socially conscious,
  • easily producible, and
  • filled with stand-alone scenes and monologues for class work.

So I want to create one.

The problem I’m just now beginning to wrestle with is that I’m a white guy and I probably need black characters. I’m working with a team of actual teenagers from New York schools to create this play; I’m transforming their stories into the final work. And their stories are, well, their stories. And many of them identify themselves as black. That’s not to say that we’re creating a play about being black, but I think I should be working under the assumption that one’s background has an impact on one’s story.

When I first ask myself the question, “Do I have the right to write black characters?” my answer is a swift and confident, “Yes, of course.” Why not? This is theatre. I’m a professional. And I’m writing based on real people and real experiences, so I’m not just inventing characters’ opinions and experiences out of thin air.

But then, after thinking that I have every right to write such a thing, I have to ask: is it right to write such a thing? This is not new territory, and the opinions are varied. The seminal volume, William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, is a decades-old warning to white creators: stereotypes persist, so you’d better write honestly. The critical essays seem to preach adherence to proper source material, but also, to my reading, imply it may just not be right for me to try such writing. Novelist Michael Chabon, on the other hand, thinks it is perfectly ok when done well. But Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize winning author. He has an infinitely better chance at doing it well, and therefore maybe it is more right for him to make the attempt.

The play we are creating at Roundabout has a working title: Prospect High, Brooklyn. Although the makeup of New York City schools as a whole might be called diverse, the makeup of many Brooklyn schools is decidedly not. Schools in District 17 have upwards of 90% students who self-identify as black. So, if I want to make a play representative of this area, 90% of the high school characters should be black.

But there is a hiring debate in some of these schools: a majority of the teachers are white. Like, more than 61%. There are programs trying to change this (e.g. Teach for America), but still there remains a divide between the basic identification of teachers and the students they teach. The teachers have certain societal privileges that many of their students simply do not. (Again, check here.) That’s my story, too. So what do I do?

The conclusion I’ve drawn for myself is a balanced one, but I’m not sure if it’s good enough. Here’s what I’ve come up with: it is not right for me to invent the opinions and experiences of black characters, but it is all right for me to transform the real experiences of black teenagers that I actually know into characters with similar feelings.

Am I right? Let me know below.

Read more blogs on this project here and here.

Daniel Robert Sullivan appeared in Jersey Boys as Tommy DeVito in the Toronto and International Companies. He has performed at Kansas City Rep, Arizona Theatre Company, Pan Asian Rep, the York, Utah Shakespeare Festival, Gloucester Stage, and others. His backstage memoir, Places Please! (Becoming A Jersey Boy), was published last year by Iguana Books.

The William & Eva Fox Foundation, a private grantmaking foundation, is committed to the artistic development of theatre actors as a strategy to strengthen live theatre. Through its prestigious Fox Fellowships the Foundation has provided more than $3 million to underwrite periods of intensive study, research and training by actors recognized as having a serious commitment to the theatre. In 2004 the Foundation awarded fellowships totaling $150,000 to ten distinguished actors. The Foundation is the largest grantmaker solely dedicated to the artistic and professional development of theatre actors, and one of very few that provides direct support to individual actors.

  • Aliza

    While I think it is important to think about your own privilege and how you do or do not relate to the characters you are writing, I think it is actually detrimental to put that restriction on writers and the characters they should feel comfortable writing. Men have no qualms about writing women and, as you state, being a man is a category of privilege. I think it is about creating characters with respect to the characters that will make them well-developed, not necessarily about who has the right to create them. There are so many things that make someone diverse and so many things that give a person and a character and unique voice. I think if we create these restrictions on which characters playwright’s can write based on their own personal background and experiences, the plays will end up being pretty one dimensional. That said, I do think we need to make more spaces for voices of all backgrounds (not specific to one type of diversity) to be heard in the theater whether allowing more opportunities for playwrights of different backgrounds to be heard or through the kind of collaborative work you are engaged in.

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  • Sue Lange

    Is it right for you to invent the opinions and experiences of any character? Of course. So why discriminate? Research, try to understand others regardless of race. What if you were a privileged black teacher from an upper middle class background. Maybe from a small town in Ohio. Would you understand anymore the experience of lower income black kids from Brooklyn? Probably not. You might have an easier time bullshitting your way through a Q&A session because everyone would think you have street creed, but as a writer, you’d still have to do your homework.