Gathering a Community

by Cecilia Copeland

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Gathering a Community

(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)

Diversity and Inclusion Program ArcMixed Race/Culture Theatre

JACQUELINE LAWTON: In your work as a theatre artist, do you self-identify closer to one race/culture over another? If so, why do you think that is? If not, how are you able to live in both worlds?

CECILIA COPELAND:  Yes and no and sort of…  I self-identify, but I almost never feel like I fit in any world.  I get this impending sense that there’s going to be a moment when someone pulls back the curtain and exposes me, the Wizard pulling all the levers, that I’m truly just some kind of interloper hoping to pass for the things I want to be true about myself.  As though my mix of heritage somehow contradicts itself and makes all of it invalid, and in some ways it does.  The only worlds I feel I belong fully are those I create by gathering a community around myself that is diverse.  As a playwright and artistic director I’m able to do that.  I think part of why I like writing and curating a season, building a diverse team of artists and community, is because I feel most comfortable when there’s a mix of people.

JL: As image makers and creators of narrative, theatre artists are in a position to define, influence and change what it means to be of mixed race in America. How do you feel the mixed race/culture experience has been presented in the American Theatre so far? (Have you experienced plays that are enlightening? Damaging? Or is there a complete absence of stories?)

CC: There’s not as much out there as I would like to see.  I see a lot of it by people I know, friends and collaborators, and that might be because they are also mixed in some way culturally.  Every time I see something that deals with mixed identity and mixed groups my radar goes ballistic!  I get really jazzed because suddenly I feel like I’m included and am no longer waiting to be discovered as not having a right to be there.  I think there are some artists who are looking at “race” in ways that are…. Hm? …inflammatory.  Same thing with “religion”.  I’m not against getting people fired up, but my issues with making people mad and not creating any artistic olive branch for hope or improvement is that I don’t think you need art to piss someone off and it’s really hard to get an audience.  It feels disingenuous to make art that says there is no point and things will never get better, because then why bother to make the art or ask me to spend my time and money on it?  Even Beckett’s tree gets some leaves and that’s vital.  Clearly, a lot of people would rather go to a sporting game that they know will be exciting, even though they can’t see their culture or gender represented, rather than sit through something that they fear will be boring and or insulting.  Also, our love affair with “the classics” in theater is hurting us.  If we aren’t updating the ethnic and gender roles represented in these older plays, then we’re just perpetuating outdates points of view and that’s definitely damaging.  It’s not enough to add modern costumes, cars, and backdrops to an older play and think it’s now suddenly a modern version.  If a production modernizes everything except the ethnic and gender roles I have to wonder when and where they’re setting the play?  A lot more than just technology has changed in society over the last hundreds or thousands of years.

JL: Do we need theatre organizations devoted to producing work by and about the mixed raced experience? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community? What is lost?

CC: I wouldn’t mind it.  I don’t know how practical that is just because I think the older we get as a society the more mixed we become across the board so it seems like it would just happen naturally, and yet racism still remains including specifically against mixing the population.  It’s a mystery to me how something as archaic as racism can continue to put a chokehold on the human experience.  So, I think there’s a lot to be gained by seeking out artists who are a member of a particular community or specifically of mixed identity.  At the very least it provides a sense that we are out there and our experiences are both different and the same.  The mixed family in the Cheerios ad was an example of advertising starting to get the message about modernity.  The negative blow back from that was disgusting, but the counter response and the mass support for it showed how we can rally and pull together to overcome that kind of backward thinking.

JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies who are interested in creating opportunities that reflect the experience/challenge perceptions of mixed race people in America?

CC: Commission plays, have readings, gather artist panels, reach out to the community.  Seek out plays that have multi-cultural casts and characters who are mixed.  Look beyond just agent submissions and go directly to online play sources, read the synopsis and the cast information specifically to look for different groups represented.  Artists who write plays that have a mixed casts will likely be expressing a mixed experience.

I implore theater companies who do older works to change the makeup of the cast to add more diversity and flexibility in the gender of the casting.  How does that change the story?  What else would need to be reexamined about the socio economic reality of the play to make it more relevant to our current culture?

JL: As an advocate of mixed race theatre, can you recommend plays that I should be reading or playwrights I should be following?

CC:  I think people don’t think about certain artists as being mixed when they are in fact mixed or consider themselves mixed.  That’s part of what challenging about mixed identity.  Look at the work of Qui Nguyen, Vanessa Hidary, and Daniel Alexander Jones just to name a few who are out there and have been inspirations for me in terms of writing about this mixed experience.  In one of my newest plays, Atlantis Unearthed there’s a character who is a half-mermaid half-fairy who feels she doesn’t fit in anywhere.  Those types of choices are very much on purpose an attempt to open up casting and open up the conversation about mixed identity.

Cecilia Copeland is a playwright and Founding Artistic Director of New York Madness.  The world premiere production of her play, “Light of Night” opened last fall at Iati Theatre in New York and will be produced this spring at Venus Theatre in MD.  Her works have been Produced or Presented at HERE Arts Center, Cherry Lane Theatre, EST, INTAR Theatre, and Metro Screen Australia among others.  Her Full Length, “The Wicked Son” was named one of the Top Three Best New Jewish Plays by the JPP.  She is a Member of the Dramatists Guild and The League of Professional Theatre Women.

conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.