(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.)
TCG Blog Salon: Mixed Race/Ethnicity
JACQUELINE LAWTON: In your work as a theatre artist, do you self-identify closer to one race or ethnicity over another? If so, why do you think that is? If not, how are you able to live in both worlds?
ARIANA COOK: My mother enrolled me in theatre classes at the age of six and I got very involved as an actor around the age of ten. As a student in a primarily white space, self-identifying wasn’t available to me. The instructors and directors identified for me as black or ‘the other.’ As a young impressionable aspiring actress, I trusted this convention and it was reaffirmed even into my college years. I truly believed that in order to get work or roles as an actor I had to be black. That posed many problems when white directors and fellow artists would complain that I wasn’t “black enough”. Of course their ideas of “black” were stereotypes perpetuated by media and institutional racism. I admit that I tried to align myself to this thinking. As the only methodology I was exposed to it seemed practical. How would I get a job if I didn’t fit the written roles? My great enlightenment came in a college exercise as part of our Acting As A Business Class. The assignment required us to list famous actors that resembled ourselves with the idea being that one could go into an audition saying “I am a Julia Roberts – type” or “I am a Steve Martin – type.” For the first time in my perfectionist student life I didn’t do my homework. I didn’t do it, because I couldn’t. There was no one like me in media. At first I was panicking. Here I am about to graduate with a degree in musical theatre and I was not going to get work anywhere because there weren’t any roles for me. That is when I redefined myself. I was tired of trying to be someone I wasn’t and I was tired of trying to fit into the black tropes that were portrayed in theatre and the media. I fully embraced my mixed race identity for the first time while making a personal commitment to break conventions in every theatre and every performance in which I was involved. Now I proudly identify as a person of mixed race and I work to create opportunities to present my identity on stage.
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/ethnic 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?)
AC: Thus far, the first plays that have defined the mixed race experience in America have been The Octoroon and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Originally written in 1859 and 1852 by abolitionists to incite sympathy towards slavery, these plays, true to their era, are filled with hurtful stereotypes as well as the portrayal of Southern slave owners as primarily kind and loving slave owners. Both these plays also used a female Octoroon (a person who is 1/8 black and typically very light skinned) as a primary tool to encourage empathy because white patrons could only identify with characters that looked like them. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Octoroon were both the most successful plays in American history and I think it would be foolish not to believe that the shadow of that history doesn’t touch us today. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins recent adaptation of The Octoroon into An Octoroon also explores race in America with a mixed race woman at the center of the conflict. As I speak from my personal identity has half white and half black, I mention these plays to chronicle the narrative of mixed race characters in American theatre. Though the cannon of Western theatre has not been particularly kind to any person of color or women in general, I can’t help but see how these two plays in particular still form our ideas of mixed raced characters. As in these pre-civil war aged plays, mixed race characters are seen as one race, inciting the one-drop rule, which is a social principle of racial classification asserting that any person with even one ancestor of African ancestry (“one drop” of black blood) is considered to be black. If not seen as one race, mixed race roles are often used as a metaphorical bridge between two worlds or a tool to demonstrate human solidarity instead of exploring the deep intricacies of the character or their identity. All of this is to say that with very few exceptions, I believe there is a great dearth of work that portrays complex mixed raced characters. We need stories that have mixed race personas as a focal point that deal with the elaborate nature of what it means to be mixed race.
JL: Do we need theatre organizations devoted to producing work by and about the mixed race/ethnic experience? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community? What is lost?
AC: I would love to see a culturally specific theatre dedicated to telling the many mixed races stories in America! I would see it as a freeing place where actors of mixed race heritage can tackle what it means to be mixed race in America. I would love to see actors finally having a space where they did not have to choose to be one race or another, yet embody all their races as we do in our everyday lives.
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?
- Produce plays with rich and complex mixed race families, themes and characters.
- Commission work from mixed race artists.
- Finally, as with all people of color, I think it is important to disrupt the idea that white is considered normal. Our society has treated ‘normal’, ‘American’ and ‘white’ like synonyms. That is where we run into casting agents and directors that just don’t ‘see’ people of color in certain roles. I believe it is because of the deeply ingrained notion in society that tells all of us that unless it is a story about the – insert race experience here – then we should fall back on default: white. So in addition to more plays and theatres dedicating work to mixed race characters, we should communally pledge to cast people of color and mixed race actors in ‘normal’ roles.
JL: As an advocate of mixed race theatre, can you recommend plays that I should be reading or playwrights I should be following?
AC: Adult Supervision by Sarah Rutherford, and Same Same by Shireen Mula
All of the mixed race contributors to this blog. They are doing amazing work!
Ariana Cook is a writer, director, actress, performance artist and arts administrator. She is currently the Managing Director of Cara Mía Theatre Co. in Dallas, Texas. Selected regional acting credits include Abby in world premiere of Port Twilight or The History of Science (Undermain Theatre); Pianist in regional premier of The Black Monk (Undermain Theatre); Michelle in Unit Cohesion (Rite Of Passage Theatre); Title role in Ebony Scrooge (CrossOver Arts Theatre); Olga Mara in Singing In The Rain (Moonlight Musicals). Directing credits include the award-winning regional premiere of Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez; Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie; Jose Rivera’s The Winged Man as well as Zora Neal Hurston’s Color Struck and Rabindranath Tagore’s Sacrifice for Undermain Theatre’s acclaimed reading series at The Dallas Museum Of Art. Performance art credits include ShatterNOW (Thank You For Being Polite), Untitled and Wonders of the Future which used immersive theatre to explore the relationship between the human psyche and divination. Ariana is an alumnus of the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab in New York City and the inaugural ArtEquity Cohort. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre from Sam Houston State University and a Masters of Drama from Texas Woman’s University.
Jacqueline 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. jacquelinelawton.com