It’s really easy to say, “I should have the freedom to write whatever story I want, to write whatever characters I want, because I am a writer and that’s my work.”

But your plays aren’t just about you. They have to exist in a real world with real people and real systems of injustice. Your plays have to exist in a world that privileges certain stories and voices over others. Your plays have to exist in a world with people who are aware of that, who are aware that they’re not seen or heard or validated.

Your plays implicate you in those systems that silence and obsucre certain voices and experiences. So you’re either writing for the benefit of those systems or you’re writing with an awareness of them.

When we’re talking about white privilege, we’re not talking about white people getting whatever they want because they’re white. (You still have to contend with other marginalizations, white people. Like social status, education, geography, income, ect.)

We’re talking about white people working from the most advantageous place inside our biased systems. We’re talking about systems simply not actively working against you.

That’s the privilege.

So when you’re thinking about systemic racism:

White people, across the board, fare better in this country than people of color in any number of markers: education, incarceration, wealth, ect. White people statistically fare better.

So you’re left with the question — why? You’ve got three answers, basically.

1. White people are inherently superior to people of color.

2. White people and people of color are equally capable, but people of color don’t try as hard or exert the same kind of effort to succeed as white people.

3. There are biases inherent in our systems that privilege white people over people of color.

So which are you down for? I can’t handle any but no. 3.

Lafayette, After

11796400_905871266160732_4201884606855549600_nI moved to Hartford with my husband almost a year ago, and one of the unexpected by-products of that move is an almost constant awareness and communcation of my southerness. I’m aware of it always. I process experiences here in connection to it. I started cooking just to learn hwo to make a good gumbo, a good bread pudding, a good jamabalaya. The weather here is always an experience in relation to where I’m from: “Ohmygod, winter is awful for this Cajun boy!” “The heat doesn’t bother me much; I’m from Louisiana.”

I love where I’m from. I miss it.

John Russell Houser stood up in a movie theatre in my hometown last week and shot 10 people, killing two. In the aftermath, I’ve watched as my friends and their friends (thanks to the social web of Facebook and Twitter) process this thing in its immediacy. They knew Jillian Johnson or Mayci Breaux or one of the people injured or one of the people who escaped the theatre unharmed. They’d just talked to them. They’d seen them the week before. This thing happened in the immediate circle of their lives. They’re there.

And they’ve been incredible. I loved seeing the community gather to make prayer flags or mourn together at Jillian’s funeral or support local businesses that are donating proceeds to the victims’ families from the sale of Lafayette pride items. My hometown has been pretty amazing.

I’m proud to be from a town that is handling tragedy with such grace and resilience. It’s inspiring. Even from here, over a thousand miles away, I feel that powerful sense of community that I’d feel when I lived there. It’s palpable to me.

But I don’t think it’s a particularly unique expression. Resilience in the face of tragedy is a broadly human characteristic, and the kindness and generosity and empathy that’s come pouring out of Lafayette in the last week isn’t substantially different than the kind that poured out of Sandy Hook or Columbine or Aurora or any of the other dozens of cities where mass shootings have occurred. Profound expression of human kindness and compassion were on display there, too, in those disparate communities. People grieved and came together in inspiring ways there, too. That beautiful resilience isn’t born from a community’s cultural heritage. It’s born out of the fact that all those communities are made up of human beings.

Even the violence isn’t unique. I know for my friends at home, this event feels blsiteringly unique. “How could this sort of thing happen here?” “We aren’t the kind of city where this thing happens.” And I even saw, once it was revealed that Houser was from Alabama, people saying, “Well, of course he couldn’t be from here. Our people would never do a thing like this.” I understand why it’s necessary. I understand how this helps process a complicated and messy experience. But it’s magical thinking. Every city is the kind of city where this kind of thing can happen. And “our people” are of course capable of something like this. Geography doesn’t dictate this kind of action. Other infinitely more complicated circumstances dictate this kind of action.

And so I worry for my hometown. When the shield of uniqueness has served its purpose and there’s a container for this grief, when our community has figured out how they’re going to “get back to normal” as best they can, when this doesn’t feel so immediate and so horrible and so unimaginable, what happens next?

Nothing about this event lives outside a continuum that contains many other events like it. And as much as we don’t want to admit that the intensely felt things that are happening to us aren’t individual and unheard of and new, they aren’t. When we’re through this part, will we believe the magical thinking that got us there and simply move on to the next thing?

I have the benefit of distance. I know this. And this isn’t an indictment of the natural and expected ways a community processes these kinds of events. (Isn’t there a kind of horror in the fact that we know how communities process mass shootings? We have guideposts because it happens so often?). It’s just a worry.

I saw someone on social media share that they hated that Lafayette was now going to be synonymous with a mass move theatre shooting. I agree. I’m with you, there. But even in that, we aren’t unique. Columbine. Aurora. Sandy Hook. And all the others.

I posted this on FB the day after the shootings:

People are learning the name of my hometown like I learned the names of Sandy Hook and Aurora and Columbine. My town is their town is all of our towns.

A place doesn’t determine where this kind of horror happens. It’s all the things we don’t want to talk about, that make us uncomfortable, that we consider the problems of other places, other towns.

And until we deal with those things, until we accept our responsibility to care for and work for the safety and well-being of everyone in every town, we will keep learning the names of towns that “didn’t think this sort of thing could happen here.”

My hometown is a very special place. I’ll continue to share it – often unasked for — here in Northeast. But every town is special. And I worry, what town will be the next town to go through this? What names of incredible, beautiful people will I hear about who are “gone too soon?” What will the next community have to do to make sense out of the senseless?

And what will we have done — all of us in this American community, together — in the meantime to prevent it?

On Leelah, On Leaving, On Staying

HT_ht_joshua_leelah_alcorn5_ml_141231_4x3_992“My death needs to mean something.”

There’s a litany of things in Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note that are heartbreaking. That, for me, is the hardest.

“My death needs to mean something.”

Leelah Alcorn’s suicide calls us to do and become aware of a lot of things. We have to come to terms with how we treat transgender people – particularly transgender teens — in the beginning stages of their transitions (knowing those initial responses can shape whole lives and experiences). We have to change the way we treat transgender people in our culture as a whole. We have to stop thinking of identity as a treatable condition. We have to recognize what depression looks like, and we have to know what to do about it when we see it. We have to abandon the idea that faith alone can heal someone in the depths of depression (or any mental illness). We have to look more deeply at how faith communities talk about and collectively deal with the presence of LGBT people in their numbers.

And her suicide means we have to do The Hard Thing: embrace what we don’t understand as something as precious and valuable as ourselves. We have to love what we don’t fully “get.” We have to show grace and love even when we don’t exactly know and understand what we’re loving. We must be those people.

But we also have to say an even harder thing: Don’t kill yourself. 

Continue reading “On Leelah, On Leaving, On Staying”

Back at the Table

Today, I went to church.

I know that doesn’t seem like much. But this was the first time I attended a mass of any kind in about ten years.

I was raised Catholic in the Deep South (so you can guess how rigid and un-gay friendly that experience was.) So as soon as I could leave the church behind, I did. I briefly was a speech coach for a Catholic school, so on out-of-state trips, we’d take the kids to mass, and I’d begrudginly go, grumbling about “wasting an hour” and “having to sit through Jesus storytime.”

And about ten years ago, my then-partner shared his church with me, but it was the newfangled kind (which, not to disaprage, but felt more like a rock concert and video show than a mass. Catholic pagentry roots die hard, I guess.)

Continue reading “Back at the Table”

5 things that help me sleep at night and still wake up and be a playwright

A HowlRound retweet caused this blog post — “The Real Reason Playwrights Fail” — from 2011 to pop up in my Twitter feed. It was new to me, and it’s equal parts infuriating and true. Which of course, got a lot of folks upset and in the mood to comment (which, come on, is the design, right? This was clearly built as provocation and not a comforting hug.)

So we kick off the rant with this:

However, this is what I believe, with all due respect to my peers:

our general laziness,
inability to commit,
defeatist attitude,
lack of talent,
and unwillingness to truly listen and change—
are the real reasons we—the “emerging” playwright—fail.

Okay, I’m with him for the first three. Yes, I could work harder and commit more. We all could. There’s always room to push ourselves more. Yes, I can get wrapped up in a defeatist attitude about it all sometimes. I could learn to let go.

But the last two… eh.

I think playwrights “fail” because we have the wrong idea of success. Maybe we don’t need to change “The System” and maybe we don’t need to kick each other’s asses. Maybe we just need to shift the way think.

1. Odds are, I’m never going to make my living solely as a playwright. Just accept that. It’s like a unicorn. A unicorn dipped in gold that shits the next “Angels in America” or “August: Osage County” once a year. Never. Gonna. Happen. And if it does, by some miracle, I’ll be fully aware that I’ve done the impossible, and I’ll spend every day thereafter grateful beyond words. I have to do something else in order to keep writing plays — just like everyone else. And if everyone else has to do it, it’s not failure. It’s just how it is.

2. Winning in “The System” is only one kind of success. Getting a play on Broadway would be awesome. Playwrights Horizons would also be awesome. Spending a summer at the O’Neill would be very cool. Steppenwolf doing my play would also rock. All of those really incredible opportunities that we all want — they would mean success. But they’re just one kind of success. We’re very wrapped up in the notion that those opportunities divide the successful playwrights from ones who fail or can’t cut it. Why? I had eight productions of my work last year. Eight. In Louisiana, Oklahoma and North Carolina. In theatres you haven’t heard of. How’s that not a kind of success as well?

3. I no longer accept the term “emerging.” I’ve always kind of hated the term “emerging playwright.” Emerging from what exactly? And for how long? It’s a goofy term. And I don’t accept it anymore. I’m just a playwright. I write plays. They get produced. I’m a playwright. I think the “emerging” moniker does something dangerous to a lot of playwrights. It suggests we’re somewhere we need to get out of, some murky cocoon we need to “emerge” from so we can become real butterflies out in the world. And there are a lot of us in that “emerging” cocoon (Gwydion Suilebhan has a great post on playwriting odds that estimates 10,000 playwrights out there. No small beans.) We’re all focused on getting out of the cocoon “emerging,” and we’re missing the fact that we could band together and do a lot of work in the cocoon instead. And it’s really not a cocoon. It’s just a different field to play on.

4. Success happens in the theatre, not in my bio. I used to be a playwright that apologized for productions. “Yeah, they’re doing my play, but it’s just a 50-seat house.” “Yeah, they’re doing it, but it’s just a small college in Illinois.” “Yeah, they commissioned a play, but they’re just a high school program.” Gross. Gross. Not only does that kind of thinking hurt me, it diminishes the people who invested in doing my work, the people who busted their ass to perform it every night, the audiences who paid to see it. It comes from believing that the only work that matters is the work being done in “The System.” Not cool. The same thing happens between audience and play in a 50-seat black box in Louisiana that happens on Broadway. Scale’s different. But the essential work isn’t.

5. I’ve got power, too. I went to the Great Plains Theatre Conference last year, saw a terrific play I liked, went home to Louisiana and got it produced there. I have another playwright friend who’s gotten two commissions because I nudged my colleagues in his direction.  Are we famous? No. Did we band together to make work? Yes. Maybe we “fail” because we’ve bought into the idea that we’re not legitimate until we somehow crack The System. But I think we have, in the cocoon, plentiful resources and collaborators and connections and passion — because that’s key, that’s vital, that’s almost more important than anything else — to do for each other what those individuals and companies at the very visible level of theatre are doing. We’ve got power, too.

I sometimes say I’m the busiest playwright you’ve never heard of.

That used to sting. Now… not so much at all.