And so went our pre-show ritual. You know, I really didn’t have much of an affinity to my middle name—Claire—until I heard my scene partner pronounce it with the affect of a certain Kevin Spacey. The comical whiteness of our pre-show exchange reflected the blinding whiteness of our onstage relationship, and though I was purported to be the biracial one in this theatrical treatise on privilege, you wouldn’t have known by our off-stage antics.
Rather, the grounding came from within. Never had I been so readily handed a role so excruciatingly close to my own life experience. Never had I felt the scrapes and chafing between two worlds grinding within the life of my own character. There was no charade of essentialized performance to represent a whole race. There was no mindless exposition to establish my Otherness—or any other character’s Otherness for that matter. There was only the awkwardness of my character’s earnest allyship—an assimilated mind inside of a mixed brown body.
I wandered around the concrete grounds of our warehouse-turned-theatre space barefoot, alternatively sounding off vocal warm-ups and dropping into a squat to ensure my body was warm. The summer heat in Santa Barbara warmed the pavement, electrifying an already grueling, ecstatic rehearsal process. The audience would be let in the gate any moment—best stay out of sight. Behind the brick walls of our warehouse performance space, I clasped my hands together and let out a giant squeal. I would be seen that night in a role that mirrored exactly the woman I’ve made myself to be. For any other regular, highly-castable actor that might be boring, passé. For this hapa, a revelation.
To recount the complexities of a play on privilege would take volumes. Was the show selected and produced out of white guilt, or was it something Santa Barbara audiences truly needed to hear? Was it fair that a play written by a white man for the contemplation of white audiences asked so much emotional labor of the female black character that the plot so heavily hinged upon? Was my character simply the token Asian, or was the fact of her biracial-ness, her performative whiteness, or her desperate efforts at allyship something of an abrogation in of itself?
“Racism is a white person’s problem.”
My scene partner donned a loud pink button down, and in the corner another colleague a pale yellow polo. Next to me, Sarai wrapped her locks with a flourish while I ironically put in little almond-eyed bobble earrings (a signifier of my character’s internalized racism). Random lines of dialogue zipped through the air—belted, screeched, recited presto, soliloquized melodramatically. We’d worked damn hard to earn that green room. Just two weeks before, we were stumbling around with binders, tripping over overlapping dialogue. Now, on the precipice of opening night with a tight, two hour and fifteen minute show firmly within our grasp, we looked back at our tattered scripts with sheer disbelief. Abortion, emotional labor, systemic racism, unconscious bias, militant feminism, performative allyship, white East Coast liberalism—we’d entered into the beast, surrendered ourselves to nearly two hundred pages of eviscerating dialogue, and come out the other end more polished perhaps even more whole human beings.
And yet, in a show so devoted to calling out the problem of privilege, there was a shocking lack of discussion amongst castmates about how the play was working on or calling out each of us. No check-ins, no discussions, no revelations. In the whirlwind that was our socially-minded season, we’d failed the most basic function of self-care: collectively processing how the play was massaging its way into our psyches.
I’d attempted, much like my character, to signal allyship with my black castmate by taking her to lunch and complaining about these deficiencies, but to little avail. Later on I would find that she and I had wildly different coping strategies: I dealt with the proverbial silence by filling it with chatter about my experience. She did just the opposite. After all, why open yourself to your castmates only to make them more uncomfortable with their experiences? Why not just get on with what we can all agree on—a phenomenal text—and assume we’ll all leave the production better humans for it?
In that way, the effects of the play proved wildly ironic.
And yet, here we were—drunk on summer heat, reeling from adrenaline, only a bit worse for wear. The emotional bruises might not have manifested until weeks afterward, but in that moment, we threw ourselves into the work. The good work we’d waited all year for, besides.
A loud joke about spiking the prop wine, a slight panic about where Evan had put his “German dungeon porn” card, and suddenly it was a half-hour later. The sun had vanished behind the pristine white façade of Santa Barbara’s downtown, the audience had settled, and the door to the space awaited us.
“Go out there and slay.”
I made eye contact with my partner, whisper “merde” under my breath, and let my body and my character become one.
About the Author: Lindsey is a playwright and theatre maker based in Santa Barbara, CA.