I'd like to "invite you inside the problem" of deciding what to write in this article about The Motherf**ker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis.
Such an invitation is a double-edged bit of our artistic office jargon. In its sincere deployment it refers to building consensus by involving all affected parties in problem solving. Occasionally, I also use it to obfuscate the fact that I have no solution, and I'm hoping someone else can fix the problem.
What is the problem? I have two competing impulses for the subject of this article. One is safe, with a veneer of the academic. And the other is more personal; a potentially uncomfortable subject I nonetheless feel compelled to speak about. I couldn't decide. Instead I'm inviting you to help determine which impulse would best prepare you to engage the play.
Impulse #1: The Folk PhilosopherThere's a sound, and I know you've heard it. You've heard it on the train: "I'm telling you, man, I'm telling you …." You've heard it from your uncle at Thanksgiving when you are suddenly caught between his "The thing that is wrong with your whole approach…" and the mashed potatoes. It is the sound of someone sharing a hard-won personal truth that Explains Everything and can be used to Make Your Life Right.
That same sound permeates The Motherf**ker with the Hat. As I read the play, I began to toy with the notion that every character in it is a self-taught philosopher. I planned to spend an entire day riding the train to find the perfect sound sample. Our literary apprentice began research, discovering academic concepts like "organic intellectuals." I was going to construct a bridge between the earnest ex-junkie on the train and the writings of Derrida. Between your Uncle Seth and Sartre. By the time you finished this article you would be hearing fragments of Hegel in every conversation on the street. And, importantly, you would be prepped to recognize philosophy in the blisteringly funny rants of the characters in Motherf**ker.
Impulse #2: Race and RepresentationAnd then there's the other subject. A subject difficult to discuss because of the inelegant and contested language we are forced to use. But because you are in the problem with me, I have a proposal. I’m going to bold the contested terms as way of both: 1) acknowledging that there is a debate to be had, and; 2) asking that we defer that debate for a while.
The subject: As an African American in a majority-white institution, I wanted to write about the questions raised when we produce shows completely cast with people of color, particularly when the audiences are likely to be mostly white.
But even that carefully neutral statement starts my heart racing and palms sweating. I dread the discussion. It seems impossible to share without getting personal. Without hectoring or offending. Yet, something in me demands I try. Perhaps I should attempt to parse the contested terms.
African American is one such term. As you might note from the picture with this article, you could insist that I use the term biracial. And inside our community terms like high yellow get thrown around and then we have to talk about skin color bias and passing and good hair. After that, we’d have to talk about how personal emotion makes dispassionate discourse so difficult. For example, I once decided to quit theater precisely because I am a black man, reasoning that performance was one of those areas in which my people were allowed to succeed, and therefore my career choice signaled that I accepted the caricatures of black folk perpetuated by institutional racism.
And majority-white. First, not everyone who appears white, is. And while it might seem self-evident that the theater audience is mostly caucasian, your mere appearance says little about your interaction with other ethnicities. It would be very easy to see my pale and freckled wife sitting in this audience and not guess that she is married to a person of color, and—thanks to our two boys—is actually the minority in our household.
And don’t even get me started on people of color, which I use as a gesture of solidarity even though it flirts with the offense of lumping every Other into one uniform mass. So while I felt it was worth discussing how the vectors of identity, perspective and politics interact in unpredictable ways with the intended meaning of a performance, I didn’t know how to wade through the language without triggering the kind of instant defenses and constant qualifiers that stifle conversation.
SynthesisI had to admit my real problem was that I wanted to retreat from the politics of representation and follow the much safer path of connecting these characters to respected philosophy. But I slowly realized such a retreat was impossible: both impulses were born of the same desire. Whether through philosophy or politics, I felt a deep responsibility to make sure that these characters are taken as seriously as the play takes them. I love these characters. I love them for all their foul-mouthed flaws. In the wrong hands, they could be a collection of the worst stereotypes about poor people of color.
Luckily, Stephen Adly Guirgis is brilliant. He allows us inside the thought process of these characters. He lays bare their philosophy. Further, Anna D. Shapiro and the cast are extraordinarily gifted. With Guirgis's words they have crafted nuanced portraits of human beings who, if not our peers, are certainly our equals.
But still, my sense of personal responsibility compelled me to attempt to mediate the encounter between play and audience. To somehow ensure that as all these vectors converge, truthful characters do not get transmuted into caricature. It’s the kind of responsibility that makes me speak in capital letters as I try to Explain Everything. If I were speaking aloud, you would certainly hear that sound.
Of course, I can’t mediate that encounter. Nor do I even know that you need the mediation. In walking through the problem with you, however, I’m beginning to suspect that the way to engage is not to make a grand statement, but rather to ask you a question: What makes your heart race with the knowledge that something deep in you requires you to speak? What portrayals are you determined to see created honestly and received accurately? What turns you into that earnest person on the train, or Uncle Seth at Thanksgiving?