The Diversity Test (or Why Does the Black Character Get Screwed First?)
There is an ongoing conversation in the entertainment industry about diversity, inclusion and representation: the lack thereof, the abuses, the confusion and perpetuation of the problem as well as the strides towards diversification.
As a Black writer and actress it is my mission to tell stories that reflect the world I live in which is diverse, nuanced and female driven. It is my passion to challenge old concepts or structures
that uphold the status quo and keep the industry stuck. This conversation is at the core of who I am as an artist.
First in this ongoing series on diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry I will examine three popular American plays, make observations, ask questions and challenge playwrights who strive toward diversity and inclusiveness in their writing.
Disgraced, This and Good People are contemporary plays with interracial couples comprised of a White man and a Black woman. Each couple is in conflict. They argue, one up each other and
show little to no affection. The precursor to these plays is the mother-of-all-interracial-relationships portrayed in Lanford Wilson’s 1969 play The Gingham Dog.
In Gingham Dog we meet Gloria who is Black and Vincent who is White as they pack up the remnants of their marriage in the NewYork apartment they shared. Gloria is described as “well educated if somewhat vulgar.” Wilson writes that “she must have a personal charm, an energy that outweighs a kind of frantic, superficial, vulgarity, a detachment from most things” Vincent is described as a “strong, good looking man though he looks now, sometimes, rather like a tired young executive.” Gloria and Vincent hate each other. Vincent refers to her as an “educated Nigger”. When Gloria talks about the child they never had she says, “And now the thought of that child curdles me and I, oh Lord, I only thank the benevolent God for being wiser than me, because if a son existed now, I swear I’d bash his brains against the goddamn radiator.”
Just like Boys in the Band the 1968 play by Mart Crowley served as an indictment of homosexuality, The Gingham Dog is an indictment of interracial relationships. There is no hope and no counterpoint.
In twenty years not much has changed. Jory from Disgraced is a high powered lawyer described as “commanding, forthright, intelligent. Almost masculine” In her one scene in the play she dismisses her husband Isaac’s opinions, complains about him, disagrees with his politics, digs at him and mocks his ideas. She is also the comic relief in this sober play.
Kate from Good People is described as “attractive, pleasant”. She is in counseling with her husband who had an affair before the play takes place. He is not a willing participant in the counseling.
Kate has a young child with her husband. Kate is critical of her husband’s habits. She is nice to strangers but not nice to him. She shames him and doesn’t appreciate his humor. She serves
as comic relief in her only scene.
Marrell from This (a role I enjoyed playing) is described as “African American, 38”. Marrell (like Kate) is the mother of a young baby who “sleeps in fifteen minute increments”. She is
controlling and critical of her husband Tom. She shames and dismisses him. She is enamoured of a Frenchman she barely knows. She contemplates leaving her husband due to her
unhappiness. She is also comic relief throughout the play.
While I can only assume that the playwrights had good intentions when they wrote these characters I question whether they considered the ramifications of making them Black women. I question whether the playwrights considered the implicit bias in their choice.
In Disgraced and This the White male engages in an affair with the White female protagonist. The Black woman learns of the affair throughout the course of the play. The relationship between
the White man and the Black woman is left damaged and unresolved.
In Disgraced Emily a White woman (described as “lithe and lovely”) cheats on her husband Amir (desribed as “of South Asian origin”) with a White man named Isaac (described as “White,
smart, attractive”). Isaac is married to Jory. It is arguable whether Emily is intended to be likeable yet her trajectory suggests that although she has cheated on her husband the playwright wants the audience to empathize with her by the end of the play. In order for the audience to empathize they
must accept and ultimately “forgive” Emily for cheating on her husband. The audience must accept and ultimately “forgive” Emily for cheating on her husband with a married man.
Does the fact that Jory and Amir; the two “victims” in the story are people of color make it easier for the audience to forgive Emily? Is it easier for audiences to see people of color harmed physically or
emotionally? Is this the theatrical equivalent of the Black character always being the first person to get killed in an action movie?
I think it is. Consider Jane; the White protagonist in the play This. Jane has sex with her best friend Marrell’s husband. The audience is asked to quickly overlook the fact that Jane betrayed
her best friend and follow the rest of Jane's journey to the end of the play with empathy. Marrell is never seen again; sacrificed for the plot much like the Black man who doesn't last five minutes in
the beginning of the first Jurassic Park.
Stereotypes are reinforced when each of the women in This, Disgraced and Good People are critical, dissatisfied with their relationships, written as comic relief and then ultimately cheated on by their White husband. The history between Black women and White men in America dating back to slavery is mired in violence, rape and murder. What are the inevitable reverberations when a White male character perpetuates emotional violence on a Black woman in a contemporary piece? There is a cost in that choice. Does it move the conversation on race forward or keep it stuck?
Disgraced is written by Ayad Akhtar a Pakistani-American. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Good People was nominated for Best Play and was written by David Lindsay-Abaire who is White. Melissa James Gibson who wrote This is White. This was heralded as “the best new play to open Off Broadway” by Charles Isherwood of The New York
Times. I wonder if any playwrights received any feedback from women of color as they were developing the plays.
Three successful plays with the same narrative in relation to the Black characters. The plays have been widely produced across the country as well as internationally. Yet there is not another widely produced play that serves as a counterpoint. Does that in turn make the story of the dysfunctional, unsuccessful interracial relationship the default narrative?
I have played the role of Marrell in This. Here’s the tricky part. It's a fun role. It's not often that Black actresses get to play a smart, contemporary woman who is specifically written as Black. Still I struggled while playing Marrel because I wrestled with whether I was complicit in reinforcing ideas that do not change the messaging or challenge the implicit bias. It is a published play. There was no opportunity to voice my concerns as I might have had if the play were in development.
In Disgraced Jory’s husband cheats on her. Consider the additional injury caused when it is a White man cheating on his Black spouse with a (as the playwright describes) “lithe and lovely” White woman. Consider the age old injury and subsequent re-injury inflicted upon Black women in the audience.
The character Amir doesn’t believe it when Jory tells him their spouses were kissing and says the following:
Amir: First you steal my job and now you try to destroy my marriage. You’re fucking evil. After everything I’ve done for you.
In a subsequent monologue Amir unleashes more vitriol:
Amir: Were you ever the last one to leave? Cause if you were I didn’t see it. I still leave the office after you do. You think you’re the nigger here? I’m the nigger! Me!
Jory is verbally abused right after finding out her husband has had an affair. Again, does the fact that she’s Black make it easier for the audience to witness the abuse then ultimately turn their attention and empathy to the “lithe and lovely” Emily who committed the offense?
This is Jory’s response:
Jory: There’s something you should know. Your dear friend Mort is retiring. And guess who’s taking over his case load? Not you. Me. I asked him. “Why not Amir?” He said something about you being
duplicitous. That it’s why you’re such a good litigator. But that it’s impossible to trust you. Don’t believe me? Call Mort. Ask him yourself. Let me guess. He hasn’t been taking your calls?
Jory has tunnel vision at a moment when her whole world has been turned upside down. She is focused solely on the relationship with her co-worker and not her husband that has cheated on her and walked out the door. And Jory’s reaction doesn’t include how she feels about being called a Nigger. The character doesn’t get to express a range of emotion. Jory doesn’t
get to be human.
My mission isn’t simply to point out problems. I want to offer solutions. The Bedchel Test challenges filmmakers to write more compelling female characters by suggesting that a good
screenplay should include:
1) 2 women
2) talking to each other
3) about something other than a man
If a film doesn’t meet those standards then it has failed the Bedchel Test. 69% of IMBD top 250 films fail this test. I offer a similar test for writing minority characters in a play. These
are questions playwrights can consider:
What is your intention or purpose in including a minority character?
Do you want to tell their story?
Is diversity and inclusion a part of your overall mission as an artist?
Is your choice to include a minority character a shortcut or shorthand? In other words are you using the character as a scapegoat that enables your main character to avoid accountability for their actions?
Is the minority character strictly in service of the
White characters without serving any other purpose?
Have you spoken to or sought feedback from anyone who is from the ethnic group your character represents?
Are the minority characters given the same scope of humanity as the White characters?
Including a character of color might be a stride toward diversifying but with the choice there comes a responsibility. For what appears to be progressive can still be mired in ignorance and misdirection.
Writing outside of one’s own world view must include collaboration and input from that world view. The work will be better, more honest and it will hopefully move the conversation ahead.
Tania Richard is an actress, writer and teacher. Her work can be seen in her web series mom in real life and A Minute on Racism and she is co-host of the podcast Race Bait. She served as Cultural Consultant at The Theatre School at DePaul University for two productions. She also is the director of Improv Delivery: Improvisation Training for Professional.