I am a white playwright and actor, and I have benefited greatly from white supremacy as it has shown itself in The American The-ah-tah.
I write this first because it’s not a truth that I held for myself the whole time I’ve been acting and writing. I’ve had other things to overcome. I am gay, and not like that football player or The Bachelor guy. I light up when discussing Angela Lansbury’s work. I did modern dance in college. I have a tongue-thrusting lisp. (As opposed to a lateral lisp, made most famous by Sylvester the cat and Carol Channing. See. So gay.) I was also born into a lower socio-economic status. For many years, I would rail against the system that made it so much easier for rich straight dudes, or straight-passing dudes to succeed. I was also able to see clearly that it was harder for women to succeed. And I openly railed against that too. But I never stopped and t looked around to say, “Hey, Theater! How come so many white people all the time, every time, on all the jobs?” Because that part of the system? That part benefitted me.
Some of it is ego, ultimately. I worked hard for the career I have. I show up. I do a good job in shows. I learn my stuff. I nail my jokes. I’m usually easy to work with, unless I don’t eat snacks. If I don’t eat snacks, I get cranky. If I get cranky, things can turn south quickly. My husband is often subtly or not so subtly offering me snacks when I’ve turned sour. But I digress. My point is that if I started to examine the unbearable whiteness of theatre I’d have to acknowledge that the system is rigged against Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and AAPI actors, which means it’s rigged in my favor. I’d have to acknowledge that my hard work was aided and abetted by a system that defaults to my skin color. Would I have booked my first equity gig, Spamalot, if the character I played wasn’t assumed to be white? Would I have the career I have if not for a stacked deck? These are uncomfortable questions that I tacitly avoided asking.
But the overall reason I didn’t question the system that favors whiteness is because for many years my friend group was almost completely white. I didn’t have enough non-white people in my life who felt close enough with me to share what was happening. And lord knows, I didn’t ask. I did show after show with all white casts and never thought anything of it. If the show I was in had multiple POC in the cast, I wouldn’t think to consider how rare that was. I honestly wasn’t thinking about the system in which I was working. I was thinking about getting my next job. This is a failure on my part. I try not to wallow in shame about it because that feels like a waste of time. What I am trying to do is to change the way I think, and more than that, the way I act.
I’m trying to do it in non-performative ways. (He says while writing an article that will be shared publicly.) Actually, let’s bring this thought of perfomativity—not a word, Steven—out of the parenthetical and into the main body of this paragraph. When I say non-performative ways, I don’t mean keeping my new actions private. Instead, I boil it down to what I expect to happen when I perform. When I perform onstage, I expect attention to be paid to me, and I expect mother-f’ing applause. So, if I’m doing things in a non-performative way, I am trying to publicly and substantially change my behaviors but not expect a parade in my honor about it. I am trying to take the bow and the applause out of the equation. Does that make sense? It’s a new needle to thread for me, and I am a natural-born performer, whether it be on screen, stage, social media, or at your dinner table...I’ve got bits...and jokes...and exit lines. Sometimes I exit after making a joke because I know the joke is so good, but then I have nowhere to go, so I just exit and then come back in the room. It’s pathological, honestly.
So, how to take actions in non-performative ways? One example: Two years back, I was working on a show with an actor who began to complain about how hard it was to find work as a woman closing in on forty. I was completely on board for this conversation. As a playwright, I make sure to write complex, challenging roles for women over forty, so I was nodding and agreeing left and right. And then she said, “I mean if you’re white, then forget about it.”
A feeling of dread crept into my body because this was the thing. This was the thing where you need to tell someone that they’re engaging in the upholding of white supremacy. This is where you need to challenge your co-worker’s implicit racism and possibly alienate them. This is where if you’re an ally to BIPOC people, and you’re in a solely white space, and someone does a racism, you take action. And more than any of that, the worst part was that this could make things uncomfortable.
I’m an addict and an alcoholic in recovery. Addicts would sooner chop off our own arm and set ourselves on fire than be uncomfortable. Trauma I can deal with. This pandemic has been one of my most creatively fruitful times. If someone’s died, I know how to proceed. I know how to burn my life to the ground and start over. But being uncomfortable? At lunch? No. No, thank you. No.
I took a deep breath. I summoned up every bit of social courage I have, and I said, “What do you mean by that?” She said, “By what?” I said, “You said that if you’re white, forget about it.” She said, “In New York, the only people getting hired are Black or Asian or Latino.” Well, now I was in it. I said, “Do you think that’s possibly true? I mean, I feel like casts are still predominantly white.” And then we were in the middle of a tense conversation that lasted several minutes and led us to her accusing me of accusing her of being a racist. I didn’t say she was wrong. I just said, “I feel like you’re upholding the notion of white supremacy because casting people of color to get to a more realistic representation of the country as a whole isn’t the same as saying you can’t get hired if you’re white. You’re in this job right now. And you’re the lead. And my guess is they didn’t see anyone but white people for this role.” She got a text and “had to take it.” Our lunch ended, and we rarely spoke beyond hellos for the rest of the contract.
I’m writing this down because that is one time I did the right thing. I have done it a few other times, but mostly, I’ve let things slide. Some friends of mine, people I love, say shit like this all the time. I’ve pushed back sometimes but not others. I’ve looked past these moments in favor of being nice, of being polite, of being supportive to the feelings of failure that must be at the root of these statements. I can’t do it anymore. I need to get and stay uncomfortable. If I find myself in all-white spaces and hear this noise, I need to shut it down. I need to support non-white actors and writers in all spaces and all times.
Today, I have a social group that is no longer just white. I spend time listening to people who have lived a different truth in this country and in this business. It spurs me to do more. To do better. But I don’t do it perfectly. Not even close. I recently added to the casting notices of all my plays: “There is no justifiable reason for the cast of this show to be all white.” But then I deleted it and replaced it with a watered-down version. I fail at making spaces safer for non- white folks all the time. I will do better. Excuse me while I go put back that statement in all of my plays.
Steven Strafford is an actor and playwright. His work has been seen on stages across the country. His essay, "College Dreams" is featured in the book The Anatomy of Silence.