Tweak Me: Whitewashing, Theatre, And Writing About Writing About Race

Tweek South Park

I’ll make this short-ish and sweet, because I’m in a hurry, and I truly believe that when dealing with sensitive issues it’s very important to blast the thing out and never proof-read.

So about a month a half ago I was on a boat. This is important because it’s important that you know my life involves boats, therefore making me a fancy playboy or a Norwegian handcream ad. I was talking to a friend of mine, a fellow theatre practitioner, about our various interests, and I was saying that I felt I had a bit of a blind spot about race. I’ve striven to represent many things in my writing to date: good female characters, issues of ageing, sexuality and disability, and of course the word ‘striven’.

My friend’s response was that we should be inspired by what we’re inspired by, and you can’t force inspiration. My response was “well of COURSE I can”, coming from the point of view that I like to pump out about ten pieces of new work a year, and that inspiration comes from falling down Wikipedia rabbit holes rather than just exploring the things I already like.

Anyway, we then got really drunk so I don’t remember much after that.

The point is, several weeks later (aka about a month ago), I was looking at the various “hey would you like to write something for free hey EXPOSURE” London play nights – which I do actually like, because I like writing fast and as mentioned not looking back – and spotted one with a theatre company called Director’s Cut.

I considered not naming them in this post, but sure let’s see what happens.

Their show was called ‘Drafts’, and the program was to be short plays that took the format of ‘the email that you drafted, and the email that you sent’. I thought it was a nice idea, something started snowballing a little in my head, so the morning of the deadline I got up and just blasted out a ten minute piece.

The play, ‘A to Z’, was about two women who were reconnecting after having taken divergent paths after secondary school — one had fallen on hard times after a broken marriage and had two kids struggling to get by, the other had gone on to “make something herself” and married the other’s ex-boyfriend. They drafted their emails, but then there were the ones they actually sent. I thought it was a nifty little idea, so I sent it off.

Directors Cut seemed to like the idea as well, because they accepted it into the festival.

I should mention at this point that the two characters were named Alison and Zahara (hence ‘A to Z’). Part of their background was that Zahara had immigrated in the eighties, at the height of ‘Feed The World’ mania, so Alison had shielded her from some Bono-fuelled bullying — then watched as Zahara outpaced her in every area of her life (or so she thinks). The script’s here, if you want to have a look.

I was nicely excited about being part of the festival – I’d done Theatre 503 and Pensive Federation stuff before and it’s a nice way to just throw work at the wall and see what sticks. They sent me a note from their script editor just saying that it was good but maybe could be shortened a little, something I thought I’d leave until seeing a reading to see what could go.

On the Monday of the initial rehearsal week, I got a lovely introductory email from the head of the festival to the director, the two actresses, and myself. I immediately responded with many exclamation marks because I’m a cretin, and ran off to work. Only later that day did I check my email, click on the link to the actresses’ Spotlight accounts, and think:

“Wow, those women are white. That’s interesting.”

I felt awful that there’d been some sort of mistake, that I hadn’t flagged Zahara’s race enough. Because the script, if you take a look, isn’t about Zahara being black, or Alison being white, but it does help to shade out their relationship. I immediately emailed the head of the festival to tell her, apologizing if it wasn’t made clear enough, and hoping there’d be time to rectify the casting in time for the festival. Or steadying myself in case it’d have to be pulled.

It honestly never occurred to me that there would be a third option.

I received an email back apologizing that they’d missed this information, but explaining that they would not be able to find anyone to fill the role by that Saturday for the first read-through. However, what they did suggest — and I’m using the exact phrase here — were some “tweaks” that could be made to the script so that Zahara was no longer black.

I kind of just sat at my laptop and laughed, in the same way that one might at a loved one’s funeral or during a bank robbery. Was this really their suggestion?

I dropped a polite email back saying I didn’t think it was appropriate, and then emailed the director, hoping she might know someone to fill the gap (though I was already feeling a bit sour about the festival at this point). Again, I got a similar email back, with the same phrasing – “tweak” yourself to a white new you.

This did piss me off, but I gave one last polite email a try — had they tried scrambling for other actresses? Why didn’t they spot this when some of the “tweaks” they suggested were about the character’s name? — but got one last, quite long email.

I should at this point say that in hindsight I do understand why this happened. Small companies are under pressure, doing free shows with unpaid characters and difficult overheads — I don’t think there was any malice in this. But as I said in my emails, the option of whitewashing the piece should never have come up. We have to stop putting that option on the table, because other writers looking for a bit of exposure will take it.

This last, long email — from their casting person — assured me that after many years of casting she had never met an older black actress, and as such it would be impossible to find anyone in time. The implicit statement, of course, was that they hadn’t looked, so I then unleashed the kraken, although as a polite Irishman my kraken wears a bow tie and says “fudge” a lot.

I explained that I found it disappointing that at the fringe level of theatre, where diversity should be valued before it’s chipped away by the “market”, it’s wrong to think of black characters as something that can be ditched when time gets tight. I also said that I was very sad about it partially because Zahara’s race was an aspect of her character, and not the subject of the play. I believe that writing polemics about “issues” can do a lot of good work, but also seeing characters just living and doing and being informed by — but not defined by — their race can be a really healthy way to tell stories.

Look, my play isn’t going to change anyone’s life. But I liked the characters and I respected them enough to say a firm no.

I got an email back saying they found my comments disingenuous, and that was that.

As I mentioned, I don’t think there was any malice in this exchange, but it left me laughing and a little sad at the what the fuckery of it all.

So I felt compelled to write this, and saying who was involved, because everyone is very good at saying that racism and sexism and ageism are rife in the entertainment industry — but their deep, heartfelt passion seems to stop at naming any names.

I was reminded of that this week when the director of ‘Iron Man 3’ puppy-whined that he’d had to make the villain of the film a man instead of woman. Everyone seemed to gasp and feel outraged and failed to ask two questions: ‘Why didn’t you say fuck off I’m the director?’ and ‘Could you please name the person who told you to do this?’

If we don’t do the first and the second, then we’re all just farting into hot air balloons and bitching when the damn thing doesn’t take off.

Which is a spectacularly awkward image on which to end this blog post, but I’ve got some writing to do.

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About alfla

Playwright, screenwriter, sometime improv enthusiast and full-time television lover. You know, in THAT way.
This entry was posted in Sober Thoughts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Tweak Me: Whitewashing, Theatre, And Writing About Writing About Race

  1. Laidig says:

    In the entirety of London, this casting person had never met an older black actress? I call bollocks on that. Huge ones.

  2. Astonishing. My immediate response as a producer is that if there truly were no Black actresses of the right age available (which I doubt) then I would have gone for a younger, Black actress of which there are certainly many thank goodness. After all, if Judi Dench can play Titania and Maxine Peake can play Hamlet then anything goes! It’s only a rehearsed reading anyway.

  3. Rick says:

    Astounding but then I remember some of my own and friends dealings with small theatres – theatre 503 never even bothered paying the writer – and it’s not surprising. I think a lot of it is a complete lack of talent, sadly.

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