Thursday, February 19, 2009

Talking about race

In a speech yesterday at the Justice Department to mark Black History Month, our new attorney general, Eric Holder, said that Americans - black and white - simply don't talk to each other enough about race.

While blacks and whites are integrated in many sectors, such as the workplace, we're still too segregated in our free time. "Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not in some ways differ significantly from the country that existed almost 50 years ago," Holder said. "This is truly sad."

He's right, it is sad. And that quote made me think about my experience at A Raisin in the Sun at Trinity Repertory Company on a Sunday afternoon earlier this month.

For most of the play's nearly three hours, we're watching African-American actors tell the story of a working-class black family in Chicago in the 1950s. The lone white actor in the cast is on stage for only two scenes.

I found the play so absorbing that when the lights came on at the end of Act I, it was a little startling to look around and see that the audience in the sold-out theatre was almost entirely white. Once I got to the lobby, I realized that the crowd was more diverse but not by much.

I'm not criticizing anyone. I'm sure Trinity Rep has a community outreach program. I know it offers matinees for school groups through Project Discovery that attract students of all races and backgrounds. And there have probably been other performances that drew a larger percentage of African-Americans.

And it's not that I think black people have an obligation to come support this show. We should all be interested in hearing each other's stories as well as our own.

Unfortunately, I think there's still a misconception that theatre is somehow special - it's not for everyone. In my two years of regular theatergoing I've noticed that audiences tend to skew white and older.

A Raisin in the Sun is so relevant and compelling 50 years after its debut on Broadway and this is a fine production. It's a play about the dreams and struggles of a family that should resonate with everyone. I had hoped it would bring black and white theatergoers together for a shared experience.

Theatre especially is perfect for that role because the actors are right there in front of you. If you're in a small venue, it's a much more intimate experience than watching a movie or sitting on the couch at home watching television. And Trinity Rep has talkbacks for the audience after every performance where a staff member leads a discussion about the show.

That shared experience, as the attorney general said, is one we all need.


Amanda said...

It's funny, because growing up in South Carolina where 75% of my classmates were black, I never even noticed there was a difference between white and black people. I hung out with both races indiscriminately. Once we moved to San Antonio, 95% of my classmates were hispanic, and there, I was the one people were prejudiced against. All my friends were hispanic. I guess I never understood the race thing. I think growing up the way I did helped, but I still, when I look at someone, don't see their race, especially if they are hispanic. I oftentimes can't tell the difference between hispanic and white people, and I don't understand the stereotypes people carry with them.

Esther said...

Thanks for your input as always, Amanda. Even more than high school or college, the workplace has been the place where I've developed the most diverse group of friendships, people I see socially as well as in the office. I just wish that theatre, which tells so many compelling, diverse stories, can be a force for bringing people together on a weekend afternoon.

Dale said...

I expected in going to see The Color Purple last night here in Toronto that the majority of the audience would be black but it wasn't by half. Again, I'm not working hard enough to correct things! :-)

Esther said...

Dale, get on it buddy! ;-)

Yeah, it'll be interesting to see what the mix is when the tour comes here. I'm assuming it'll be more diverse. On Broadway, I think "The Color Purple" did attract a sizable number of African-American theatergoers. And the performing arts center that hosts the Broadway tours does a good job with group sales, etc. Plus, it's a musical and it has the Oprah connection.

And like I said, it may just be that the audience at the performance of "A Raisin in the Sun" that I attended was one of the least diverse. It's running for more than a month.