You Need to Blacken Up

I knew it was gonna come up sooner or later.

I'm a white guy (one of the whitest, if you go by pigment -- you shoulda seen me as a kid), directing a black musical about a black guy struggling with the black experience, and written by a black guy about his own life. That this might occasionally be an issue was definitely a consideration when I decided to produce Passing Strange. But I figured I've directed shows about Argentine political prisoners, women murderers, Texas prostitutes, teenage spree killers, French painters, and a German transsexual, so I'm pretty good at getting inside characters and worlds that are nothing like my own life. Still, that said, this arguable liability of mine popped up at rehearsal last night. First a little backstory.

I love the original production of Passing Strange. But as I started work on the show, I realized I didn't want to approach it in exactly the same way. The original show was equal parts rock concert and theatre piece, largely because the writers and their band were a part of the original production. But as I did with Return to the Forbidden Planet, which had a similar original production, I wanted to approach this show more as a full-throated theatre piece. I knew that the incredible quality of the script and score would stand up dramatically. And though a few moments in our production will be pretty much like the original, other parts will be really different. As much as I loved the style of the original, there were a few parts that really didn't work for me, moments that yanked me out of the world of the story for an easy laugh.

One of those moments was when we meet Edwin Williams, "teenage goddess." The way they played her in the original production was very cartoony. And it was funny, no question. But that moment -- which is key to beginning the Youth's journey -- lost the weight it should have had as an instigating incident. There are three incidents early on in which the Youth is at odds with his world in a fundamental way. The first is in church when he has a meaningful epiphany and is slapped by his mother for it. The second is when he meets Edwina and she demands a conforming, middle-class future from him. The third is when his garage band breaks up. These three experiences send him off on his journey.

Two of those three moments were treated seriously in the original production. Edwina wasn't. She was an outrageous cartoon. Like I said, it was funny, but the scene became a joke instead of a turning point for our hero. So when we started blocking that scene, I asked Andrea, who's playing Edwina, to not play her as a cartoon. I know that's always hard for an actor, when I ask them to go in a completely different direction than they expected, but god bless her, she was totally open to it. I think she wasn't sure exactly how to accomplish that but she was willing to try.

Tonight we ran Act I, and afterward, I was giving some general notes, explaining some things, stuff like that. And Andrea asked me about Edwina. She had played her much more subtle and real tonight. I told her I liked the direction she was going but I needed more aggressiveness and more control-freak from her. And she told me she was having problems bringing the character down from cartoon into something that felt right to her. And that started a long and really interesting conversation...

The black women in the room were telling me that there really are women like the more exaggerated Edwina, and that bringing her down was making her less real. I admitted, not being part of the black community, that they knew this world far better than I do. In fact, that's part of why I felt I could take this show on -- I could contribute what I know about theatre and our all-black cast would contribute what they know about living the black experience in America. I told Andrea she could go in any of a dozen directions with Edwina, whatever she thought made sense, as long as she wasn't a caricature.

At one point, I don't think we were making sense to each other. The women in the room were essentially trying to tell me that some black women like Edwina really are caricatures. And that's when I realized it was as much a language problem as a conceptual problem. When I use the word caricature I mean something that exaggerates or distorts something to emphasize one feature or trait and diminish the others. Caricatures don't really work in the theatre because the distortion keeps the audience from identifying with them and believing in them (which is why I think shows like Silence! fail as theatre). Caricature is by definition not truthful, since it distorts in order to choose one element over another. But I think what the women meant by caricature is just someone who's much bigger and more expressive than normal. And that take on Edwina makes sense to me.

So I made the admittedly subtle distinction -- but one that I think is at the core of the show's story -- between, on the one hand, a person who "performs" their life, who wears a mask of sorts in front of others, who doesn't show the world their true self (many celebrities and politicians are like that, which is why people are surprised when they meet celebrities or politicians who don't do that and they "seem so real"); versus, on the other hand, an actor giving a cartoony, untruthful performance on stage. If part of a character's personality is that they "perform" their life (as many characters in this show do, including everyone at the Nowhaus and arguably also Edwina), then the actor has to portray truthfully that real person who "performs" for the world, but they also have to portray that act of performing, as well as what's underneath that this character needs to hide behind their performance, when that character might drop the performance, whether that performance is obvious or invisible to the rest of the world, etc. That's a tall order for Edwina, since she lives on stage for only about one page. Still I think it's a goal worth pursuing.

As I write this, I realize that we see actors walk this artistic tightrope really effectively in the movie Pleasantville. The tension in town is between those who continue the facade, who continue to perform their lives (in black and white), versus those who have dropped the performance, the pretense, to become more fully authentic people (in color). In a way, it's almost like the residents of Pleasantville morph from characters into people as the story progresses. The story offers up commentary on the way America changed from the 1950s, when a facade was normal, even expected, to the 1960s, when a facade was considered phony. I think this goes to why conservatives and liberals react so differently to Sarah Palin -- she's all performance, all mask, all facade. But conservatives see that as normal -- "real" -- while liberals see it as phony.

Anyway, I finally told Andrea that she knows who Edwina is better than I ever will, and that I won't impose on her any details about what Edwina should sound or act like. But what I ask for is truthfulness. Whatever the truth is about who she is, that's what I want on stage. I felt like the actor in the original production was commenting on the character with her performance, like the actor felt superior to Edwina. I'd rather we get out of the way of this wonderful, rich, truthful character who only lasts a page in the script but helps set everything in motion.

Andrea's been awesome to work with -- and her Marianna is already very cool, very interesting -- so I know what she arrives at with Edwina will be wonderful. But it did remind me that this is different from other shows for me, in that I can't really research this world, but my actors know it well. And we've got really great actors in this show. They're going to find so many wonderful little truthful moments.

Hopefully, I've been clearer now and Andrea will have an easier road ahead. We block Act II next week, then put the pieces together and start sculpting it...

I so love this show.

Long Live the Musical!