As a straight, white woman, I think a lot about the right I do or do not hold to engage with and tell the stories I do, as a playwright, director, pedagogue and scholar. Nearly all of the plays I have written have Latino/a characters at the center; I have directed many plays about people with identity markers different from my own; I consciously choose to lead dramas with stories from cultures dissimilar from those in which I grew up; and my research focuses on how theatre teachers engage with children and communities different from their own. In the past, I was often asked questions about my artistic and scholarly focus and I continue to constantly ask myself about why I do the work I do.
I write plays with Latino/a themes and characters because that is what often calls to me. I grew up in New England and I studied to be a theatre teacher in Boston. After graduating from Emerson College, I moved to Laredo, a Texas city that borders Mexico, to teach high school theatre. I had never been to Texas and I knew no one in Laredo. All of my students were Latino/a and I felt at a loss, knowing few Latino plays and speaking no Spanish. I became immersed in the community there and my students and I started writing plays together—plays about their lives. I heard so many rich stories that were aching to be told and heard. When I left Laredo to go to graduate school, I realized the stories had followed me. I was teaching in schools in Austin with mostly Latino/a children. I noticed that few plays with Latino themes and characters were being produce in the city; when my students had the opportunity to see plays, they only saw stories about white characters most often played by white actors. More Latino characters and stories kept touching my heart and pulling at me to explore and share them. I write the plays I do because they come to me and ask to be told and I want children (like my Latina daughter) to see stage representations of people who look and sound like them.
We, yes now I include you, have not a right to tell stories that we may not consider our own, but I believe an obligation, a responsibility. As, if every artistic director of the larger TYA companies in the USA (almost all white, and predominantly male) were to only tell stories from their cultural perspectives, think of all of the children who would not be represented by our field. Whether it is in the plays we select, the artists we hire, the books we choose to dramatize, the examples we use, what we say and the way we speak both normalizes and marginalizes children and their families. We must work to move the marginalized out of the margin. Yes, we must continually guard against appropriation and nurture and promote the voices of marginalized people, but until we have a mass of such voices in our field in places of power (which is also critical work to be done by all of us), we must also respectfully and responsibly learn about and share stories that were not told to us when we were children, that require us to lean in and do research and feel uncomfortable when we are not the people in the room who know the most about what we are exploring. Initially, our objectives may be questioned, by ourselves, by our peers, and the communities we serve. My objectives have indeed sometimes been questioned, and I have to respect that challenge and constantly self-check.
The same (right and) responsibility to represent others must be offered to marginalized people as well. An African American playwright can write about characters other than African Americans. However, our playwrights of color are often expected to write only plays about their identity groups, and often there are expectations about what topics should be explored in those plays as well. Our playwrights of color are often having their work checked over and guided by white people who have fulltime jobs in regional theatres. Hence, these playwrights are oft asked to write to the lens of the mainstream white audiences that own, run and frequent TYA houses.
Alvaro Saar Rios, a playwright who is frequently commissioned to write TYA plays that reflect the Latino experience, recently shared his experiences with faculty and students at UT Austin. Many years ago, Alvaro was asked to write a bilingual play; he did. Then, he was asked to put more of it in English, then more and more, until there was “just a sprinkling of Spanish”. He wondered why he hadn’t been asked to write an English play with a couple of words of Spanish. Not only was the experience frustrating and time consuming, but it was also culturally insensitive and disrespectful. Alvaro explained that at the time, he did not realize that he could stand up for himself and for the young people for whom he was writing the play. Children readily lean in to something new, something with which they are not yet familiar. Asking someone to remove more and more of a part of their identity from their work is insulting, especially when they have been asked to put it on the page in the first place. It says, “we want you here”…”I mean we kind of want you here, if you are more legible to our white audience”. In a country that erases identities making some invisible, asking artists to replace their language with another, to overwrite their identity, is hurtful. I am sure no one meant to be hurtful in this situation, nor did they ever stop to think how it might be so.
That’s the problem. We have to stop and think. We have to take responsibility for what we don’t know, notice who’s not in the room, wonder what we don’t see, ask questions, shift our perspective, do things differently, learn. Below is a list of plays that everyone in our TYA world should know: La Ofrenda, Bud Not Buddy, Esperanza Rising, Alicia in Wonder Tierra, Amazing Grace, North Star, The Sun Serpent, Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans, the Transition of Doodle Pequeño, El Viaje de Beatriz, Barrio Grrrl. To name just a few. I hear again and again that companies are not producing plays of color as the plays are not out there. These plays are out there and they are not getting produced! If you haven’t already, check out Dramatic Publishing’s listing of plays by theme: http://www.dramaticpublishing.com/advanced_search_theme.php I look forward to working with you all to foster a field where every child can see their lives reflected on our stages—more than once a year. That is their right. That is our responsibility.