I would like to believe that I was raised right. Racism was not something I recall existing in my home growing up. That isn’t to say racism didn’t exist around me during my childhood in Billings, Montana. Even with the African American population in Billings being at around .8%, I do vividly remember the kids on the playground in 2nd or 3rd grade telling racist jokes about black people. Jokes that, quite honestly, I didn’t get at the time. As far as I remember, the degrading of a person or group of people was simply not something my parents did, either in the home or anywhere else.
Though, while I don’t believe myself a racist, I’m far from being angelically devoid of prejudice.
In playing Jeremiah, what I needed to do was find some form of prejudice within me: where have I held a bias toward a group of people that I felt strongly justified in yet that tipped over into the irrational?
My husband and I were having dinner with some good friends of ours one evening a couple years ago, a married couple, lovely, compassionate, wonderful people, both to us and each other.
Then, in mid conversation, they mentioned that they were Born Again Christians.
My gay brain reared up and defenses went to Defcon 4. They just admitted that they were this “thing” of bigotry and hate. Members of a group responsible for a history of oppression and “spiritual violence” against the LGBT community. A part of all levels of oppression from casual, polite, cable news debates about the kind of person I am – if I should be allowed to teach children, whether I want to destroy marriage, etc. – to bigoted legislation legalizing discrimination toward me. All with the conviction of the bible in their hand and “God” on their side.
Except they weren’t. They absolutely weren’t .
They are anything but.
They are Born Again Christians meaning they find their way to love God more is by accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. For them, their relationship with God and Jesus was not in conflict with their relationship with us.
Yet, in that moment – for me – it was.
Suddenly I was faced with my own bigotry, my knee-jerk defensive reaction to categorize people without knowing or wanting to know them personally, to put them in a box and set that box far away from me, to rob them of the right to define themselves, to take their label, assign my own meaning to it, and then judge them on that meaning.
This “justified” defensive stance against a group of people perceived as a threat is the emotional life I was looking for.
Where does this prejudice (along with the anger and grief of loss) live in my body? How does it affect my density or the density of the air around me? These and other actor tools are what I used to fill the character of Jeremiah.
The racial slurs on the page were not the character. They were the colors given to me to paint with by Alison and Caleb. The emotional life within myself is the brush I used to paint.
And the colors were severe indeed.
The full extent of Jeremiah’s vileness is put on full display with his penultimate scene where he sings “The Lynching Song.”
Sung in a barber shop quartet style with lyrics including, “call us a clan / but we’re just Americans / with a cleansing on our minds,” Jeremiah is at the point in his story where he feels he’s nearly won. This “Kill the Beast” song becomes more of a pep rally celebration as he riles up the residents down at the local pub, stirring their fears about the now-freed black population. The juxtaposition and dissonance of the horribly disturbing lyrics alongside the light hearted, ear-worm melody were completely intentional. It’s not a song to enjoy. It’s a song to provoke strong feelings toward Jeremiah, demonstrating the level of depravity the protagonists of Joshua and Cyrus were up against.
Yet, for some, I was a white man standing in front of an overcrowded room slinging racial slurs and singing about lynching black people. Every time the n-word would come out of my mouth, I saw it hit the room, some reacting as if the word and it’s weight had actually physically struck them.
After a performance, one audience member cornered Alison.
“That song was disgusting, and you are sick, horrible people for writing it! The black people in your show should be ashamed of supporting it! This show will never make it to Broadway!
“Two white kids have no business writing about issues of that nature!”
This was an honest, passionate reaction to the work we had presented. It was not the reaction, in truth, that we were hoping for, but it was truthful for that person. And his was not the only reaction of that kind (though his may have been the most aggressive).
It would have been disingenuous to write a story centered around an interracial relationship in the late 1800’s without the conflict of racism.
Conversely, there will always be those who, as audience members, will be taken out of a story when a character reveals their racism and bigotry, even in a story centered around racism and bigotry. There are those who are taken out of shows like Cabaret and the Sound of Music because the story includes characters who are Nazi’s and display the Third Reich Swastika despite the necessity of those elements in the story. These people are not wrong for being taken out of the story because of these things. This is just their truth in that moment.
I haven’t and don’t know if I ever will watch the movies Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, World Trade Center, or Flight 93, and I don’t watch any programming having to do with 9/11 when the anniversary rolls around. Not that I think they’re bad movies or programming in poor taste. I, like these people who are taken out of the story because of certain elements, am not ready. I’m not able to take in stories involving the collapse of the Twin Towers. I’m not able to have that conversation because it’s still such a gut wrenching, traumatic subject for me. That is my truth in this moment.
Yet, without writing the aggressive audience member’s honest feelings off, of course I disagree with the idea that “two white kids have no business writing about issues of that nature!”
In an interview with Charlie Rose, author Toni Morrison said, “Yes, I can write about white people. White people can write about black people. Anything can happen in art. There are no boundaries there. Having to do it, or having to prove that I can do it, is what was embarrassing and insulting.”
Artists need to write, read, watch, and explore issues of this nature. We need to because so much of the rest of society doesn’t. We need to because, in America, we continue to be plagued by the sins of our fathers due in great part that we don’t know or refuse to acknowledge what those sins are.