I went to the theatre last night to see a play entitled “Big River.” The last time I went to the theatre on campus was to see “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” about a year ago. Both times the audience was overwhelmingly white. When I lived in Ohio I used to go to the opera from time to time, especially if they were putting on one of my favorites like “Aida.” There were not many black folks there as a general rule, as a matter of fact sometimes I was the only “raisin in the rice pudding” so to speak.
Big River is a musical adaptation of “Huck Finn”, music by Roger Miller of ” King of the Road” fame. The Playmakers did a great job with the play, the singing and dancing were marvelous and the acting was great. I had been engaged with this play earlier, meeting with the cast, at the request of Joe, the director, to discuss the fact that the play has the word nigger in it quite frequently. There had been an earlier meeting, which I had attended where they decided not to remove the word, something I agreed with entirely, but to produce the play with Twain’s words, including the word nigger.
The first thing I shared with the cast was that they needed to get comfortable with the word, use it when they were alone, or with someone they could trust, until it flowed off their tongues as if they had always said it. If they stumbled or were self-conscious with it, the audience would be uncomfortable as well. The cast did a great job, the word was slightly shocking the first time it was said, but later in the play the word was obviously in context of the time and not as jarring.
The director did a great job of putting a statement in the program about the word, which he, unfortunately, called the N word. The play is about a black slave and a white boy who have an adventure. So why were there only about 25 black students, faculty, staff and community members there?
I can speculate, but I am more comfortable talking about what I know rather than what I can guess. If there are no black people there, or only a few, they are not there because they do not feel welcome. Black people are very diverse, we like opera, theatre, Shakespeare, classical music, NASCAR, Blue Grass music, bagpipe music, soccer, hockey, curling, gymnastics, French cooking, you name it and there are at least a few black folks that like it. Sometimes I have to shake my head and wonder why, but they do exist.
If blacks are not in anything it is because there is some barrier to their participation. Whether the barrier is real or imagined is another matter. Perhaps we do not feel welcome due to some hypersensitivity sometimes, but then as one of my colleagues used to say ” If you have a puppy who pees on your shoes every time you come home, it is going to be a long time before you wear your good suede shoes in front of him!” I have had the opportunity (?) to know a lot of white people, most of whom have been fine folks and treated me like a piece of Jesus. But, I am not sure my experiences are typical of most blacks for a variety of reasons.
I get asked frequently how to increase participation, attendance, etc., of people of color to various events, programs, performances, etc. but it is not a simply matter to convince people who are used to being turned away, either literally or by the attitudes of the other attendees, that they should risk being hurt to attend some of these things. I, on the other hand, having been born positive that I am the center of the universe, consider anyone who does not appreciate the glory that is me, to be unfortunately handicapped with the dread disease of no taste.
So, if I got to a venue and the people there are not fond of me, not glad to see me or downright hostile, unless they are brandishing pitchforks and carrying torches, I frankly do not care. They are not giving me money, paying my mortgage or buying me designer shoes. If they do not want my company that is their right, and their loss.
When people ask me why black folks do not come to something I truly want to tell them the truth: You have not made them feel included, valued, wanted and/or welcome. It is that simple. For three hundred odd years America did not mean people like me when she hung up a sign that said “All are welcome.” If the laws guaranteeing I am at least legally welcome in public venues is less than 50 years old is it any surprise that we might not be sure we will be greeted with grins and hugs?
If you want black people to come you have to market and program so that it says very clearly, ” Yeah, we mean YOU too!”
Otherwise I will continue to go to some things and count brown and black faces and shake my head in dismay.