Monday, September 04, 2006

To be and not be: The play is the thing

Who can you speak for? How can you speak about other people? How can you speak about other people when their experiences are marked by forms of oppression, such as racism, sexism and heterosexism that you don't share?

These are familiar questions from the age of identity politics. That age which had a hey-day in the 1980s and 90s may seem to be over. The rise of queer thought and theory, the deconstruction of race and gender, all reveal that identity is much more fluid than it seemed. Yet identities marked by oppression still deserve special consideration, however we understand them: socially constructed or biological, embraced or rejected.

One of the questions that remains is how to give voice to marginalized experience without presuming to speak for or appearing to speak authoritatively about those positions when one does not share the same marginalization. "How same must one be" is a related issue, but that begs the question (in the logical sense) of whether we must be the same, and whether we can be the same. Clearly full identity is never possible (even playing oneself involves pretending to a lost youth!), but how do we negotiate sensitive differences?

The issues of sameness and playing another person, are central to theatre. On stage, identities are always assumed. So, the problems of assuming "voice", that is speaking authoritatively from a particular personal and social position, have a particular urgency. How can a straight person play gay? man play woman? white play black?

J. Kelly Nestruck argues in "Playing it Safe" from the last issue of This Magazine (for those of you in the U.S., it's a Canadian analogue to Mother Jones) argues that such issues are killing radical political theatre. Notably, the native Canadian playwrite Tomson Highway will no longer pen dramas, but stick to monologic fiction. Moving away from a format that requires representative voices is needed because theatres shy away from scripts if they don't have a cast who share the marginalized experiences of the characters. Having native characters without adequate numbers of native actors entails shelved rather than performed plays.

Of course, dramatists have strategies for avoiding the "voice" conundrum. Instead of a performance, a reading may be put on, as Windsor Feminist Theatre attempted to do this summer with Ntozake Shange's choreopoem "For colored girls who've considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf". Yet avoiding the polish of a full performance can give the impression of disrespect, and of inattention, when quite the opposite is the case. Impressions, one might think, can be tutored by program notes, but these too can fail to be read or understood.

The misunderstanding has created a lot of discussion. Perhaps that is all one could really hope for. Yet I fear that this is a truly a harbinger of the death of radical theatre, as Nestruck suggests. Losing that creative and imaginative space seems very dangerous for feminism, and other social justice movements.


Scot MacLean said...

Catherine, what a thought provoking blog entry! My sense of the general question is how can we understand others? Or perhaps, can we have “true” understanding of others as they may understand or experience themselves?

In some cases it may be that a thinker’s belief that they understand the role and experience of the other places the thinker at greater risk of misunderstanding than if they are trying to understand the experience of another whom they believe they have very little in common. For example a black female, might be more likely to think “how can I understand this person’s experience” when approaching the role of a white male, vs playing a black female. Or in other words is the actor more likely to put more thought into how to understand a role of a person perceived as very different?

I am using black and white, male and female here only as an example, as there are myriad number of possible differences one could contemplate in considering the question.

Also when one approaches understanding the experience of a different other one may be more aware of one’s own experience bubbling up in the portrayal. These self elements may be easier to identify and then can be considered and used; amplified, de-emphasized, refined, or even discussed with the other or the audience.

Another perspective is that the perception of differences and sameness can be misleading – one who perceives another as similar is often surprised at the differences he or she will find if greater understanding is achieved and similarly one who perceives another as more different is often surprised to learn of similarities.

My belief is that the important function or process is really self examination of one’s perception (am I similar, or am I different?) and questioning one’s initial perceptions, and entering into any attempt of understanding the other with this sense of self awareness.


Anonymous said...

Hi Catherine,

I'm not in your league on these matters, but I wonder what is your take on the influence of family on one's sense of identity.

Not just genes or the conditioning of one's immediate family but the idea of 'belonging' to something wide geographically and historically.

I ask because I am a Hundleby too and that is enough to stimulate my interest in what you have to say.

Best wishes,

Roger Hundleby (Lincoln UK)

Catherine Hundleby said...

Scot: Thanks for your post!! Sorry it took me so long to respond... I think you are right that self-examination is part of the value of theatre, and it almost inevitably accrues to the performer. Hopefully, the audience and other parties are drawn to reflect on themselves too, but that is less predictable since they are not directly required to assume another persona.

So, this takes us to the question of how self-examination contributes to political advancement. The ancient Greeks certainly thought it important to "know thyself" but I take it that was more about moral integrity than political progress. I'd like to think that the kind of self-awareness encouraged by radical theatre fosters productive social change.

Catherine Hundleby said...

Roger: How lovely to meet you in cyberspace! Thanks for your post.

I think names are a very important part of identity. For instance, I don't let my students call me "Miss," for which I have a long list of reasons; and I am proud to call myself "feminist," despite the fact that the term is often misunderstood.

I also am proud to be a Hundleby, although I'm not sure exactly what that means beyond a lineage tracing back to a village in Lincolnshire. Certainly, my dad's (John in Guelph, Canada) done extensive geneological research and I assisted a bit, I do know of the upcoming Hundleby reunion, and I know the etymology is from "Hundolf's by."

However, I grew up in Canada quite distant from my extended family: both the Hundlebys in the UK, and in the Neumanns and Steubers in the USA. So, for me personally, extended family is more a romantic than a practical notion.

And that romance is limited. My scepticism about the significance of family name may be influenced by my being a woman, which means I have no uniquely strong association with my patrilineage. Admittedly, I absolutely would not change my name should I marry. On the other hand, I considered at one point changing my middle name -- or even my surname! -- to my mother's maiden name. (I was reassured that my middle name "Elisabeth" reflects the Steuber lineage.)

So, while I'm thrilled to hear from you on this blog, I'm also thrilled to learn that there is a movement to develop archives of the disappearing language known as Texas German which was spoken in my mother's community. I also maintain that family is created as much as found. This is part of the value of both the reunion and the language preservation. Yet, it emphasizes the value of communities that look to the future rather than just the past.