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.