Joining me for the discussion “Writing Race for Television and the Stage” were Walter Allen Bennett, Jr., whose credits include writing for The Cosby Show and 704 Hauser Street, and executive producing The Steve Harvey Show and Ralph Remington, a director-producer who has served as a Director at the National Endowment for the Arts and an Assistant Executive Director of Actors’ Equity who also founded the Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis where he staged such shows as The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (by Lorraine Hansberry) and Streetcar Named Desire (by Tennessee Williams).
We discussed the lack of variety in the types of African American characters who populate our stages and screens and the need for more and more unique stories to be told so that the stereotypes can be broken in the next generation. We also tried to address the ways writers of all colors can write about characters of all colors respectfully. The audience was highly moved by the spirituality of the play and wanted to know more about the small number of Jewish slaveholders in the south –what happened to their slaves and their faith after the Civil War ended and, particularly, why people who praised Moses for bringing their ancestors out of slavery would ever maintain the practice themselves. That’s when I knew that our education system is failing in this area because no one realized the deep financial need for accepting and adapting to that labor system if one wanted to be wealthy as a Southerner.
Later in the discussion the cast joined us on stage as well. With Charlie Robinson, who played Simon (and once guest starred on Touched by an Angel) we discussed the deep research he conducted to create the role of a slave steeped in Judaism and the quality of roles available to African Americans and the difficulty in choosing well to build a career. He made some jokes about his earlier work in Night Court and we ran out of time before I could remind him that on that program all the characters were equally comical so his clerk was not merely there to create laughs. I then asked Adam Hass Hunter, who played Caleb the Jewish Confederate soldier dying of gangrene how much true history of slavery had been taught to him in his K-12 public school education as a child in Kentucky. As expected, he had no real memories of ever being taught the truth about slavery and had to conduct similar research.
Before the play we all met with the Associate Artistic Director of the Playhouse, Seema Sueko and had a great time discussing the status of the industry (television) and our individual histories of involvement with the play A Raisin in the Sun, which we had all worked on at some point in our careers. We also chatted about how ‘white’ writers can avoid knowing anything about African American history and still survive in an artistic world but African Americans must know about mainstream history in order to work. I was reminded of the TED Talk by Chimimanda Adiche on “The Dangers of a Single Story” that I share with my MFA screenwriting students.
Thanks to Victor Vasquez, the Community Organizer, for inviting me and to my various students who came out to attend the show and join in the discussion.