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Leaving Scottsboro

Updated: Aug 3, 2019

Like many (most?) white people, I haven’t spent much of my life thinking about being white. I grew up in a small, almost entirely white town in New England and had little occasion to notice my skin color. When I went to college, I was aware of the diversity around me, but I really didn’t consider my own whiteness. When I began teaching public school in East Hartford, I thought of myself as a teacher, a musician, a woman, an authority figure to students of all colors, but I didn’t often think of myself as white.

After the 2016 election, I began noticing whiteness in other people. I remember taking a run in the park the day after the election and seeing an old white man in a baseball cap and immediately implicating him as one of the “guilty ones.” (Upon closer inspection, I’m pretty sure his hat said “Jerusalem.”) I had begun to realize what whiteness meant to a lot of people, and it made me very uncomfortable.

Over the past few years, as I have become more aware of the world around me, as I have read more works by and about people of color, and as I have been educated by my students and colleagues of color, I have finally started to think about my whiteness means, both to me and to others. Oddly, I think about it most at the grocery store, which is where I have the most interactions with people of color not as a teacher, a director, or any type of authority, but as just another white person. I find myself trying extra hard to make sure all the people that I meet in the aisles know that I am a NICE white person. With a friendly smile, I’m saying, “I’m white, but I’m not a bigot.” (An admittedly mild disclaimer compared with “I’m black but not a criminal,” or “I’m brown but not illegal.”)

Over the past few months of working on “The Scottsboro Boys” I have been more aware of my whiteness than at any time in my life. After I was hired and began to learn about the show, I first felt guilty for being a white person in the role of music director. I wondered if I should quit in favor of a black music director. What right did I have to tell this story? But I didn’t know any black music directors, it was too late to get another job for the summer, and I knew I was at least qualified to interpret a score written by two white guys. Our (white) director Sean Harris explained that rather than presuming to tell the story, we were simply providing a space for it to be told. He was committed to directing the show with empathy and making sure that the actors we cast would feel heard and empowered in the process. I decided to stay on and committed myself to intense research, especially on minstrelsy, so that I could do my part to help the story be told.

At auditions, I watched the actors’ faces intently for their reaction to being greeted by an all-white creative team. If they had feelings about it, no one showed it. During callbacks when I gathered them around the piano and asked them to remind me of their names, I hoped they wouldn’t think it was because I couldn’t tell them apart. Singing through a callback excerpt, I cringed internally every time I got to the lyrics “And then a Negro grabbed me,” acutely aware of what it meant for a white woman to say those words. I was grateful in the dance callback when our choreographer Darlene addressed the (white) elephant in the room, but I still wondered if any of these talented actors would walk away from the production because of our whiteness.

On the first day of rehearsal, I tried to be extra friendly, extra polite, extra cognizant of our responsibility to make these black men feel welcome by a mostly white production team, in a theater with mostly white staff, in a mostly white town in a mostly white state. I made the decision always to use the term "gentlemen" when referring to the cast, as my usual term "boys" had much more insidious connotations in the context of this show. I was glad that our (white) stage manager came up with “The Nine” as a shorthand way to denote the actors playing the Scottsboro Boys themselves. As we got deeper into rehearsals, I struggled with the emotional toll that this story was taking on the actors, and my role in asking them to bear that burden. Was it too much to expect them to act out what might be their greatest fears on stage every night? Was our desire to make the show truthful tantamount to trauma porn? I decided I had to trust the actors and their obvious commitment to telling the story.

After a while, I got over feeling guilty for music directing this show DESPITE my whiteness, and I began to think about what I could contribute BECAUSE OF my whiteness. I started to think about who this show was for. For the actors, this was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity, for many of them their first chance to perform as part of an almost entirely black cast. For our black audience members, it was empowering not only to see themselves represented on stage but to know that this important part of their history was being told. But what about our (majority) white audience members? What were we hoping they would get out of this show? If we were to do justice to this story, we needed to make sure the white audiences really HEARD it.*

*SIDE NOTE: It was always easy from backstage to tell when there was a larger contingent of black people in the audience because the applause was so much louder after the big musical numbers. That is not to say that the black audience members were simply more boisterous or enjoyed the show more. In our talkbacks, white audience members quite often reported feeling stunned into silence by what they were witnessing on stage. I think the difference for the black audience members was that they were not shocked.

The creative team started to talk in depth about the role of The Interlocutor in the show. As the only white character and leader of the minstrel troupe, he could easily serve as the unequivocal villain of the show, but we realized that the further down that path we went, the less relatable he would be to our white audiences. And the truth of this story is that the evil didn’t (doesn’t) lie exclusively in the blatant bigots, the violent police officers, the anti-Semitic attorneys and the corrupt judges. That evil is made possible by the ignorant, oblivious bystanders who enable it, those white people who remain willfully blind, who long for the “good old days,” who resist and resent change. In order to do justice to this story, we had to look at it as white people and see what white people would see, and we had to make sure they saw themselves.

Not being included is something that white people are not always accustomed to. For past shows at the Playhouse, I have always come out on stage with the cast to participate in talkbacks. I love engaging with the audience and explaining things about the show that they may not have understood. For this show, I mostly stayed on the sidelines and only joined in when invited by a cast member or when a question from the audience hit upon something in my research. Even then, I was very aware of not wanting to speak too much or to speak on behalf of anyone but myself. I knew that for both the actors and the audience, mine was not the voice that needed to be heard. As I listened to the actors talk about how close they had become through doing this show, how much they appreciated being in a cast of black actors, I sometimes felt a tinge of envy at being on the outside, but this was far outweighed by the pride I felt hearing them talk about how empowered the show had made them feel, how it had made them love their blackness more, and how it had inspired the younger actors especially to stand tall and to speak out against injustice.

It is a common trope when closing a show to say that you have learned something about yourself, that you have been changed, and that you will always remember the experience, but this is truer for me with “The Scottsboro Boys” than for any show that I have ever worked on. Our three weeks of rehearsal has helped me establish what I hope will be a lifelong practice of empowering black voices. Six weeks of talkbacks have reminded me of the power of theater as a force for empathy, so that in my own writing I can aspire to create work as important and powerful as this show. Spending the past few months thinking about my whiteness has made me much more aware of the responsibilities that I bear because of it, and I know that this awareness will make me a better artist and teacher, especially for my students of color.

To be sure, the story of the Scottsboro Boys does not belong to me in the same way that it belongs to Trishawn, Justin, Alex, Jaylan, Grant, Cedric, Jerry, Cedrick, Troy, Renee, Ivory, and Torrey. But now that I have assisted in passing it on, I feel a responsibility for it. Overall, the most important thing I take from this experience is a feeling of membership in the larger community of people of all colors who tell these stories. I have written before about my belief that inclusion should be less about welcoming others into my “in-group” and more about including myself in the largest group possible: humanity. Doing this show has certainly strengthened that belief for me, and I am so grateful to the Playhouse and, more importantly, to this cast, for trust

Photo credit: Meredith Longo

ing me and allowing me to be a part of this community.

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