An artist statement + suggested reading for the curious/excited/provoked on the comedic play, How to Be a White Man.
“Remember, you have to be twice as good.”
That phrase simply was the button on the end of a very short lecture after a close family friend finished interrogating me about my grades. It was the first time I remember hearing that message, but it wouldn’t be the last. I was only five years old.
It stuck with me throughout my youth and into my early adulthood as I strove for success and achievement- or what I thought was success and achievement. It stuck with me I held back my tongue, code-switched and played the respectability politics games to try to ‘get ahead’ in my chosen field. I caught the Strong Black Woman Syndrome early and faced the consequences of it. Bearing the pain (physical and mental) of the emotional labor I experienced putting the needs of everyone else before my own.
It’s so funny that I used to pride myself on markers of learning— grades, degrees, accolades- when now all I want to do is unlearn. And there is so much unlearning to do. I’m so excited about that unlearning, that I wrote a play about it.
Regardless of who, what and where you are, we all internalize messages. As vulnerable, loving, hurting, and resilient people- we all pick up different beliefs that stick with us. It’s universal. How to Be a White Man, explores the dynamic between two institutional opposites who have both internalized different messages. But the play centers the experience on the Black Woman. Purposefully.
As a Queer, Black Woman living in the United States, I am personally familiar with the history and consequences of years of institutional, interpersonal and systemic racism, sexism, heteronormativity, colorism, and body-shaming (to name a few) that has specifically affected the internalized messages that Black women receive. Even in the face of a new wave of Black consciousness, pride, and solidarity (#WakandaForever) messages of anti-Blackness and anti-womanness, external and internal, are still a part of the American psyche.
As an artist, I wrestle with daily pressures of how I’m seen- not only as an individual, but what that means as a person from multiple underrepresented groups in the public eye. What does it mean to be authentic in a world of filtered picture perfect images and commercialized Blackness? What does it mean to strive for success when success may mean benefiting from the same system that disadvantages others?
Double consciousness, the sense of always looking at yourself through the criticisms of others, has been explored by scholars for decades- starting with W.E.B. DuBois, who coined the term over a century ago. I wanted to write a play that explored this and the complexity of identity. A narrative that told the story of the challenge of unlearning negative messages within systems of capitalism and commercialism. How to Be a White Man, rooted on a Black woman’s drive to make it into the white male dominated- comedic writing room of one of the most popular shows, shoots to explore similar themes that thought leaders like Frantz Fannon and Angela Davis discuss in their work.
The story in the script is based on a blend of personal experiences, conversations that I’ve had with individuals of all backgrounds across the country, and a little extra inspiration from my friend and colleague, April Chelsea Mosley.
Rather than give answers, I hope the play shines light on the joy and humor of just being human and raises questions about what we all may need to unlearn in order to move forward. But this is just a jumping off point. I’ve shared some works that inspired the creative or thought process of this play in the spirit of continuing the conversation. It’s a working, growing list, because I hope this will be a working, growing conversation.
Special thanks to Micah Morgan, Dramaturg for San Francisco Bay Area Theater Company
Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fannon (book)
How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurnston (book)
The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor (book)
Diaspora and the Double Consciousness by S. Dayal (journal)
Afro Surrealist Generation by D. Scott Miller (article)
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois (book)
Angry White Men by Michael Kimmel (book)
We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang (book)
Angela Davis on assimilationism (video)