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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

August Wilson's Place in School

Earlier this week, David Snead, the Waterbury, Connecticut superintendent of schools ordered Waterbury’s arts magnet high school to stop its production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone because of the appearance of the N-word in the script.

While I understand the superintendent's decision to stop the production, it has me deeply upset. Of course the word should be categorically repudiated; it should never be appropriate in conversation, nor ever regarded casually. But for these reasons exactly, I think it is so important that this show be performed, even (perhaps especially) on the high school level. Mr. Snead, for all his well-meaning attempts to protect his students, and his community at large, from such a hateful epithet, has ironically done so at the expense of a real understanding of the power of language and the importance of narrative.

As one who has spent my life in reverence of these two things, language and narrative, I find that incredibly alarming.

I am not African American, and I recognize the fact that, as much as I can sympathize, I cannot possibly fully understand the weight of the word. Still, I hope that does not keep me from acknowledging, to the best of my abilities, the centuries of hatred, bigotry and oppression bound up in it. It is the recognition of its ugliness, not a casual indifference to it, that makes me as passionate as I am.

I am, and always have been, in awe of the magnitude of language, both of it the power it yields when wielded well, and the impotence it creates when wielded poorly. Rough and inexact as it might be, it is the only way to connect that ethereal thing caught inside my flesh with that in yours, the only thing that keeps us all from becoming so many satellites, spinning helplessly inside our own orbits.

Language is the sharpest tool we have available to us, and I’m not the first to say “the pen is mightier.” But, just like an untrained joker playing with a sword - be careful with that, or you’re going to put your own eye out.

Here is a story to illustrate what I mean. It’s not of the word in question, but of another inappropriate and hateful word, also often spoken or spoken of in fearful, hushed tones: the C-word.

The C-word is not the same as the N-word; it doesn’t mean quite the same thing, nor does it have the same deep-seated history of hate attached to it. But, as a woman I have more experience with it and a more personal connection to it, and so this is the word I have a story about. And I think it serves to illustrate a universal point.

So, needless to say, I do not like the C-word, or, at least, the attitude with which it is regarded in our culture; it rankles my feminist sensibilities. It troubles me that the worst words we have for one another as women in one way or another refer to our sex or sexuality. It suggests a fear and loathing of female sexuality that, frankly, as a society we should be beyond. And at the worst of all of them, for some inexplicable reason, is the C-word.

Funnily enough, though, I often hear, even among my thinking, considerate, female peers, the following sentence: "I don't want to say it, but I'll say it. I NEVER use this word, but I'll use it for her. That woman is a..." well, you know what.

I understand the logic of not saying the word, of abhorring what it stands for and refusing to allow it to enter your vocabulary. I also understand the idea of reclaiming the word, of attempting to strip it of its power through new context and use. (After all, why can we call a man a prick or a dickhead with relative impunity, but it is so unspeakably awful to call a woman the other thing?)

But to halfheartedly do both - to save the word for very special occasions, for use only on the worst offenders - is to bestow power without understanding why, and ultimately give strength to its ugly meaning, and to those who would use it hatefully.

My point is simply this: words can be powerful, and to wield that power with no knowledge of its history and social context is to potentially add fuel to the fire. And the N-word, whether we like it or not, is a very, very powerful word, so we must be very, very careful.

I know that Mr. Snead is only, understandably, trying to exercise that care. The New York Times reports that, “According to the newspaper... Snead said this week that educators should not do anything that might encourage people to use the word.” However, it strikes me that fearing that watching an August Wilson play will encourage people to use the N-word is a bit like worrying that asking a depressed friend if he’s suicidal will put the idea in his head.

That is to say, it won’t, and avoiding the uncomfortable conversation will only make it worse.

We are coming up on a generation for whom the struggle for civil rights in America (and thus, this word) will mean something entirely new. And after them will come a generation for whom it will mean even something else. It is of vital importance that we continue communicate the gravity and significance of that struggle, lest we re-ignite old flames of hatred.

Textbooks and history lessons are fine communication tools, but I honestly and passionately believe that the most important instrument we have to ensure that our collective history is remembered and appreciated is our stories. That is why I do what I do.

And that's also why I believe it's more than important for these teens to have the opportunity to perform and appreciate the work of August Wilson, a master storyteller - it's necessary. More necessary for them, our youth, perhaps, than any other group.

Through lessons and books we learn the facts of our history, through our stories we learn the truth. Our stories provide us with an emotional connection to the past, to people and experiences that we would otherwise never know, never fully understand.

What's more, as I understand it, the drama teacher at this school approached the performance of the play with extreme sensitivity and respect. She sought approval not only from the school’s principal, but from the parents of the students involved, for whom she actually went through the trouble of having the play read aloud. She even received approval of the production from a former N.A.A.C.P president. Lessons were planned for the students to provide the appropriate history and context of the racism that is experienced in the play, as well as talk-backs and other post-performance discussions and Q&A's. The rehearsals were even open to the participating students' parents. I cannot think of a better, more visceral way of understanding our history and our society.

I’m told that the Waterbury Board of Education discussed the situation yesterday, although I can’t find any information on the outcome of the meeting. I hope that the decision was reconsidered. If it’s not, I worry it will set a terrible precedent for American high schools. August Wilson is not only one of the most celebrated playwrights of the 20th century, he also gave a vibrant and resonant voice to a group of people and experiences that have otherwise marginalized, oppressed and ignored by the American theater tradition. Yes, Wilson uses a terrible word in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. But he does so with all the understanding and gravity and context we that we can ask for, that we can hope to communicate to future generations. We cannot lose him; we cannot keep him out of our schools. It would be an unspeakable blow not just against the arts, but against our past and against our future.

UPDATE (1/20/11):

The production will go on as planned.

Additionally, here are some links to more excellent commentary about the situation:

Leonard Jacobs' blog on the Clyde Fitch Report.
Howard Sherman's comments on the American Theater Wing blog.
Howard Sherman's wonderful letter to the Waterbury Board of Ed.

And the original post in the New York Times Artsbeat Blog.

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