Americans have expectations about “race art” because they think they know history (which, of course, most people don’t really). But I just work here. And audience is audience is the customer. And the customer has expectations, which brings me to why I have had so much anxiety during the production phase of THE BLUE LADY.
I still get into arguments with people about why I don’t like my play SCHOOLS (about my family’s experiences in the Civil Rights Movement and our protest school) except that I got to play 22 characters including a dog, my mother, an elderly civil rights attorney and the hated asthmatic brat who lived across the street. Does that sound to you like my interest in SCHOOLS had anything to do with race? I guess it WAS a race play to most people who saw it. Don’t mind me: I just work here.
At the time I did SCHOOLS, it was the most technically challenging theater piece that I’d ever done. Mastering the challenges led me to a great acting teacher and the best voice teacher on the planet. (Who knew that I have excellent pitch and am a soprano? I didn’t!) Knowing I was good at SCHOOLS and capable of a little dazzle was what got me through all the years of making my artist cash off it. Now, of course, I can see that just as important as the many more levels of craft I acquired during those years was having the experience of conceiving “big art.” And not only that, having the experience of making art with subject matter that 99% of people have preconceived notions about.
Because I just work here, it is a job requirement that I be aware of and respect audience expectations -and in the instance of historical drama, also, audience assumptions based on generalized impressions of history. That is so important. But I am someone whose pursuit of technical knowledge and skill is motivated by a desire to actualize surreality. I am not interested in telling stories about the real world. Simply stated: I have a professional interest in audience expectations but no personal interest in meeting anyone’s expectations.
When it comes right down to it, however, My time and my lifestyle are almost totally committed to making art. On-the-job is not the time or place for someone who just works here. Just as it used to be my job on stage to achieve suspension of disbelief in my morphing from an asthmatic brat into the beagle who chased him down and bit him, now through makeup, costuming, special effects and period-appropriate speech, my job on THE BLUE LADY has been the more difficult than I anticipated task of achieving suspension of disbelief that three women in 1830s farmhouse in South Carolina are waiting for a hated patriarchal figure’s death.
It’s not a race movie. But, hey, I just work here.