By Sukari Jones, member of the 2011 Emerging Writers Group
One day in our Emerging Writers Group meeting, Suzan-Lori Parks—the beautiful, dreadlock-having, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Topdog/Underdog—came to talk to us. I’d looked up to her for a while, and when she said we could ask her anything we wanted I was very excited because it was her, and also because I love questions. I raised my hand, then felt silly (everyone in EWG is too cool for hand-raising so no one does it but me, because I always forget) so I then I put my hand down quickly and asked, “As a Black Female Playwright, when you walk into a room, do you feel like people just assume stuff automatically about you? And if so, how do you manage those expectations?” She nodded her head for a moment and then said “I’m just myself. Mannerless, ‘bad.’ You have to let people think what they’re going to think. It’s not my problem. And it’s not yours.” Then she asked if that answer was helpful and proceeded to eat salad with her fingers as I furiously jotted down her answer while wishing I was cool enough to eat leaves of baby spinach like potato chips.
Actually though, it was a helpful answer, but one I think I’m going to have to grow into. I don’t know what other writers do, but when I go to see plays by other black female playwrights, I invariably ask myself if what I want to write about and how I want to write it are good enough to be on a stage like this play I’m seeing here right now. And then I realize later that what I’m subconsciously asking myself, at least in part, is: “Is my play black enough? Am I worthy of being known as a ‘Black Female Playwright?’”
Recently, I saw Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop and Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly. The former is a rich new work recounting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last night on earth, interweaving spoken word and magical realism and amazingness. While watching this smart, super-producible two-hander, I found myself equally aware of the plot’s progression as I was of the audience reaction: from wall to wall, the crowd basically looked like my family reunion. There was earnest bellowing laughter, “aaaaww!”s that marked astonishment at a daring line of dialogue, and lots and lots of pondersome “Mm”s. My whole family is from Alabama and the churches sometimes have members of the congregation write plays and put them on there and this audience’s reaction to The Mountaintop was not wholly dissimilar to that for me. I’m a huge fan of awesome last dialogue lines of plays, as well as historical adaptations and smart, “live” writing, so I loved the play for my own reasons. But I feel the audience loved the play because it was unabashedly black. I had to fight my way to buy the last “The Baton Passes On” T-shirt from a feisty, well-to-do out-of-towner, and as I moseyed away, I had two thoughts: “Wow, Katori Hall is so cool” and, “I wonder if any black people will come to my plays ever or like them at all.”
Then I saw Stick Fly: a well-made comedy about an upper middle class black family and the fault lines that lie beneath class and race in America erupting when a family secret is unearthed. I saw this show because both my husbands are in it: Mekhi Phifer and Dule Hill. Also my friend Condola Rashad was in it. I met her at The Public Theater, when she played the lead in my EWG Spotlight Series play “LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!!!!” I found myself comparing Stick Fly’s audience to The Mountaintop’s and with Stick Fly, it was a weird and wonderful blend of brown and beige faces and also of classes. All of us in the audience seemed to love it for the same reasons: we were relating to class-stratification and caste tensions within the black community and having a satisfying laugh at a play geared towards people who can relate to being not quite black or not white in the right way because of money. It was an utterly new experience for me, and one that I can only describe as…encouraging. I went to see Stick Fly because I wanted to see a well-made play, and I was extra excited that a Black Female Playwright wrote it. Now having seen it, I feel encouraged because now I know there are other black female playwrights out there who fall, like me, within the nether regions of the spectrum of what is assumed a black female playwright should be.
Seeing The Mountaintop and then seeing Stick Fly taught me a lesson about myself: when it comes down to it, I feel like I’m not worried about being cool enough or who will see my stuff that I eventually somehow get produced; I’m worried about if I’m being true to this myth of the Black Aesthetic that may or may not even exist. August Wilson, Tyler Perry, Octavia Butler—all are great black writers, and no one can or should be able to negate that based on any construct of “authenticity” or choice of subject matter or audience choice or whatever. I am an emerging playwright, and what I find I am emerging from is this fear that there’s nowhere I belong on either end of the black writer spectrum. What I’m emerging into is the strength to get out what’s in my gut onto paper and worry about who’s with me way later on. I do see that there are A and Z, but now I also see there a place for me somewhere in between.
I actually don’t believe I’m just a “writer,” just “American.” I’m an African-American female playwright. I want all the adjectives. They matter to me. And whether I’m writing “LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!!!!” about a pill-addicted single black mother and her daughter who create a puppet-filled universe that only they are allowed to live in or my time-travel/Auschwitz play Toy Box with Joseph Campbell-eqsue heroic journeys and magic emblems, I will no longer be looking over my shoulder, worrying I’m about to be kicked out of the “real black girl club.” Because when I walk into a room, all you really know is that my name is Sukari Jones, I’m fine, and anything else you want to assume about me is not my problem, but yours.
Sukari Jones is an award-winning lyricist, an emerging playwright, and a member of The Public Theater's EWG 2011. Upcoming projects: “LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!!!!”, Toy Box, and [Zombie Play].
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.