*Editor’s note – The author of this piece would like it to be known that this is a work-in-progress, and that the notes from the original doc are very important. So next to the paragraphs with bolded lines there are pictures of the authors notes about the piece. *
Don’t expect too much from me, this is a work-in-progress.
I am trying to think through everything about perfection, and performance and capital T Theatre and my desires all at once, and it is overwhelming so please be patient.
I was the annoying kid in your kindergarten class who wouldn’t stop fucking singing. During recess, at school pick-up, at lunch, during class. Some kids have nervous ticks, some kids need to always be moving, I had to always be singing. Lots of people don’t like that and I learned that quickly. I learned to censor myself.
Sometimes I forget that “art” is just choosing to make a thing. And I forget that it’s coming from me, and because it comes from me it is just inherently. It just is. And that’s how things get made. And I must be okay with that.
I was afraid to write this. I forgot that I’m just trying to speak my mind, and what I’m saying is: I want a return to my child self.
Not critical, not academic, not austere, not calculating. Just uninhibited.
Do you remember the feeling of your favorite pop song coming on the radio when you were, I don’t know, 7, maybe 8 years-old? Or, at a drunken party with friends. Or at karaoke. Or a wedding. And a song with a hook that just excites you comes blaring on – one that you have to interrupt a conversation for. All else falls away, just you and your voice, and your friends voices, probably off-key, falling into each other, making something ridiculous and the most joyous.
“Ooooooooeeeeeee this is my songggggggg”
I want that feeling back. The wailing, out into space with no reservation. Letting the sound out, not afraid of what someone will hear, or what they’ll do with it when they do.
I have things to give and sometimes I need to keep my mouth shut.
I love the joy that capital T Theatre creates in me and sometimes it hurts my people and my people’s people, and I can’t have that.
And it is both and AND at the same time.
Theater, like, being with people.
Discovering joy with people. And rediscovering and rediscovering and singing about it when I do like it is happening for the first time.
I let my frustration out on my Father, who sings outwardly without hesitation. I chastised him “shut up, you’re so weird”, so many times he’s afraid to sing around me. A shame so embroiled in me it only knew how to be taken out as examples of envy.
I was promised many things by the White American Theater, and then it was taken away, and sometimes given back; an ambiguous thief.
Theater gave me my first boyfriend. It was Pre-K, we were five. We bonded over a mutual love for West Side Story. We reenacted the balcony scene during recess, he perched high up on the top of the jungle gym while I serenaded him with a toddler-garbled version of “Tonight.” On our first date he came over to my house where we watched the 1961 film. He was sensitive, as was I, we both cried in the second act when the fighting got too intense and had to turn it off.
When my boyfriend, Graham, wasn’t there, I would stage my own private one-child show of the Little Mermaid. My favorite scene to recreate was the moment when Ursula forces Ariel to sign away her own voice.
And Ariel launches into that memorable melody –
I wailed Ariel’s refrain over and over in the school gym, feeling the sound bounce live through the tall ceilings, taking on a life of their own. I was excited by the affirmation of the sound of my own voice.
In the halls of the academic, this thing that I loved – no, not a “thing” – a feeling, a pathway, an excitement. You.
You supported me and excited me, and for years had made me feel buoyant – you turned on me and I haven’t forgiven you.
Once there were eyes on it, there came opinions. Judgements. Grades. Dreams and assignments.
“THIS worked for me, and this didn’t. Maybe if you try it this way I’ll understand.”
What a tease.
Do you remember when –
Ok. Something I think about a lot is do you remember in 2006 after The Incredibles came out and they made this trailer for Jack-Jack Attack, and there was this moment where Jack-Jack bursts into flames, like a fire demon, a baby consumed by rage and that image, it scared the shit out of me. I think of that, I think I feel like that when I think of people who need to “understand.” Child me, with all the rage of things beyond me, somehow there, suddenly present and needing to come out and they body isn’t ready.
No I will not contort myself for you to understand better.
Actually, I refuse.
who do you think you are?
The more that I learned about the history of the American stage, the more I felt myself orient away from it.
Who told you that this thing I made is for you? The shift seemed to happen against my will. You moved beyond me, and I feel myself having to catch up to you, to prove to you that I can still make you mine.
Ownership is a deluded thing. I don’t think I wanted to own you, as much as I just wanted to share in the joy, in my own way. And for you to see me.
Summer 2020 asked the theater to reconsider its entire foundation. Broadway theaters were canceled, Off-Broadway theaters were “called in”. Whatever the fuck that means. The members of We See You WAT called out the industry in a chain of demands to condemn racist, homophobic, and inaccessible behavior baked into the industry. Theaters, producers, administrators, actors all said that they would take on the charge and committed to the task.
New York Theater is coming back. So, where are we now?”
Last month, producer Cameron Mackintosh made headlines when a member of the Broadway community named Sis, called him out for saying that trans actors playing characters on the stage would be “gimmick casting” because it would be trying to “force something that isn’t natural” and “it isn’t inherently there in the story”
a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or business.
Or, according to Oxford languages, “Gimmick” as in:
“an ingenious and usually new scheme or angle”
This, coming from the producer of Miss Saigon, a show that historically cast white actors in yellowface. Tell me, are white actors playing yellowface, “inherently there” in the story of the Vietnam war? Does Phantom of the Opera not owe its almost 40 year-old success to creating the standard for modern pop-opera musical theater gimmick?
And might mister Cameron forget that the modern play and musical was born out of gimmick?
Performers, oftentimes who were disciriminated against in other professions for being queer, Black, Jewish, disabled, or sex workers – could weaponize social fears about their existence in the Theater as performance to become successful and gain upward mobility. Theater has historically always provided financial success to marginalized folks where nowhere else did. And commercial theater today owes its existence to the success of vaudeville, which featured performance styles and stage “gimmicks” largely invented by Black and queer people. It oftentimes was simply a display of these people just living and existing. Vaudeville “gimmick” simultaneously shocked and enticed white, middle and upper-class audiences so much, they crafted it into an artform, which became the modern musical.
Is theater not *meant* to be a vessel through which to imagine things that in most daily life, we aren’t allowed to admit exist?
American theater was founded on making a spectacle of societal realities that were considered too explicit to admit to openly. On the stage in early American vaudeville, interracial couplings and queer innuendo could exist, racial lines blurred and white men could done blackface in a way that “safely” subverted racial roles. It was a place where social fears about the purity of racial “biology” could be meted. And a space where our modern “protected” gender and racial constructs were carved out of the slave society, and perpetuated on the stage. White and black “womanhood” and “manhood” were designed by the theater. White “woman” as protected and black “male” as predator was perpetuated above all else. Read: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Octoroon, or any popular play of the Antebellum period.
What is “natural” in a theatrical practice that was founded in Blackface? In a business where whiteness and centuries-old archetypes and tropes have built this artform, most forms of authentic inclusion will feel like “gimmicks” to the eye of the “traditional” commercial Broadway machine.
See: colorblind casting.
Does not the name of “colorblind” casting assume a refusal to see things and validate them as they are?
This, coupled with the other big news of the Fall season, that all 7 Broadway plays premiering in 2021 will be written by Black playwrights.
This news together makes an interesting pairing. Did the WAT “see and hear” us clearly and loudly? How much have we actually achieved in the year of reckoning we were promised by the industry’s showrunners?
Because of course, there will never be another time when an entire Broadway season of plays shows only Black playwrights…this choice, or rather, the choice for the industry to advertise and perform itself as “doing the work” through these playwrights is a gimmick in itself. It’s the work of puppeteers: white folks producing the projects, funding the projects, receiving the Tony for the projects, getting the biggest paychecks for the projects, and putting Black folks on the stage, to push a narrative about the “authenticity” of the industry’s progress.
Slapping Black names onto the marquees of Broadway for one single season, while things remain unchanged on the highest levels of the producers and theaters who run the industry is the worst example of gimmick.
at least be original.
But why am I surprised?
You created many hurdles, traps even, to convince me that I deserved to be a part of you, and they all left me feeling worse about myself.
You promised me acceptance in the form of my whiteness and smallness in the form of my blackness.
You leveraged me to do harm to others.
You stole my voice and used it to manipulate to get what you wanted.
Give it back.
I don’t like it being used against my will.
Where and how and to whom and when am I needed to show up and show out and declare myself part of you, not just you part of me?
I’ve always known you were part of me, but you got to be selective.
That’s the tragedy to me. A form that has the potential to be so expansive, to be the vessel for, and provide to so many realities and visions at once. And yet it chooses to limit itself. How boring.
The Mammys and the Tragic Mulattos and the Sambos and the Zoes and the Uncle Toms and the Sarahs.
How do we/how have we chosen to preserve them?
And so I think, let’s take a bulldozer to it, throw out all the rules and rebuild with new ones. Exorcise the evil energies. How do you exorcise the Theater without the forced removal of the black folxs who built it from the ground up?
There is a reason that “Catharsis” is a theatrical concept that is imperative to the form. By recreating simulacrum experiences, the theater allows us to process and work through our fears, our limitations, and challenge the audience’s beliefs.
In the arena of the Victorian Broadway theater, a space designed to protect white feelings, can we ever move beyond them, is there a reality in which they are not centered? What would it even mean to create an American theater that doesn’t use gimmick to shock the sensibility of the White American Theater Goer? I worry about the Black plays of the future. Entering into this game, with little protection from the past. I want to celebrate them, and I also want to look away. How will this theater ever be “for us by us” when the audience is always there, watching?
Some songs make me cry without hesitation. Not sad, just moving me, to some kind of core, stirred, whirring, the problem is we are being asked to put words to it, fancy New York Times Theater review words, and I don’t have words I only have swells of emotion and child-laughter, and giddy bursts of energy. How do you quantify all that?
I don’t care about your ease, I just want to be able to move and laugh and for that to be what it is and for that to be. And for that to be.
Thai Harris Singer (she/her) is a playwright, writer, and historian. She currently resides on occupied Lenapehoking, now known as Brooklyn, NY and is a proud 5th generation Brooklynite. Her work is curious about exploring racial performance theory and legacy through theater, food, movement, words, and song
More of Thai’s Work in Mixed Mag:
Food Feature: Thai Harris Singer (Issue 8)