Dallas — To say that it was a fascinating experience of growth, as a white Jewish male, to direct a reverse minstrel show with a primarily black cast performing in white face is, needless to say, a gross understatement. I struggled with the notion of directing Day of Absence from the very moment I selected it for Metamorphosis’ second production. In fact, I did the same with Dutchman, doubting my “right” to direct the play, having not personally lived the Black experience in America.
Yet, as I was conducting research to prepare for Dutchman, I came across a couple of highly significant facts: Anthony Harvey, a white man, directed the 1967 film adaptation of the play and Amiri Baraka, the playwright, praised Harvey for his handling of the subject matter. Dutchman was written and performed within the context of a nascent Black Arts Movement in Harlem, founded by Baraka himself, who envisioned an “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept." Dutchman ultimately gave birth to the Black Arts Movement and ushered Baraka away from the beat poets and his Jewish wife of the Lower East Side and into an Afro-centric Harlem. Baraka saw the Black Arts Movement as a place where theater can be created by Black people and for Black people, and yet, it was within this context that Baraka agreed to have a white man direct this powerful film and praised the work he did with the Black revolutionary focus of the play. This knowledge eased by concern over Dutchman and I went into directing the play without hesitation.
I knew the same needed to happen with Day of Absence, but this time was different. With Dutchman, Tiana Johnson and I were co-directing, so at least one of us had lived the Black experience in America. This time I was to be the sole director, a white, Jewish man facilitating the development of a play that initiated the birth of the Negro Ensemble Company in Harlem, NY. I sought insight and advice from numerous mentors, friends and colleagues and, ultimately, I arrived at a happy place where I could love the discomfort instigated by the situation. No one discouraged me from taking on the project. In fact, nearly everyone I spoke with encouraged me to confront my uncertainty because this was a story that needed to be told. There is no getting around the issue. It’s uncomfortable and people prefer not to talk about it. And it was precisely with this attitude of embracing the discomfort that I wanted to engage with the cast and crew. The notion of a white man directing Day of Absence can potentially be highly problematic for those involved. I therefore made it my responsibility and intention in every moment to wholeheartedly listen to my cast and crew. I encouraged input from everyone involved in the process in order to truly make this a collaborative effort. I believe that this was indeed a “Black production,” despite the fact that I was the director.
The process ended up being highly collaborative as I had intended, with everyone, from the cast to our costume designer and stage manager, offering insight and pushing back against certain decisions of mine that they disagreed with. The most powerful insights that I gained from the cast and crew came about unintentionally during rehearsal breaks. I found it striking, though not surprising, that during nearly every break, a conversation would pop up amongst the cast and crew about being Black in America. The play so clearly resonated with the people involved in the production that they couldn’t help but talk about it and relate their own personal experiences to the events in the play. In fact, rehearsal breaks became a vital part of our rehearsal process and many of my favorite parts of the play were given birth during rehearsal breaks. For example, an in-depth conversation about the brown paper bag test, historically used to determine if a person had light enough skin to receive certain privileges, led to the development of one of my favorite moments in the play. In the Mayor’s office the Courier uses a brown paper bag to determine the racial status of everyone on stage in order to weed out the “secret black people” who have been “infiltrating” the white establishment.
The biggest mistake I feel that I made during this production was not offering the cast and crew enough time during the first few rehearsals to talk about the fact that I am white. I knew there were some concerns and I did my best to work with those concerns but I believe an open and honest dialogue on the topic at the very beginning of the rehearsal process would have done our production a world of good. At the final community dialogue that followed the last production, I publicly asked the cast and crew how they felt about working with a white, Jewish director on this specific production. There were a variety of responses, all of which I respected.
One actor felt that my Jewish identity made me a member of a different oppressed group, and that that life experience gave me the insight needed to direct this play. He saw no problem with me directing the play. Others were much more skeptical and expressed that they initially felt the situation was problematic. Yet, they ultimately came to a place where they accepted me as the director and recognized that I had a lot to offer on this topic, even if I am not Black.
One highly important lesson that I have taken with me from this production is the necessity for any director to surround herself by talented artists and lean on their expertise. One thing I know for sure is that I never want to be the most talented person working on a project. I want the skills and expertise of other talented individuals to challenge my ideas and to work to create a memorable production.
This was my first experience working with a costume designer as a director and I learned quite a bit. I almost neglected to hire a costume designer, thinking I could do it myself, but I know that would have been a disaster, and I am thankful that I realized that before it was too late. It took the creative collaboration between Ashley Oliver, our stage manager and lighting designer, Yvonne Johnson, our costume designer, and myself (playing the role of both director and scenic designer) to make all of the rapid scene transitions work, with often near immediate costume changes for some actors. Something I knew to be true for Day of Absence is that the play had to keep moving, building momentum, and having each character play three or more roles became arduous and convoluted. But with creative sound and lighting, and with rather clever choices in costuming and staging, we made it work.
Every day technical restraints forced us to get creative as we would problem-solve. For example, in an effort to keep the play moving forward and minimize blackouts, we sometimes left frozen actors on an unlit part of the stage. This tool, implemented to fix an existing problem, gave birth to some of my favorite moments in the show. Watching the Mayor hold his head in his hands and sit in silent darkness while a young married couple discover that their mammy is missing was quite powerful. A great and symbolic moment of art grew out of a technical setback. I’m highly aware that our transitions could have been better. If I could do it over, there is a lot I would do differently. But that is the idea: theater should be ever evolving. Once a piece reaches a fixed way of performing it, it dies. The piece is no longer alive and should no longer be performed. I had a strong desire to make changes between performances but I didn’t want to mess with the play during such a short run. Besides, we had three public performances, and each show was quite different from the rest.
With two successful productions under our belt, Metamorphosis is ready to take some big steps forward. First of all, we plan to announce a full season sometime in May. Additionally, the board is working diligently to develop a comprehensive fundraising strategy. We’ve put in the hard work, our website looks good, we’ll have promotional material very soon and so it is time to start soliciting donations of all sizes. I’m thrown into a role I don’t really feel comfortable with, a role that necessitates that I ask people for money, something I had a hard time doing even as a child with my parents. But sometimes you must do undesirable things to attain a desirable result. With the kick off of our initial fundraising campaign, we hope to be able to pay for our first full season as well as for a part-time Director of Education. In fact, we are maybe days away from hiring someone for this new position. It’s been a long and often tedious search looking for the perfect candidate, but I believe we have found her. Hopefully I will be introducing her to the TheaterJones readership in my column next month.
Morph ME (Morph Meta Education) is going to be our primary educational program that we intend to build up in 2018. It will operate as a semester-long after-school and summer program for traditionally marginalized youth and will incorporate theater as a tool to help youth dismantle the self-hate and internalized oppression that they carry with them every day. Morph ME will implement a curriculum that is inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and Rainbow of Desire. The purpose of this curriculum will be to offer youth the tools needed to uncover their internalized oppression and ultimately cast it aside. Within the context of theater, both as a product and much more often as a process, youth will learn the skills and tools needed to be productive and successful members of society. Socio-emotional health will be cultivated and job skills training will be emphasized.
» Aaron Zilbermann, executive artistic director of Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, has worked with Big Thought and other local teaching institutions.
» Beginning in June 2018, Living Theatre will run on the third Friday of the month
PREVIOUSLY IN LIVING THEATRE
- Februrary 2017: Introductory column
- March 2017: Going non-profit, boards of directors, and creating original work
- April 2017: Finding space
- May 2017: Zilbermann and Johnson discuss Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, their June production
- June 2017: No column
- July 2017: On starting a theater for social justice
- August 2017: No column
- September 2017: On starting a playwriting collective
- October 2017: Is the non-proft model the only way?
- November/December 2017: No column
- January 2018: Staff changes and preparation for the next production
- February 2018: On the importance of branding
- March/April 2018: No column