Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Crossing a great divide

The racial divide, that is.  I'll explain.

This week's assignment for my Libretto 1 class at ESPA is to write a musical scene incorporating a pop song, where the characters sing the song as part of the story (jukebox musical style, think "Mama Mia" or "Jersey Boys").  She gave us a list of songs to chose from.  Given that I never listen to pop music, the only song on the list I was familiar with was Cee Lo Green's F*ck You.  I happen to think that is a great song, and really wanted to use it, but didn't think I could -- how can lily-white me write a scene with black characters?  But after listening to all the other songs on the list, I really couldn't stand any of them, and also decided that, heck, this is just an assignment for class.  Class is the perfect place to stretch myself and go outside my comfort zone. So I decided to try.

You may be wondering why I feel that a scene incorporating that song has to use black characters.  It's not because Cee Lo Green is black, it's because the song contains a certain "n" word that white people don't say unless they are the sort who like to wear pointy white hats.  That's a line I certainly am not interested in trying to cross.

But here's the thing.  Writing for black characters makes me nervous.  I'm afraid of coming off as racist.  (Heck,  I feel nervous even writing this blog post, that just expressing the fact that I feel nervous writing black characters sounds racist.)  Will it seem racist if my characters fall into any black stereotypes?   When there is a line like "I lie and beg and cheat and steal" in the song, is it ok to have a character who tried to steal something to impress his girlfriend?  Can I use black slang (I kinda figure any characters using that "n" word would probably also use other slang terms)?  Or if I try so hard to stay away from any stereotypes that my characters don't seem black at all, will that be it's own kind of racism because I'm denying the black experience? 

(I feel a compulsion to try to defend why I am not racist, but to avoid the "some of my best friends are black people" cliche, I will refrain and hope that I am not misinterpreted.)

My discomfort is not only about appearing racist; this is also just something that is outside the realm of my personal experience (and it is always easiest to write what you know).   If I were writing something for mass consumption with black characters (as is the case with the full musical I want to write), I would certainly have someone on my creative team who could help authenticate those characters.  But for now, I will just have to hope my class of white women and one Asian man aren't offended, or that at least it can spark an interesting conversation.

I wish it were easier to have an honest, open dialogue about black-white race issues in this country.  I wonder how long it will be before we get there.
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