A few days ago, I had the honor and privilege of watching a live-streamed reading of my friend’s new play, “Circle.” Written by Jelisa Jay Robinson (Jay, to her friends), the play is about a young black man who has recently graduated from college and is struggling to reconcile his long-term dreams with his short-term needs and his family relationships. A familiar struggle to most (especially Millenials), the story was infinitely relatable while also providing an intimate and personal look at the intersection between early adulthood lack-of-direction and Black identity. But here’s the part where I expose my shame: if it weren’t my friend’s play, I probably wouldn’t have seen it. Like many white people, I have a tendency to assume that I won’t relate to “black stories.” I have no reason to assume this at all. It’s utter nonsense, especially when I remember that, for DECADES, most film, television, and theatre was about white people and all other ethnicities were expected to relate to it without being able to see themselves in any of it. Don’t believe me? Consider, for a moment, Whoopi Goldberg’s recollection of how much it meant to her to see Nichelle Nichols on “Star Trek.” Representation matters. And it needs to matter to me and other white viewers as much as it matters to non-white viewers. There’s no reason for it not to.
I met Jelisa Jay Robinson back in 2009, at the University of Texas at Austin, where we were both studying Theatre & Dance. Quick-witted and ambitious, it was clear that she was going places. I remember getting to read one of her first plays and knowing that she had important stories to tell and that they would only become more nuanced and insightful over time. Even that was an underestimation. In the 11 years since we met, Jay has traveled, explored, learned new languages, and taught and inspired young minds (she’s at least 10x more accomplished than I am) and her voice as a playwright keeps getting stronger. Her work focuses on Black identity with attention to the African diaspora and I highly recommend checking it out (I included a link to the recording of the live reading of her latest play, above).
I could go on and on about Jay, but there’s a bigger reason that I’m waxing poetic about my brilliant and talented friend. Like all good playwrights, Jay’s work has stuck with me and made me think. For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about how struck I was by how relatable and even familiar Jay’s characters felt. How rare it’s been for me to have to find a way to relate to characters that don’t look like me (except in 5th grade, when ALL the books we read in class were about boys — only boys, providing my only frame of reference for lack of representation) and how validating it must feel not only to see characters that look like you, but to have people who don’t look like you find them relatable, too. And here’s the biggest realization that her play eventually led me to, as I considered its timeliness in relation to Black Lives Matter and the recent protests: I learned more about the 1992 police beating of Rodney King and the subsequent riots in a THEATRE HISTORY class than I did in any other history class in my entire life, including AP U.S. History in high school. This is sad, but the fact that it was relevant to a theatre history class is also how you know that art, particularly Black-produced art, matters and its meaning is all the more poignant and important at a time like this.
One of the requirements of my degree in Theatre & Dance was that I had to take a very basic art history class called “Intro to Visual Art.” As I usually did, I picked a class/section that fit my schedule and gave no thought to who taught it. I was incredibly lucky and this class was taught by a black professor who made a point to lecture about black artists that I otherwise would have never heard of, including painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and photographer Renee Cox. There were others, but after 10 years, I’m sorry to say that theirs are the only names I remember. Much like Jay’s work, theirs focuses on the forms and nuances of black identity and culture in a world where white is considered the default.
I don’t have all the answers (or any of them, really), but I have to believe that many answers can be found in or developed from listening to, viewing, and absorbing the work of black artists. Their experiences and perspectives are important and there are few things more universal to the human experience than art.