Thursday, September 3, 2015

What’s Good: Miley, Nicki and the Politics of Respectability

Respectability in a nutshell.
Image via 
Flickr user Alan Tarkus.
In my work on lynching plays, I have spent a decent amount of time pondering whether or not theater (and art in general) can save us: from actual violence, from our failings, from ourselves. And the simple truth is that I have no idea what will save us, but I have learned unequivocally what won’t: 
Respectability politics, as defined by Mychal Denzel Smith in The Nation, is “the idea that one can overcome racism (or any other form of oppression) by way of your personal actions, presenting one’s self as a citizen worthy of respect as defined by the dominant cultural norms and standards” — that if marginalized peoples behaved correctly, they will be given access to all the privileges that remain perpetually out of reach for them. Angelina Weld Grimké wrote the play Rachel in service of that argument to present Black humanity and its destruction under lynching to White audiences.
Alain Locke, in Plays of Negro Life (1927), said of Rachel, ‘Apparently the first successful drama written by a Negro and interpreted by Negro actors.’ And the NAACP production program said of the play, ‘This is the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relating to the lamentable condition of ten millions of Colored citizens in this free republic.’
Forty years after Rachel was produced, Emmitt Till was lynched. An eloquent plea written by a Black child of privilege commissioned by the leading race-based organization of the time and sanctioned by the first African American Rhodes Scholar could not save the life of an innocent 14-year-old boy with a four-decade head start. It does not get any more respectable than that and it failed. Yet we continue to believe that good behavior will save us.
Contemporary manifestations of this conversation are everywhere, but one needs look no further than this weekend’s Video Music Awards (VMAs). While this pop culture spectacle is an annual petri dish of nonsense, the VMAs can serve as a diorama of our contemporary moment. Both Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus embody problematic representations, however, Cyrus took it upon herself to tone police Minaj in The New York Times. At the VMAs, Minaj responded and was called a “savage” in Salon — one of the less subtle pieces ofcoded racist language in the lexicon. While it can be argued that each woman’s problematic elements are more or less equitable, racism as an institution allows the “newspaper of record” to minimize Cyrus’ negativity while magnifying Minaj’s.
nicki minaj animated GIF
Minaj is the anti-Rachel: “rude,” “savage,” “hypersexualized” and unapologetic. She is often maligned for refusing to engage with a dominant narrative that wishes to dismiss her unless and until she is more respectable. But what is respectable? And who gets to decide? Why do any of us think we’re qualified to make that decision? While I don’t always agree with Minaj’s choices, I admire her argument: none of us get to dismiss the humanity or validity of anyone else just because we’re uncomfortable with how they behave.
This was further highlighted for me in the comments of Scott Walters’pieces regarding “Cellphone-gazi” and performance decorum. The tone of many of the comments boiled down to
One of the arguments I believe Walters was making is that we have redefined what this means throughout the ages so there is no such thing as objective sophistication. I want to further argue that racism, sexism, heteronormativity, ableism and any other form of powered exclusion have informed whom we include when we define sophistication or respectability. Whenever any of us are policing the behavior of another, we have to be willing to recognize how we are informing a narrative of exclusion.
So, what does a counter response to respectability politics look like? As I said in the beginning, I’m not certain that there exists one right answer, but I do have some suggestions for challenging the narrative individually and institutionally:
  • Recognize that all opinions are subjective regardless of the number of people who agree.
    • Standards of etiquette count as opinion.
  • In recognizing that all opinions are subjective, own yours as such.
    • “I prefer to watch theater without cell phones” is different from “No one should experience theater with cell phones.” Your preferred experience may not be someone else’s and both can be okay.
  • Be mindful of asking others to adapt in ways you are unwilling.
    • Miley, when you want to engage honestly around your cultural appropriation I’ll be happy to discuss Nicki’s tone.
  • Try to understand the message before you dismiss the messenger.
    • Ignoring a valid argument because it isn’t packaged “correctly” is willful ignorance at its finest.
  • Acknowledge that asking someone to behave better so that you don’t mistreat them, particularly if you may have already mistreated them, is an act of violence.
    • No matter how benign the language may seem, the threat is clear: act like you belong or you will be harassed/dismissed/ignored/harmed.
Respectability politics trick us all into believing that we can objectively determine someone’s value based on parlor tricks and window dressing. I challenge us all to consider alternate ways to engage with each other and our art without perpetuating false hierarchies and structural inequalities.
In short, audience: what’s good?

Post originally appeared in The Clyde Fitch Report on September 3, 2015.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Modern Lynchings, Vintage Plays

Powerful women making powerful work.
Some women-authored lynching plays.
Photo Credit:
 Serge Limontas-Salisbury II.

Charged(adjective): filled with excitement, tension, or emotion.
Charged(adjective): accused of something, especially an offense under law.
Charged(adjective): entrusted with a task as a duty or responsibility.
All representations are charged representations.
Every time we create, replicate or reproduce something, we make a statement. We charge that representation with everything we are and everything we are not. And while we aren’t (and shouldn’t be) limited to art that is a reflection of ourselves, all art that we create and consume exists in relationship to who we are. The moment you frame a photograph, compose a line, choose a color or find a medium, you begin to represent something about who you are and the world you live in.
I am currently struggling with the world I live in.
My name is Courtney Harge, and I am a black woman who also happens to be a theater producer, director and arts administrator. I have been studying and working in theater since I was 12 years old. I founded my own company, Colloquy Collective, in 2011. My work centers on examining the intersections of race, identity and theater through reviving pre-existing work. Simply, I ask this question: what can we learn about our present from works created in the past?
For the last six months, I have been directing women-authored lynching plays. In Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women, Kathy A. Perkins and Judith L. Stephens define these works as “[plays] in which the threat or occurrence of a lynching, past or present, has major impact on the dramatic action.” It has been disheartening to realize that these plays, all written before 1930, also accurately depict life in our current reality. As Perkins and Stephens go on to state:
…lynching plays are both a dramatic record of racial history in the United States and a continuously evolving dramatic form that preserves the knowledge of this particular form of racial violence and the memory of its victims.
The cast of Rachel: Lauren Lattimore, Santoya Fields, Temesgen Tocruray, Bonita Jackson and Damone Williams. Photo by Stefano Giovannini.
The cast of Rachel: Lauren Lattimore, Santoya Fields, Temesgen Tocruray, Bonita Jackson and Damone Williams. Photo by Stefano Giovannini.
In other words, Black life is a life in which the threat or occurrence of a lynching — or stop-and-frisk, or the school-to-prison pipeline, or anynumber of systems built on a racist infrastructure, past or present — has a major impact on your everyday actions.
For the last six months, I’ve read the words of Black women affirming the humanity of our people written over the greater part of the last 100 years and I have a visceral understanding of that impulse. These women used these plays to profess #BlackLivesMatter in the face of unimaginable horror. They used these representations to accuse the broader population of neglect and entrusted these characters with their legacy. These authors charged these representations with saving their people and I get to experience firsthand that it didn’t work.
Every name we say reaffirms that failure. Much like the lynching play as dramatic form, lynching (the action) is continuously evolving. Lynching is688 police-involved shootings since Jan. 1, 2015. Lynching is five women found dead in a jail somewhere in the U.S. during the month of July. Lynching is what happened to Trayvon Martin. What happened toTamir Rice. To Eric GarnerMichael BrownWalter ScottAkai Gurley.Sandra BlandSam Dubose.
Juvenile African-American convicts working in the fields in a chain gang, photo taken c. 1903
Some things aren’t as far away as we’d like to think they are. Via /
For the last six months, I have explored the difference between the America in which these women playwrights lived, and the one in which I presently reside. The difference is miniscule and I am no longer able to accept arguments to the contrary. There is nothing like experiencing a play from 1916 and hearing characters speak your 2015 pain.
As I said at the beginning, all art that we create and consume exists in relationship to who and what we are. And what I am is tired of a prevailing narrative which tries to silence marginalized people with fictionalized notions of “impartiality” and “objectivity.” A narrative that tries to minimize my anger as stereotype while ignoring its impetus. A narrative that insists if marginalized people behaved better we would survive. Angelina Weld Grimké‘s 1916 play Rachel was written expressly to support this narrative.
[Rachel] is a full-length, sentimental play whose emotional appeal largely hinges on the similarity between whites and blacks. In fact, Grimké later explained that she had written the play to convince whites, especially white women, that lynching was wrong, as illustrated by the fact that even upstanding black citizens were vulnerable to it.
In presenting a family, named Loving, that is above reproach, Grimkéwas saying “don’t kill us because we’re just like you.” We are worth saving because we know how to behave. If you view us, impartially and objectively, as people as opposed to black people, you will see that lynching is wrong. That is a problem for me, mostly because it did not work. Therefore:
For the last six months, I’ve read the work of many women from long ago who did an excellent job of telling the stories of people who lived with lynching. They presented the best of humanity arising out of the worst of circumstances. I am thankful for them. And I have been charged to go a step beyond by using their works as a mirror with which to judge our progress, or lack thereof. I am here to stop our collective back-patting around race and art and ourselves because those works prove that we have not overcome. I am here to continue the difficult conversations about the ways in which our artistic representations have real-world consequences.
I invite you to join me in this conversation. Throughout the month of August, a full production of Rachel, directed by me, is running at theIrondale Center in Brooklyn, New York. Each performance will feature a talkback with the cast and crew, which will be an opportunity for the audience to offer its thoughts and reactions. Tickets are free, and can bereserved here.
All representations are charged representations. Let’s see what exactly they’ve been charged with.

Post originally appeared in The Clyde Fitch Report on August 6, 2015.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

I have things I want to say about Bill Cosby.

I have things I want to say about Bill Cosby. They are this, in order:
If there is a way to create retribution for the women he hurt, I am in full support of it. However, I wish to stop short of destroying or removing his artistic legacy. Because that legacy showcased the work of artists and performers of colors on a massive scale. That complicated legacy also allowed us to turn a blind eye when people we collectively deemed unworthy tried to point fingers.

We are all implicated. Heroes don't actually exist.

That is to say every person we deify without accountability gets bolder, abuses more, believes themselves more powerful until they are committing atrocities with impunity. In creating "heroes" we remove humanity, and actually create monsters.

And every time we get comfortable victim-blaming, we create space for these monsters to create more victims. We create Daniel Holtzclaw. We create Darren Wilsons and George Zimmermans and Daniel Pantaleos. We create Mark Wahlberg. We create Eldridge Cleaver. We create Bill Cosby.

Every time we collectively create blind spots, we reinforce power imbalances. We let white men kill black men; we let men rape women; we let rich plunder poor. All of us.

"No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."

The snowflakes are all of us as individuals bound together by the momentum of racism, sexism, patriarchy and their brethren. Racism punishes the Black and Brown monsters we've created more harshly and wholly than their white counterparts. Racism brings a man back from the grave to admonish his unfaithful son while laughing at the boys-will-be-boys antics of Charlie Sheen. It is removing the statue of a great entertainer who is the worst kind of person from a park named after a great visionary who is also the worst kind of person.

Our hypocrisy is showing.

As we righteously tear down a terrible man who used every resource at his disposal to prey on women solely because he had so many resources at his disposal, I would like us to not celebrate too much in the task. We have literally built mountains to men capable of much of the same evil and greatness so we are not the impartial arbiters of morality we seem to wish we were.

Mount Rushmore/Credit: Dean Franklin  
We create monsters then selectively choose which to capture: we are both Dr. Frankenstein and the pitchfork-wielding mob. As our actions continue to cycle from deifying to vilifying, I ask that we pause to consider what systems we're reinforcing. Let's ask ourselves:

Are we attempting to erase his impact on popular culture as a gesture to override our conscious discounting of the women who accused him in the first place?

Are we really okay with removing Cosby's statue from a space which was made to recognize entertainers while we send our children to schools named after Confederate leaders and slave owners?

Does punishing Bill Cosby make you feel better?

How can it when there's so much left to do?

*I originally started this post months ago, when the allegations surrounding Bill Cosby resurfaced. The revelation of his own admission and the sheer amount of life that has happened between last October and today has prompted me to revisit it.

Previously posted on MOGUL.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

I Never Thought I'd Have A Coming Out Story

I have a habit of connecting things that don't necessarily belong together. As a theater director, I like to think this tendency is an asset: it allows me to connect the plays I direct to the world we inhabit. It's a joy to take words on a page and make them into a living, breathing environment.

But I'm not here to talk about my work, at least not this time. I'm talking about how this tendency to connect otherwise unconnected instances forces me to remain accountable to myself. I'm talking about how for the last few months I've been fighting a nagging voice in the back of mind, saying:

You need to come out.

I fight with this voice. I tell myself that my complex sexuality is not relevant to Mike Brown, or Kalief Browder, or Freddie Gray. I tell myself that there are better-suited warriors on the front lines of all of the issues. I tell myself that the world doesn't need another "Look at me because I know how you feel" post by a latecomer surfing in on a giant wave of heteronormative, cis privilege. Still the voice says:

You need to come out.

I rationalize that the people closest to me already know. That I'm not hiding in anyone's closet. That the people I love are aware and that no one is actually asking me to do anything. That I can keep shouting #BlackLivesMatter and do the work around #TellingOurStories and that will be enough. But,

I need to come out.

I need to come out because these disparate pieces of myself are connected. Because I can't argue for authentic representations of Black womanhood and not showcase my authentic Black women-ness as evidence. Because I talk a lot about things that matter to me, yet my silence in this space is noticeable. Because the women whose names we need to say are worth honoring not only as martyrs or innocents, but also as complex and whole beings whose stories were cut short by a system that failed to see them wholly. These women deserved better because they existed. Not because they were upstanding. Not because they were sane. Not because they were straight. Simply because they were.

Credit: The All-Nite Images / Wikimedia Commons / Flickr

I need to come out.

I need to come out because I'm scared to. Because not doing so makes me feel like a hypocrite. Because the intersection of Black and queer is a dangerous place to exist, and I've been able to stay artificially safe for too long. Because I've asked others to check their privilege and #ChallengeYourPerspective while resting comfortably behind a heteronormative shield. Because we have collectively gotten so comfortable with a monolithic view of Blackness and Black womanhood that other people will wear it as a costume to camouflage their own dysfunctions.

I am coming out.

I am polyamorous. I am queer. I am in a loving, committed relationship with both a woman and a man. The three of us are Black and proud and happy. And that matters because a part of me wants to bow down to respectability politics and keep my loves to myself. A part of me wants to stay safely in my lane by only telling the complex stories on stage. A part of me says I'm fighting on enough fronts, why do I need another? Then I remember that being "respectable" will not save me. It will not save any of us.

I am out.
I am Black.
I am woman.
I am poly.
I am queer.
I am visible.
I am loved.
I am free.

I have a habit of connecting things that don't necessarily belong together. None of the items in the list above are negated by any of the other items. The whole of my story is great because of its parts, not in spite of them. I see the tragedies of the world as connected to a narrative of suppressing people's full identities and I refuse to be complicit in growing the list of things Black people can't do, even though it keeps growing, by presenting a redacted version of my own truth.

I have come out.
And I'm not going back.

Credit: Ludovic Bertron / Wikimedia Commons / Flickr

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Reflecting at the End of the Year

As everyone does, if the internet is to be believed, I like to use the holidays as a chance to reflect. Truthfully, I tend to be a rather self-reflective person in general. Others might call it "narcissism" but I digress. I like to think about what I'm thinking and how it's different from what I used to think.

Sometimes it's easier to think the complicated thoughts than feel the complicated feelings. 

I think as a defense mechanism - if I can plan for it, I can prepare for it, and "it" can't hurt me. At least, that's what Type-A Courtney wishes would work, and it's the best strategy I've got so far. But we all know that the effort is futile: "it" will eventually catch you. Hurt is inevitable. And, surprisingly, that realization has been the most freeing lesson of my 2014.

Once I realized that everything in the world could hurt me, I stopped making choices based on avoiding hurt.

If I had to sum up 2013 in one word, it would be loss. I lost friends and family who were close to me, I lost a relationship, I lost some of my confidence, I lost my footing in a space that I thought I knew. And no amount of thinking or preparing could have prevented it. No amount of extra effort or carefulness or diligence can bring back our loved ones who are gone, or make someone love you in the way you deserve, or even make you love you in the way you deserve.

Hurt will find you well enough on its own, it doesn't need you to go looking for it.

My theme for 2014, almost unconsciously, has been risk. I moved in with strangers, bared my soul to acquaintances, left the country with a broken phone, said "yes" more often than I said "no", and said "no" to people who aren't used to hearing it. I began a complicated relationship with a complicated man. "But you could get hurt" stopped being reason enough to not do something. And those risks, so far, have paid off.

The strangers I moved in with became my Brooklyn family.
The acquaintances I connected with have become close friends.
Leaving the country caused me to reconnect with one of my oldest and best friends.
I directed more, danced more, experienced more.
I found a new job and took my business to another level.
And that complicated relationship is the best I've ever been in.

It's still all scary. Yes, I will still get hurt. I am a work in progress. But I am happy. And, most importantly, I'm taking new risks and minimizing the role fear plays in my life. Thank you for supporting me and my journey. Thank you for reading.

May your 2015 be filled with risks and rewards beyond your wildest dreams. And, just once, may your laughter be caught on film so that you remember what your joy looks like when you're too scared.

Happy Holidays!



Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Musings on the Tortoise and the Hare

After reading this listicle, I was reminded why I hate hearing people talk about Millennials. There are so many complaints about our collective inability to be better people that it's a wonder we aren't all committing ritual suicide in front of Sallie Mae's headquarters. Maybe we are averse to blood on our iPads.

But I digress.

These arguments often remind me of the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Every preceding generation is painted as the thoughtful tortoise - patient, hardworking, and resilient. They were able to earn their keep while staying focused and paying their dues. We Millennials are the foolhardy hare - boastful, entitled, and lazy. We sleep while the rest of the world works and that will ultimately be our undoing. So the world says.
The fable only works if the hare falls asleep. What if the hare remains awake?

What if our hare runs to the finish line and realizes that the only thing waiting on the other side is more race?

What if the hare encounters row after row of blockading tortoises jostling for a finish line no one can clearly see anymore, let alone cross?

What if a generation of thoughtful tortoises coached a generation of enterprising hares then stripped the race track?

What if the hare sees destruction and dysfunction at the end of the race, runs back to the tortoise to say "I don't know if running this race is worth it" and the tortoise berates the hare for lacking a work ethic?

What if the hare says, "I don't think everyone gets to run this race. We've left others at the start"?

What if the tortoise replies, "I've made it this far, I don't know why they didn't. It's not my problem"?

What if the tortoise and the hare aren't even running the same race?

It's all fables and fairytales; questions without answers. Maybe Millennials are lazy, entitled, selfish and difficult. Maybe not. It is difficult to understand the impact our generation will have when the world changes so quickly. Simply, the race isn't over.

Or maybe I'm just asleep, and the race is already lost.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Countdown to 30: 30 days, 30 Lessons (BONUS DAY - Celebrate Yourself and Others)

Today is my 30th birthday! It has been an interesting journey to this point. I've learned a lot and I am grateful to anyone who has followed this for the last 3031 days. I appreciate your support.

Since it's my birthday, I want to focus on celebrating and remembering that joy is not a limited resource. I offer my birthday and this space for celebrations big and small. I'll start:

I Celebrate thirty awesome years on this planet and in this life.

I Celebrate Beyonce as she's filled a void in my heart since Janet married that billionaire.

I Celebrate that the internet has allowed me to maintain so many relationships with people near and far.

I Celebrate every one of you doing something you like at this moment.

I Celebrate every one of you doing something you hate at this moment because it just needs to get done.

I Celebrate oysters and expensive cheese. Not together.

I Celebrate gainful employment, though I'm not going to work tomorrow.

I Celebrate a body that works for me in the ways I need it to.

I Celebrate both the homes we come from and the homes we build for ourselves.

I Celebrate hugs. I really love hugs.

I Celebrate love in every form possible.

Comment with what you are celebrating today.