Imagining New Suns: Part III by Amara Brady
Back in 2017, I came across an article about an amazing group of people in Cuba known as Los Frikis. They were, and are, a community of Punks who decided to infect themselves with HIV in order to undermine the societal oppression they faced. I was so moved by their story because I had never seen people so ready to die for the potential to live by their own ideals. Los Frikis faced housing descrimination, job descrimination, and so many other forms of oppression because they wanted to live by “Punk” ideals. Los Frikis made these choices back in the 80’s and 90’s when Cuba’s resources were still cut off from most of the world and our scientific knowledge of how to manage HIV... These people knowingly contracted HIV anyway. This story felt necessary and needed to be told, but I felt a little trepidation because I knew it wasn’t my story to tell. I reached out to a few friends who had ties to people on the ground in Cuba, but it never really panned out, so I dropped it...
Then, a few years later I saw that Krystal Ortiz was writing a musical about Los Frikis. I was so glad to see it!
I think one of the ways to enact collectivism through the lens of playwriting is asking yourself,
Am I the person to tell that story?
For too long stories have been created and written by people outside the marginalized experience centered in the story. Not only that, many of these works are lauded as the best our community has to offer. They’ve received Pulitzer’s and Tonys. Why? Because it is easier to promote people who bend closer to the will and mind of white supremacy than it is to support, create, and foster new voices - the voices the stories in question are written about.
Can you name five Black musical theatre composers? Can you name five disabled playwrights? I bet you can name five musicals that center Black people though, right? Dream Girls, Once on This Island, Ragtime, and even the musical retellings of slavery or major parts of the Civil Rights movements that were given space on the stages of NYMF and so many other places. We undermine our own intelligence and the intelligence and hope of our community when we argue that no one of that lived experience can write the story. If writers from the African Diaspora, from disabled lived experiences, from LGBTQ lived expereinces aren’t found easily, then we need to seek out the folks who want the opportunities, support them, aid them in developing their voice, and ask them to tell the stories we want to see. We need to commission new writers with marginalized identities to tell the stories we long for instead of supporting already proven entities who know nothing of the lived experiences. I think that starts by getting some other people to make space. While I love Ahrens & Flaherty as much as anybody else, I love the pivot that Disney has made by hiring Jocelyn Bioh to write the screenplay of Once on This Island because Jocelyn and writers like her should have been the people entrusted with the story in the first place.
Making sure that we aren’t co-opting space by telling stories about marginalized experiences that are not our own is one way to enact collectivism. Another way is to make sure that marginalized characters are intentionally written into your story, without exploiting or focusing on the pain systemic oppression has placed on them that you have never experienced. In asking white, cis, hetero-sexual, able bodied writers to leave the writing of stories about BIPOC, LGBTQ members, and disabled people to these people, I am not asking you to stop writing people of marginalized identities into your stories. I am asking you to reconsider penning a narrative centered around a marginalized experience that you know nothing about. If you aren’t a member of the LGBTQ community maybe reconsider trying to write your own version of Angels in America. Similarly to what happened with the film Waves. Writer and director Trey Edwards Schultz initially wrote an autobiographical film and was challenged to make changes to his draft accordingly to center the story of a Black family. What I wish we would stop doing is writing outside our lived experience without a writing partner or a dramaturg to help us out. There are endless stories to tell. Why would you pick one that could exploit members of the community you’ve centered and do harm to the people you say you love? It is selfish to center your artistic prospects over the needs of the community.
Another way to enact collectivism through the lens of playwriting is figuring out how equity works in the space you’re trying to create. I think a lot about the pressure it took to get the producers of Hamilton to give a small piece of that to the actors who helped make it a hit. I don’t know what Lin-Manuel Miranda did or didn’t do, but what if it was the norm for actors, technicians, and all those working on original productions to receive a share of the profits? What would the work look and feel like if the people we tend to call family didn’t have to fight for equality? Are there riders that writers could set in place? Even if your platform is smaller than a Broadway show, how are you supporting the artists who are working to make your vision a reality? Are you asking the production team for Intimacy Directors or Co-ordinators? Are you asking about swings and understudies so that the actors aren’t over worked or trying to perform sick? Are you advocating for breaks for everyone? Or are you letting it slide because you’re just happy to be produced? Again, we come back to the scarcity mindset and how we must undermine it and banish it if we want to see change.
Writing can be an isolating experience, but we have to keep looking for the ways to connect, create community, and to support our community. Checking in with folks during the writing process should be a practice. Making pay equity a priority should be a practice. When you’re creating something new, the people in the room are really all you’ve got, so we have to be able to depend on each other. Regardless of whether or not our show has a long run, makes it to Broadway, or wins a Tony, what was the experience like? I think playwrights have a lot of agency in helping guide the room and holding space for the worlds we create.
So, make sure you are the right person to tell the story, at the very least until we find some equity for the keepers of these cultures and identities. Is it going to cause harm to a community? Make BIPOC, disabled folx, and LGBTQ members a part of the stories you’re creating; but let them exist outside of their trauma because it’s not all they are. Make sure you’re advocating for equity in pay, work loads, and breaks. Remember the quote from No Going Back? “We are only as safe as the most vulnerable members in our community,” and also, “All of us or none of us.” Writers have more power than we know and we need to wield it in favor of the people we build community with whenever we are in a room with people. We are not passive entities and our work does not end when we get to production.
Amara (She/Her/Hers) is a generative artist & cultural dramaturg from Chicago. At the crux of her artistry is uplifting Black women and connecting underserved communities to theatrical experiences. She’s currently in Residence with Experimental Bitch Presents and The Parsnip Ship and created her own production company (Un)Solicited Productions. As an actor she’s been on stage at The Lark, Joe’s Pub, Barrington Stage Co., NYTW, 54 Below, & others. She’s a member of Joe Iconis’ & family As a writer she has been been a semi-finalist for Space on Ryder Farm, an inaugural member of the Showdogs playwriting collective, The Parsnip Ship’s Radio Roots Writers Group, and a member of SHECreates NYC’s Myths and Legends program. Her work has been staged at The Drama League, The Dramatists Guild, Joe’s Pub, and The Wow Cafe Theatre. As a producer she helped put on Theatre Communications Groups National Conference (2019) and was the Associate Producer of the NYT’s Critic Pick, SKiNFoLK by Jillian Walker. Check out her YouTube Series, ‘Skinny & White’ Aren’t Character Traits. In This Paper I’ll Explain. She wants to remind you to resist, check your privilege, & then give some space to Women of Color & Trans Folx. Ashé to the ancestors. All Power to all people.