Carolyn Fagan is a writer. After spending a life in Rhode...
The Asheville Fringe Arts Festival is starting next week, and we are giving away two tickets to a show you do not want to miss.
Black!, by Michael Washington Brown, debuts at Magnetic 375 on Friday, 1/27 at 9pm and Sunday, 1/29 at 6pm. You can win tickets by commenting on our Facebook post with the link to this interview, and we'll announce a winner on Sunday night at 9 pm.
The show presents four individuals who describe their experience with the word “black.” I recently sat down with Michael to discuss the creation of Black!, his hopes for its impact, and the ability of one person to tell the stories they don’t see being told.
Michael’s story is not your typical one, but that might just be what makes it typical. He was born and raised in England, moved to the US when he was 19, and has worked in theatre ever since. He’s currently living in Arizona, so that’s where we began:
You’re currently living in Arizona?
I’m living in Arizona. I was born in England and lived there until I was 19. I moved to California at age 19 and spent time there. I ended up getting involved in theatre and acting and doing a lot of work in the Bay Area and worked my way up the rungs, so to speak. What you realize very quickly is that there’s fantastic theatre in the Bay Area, but in order for you to work at the larger houses, there’s only so many. So clearly the next step was New York.
I was (in New York) in 2012. I was digesting theatre like it was going out of style. I happened to see a one-man show and it really struck me in a way that nothing else has, primarily because what it helped me to realize, this gentleman was performing an autobiographical piece on his upbringing, his parents, etc. It really connected with me. Part of the reason it connected me was that, as an artist and an actor, particularly a lot of times you’re telling someone else’s story. I’ve always thought ‘Well, why aren’t I seeing this?’Why is this out there and that out there?’ And when I saw that [show], it made it very crystal clear to me that if you aren’t seeing the type of story you want to see being told, then you have to tell them.
How did the idea for Black!, specifically, come about?
I have friends from all different backgrounds, all different ethnicities, and people often ask me, “What was it like growing up in England? What’s it like coming to America?” So, I’ve always told this story. I moved to the US in 1992. I’ve gone back home, and I’ve done a lot of traveling. There’s definitely some distinct things that I notice within people here who are considered black or African American. And then there’s distinct things from my family, (who are) from Jamaica and Barbados—the Caribbean. I was born in London, I’m the first generation born outside the Caribbean. I would often joke and tell people about situations, things that have come up, conversations I’ve had, ironic situations. People always laughed and said “I didn’t know that!” It seemed like that was happening in more succession.
I was watching a documentary on 60 Minutes, a segment on Africa about an application on a cellphone allowing people to start their own businesses. It took away the need to have a bank account, they could transact their services and currencies among themselves by sharing it on an app. I don’t know what it was, but it struck something in me. I opened my laptop and I wrote a synopsis based on a show where different people from the black community talk about their experience of what it’s like to be black. I wrote the synopsis clear as day. I thought, ‘whoa, what is this.’ It was like—am I gonna do this? So I just let go. From that moment to 6 weeks later, I had my first draft of Black!. It was interesting because, I say this to you with the most sincere truth, I don’t feel like I created Black!. I feel like Black! was visited upon me. The reason I say that is because these are experiences that I have witnessed, whether its direct or through somebody else. You cannot be a person of color, or, in my case, a black man, and have not related to some of the things I talk about in the show. What’s different is that my perspective visits upon people from different parts of the globe who are black. I don’t know if that’s been presented in the way it’s going to be in this show. My main component is to be respectful and authentic and truthful with the information that’s shared. I want to give these individual characters the respect that they deserve to honor their viewpoint. Of anything important to me in this show, it’s that. It’s that I’m serving these characters, and not the other way around.
You’re talking about a fascinating thread—the shared experience of being black, regardless of background, upbringing, language, and experiences. What has been your development of that idea (while creating the show)? What response have you received?
The response has been incredibly supportive. Tremendous intrigue, [people saying] “I didn’t realize this was something that existed.” This is something that has existed within the Black community for years, centuries, however you want to say it. It has been going on for a long time. It’s not bad or good, it’s just something that exists. I think, in a way, we take it for granted. I don’t know that we necessarily realize how strong of a connection there is in that regard, no matter where we’re from there’s a common thread that links us together, no matter what our experiences have been. One of the primary things that came to me—and I want this to come out in the show— is, why is it that this word black has a negative connotation attached to it? Why does it conjure up—and not necessarily black people—but that word black, it’s dark, it conjures an image that’s different from everybody. It has negative connotations attached to it. So for me, the further exploration is, what’s it like? Existing in a world where you have this quote unquote “negative connotation” attached to you, but it’s not negative to you? It’s your reality. It’s your truth. What does that feel like? That’s one example that gets explored through the piece, through various characters. My hope is that, as they share their various perspectives, the audience will see a common thread throughout the characters. That it allows each audience member, in their own way, to maybe see something in a slightly different perspective than they may have seen it before. Because I feel like…there’s a lot of stuff going on (with reference to black shootings, police)—I gave that a lot of thought. The truth is that that’s effect. There’s cause and effect. Those causes are based on things that have been going on for years. Do I think they’ve improved? I do.
What’s important is in order for society of all colors and backgrounds, if we’re going to be cohesive, we have to be able to have conversations. I think we’ve got to a point and a place where people are afraid to have those conversations. People are afraid—they don’t know what to ask. “Can I ask you this question? Is this appropriate?” If I’m from one culture and I ask someone from another culture about the base of their culture, the base of their life—if I don’t feel like I have the permission to ask questions, how do I understand from a first hand account what this person’s reality is? The more we get to a point where we’re no longer comfortable having conversations, that’s a sad day. That’s the fundamental basis of what makes us human beings, our ability to communicate and to empathize and to see things from a different perspective. But if we’re not able to ask those questions and have a safe ground to have a conversation, then how do we learn about each other? How do we appreciate the differences in each other without necessarily saying you have to be different, you have to change. Instead, saying “Wow, I didn't realize you thought that way. You do think that way. I understand it, I respect it.” That’s amazing. And leave it at that.
What do you wish was more out in the open? What kind of questions are you hoping this show helps people to open up and ask?
I hope that people that are black are able to find humor in the show, because they can relate. I hope people from different backgrounds can come to the show and feel like “I didn’t realize that!” “I’ve always wondered why that was the case.” Maybe they’ll have certain questions answered. Through humor, maybe those conversations can continue when people leave the theatre. People need to feel comfortable and safe to know that they can ask questions. When did it become wrong to call somebody black? People don’t know. "Can I call you black? Can I call you African American?” How can I be African American when I was born in England? You can’t label me was something that’s not authentically true. I’m black, there’s nothing wrong with calling me black. When you start creating segments, you start creating divisions between people. I’m hoping for discussion, through humor, through understanding. This is not meant to be a racially charged or divisive piece. It’s different perspectives, putting it out there and hopefully allowing each audience member to connect with it in the way that’s right for them. There’s no conclusions drawn in this. That I feel proud of, because often people are trying to tell you what to think, tell you how to feel, and I don’t know that that goes far as opposed to sharing a perspective and letting that sit, letting that resonate with each person in the way it does. That’s what I’m hoping for. Because, at the end of the day, we’re all the same—no matter what color we are, no matter where we’re born, what our history is, what we fundamentally want as human beings is the same. We want love, we want acceptance, we want to feel that our life means something—that we have a tribe around us that cares about us. The things that hurt us and anger us and make us happy, they’re all fundamentally the same, so to start chopping us up into different segments based on differences—we’re never going to progress if that’s what we continue to do.
How did you choose the individuals you are representing in the show?
That was very easy. If I had sat down and thought "okay, I’m going to write this piece"—with all the stuff going on in the media, that would have been difficult because there would have been so much to choose from. That’s the beauty of this. I didn’t choose this piece, this piece chose me. These are stories I’ve grown up with all my life. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around West Indians from all different parts of the Caribbean. I’ve been fortunate to be around Africans, growing up in England. I’ve been fortunate to be around Cubans, French Africans, people all around the globe, all kinds of people. Black people, with similar experiences to mine. One of the things about growing up in London is it’s such a melting pot, which I took for granted. So as I chose to write, really it was just a question of deciding ‘where are these characters from?’ Once I understood where they were from, then it was a question of "what do they want to say?" Instinctively, what they wanted to say became very associated with where they are from, because that’s their experience—right? They’re black but they grew up in Europe. They’re black but they grew up in Africa. They’re black but they grew up here (in the US). What is it like growing up in those places? Between my research, my own experiences, and talking to people, I was able to allow their voices to guide me with what needed to be said.
What advice would you give to people who want to bring conversations to the forefront but have no idea how to do so?
I think we have to be transparent. If I have a friend who is from a different culture, I have to avail myself to that person and say “Look, I’m interested in what it’s been like for you. What is your experience? What’s your family’s experience? What do you think about what’s going on?” If I come to this person with transparency and say “I would like to learn,” people love talking about themselves—that’s the truth. It’s also how you approach somebody. If you genuinely have an interest, I don’t see anybody who is going to turn you down. I think that is preferable and more powerful than taking sound bites from the media and trying to come up with your idea [of a certain culture]. We each have to be brave enough and have enough human compassion to say “I don’t know what your experience is. I only have my own experience. I’m hearing a lot of different things. But it would be powerful to me if you could share your experience with me.” I think as long as a person feels they can share their experience without being judged, without being made to feel bad or wrong, that’s where those walls begin to come down. But somebody has to start that conversation. Those conversations begin in your community. I don’t know that they begin online…online is a whole other platform, people aren’t always authentic when they’re online. But there’s opportunities for each of us to reach out in our communities, people that look different than us, speak different than us, eat different foods than us. If you love going to a Moroccan restaurant and you went to the owner and said “I love your food, I’d love to hear the history behind it”—are you telling me he’s not going to be happy to share his history with you? So, to me, it starts with—have the conversations, and just listen. If you listen to somebody else, they’re going to be more apt to listen to you. The moment we stop listening and create an environment where it’s wrong to ask questions—that’s dangerous, because we’re not getting our information from the right places. Ultimately, we all, as human beings, want the same things. We’ve taken different roads to get there, but what we want is the same. We have to be okay that somebody who looks different from us, sounds different from us, eats different foods, has different traditions—that doesn’t make them a bad person. They’re just different, and that’s okay. Do we want to live in a world where everyone is the same? I don’t.
What does black mean to you, and what do you hope to have it mean to others?
To me, black invokes…one of the characters says, "Black is pure...black is good...black is still in business." I stand by that. Black is good. It’s like all the other colors in the universe—it’s good. It’s here for a reason. For me, I hope that we can start saying “black” without it being a bad word. It’s not a bad word. Black is black. White is white. We have gotten so in our heads that black has become a negative thing but it’s not, it shouldn’t be. For everybody that thinks of it as being a negative thing, there are people that wake up everyday, who live life with that word—black. So if we’ve made it something that’s not good, what are we saying to everybody else, to children, who are growing up with this word? That they’re not good? That it’s not a good thing? So I think we’ve over-complicated things a lot and we need to take it back to basics. There’s nothing wrong in my eyes with looking someone in the eyes and saying “Michael Washington Brown is a black man, a black actor.” For me, I’m prideful to represent myself as a black man, but I’m also a man—right? So I don’t feel that I have to apologize for anything. I’m not trying to thrust it down anyone’s throat. But I’m black, and I think black is good. My hope is that the negative connotation goes away.