this body of mine is known to you

Photo by Naku Mayo on Unsplash

“REVEREND D. You all know me. You all know this face.  These arms. These legs. This body of mine is known to you.  To all of you.” [1]

In elementary, I sat in an intimate, two-hundred seat theatre with my fourth-grade social studies class. We had been given programs to view and I pierced through it with sharp enthusiasm.  I noticed–the closest thing to an iconic photo–a Black man with a statement written below his image.  The statement described the play, its significance to the Black household, and the Black father and son relationship. 

I would later realize that the man in this photo was one of the most prestigious voices of American theatre.  As I basked in–unrealized at the time–the first and last show I would see from a Black playwright until the start of my undergrad degree, I sat back and enjoyed a show called Fences.

By sixth grade, I began to have curiosities about theatre–and other art forms at the time–and how it would bring purpose for me.  As I grew older, and looked for more experience as a young actor, I was constantly surrounded by peers that looked less like me.  Most of my Black friends at school looked down upon theatre and often responded to it with intense homophobia and fragile, but young, masculinity.  I often shrugged it off, because I knew that was all in our heads.

As a teenager, I continued engaging with the arts and began doing programming outside of high school–being a part of improv workshops, auditioning for musicals, and participating in storytelling sessions led by teaching artists. The frame of my curiosity of theatre transformed into understanding how it can be utilized as a tool for change. I had a particular interest in exploring theatre’s utilization toward transformative, restorative education.

Upsettingly, not all of my high school teachers believed theatre to be a useful tool for any concrete change.  In fact, I remember a high school history teacher–while reading Othello in class–blurting out theatre to be a “dead art form,” and that its use is, “only a space for William Shakespeare and everyone like him.”  A tough statement to rebuttal.  But ironically, I knew my history teacher to be both factually incorrect, yet, accurate in the same statement. Even so, the words stuck with me as I grew into an adult.

These experiences have indirectly brought me into an essential aspect of my craft: rebirth.

Theatre is a thriving art form constructed of live performance, bright ellipsoidals, and microphone tape.  On the contrary, theatre can also be scholarly, devised, interdisciplinary, and help us unbox the historical, cultural, and social contexts of our world.  What I had to come to grips with through my study–and half-heartedly agree with my history teacher in tenth grade–is the neglect of voices and representation that I have seen on theatre stages. 

Why is it that the contemporary narratives around Black people are preferably neglected in space for the centuries-old Shakespeares, Becketts, or Ibsens to take center?  What has made us assume that classical work is the spearhead and defined cultural connection of American Theatre? What happens when we dismantle this concept and go in a different direction?  These questions have indirectly brought me into an essential aspect of my own craft: rebirth.

When the We See You W.A.T.  movement was shared on social media and other platforms, it was as though my questions around rebirth began to have clearer context as a Black theatremaker [2].  It seemed like the identity that I often bring to a theatre with timidity, was suddenly visible.  It made me actualize the way in which my blackness has been used, manipulated, and discarded upstage of the proscenium arch.  It made me actualize the fact that my body still remains, centerstage, doing this work for white institutions, in front of a sea of its own – despite what was already stripped from me. 

But like Reverend D on his soapbox from In the Blood, “You all know me. You all know this face.  These arms. These legs. This body of mine is known to you.  To all of you.” You all have seen me. you all have heard my rage.  You all have nodded your heads in hope that my rage died down.  But fuck that.  This rage will exist until the very day my people are finally free.

The We See You WAT movement is a moment in which I believe to be an important time in history for Black theatremakers in American Theatre; much like the rising of the New Negro Movement, Chitlin Circuit, and many others.  It allowed me to begin imagining an American Theatre that acknowledges, embraces, and takes in more stories about us and for us.  But it is very evident that this conversation about representation is going to come with much dismantling and stepping back, to leap forward.

The work does not stop when the production meeting ends.

Underrepresentation is part of a larger issue that places American Theatre in the laps of the elite and out of the hands of audiences that could help the culture grow larger and more interconnected–due to the mentality of exclusivity. When we talk about representation, it is not only in inclusive casting and nuanced plays; it is also in our rehearsal and performance spaces, tech teams, stage managers, designers, and the demographic of our audiences.  

But I ask, white American Theater, how are we transforming the way we present theatre? How are we bringing work that is nuanced and nutritious for the seeds that are being planted from artists on all hemispheres of the theatre world?  How are you making space for Black theatremakers in this transformation? Will you support the dismantling of the oppressive systems that American Theatre still hold up? Or are you going to combat it against Black theatremakers –much like how you tried too before? What privileges, opportunities, and advantages will you hand back to shift American Theatre into a world that welcomes all, at any time, and not just in your “POC” season slot? 

Visibility plays more than one role along the way. The work does not stop when the production meeting ends. The fact is this: there are theatres across America with values and behaviors that were birthed, and still rooted, in white supremacy.  To assume that these questions of representation have no suitable answer, is to confirm that spaces in the American Theater want to continue to uphold white supremacy. 

 It is evident to all of us that theatre is a living art form, but the American Theater sleeps in ideologies that could eventually defeat itself.  Therefore, what we do, literally in the theater, has to always be questioned and we must challenge ourselves to remain constantly uncomfortable.

“We have always seen you.  And now you will see us.”

Malick Ceesay

a playwright.

Sources:

[1] Parks, In the Blood, 27.

[2] weseeyouWAT.com

About the author:

Malick is a playwright, director, and music producer from the Twin Cities. His play, Waiting in Vain, was workshopped and produced at Augsburg University with Ambiance Theatre Company. He was a finalist for the Many Voices Mentorship through the Playwrights’ Center (Minneapolis, MN) in 2018. His work has been featured in the digital anthology, Black MN Voices (published in 2020) and has been a writer for The Plugged App. He currently resides in Los Angeles, CA where he is pursuing his MFA in Playwriting at UCLA (Graduate Opportunities Fellowship). Synopses and samples of his plays can be viewed on New Play Exchange.

Malick Ceesay
Playwright | Website