In Character : Gloss

In Character

In writing about black experience, scholars often center upon the compulsory visibility of diasporic African bodies. As a consequence of centuries of human bondage, legal limits on citizenship rights, and stereotypical popular representations, brown complexion—inaccurately labeled “black skin”—has been accorded a monitored status. A police officer is more likely to stop a motorist; a prosecutor to seek a tougher sentence; a shopkeeper to follow a customer if the stopped, accused, and followed has been recognized as black. It is for these reasons that writings on racial identity often emphasize the excessive attention (and violence) that greets the black body in innumerable public settings. This emphasis can be seen in sociologist W.E.B. DuBois’s theorization of “double consciousness,” the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” It appears in author Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “letter” to his son in which he observes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”


In critically engaging the attendant experiences of blackness, it can be helpful to spotlight an individual. Focus on a person. Tell his or her story. Try to relay the perspective of folks who inhabit environments in which others look upon them with distrust, disgust, skepticism, and often fear. Share the anxieties that surface from knowing that they could be the target of violence, a verbal or physical assault, because of their skin complexion. These personal accounts, anecdotes, memories, and stories can be gathered to create a mosaic of a diverse community united by similar experiences of race.


The arts have played a significant role in relaying embodied black experience. In literature, authors have long understood that a novel offers an opportunity to mine the psychological interiority of characters in a manner unparalleled by other artistic media. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, for example, grant the reader the chance not only to see the world through the eyes of their protagonists but also to hear their comments on the many slights, injustices, and outright prejudices that they encounter. On the stage, playwrights (and production teams) have attempted to offer a sense of embodied black experience by creating characters who speak openly about their perceptions on the world in which they live. For example, the character Wolf, in August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running, observes, “every nigger you see done been to jail one time or another. The white man don’t feel right unless he got a record on these niggers.” Always aware of the precarity of blackness, he warns others, “you always under attack.”


In Character imagines a scenario in which anyone can gain access to the experience of being seen and treated as black. It invents a way to encounter history, including the past abuses that targeted diasporic Africans. From one perspective, In Character is a far-fetched play. No theatre is going to invite audience members to don the flesh of another person and role-play “black person.” From another, the play could happen but with a slight difference in staging. Immersive theatre is gaining in popularity. In addition, virtual reality (VR) technology seems to improve with each new year. It is just a matter of time before an enterprising developer creates a way for us to put on VR goggles, assume the stead of a captive, and experience the hold of a slave ship. The result will be a form of theatre.


About the Author

Harvey Young is Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University. Prior to this position, he was Chair of the Department of Theatre at Northwestern University, and Professor of African American Studies, Performance Studies and Radio/Television/Film. His books include Embodying Black Experience (Michigan, 2010), Theatre & Race (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre (Cambridge, 2012).