Today I had my final class of the semester at one of the schools I teach at. For the final of Voice for the Stage, I ask my students to perform a monologue they’ve worked on for several weeks in the large mainstage theater in front of each other. They pick their monologues themselves; I allow them to be from movies or television, from a favorite play, anything that they are genuinely interested in. I do this because it’s a chance for these learners to test their abilities, honed over the last 14 weeks, to offer up the stories they’ve chosen to tell via their bodies. I want, and encourage them, to choose words they feel will be thrilling for them to inhabit. It’s a chance to see if the class has helped them in transmitting those narratives’ feelings and emotions out of their imaginations, through their voices and out into an audience.
Today a girl stepped onto the stage and performed a monologue from Lord of the Rings, playing the wizard Gandalf. I think about the fact that a year ago I was watching another girl performing another Gandalf monologue during this same culminating performance day and that earlier this semester I also saw another female Gandalf at a different school.
I think about how every single year there is a female Gandalf.
Last week, I sat in my living room and heard six fast and sharp pops from somewhere to the south and west of my window.
Oh no, I thought. I know what this sound is. I hope it’s something other than what I think it is, but if I’m honest I know exactly what this sound is, and still I keep working, hoping somehow that I’m mistaken until minutes later I hear the parade of several sirens in the distance and I can’t pretend any longer that what I already knew I knew wasn’t true.
In the moment I’m afraid, I’m scared, and I’m sad.
I think, I should call Brad and make sure he’s ok. Even though I know he’s at the theater, having left nearly 40 minutes ago, I should still just check and make sure.
I walk to the window and I see two police cars parked on the corner and several police walk into a mini market. Moments later I see several people, males of varying ages from teenager to thirty something adult, all walk quickly out of the store. They’re all African-American. They’re looking at their phones. A microsecond-long thought passes through my head, “What are the police doing? Why aren’t they stopping these men? What if they need to question them? What if they’re involved?”
This is the first thought that instinctually comes into my head. That they are guilty. It isn’t one of reasoned or rational thought. It’s gut reaction. It’s fear. It’s instinct. It’s the first story that comes to my mind.
A moment later I’m examining that thought, the first that flashed in my mind and I feel disgusted with myself.
In that moment I say, literally, as in actually I saw to myself out loud to the room, “What is wrong with you Adrienne? Why would you think that?”
I think, Why is the first narrative you’ve built around these humans who are leaving a store and looking at their phones one that assumes their guilt? What is it about them that makes you think this way before you even have had a moment to think? Why is the story you instinctually tell one of guilt and violence and implication? Why is the story you tell not one of a person scared and wondering if the people they know are alright? Why is their act of looking at of phones something that nonsensically becomes something nefarious instead of appearing innocent because it’s the EXACT SAME INSTINCT you yourself had?
And of course it’s because they are Black.
And in this moment, it’s painful to realize this.
And in this moment, it’s painful to realize that I do not want that impulse inside me.
And in this moment, it’s painful to realize that even though I do not consciously believe it, something about the world I live in has made this my gut instinct.
And in this moment I hate the world and I hate the gut instinct and I hate myself and I feel privileged and stupid and small.
I think, Why on instinct don’t you assume that these fellow humans are going to their own friends and families and making sure they are ok, that they hurry from this place because they too are scared and worried and want to feel comfort in a moment of stress and tension and possible tragedy?
I think, Why, why, why on earth is that not the story you instinctively picture?
I think about how quickly that terrible default story appeared in my mind. I think about the fact that I’m a storyteller by trade. I wonder about whether I’m telling stories that make it easier or harder for this kind of terrible default story to emerge.
I think about all this and I’m ashamed.
There is a darkness in you, I think. There’s something dark and sticky and terrible and it’s not something you put there on purpose but it is part of a much bigger problem that’s so so so terribly hard and sad and needs to be changed. I think about the color connotations of the words that my brain has just used to think about the problem, again the ones that simply came to mind. I think about how these too are problematic tropes that assume fault based on color and that they too infect the stories we tell.
This is not darkness, I think. You cannot think of the terrible thing that feeds the bad kind of stories as darkness. You are not allowed to equate darkness with that kind of evil and hatred.
I’m ashamed in that moment of the story that emerges from my brain without my asking it to appear. I hate it and I stand at my window and I look at the people walking by and I do my best to imagine a new story. In my new story I finally see the lines of worry in their faces. I think, You need to step back and work harder to see the world better. You need to work harder to get those other instinctual stories out of yourself, to find their roots and pull and pull and pull. You need to keep working on new stories that are better, you need something else to plant in their place.
Today between the myriad of moments in which I smile and clap and laugh with the group there’s a different kind of moment, one in which I pause and purse my lips for a moment and feel very very sad.
I’ve seen female Gandalfs and female Jack Nicholsons from A Few Good Men. I’ve seen Black students play Abraham Lincoln and Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson (saving his daughter from kidnappers) and Liam Neeson (fighting wolves in the woods). Today I see two girls with long black hair, girls who are Mexican, playing Carrie Bradshaw and Gretchen Weiner from Mean Girls. I’m sad that between the very occasional For Colored Girls… monologues there’s so much Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap and Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.
I’m sad because every year I see a female Gandalf.
I’m sad because there are a million female Gandalfs, it seems. I’m sad because I’ve seen students choose to play sponges and mutants and demons and even a human embodiment of a font, and though every year I see SO many of my female students find power and depth in speaking like Ian McKellen pretending to be a bearded wizard I have never, not once, not even one single time in seven years of teaching, seen a male student decide that they’d find something exciting and inspiring about speaking words originally intended for a woman.
I’m sad because this must mean we are not doing well enough in the stories we have for my female students.
I’m sad because the first story that comes to my mind when I see a group of Black men reacting to a gunshot is the worst kind of story. I’m sad because this isn’t the story that should be brought to my mind. And because it is, we’re clearly not doing well enough in the stories we have for them either.
I’m sad because I know that I get so tired hearing stories about women that conform to all the stupid and terrible gender norms. I’m sad because I get so tired of having to hear these same stupid stories that are such a tiny part of the larger whole of what being feminine can mean. It hurts me that there aren’t a larger number of better stories for the women who stand on that stage.
I think about the times someone has created a story for me that I do not want to be a part of, of the effort it takes to remove this story from myself. I think about the way that I am doing the same to others without even realizing it, without wanting to, and that I need to keep striving to find a way to stop.
I think about the stories we as a culture force on people without their consent. I think about how we also allow those stories to be attached onto people, to dictate how their lives are told, while apathetically doing nothing. It makes me think about the way that stories about thugs and gangs and riots are used to distract us from the larger more terrible and oppressive stories about the world. It makes me think about the way that we shove these stories into the brains of children who don’t have the ability to judge these stories for the garbage they are. I think about all the work we are now responsible to do as adults in order to pull those stories out of ourselves.
I think about how we are literally wasting people’s lives by casting them in these shitty stories, how even a million female Gandalfs can’t create enough force to invert the imbalance.
And I think that this rooting, this active undoing and this need for rewriting for the better must be the job of our lives as artists. If we aren’t doing this, what good are any of the stories we go on to create? At this moment, as storytellers, we must take responsibility for the telling. For what other kind of magic can we possibly be here on earth to do?