Luther Brice by Kirin McCrory

For the past two summers, I've been fortunate to write pieces for Lynchburg, VA's Old City Cemetery Tour. The way it works, in brief: the team at OCC picks a short list of names of real people buried in the cemetery; then they pass that list on to a handful of writers, who select the names that interest them; the writers receive what little (or lot!) of research the cemetery has on the person, and write either 5-6 minute monologues or scenes; the monologues and scenes are performed in October on the grounds of the cemetery in the annual OCC tours.

Last year, I wrote a piece for Luther Brice, a young Black man who was killed in a boiler explosion while serving a 60-day sentence at the City Farm, which was essentially a prison labor farm. He'd been arrested on a "charge of disorder," his mother had potentially been a laundress, and that was about all that was known about him.

The monologue's below, accompanied by Jay Wescott's press photos from The News & Advance, featuring Joshua Carter as Luther Brice.


LUTHER BRICE, a Black man somewhere around 20, stands. He's dressed in nondescript clothes, simple textiles, unmarked: a kind of work uniform, a kind of prison uniform.

At his feet are two metal buckets, one full with water, one empty.

"Disorder." What that mean to you?

He picks up the full bucket, holding it in his hands.

Somethin' like an unmade bed, a messy table, crumbs on yo' fine carpet. "Disorder." A child's room when he been playin', and when he pop off while you tellin' him to clean it. Two different things, both "disorder." Tryin' to catch water what's slippin' through your hands: that's "disorder."

He pours the full bucket into the empty bucket.

If this was a civilized conversation, now'd be the time when you'd ask what "disorder" mean to me, but that kinda conversatin' is only for civilians. We ain't civilians here--they make sure we know that--we "workers." That's a civil way a' saying "prisoner," and that's a civil way a' saying "criminal," and though the Civil War ended more than 50 years ago I still ain't got the right to be treated with it, civility. Now, in 1921, y'all just get to say it's 'cause of my "disorderly conduct," instead of the color of my skin.

He replaces the now-empty bucket on the ground and picks up the full bucket.

Yes, I'm a free man now, 'cept when the city comes a-callin'. 'Cept when I been "disorderly." Then I get marched over the hill in shackles, a coffle unto myself, for a 60-day sentence at the City Farm. They act like they doin' me a favor, like it's a holiday here. Vacation to the snow white silo built on the backs of the misbehavers, forged a' their blood and sweat. Less tears 'cause it's menfolk, but I heard one or two of 'em at night. Maybe they heard me.

He dunks a hand in and wipes his face with it.

We dirty after a hard day's work on the farm. My great-grandmother would'a felt the same, tired after workin' her hands to the bone, sweatin' to pick dry the skeleton of a cotton field. Great-grandmother was a slave, Paw-paw was a sharecropper, Mama's a laundress, and I'm a laborer, and we all got bent backs from stoopin' so much. I must'a I held my head a little too high when I left Mama that morning. She needed salve for her poor, cracked hands, but she never got it: they picked me up 'fore I even reached the general store, picked me up for "mouthin' off" to the white man who had words for me that morning. They called it "disorder," "disruptin' the peace." I guess I ain't got the right to peace, 'cause it's me in here who's heatin' up the water for the prisoners' daily bath.

He pours the full bucket into the empty bucket.

The boiler was in "disorder" when I come to heat the water. I was kindlin' the fire and it sounded off, somethin' 'tween a hiss and a whistle. The flame flickered in my hand. I don't know nothin' 'bout no boilers, so I yelled out to Big Bill--figured he been in here longer, he probably done it before. Mama would'a known 'bout the boiler. Wish I could'a asked her. Hell, wish I could'a seen her one last time, talk about anything but the damned boiler. All's I had to do was get the water hot, give us a nice warm bath after a hard day's work. Big Bill ain't help me none, told me, "Draw it out!" I wiped the sweat off my brow. May as well'a been cleanin' my headstone.

He bends down, dips a hand in the full bucket, and wipes his face again. He straightens up and begins to tap on the empty bucket, slow at first, picking up speed and building into a frenzy of fast pops at the end, like a bowl of popcorn exploding to life.

Two men walk down the street, one black, one white. Two men exercise they freedom a' speech, but only one of 'em go to jail, and it's me who get picked up for "disorder" just 'cause I won't take it lyin' down. Enjoyment's punishment when you black and "free," 'cause the only vacation I ever got was a trip to the City Farm. And the street I got picked up on, the street you all walk free on, was probably dug by another black man on another vacation. Black men build the roads, and black men s'posed to lay down and be the bricks, too. That's "order." That's "justice." That's "freedom."

He stops tapping. He sets the empty bucket down.

As it happened, I thought, "This been happenin' to me my whole life." You don't know danger 'til you try bein' colored in the Land of the Free.

Anything you got's a weapon, from your name to your family to your voice. The smile on your face's a weapon, if you smilin' wrong. Imagine holding something a' genuine danger in the palms a' your dark hands. The terror you'd feel. Your heart racin' fast. I's just sent in to heat the water, just sent to do a chore. And I ain't even have sense enough to realize it 'til after.

Me, I lit a match...

As he speaks, he pulls a matchbook out of his pocket, tears out a single match, and lights it.

He squats all the way down, keeping the match lit.

...and the damn thing blew up in my face.

He drops the match in the full bucket. It sizzles out.

THE END

On Terror and Privilege by Kirin McCrory

Minnesota Public Radio posted the dash cam footage from Philando Castile's murder by Office Jeronimo Yanez. I don't know why, but I decided to watch it--perhaps because the verdict was fresh in my mind, another police officer proved innocent of crimes we can see him commit, perhaps because I felt like I owed it in some small part to the memory of Philando Castile. I stay away from graphic footage of attacks like those because they are a heavy burden to bear, but I am allowed to stay away because I'm white, and because I'm white I spend my life staying away from attacks like those, and because I'm white I spend my life free from the true terror that Black Americans feel every day.

A few weeks ago, it hit me. I was driving down the California highway, zipping in and out of traffic at 80MPH in a 65MPH zone, cursing the people in front of me who didn't have somewhere to be like I did. I passed a Black man in his car and thought, I can zip around at 80MPH because I don't drag around the fear that I may be pulled over for speeding and then shot for being Black. That's privilege: I think about the horror of what our country does to its Black citizens often--who cannot these days, when every week feels drowned in the blood of another innocent Black life--but I had never parsed my privilege down to my speeding. 

Office Yanez fired 7 shots into Philando Castile's car at point blank range, mere seconds into a traffic stop for busted brake lights. Philando Castile freely admits to having a firearm in the car, and in a split second, his life is taken from him, wrenched from his body by the bullets of a police officer who seems terrified that a Black man might even have a gun. 

The job of a police officer is a job rife with danger, but it is a known danger, a risk you sign on for when you put on the uniform. You are instructed to keep the peace and enact justice. Cops most certainly die on the job, but here's the real truth about danger: you are not in danger if you can pull out your firearm and kill the slightest threat to your safety, and cops are granted that amnesty. Their badge is a shield, literally and figuratively, freeing them from the justice that is theirs to enact. What would it take to put a cop in jail? Not sexual assault, not murder--many court cases over the last few years have shown us this.

My father's an ex-police officer. We grapple with these conversations often. I do not believe my father is bad, do not believe all cops are bad--but they defend each other blindly, showing empathy for only themselves and no one else. Terror does not give you the right to shoot a person 5 times in the chest at point blank range, and if it does, Philando Castile should have shot long before Officer Yanez. He was armed, after all; he could have. Signing up for a dangerous job should not guarantee you amnesty from your crimes, and if it does, all the marginalized communities in America should be granted amnesty, since to be Black, to be female, to be Latinx, Muslim, queer, gay, transgendered, anything but straight and white and male seems like an automatic death sentence these days. We do not sign up for our uniform, the one that endangers our lives just for walking down the street, for saying no, for praying, for being, and we do not have the gun already in our hands when we're terrified.

In a week, Philando Castile's murderer was let off scot-free, Charleena Lyles was shot in front of her children because she called the cops for help, and Nabra Hassanen was beaten to death for wearing a hijab in public. Their terror meant nothing. I sit in an air-conditioned house, the epitome of privileged, a white girl with only the slightest idea of what it means to be terrified of life--that creeping feeling when I hear a sound in the house, when a man looks at me too long, when I'm walking alone and digging for my keys just to make myself feel like I have an ounce of protection. I cry for Philando Castile, for Diamond Reynolds, for their daughter, for Charleena and Nabra.

Tears don't mean anything. For every one of mine that falls, millions of people in this country who are more terrified than me hear nothing but the rain.

 

On Talkbacks, pt. 1 by Kirin McCrory

I'm a dramaturg, which means I've led my fair share of talkbacks. I'm also a theatre-goer, which means I've sat through more TOTALLY HORRIBLE ONES. You can feel a palpable stomach-lurch in the crowd when the play ends and a talkback is announced. If you're lucky, the organizer gives everyone a moment or two after curtain to choose to leave or stay; if you're unlucky, they catch the audience before anyone can get up and start the talkback immediately, making it awkward for you to sneak out should you so desire. Then, usually someone--the playwright, the director, the actors--joins the organizer on stage. If you're lucky, there's a specific topic at hand to be discussed; if you're unlucky, whoever's up there rambles on about something that may or may not (usually not) be interesting, and then it turns into an incredibly awkward and horribly prompted, "What did you all think?" Then, if you're lucky, a few observant, articulate people make a comment or ask a question or two; if you're unlucky, that one person goes on a 15-minute diatribe that seems to ultimately be about something wholly unrelated to the play.

Talkbacks are about being specific and setting boundaries. Talkbacks are better if there's a subject selected beforehand, usually resonating with one or many of the play's themes. If it's a new work, talkbacks might be used to glean audience information from a new production, which can also be incredibly useful for everyone involved but especially the playwright. Talkbacks should never, ever, absolutely EVER be a moment to see whether the audience "liked" the play or not: again, specifics are your friend should you ever face the task of organizing a talkback. Whether or not the audience "liked" a play is useless information and will change every night.

In my opinion, the most important thing about talkbacks is putting the event in context for your audience, and then reining them the fuck in. Context is important for everyone, and setting the scene for your audience allows you to most effectively prompt them into participation or steer them away from other things. For instance, if the play is new, please for the love of all things good and true do not look an audience in the face and ask, "What things did you like? Or dislike!" Like or dislike is too subjective: the answers won't be helpful, and they'll either be overtly positive (therefore useless to any revision process) or negative based on each individual's personal tastes and preferences. Instead, give them context--"One of the things that made this play stand out to us was its use of a nonlinear timeline, switching back and forth between past and present based on conversational triggers..."--and then ask a specific question designed to get feedback that the production team is interested in--"...were you able to follow the timeline? When did you get lost? Were the transitions between time periods clear?" If you do this, you will cut down on 90% of the bullshit comments/questions that plague most talkbacks. 

The inspiration for the post occurred recently--I suffered the most infuriating talkback experience of my life a couple weeks ago. It was a college-level preview performance of what some consider a more difficult play; I went in with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of solid work being done by the actresses on stage. It was a decidedly fine production--aesthetics were terrible, there were a handful of questionable choices, but all in all, a perfectly fine 2.5 hours. The play ended, we clapped, the actors bowed, the lights came up. A small audience of perhaps 25-40 people began to leave. The director walked out, thanked us for coming, and began to walk away. Suddenly she whipped around and stopped us: "We usually do a talkback after these preview performances, actually, so we'd love to hear from you!" I was literally standing in the aisle, halfway to the exit, but I and my partner turned to pay attention, not wanting to be rude.

After a lot of bumbling about what a hard, difficult show it was, the director's first question was: "So--did you guys get it?"

I realize not everyone is as sensitive to these comments as I am, but I was livid. Sure, it's a play notorious for a confusing first act that seems to have nothing to do with the second act. Unless you have a brain, in which case even if you don't get it you still pretty much get it. Also, sorry, but this is one of the most famous plays written by a woman--there's a reason it's well-known, and it's not because audiences don't get it.

The last thing you want to do in a talkback is make your audience feel stupid, and though I don'tthink that's what the director meant to do, it was still a byproduct in my mind. And the real reason felt even more offensive--it felt like a desperate need for validation based on a cringe-worthily obvious insecurity. Talkbacks are not for you--the director, the playwright, the artistic producer, the actor--to assuage your insecurities with a real live audience. Quite frankly, if you're that insecure about your production, I'm not sure I want to see it, not if you don't have an ounce of assurance about your own work. There are risky productions; there are things you're not sure an audience will take to; there are stories that need to be tested to see if they really resonate. All theatre artists are occasionally insecure. But if you don't have the conviction if your own choices, why the fuck would you expect me to sit around for 2.5 hours to give you a pat on the back? No ma'am, everyone's time is more precious than that, including your own. You wrote or picked the play for a reason, didn't you? Something about it made sense to you, didn't it?

But the talkback from hell went on. The director must have asked anywhere from 6-10 times, "Anything else? We welcome all your comments and feedback." And that was the only question she asked. The most specific she got all night was, "Didja guys get it?" and followed that up with, "I'm not even really sure I get it myself!" What a disservice, to yourself, to the audience, to the playwright, to your actresses who worked their asses off onstage, to every single person involved in this evening of theatre. Then, even worse than that, she'd brought all the actresses out onstage in their costumes, and finally (and perhaps unexpectedly) she opened it up to them.

"What about you girls? Do you all have any questions for the audience?"

Again, no guidance, no specificity, just opening the floor to young students--many for whom this was their first show--to ask whatever their hearts desired. Most of them politely shook their heads, but one girl asked one question. What do you think it was?

"Did you guys like it?"

NOT. THE QUESTION. YOU ASK. AN AUDIENCE. And it wasn't the actress' fault--she's a student, it's someone's job to teach her what questions to ask and why.

The whole thing lasted about 15 minutes, which doesn't sound terrible until you realize the audience made a maximum of 3 comments during that time, and one of them towards the end, after many rounds of being prompted to say something, was, "I thought the girl who played the mom did a really great job. I really felt her emotions." BECAUSE THAT'S ALSO WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PUSH AN AUDIENCE TO MAKE COMMENTS, they start to get into the compliments that should be delivered after the show instead of in front of all the other actresses who worked just as hard. Most of the 15 minutes was filled by the director, rambling about her own misunderstandings of the play, her own difficulties, then forcing the audience to assuage her doubt, then forcing them to make comments on a topic she hadn't given them.

Again, I'm sure very few people in the audience felt any type of way about this, perhaps a little awkward, at most. Perhaps they didn't walk out feeling like the director called them stupid; perhaps they didn't walk out wondering why they'd sat through a production that the director didn't even believe in; perhaps they didn't feel like they'd been gagged and bound and forced to pet someone they were already there to support. But I did, and perhaps one or two of them did too.

That's one or two too many.

On Teaching and Generosity by Kirin McCrory

I taught my first solo class this quarter at UCR-- Introduction to Playwriting and Screenwriting. Though there were some minor guidelines, I got to build the class essentially from the ground up, picking reading materials, mapping out the schedule, amending the required writing assignments to my liking. I was thrilled to get to do this. I don't know when it struck me that I wanted to teach, but over the course of the last two years of my MFA, it's become painfully apparent that the classroom (undergrad level or higher, I ain't tryna fuck with <18) is where I want to be, and also where I thrive. Relatedly, I spent a good handful of my MFA workshops quietly co-teaching classes, sometimes with the appreciative recognition of the leading professor, under the nose of others.

I picked 4 pieces that I thought packed a fair diversity punch in a short time: Stop Kiss by Diana Son, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph, Moonlight by Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Thelma and Louise by Callie Khouri. I took the 2 required writing assignments--a short screenplay and a short stageplay--and made the length requirements better reflect the forms: a 10-15p screenplay that could be submitted to short film festivals if produced, and a 20-30p one-act play that would give students insight into building a longer arc.

We had our final class last night, and I told my students I felt a little spoiled this first time around. I had 10 undergrads, all dedicated, respectful, and hard-working. Classes were fun and easy; I got them talking and only occasionally felt like I was rambling on. I worked hard, too--I made a detailed syllabus, took care to put every assignment and every choice in context (because I think students deserve to know why you want them to do something, and still sent them an email after every class reminding them what was due, and including any extra materials based on things that came up in class. I sent detailed PDFs with additional notes for maximum understandability. I put time and thought into crafting each and every thing.

Too often, as educators, we take a one-size-fits-all approach to our students, and that approach is usually built on the assumption that they know how to do school. My mother worked at colleges since I was born, so I grew up on campuses, academia passed down like DNA. I was very much aware that it was a privilege to be familiar with how school worked, aware of how unfair the assumption is when teachers treat students like they should know what's going on. Teaching at UC Riverside took that awareness and made it palpable--it's one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, and has the highest rate of graduation for 1st-time college students. Kids at UCR are, for the most part, hard-working multitaskers, and many of them speak English as a second language and are the first in their families to go to college.

It does not take much more effort on my part to ensure that the system of our class is as clear as it can be, to give context for assignments (what I'm hoping students get out of them, how the assignments help them learn the desired skill), to devote attention to each student, to answer their emails and questions. The effort it takes on my part is a seed I'm willing to sow, to reap the benefits of a mutual respect and an open communication between us all.

After our last class, a few students walked me across campus. 

"I just want to thank you for a great quarter," one of them said. "I could've spent six hours in your class every Tuesday. It was honestly one of the best classes I've had here."

The others nodded in agreement.

"And I'm just so appreciative of the time you took to answer my questions and talk to me. I've never had a professor invest so much time in just me and my experience."

I'm getting soft in my old age, and even if I didn't show it, I was pretty emotional. I don't often pat myself on the back, and I don't like compliments. But nothing feels better than knowing that the time and energy you invested in the hopes that students felt comfortable, safe, respected, and encouraged in your classroom paid off in just that. Not every student might have felt that way, but the vibe was good, the class was successful, and I watched and helped their writing grow from week to week. We had good discussions, and I made sure to get them talking by having round-table questions, pushing them to clarify their thoughts, and always treating their curiosities and comments with respect.

It could have all been a fluke--we'll see. I'm sure not every class will go so smoothly, or feel so good at the end. I'm sure I will have students who don't feel like they get a damn thing from me; I hope I'm able to notice that and adjust before it's too late. I've seen too many teachers treat the classroom like their own personal temple, a place for their voice to be heard and revered, for their opinion to matter the most. I think, as long as I'm able to keep my ego off that shit, I'll be okay.

On Play(w)Rights by Kirin McCrory

It's important to observe and analyze power structures, especially in your own field, in the hopes of one day dismantling or overturning them. As a woman, I am painfully aware of the gender hierarchy in the theatre; as a straight white woman, I'm only intellectually aware of the numerous other hierarchies, race and sexuality and disability and on and on. 

I try to stay away from the news these days. True, it makes me feel like an uninformed citizen 99% of the time, which makes me feel guilty, but also I find when I stay away from the news, I am generally happier, less anxious, less hopeless. But of course I still check facebook, and twitter, and of course I still see headlines, and of course in the era of Wokeness, no field is safe from the long-needed call-outs.

Edward Albee has a reputation, and it's one I've always had a problem with. On the one hand, I love his writing style and a handful of his plays; on the other hand, I hate his controlling presence as The Playwright, his unwillingness to let his work expand, his relegation of women and people of color as other to his work. We are barely allowed to participate in it, and only when He deems it acceptable. 

I did a scene from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf as a freshman in college, for a stage combat class. A girlfriend of mine and I decided we were Martha and George respectively, and wouldn't it be a great play to add some physical dialogue into? Our fight scene was great. I was a great George; she, a great Martha. It was only an informal scene, so we didn't have to get permission from the playwright or the Albee estate. We wouldn't have gotten it if we tried. 

On Saturday, skimming through Facebook and trying not to stall on anything that made me feel sad, I hit this headline: Who's Afraid of a Diverse Cast? I couldn't help it: my brain stalled. In 2017, a director and a cast were denied rights to Who's Afraid. The Estate maintains that they never gave the production the rights, and that is true. They also maintain that the director violated any possible contract by advertising the production before he'd retained the rights, which is kind of true (the director said he'd advertised for auditions of the play, but not a production). But the main issue they appeared to have with the production was that a Black actor was playing Nick. The Estate's reasoning was that Nick "was written as a Caucasian, with reference to blonde hair and blue eyes," and that the casting of an interracial couple "added interpretations that were not present in the play." I maintain that if the Albee estate didn't want to look like a bunch of racist assholes, they should have stuck to the first two claims, and not even touched on the hotbed topic of race. But they didn't do that, and consequentially, we are allowed to critique them accordingly.

I have a whole lot of fuck you reactions to get through, so we'll go through them one by one.

Fuck your character descriptions. Unless the play's called Blonde Haired, Blue Eyed Nick, then I don't care. How many White Nicks do you think there've been with brown hair? Brown eyes? Green eyes? Black hair? A quick Google image search tells me there's been plenty. Not a single plot point hinges on Nick's blonde hair and blue eyes. A few lines of dialogue might need a change, but the director had a plan for language changes that was well thought out and totally logical. So unless the climax of the play depends upon "But Nick! Your hair is blonde and your eyes are blue!" then I don't give a fuck (and also that climax would be boring).

Fuck your interpretations. You wrote a play, buddy. A play's a thing that necessarily brings together a different group of people to collaborate each time. Nick is a secondary character. The casting of a Black man brings in the slightest hint of commentary on Nick's blossoming career and George's jealousy, but it don't change the meaning of the whole fucking play. You might believe your play is about how horrible upper middle class white people can be, but part of the problem with modern liberal sensitivities is that white people somehow believe they're doing minorities a favor by protecting them from negative representations. It's a privilege to be represented "negatively" and yet still fill the house with audience every night. Who's Afraid is absolutely about people with horrible sides to them--Black people are allowed to have horrible sides to them, too. The Estate allowed a production with a Black woman playing Martha! Why? Because it's a fucking good part and Black women deserve to get to play it. Casting changes don't render the meaning null and void. It adds spice, it doesn't change the dish. This leads me to my next fuck you point:

Fuck your narrow mind. This play won a Tony Award for Best New Play--if you think that shit is only applicable to white people, you're doing your own work a disservice and calling it artistic integrity. Plays should be specific, but the message has to be damn-near universal. If your play only speaks to a narrow group about a narrow experience, then it didn't deserve to win any bullshit awards. It doesn't deserve to be produced over and over again. You keep yourself down by limiting your work, and on the flip side you make other people feel like shit (you know, the same people who always feel like shit because you won't write plays they're "allowed" to be in and won't allow them in your plays that get produced over and over again). I realize Edward Albee is dead and I am addressing a ghost, but neverthe-fucking-less, as a lesson to all current and future playwrights: don't do that to yourself!

Fuck your power. The only people who do this shit are straight white men. Albee, Beckett, Mamet--those are the three playwrights who come to mind when the issue of 'alternative casting' comes up (also when the issue of 'talented but up their own fucking asses' comes up). Please name me a female playwright whose estate jumps down everyone's throat when they try to change shit. Name me a well-known Black control freak who stalks every production of his shit throughout the country just to make sure everyone's doing it "right." That's right--you can't. The only, the singular example I can think of was recent, when this dude tried to cast a white man to play MLK. And yes, the director was Black, I know that. But Katori Hall didn't get to shut the production down, either, so everybody loses. And Hall coming out and demanding that a Black man play MLK is not an equivalent example, because guess what? Theatre is still predominantly white and male, which means we HAVE to start demanding that women and Black actors and Latinx actors and Indian and Asian and everything but white and male get stage time.

I know a playwright or two who would counter all of this with something like, "But what about the playwright's right to control? Other artists exhibit this level of control over their work--why not us?" Let me reiterate: write a novel, then. What are you doing in the theatre? Imagine the FIELD DAY Shakespeare would get to have if suddenly he had an Estate that got to determine what productions could and couldn't be done of his plays. True, I might never have suffered through that Troilus and Cressida that was a poorly researched Israeli-Palestine Conflict production with an extra sword fight added to it, but that's the risk you take on when you write something for a collaborative art. There are plenty of art forms that don't allow other people to fuck with your art, but the theatre is not one of those forms, and it never will be. 

It's 2017. Can we please, please start acting like it?