The play, entitled “Bootycandy,” turned out to be a series of loosely-connected sketches about the experiences of a variety of black and gay characters, including a cross-dressing reverend, a lesbian couple going through a divorce ceremony, and four black playwrights sitting on a workshop panel with an extremely condescending white moderator. At times both hilarious and heartbreaking, “Bootycandy” was also the most explicit play I have ever seen. I mean this in every understanding of the word explicit—not only were the jokes themselves of a blunt humor, but the play was extremely straightforward in how it addressed topics of sexual assault, love and dating, and the many forms that family and friendship can take, especially when it comes to issues of acceptance. Making his audience uncomfortable was clearly a goal of playwright Robert O’Hara, who was quoted in the play’s program as saying, “Everyone is welcome, and no one is safe.” At intermission, the four audience members sitting next to me grabbed their coats and left.
All of this is to say, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ways in which we, as individuals and as members of various and disparate communities, learn about cultures and communities of which we are not a part. I would posit that one of the markers of privilege is the ability to decide when, how, and under what circumstances a person feels uncomfortable. My grandparents and I paid money to have our perspectives challenged, but often our day-to-day lives are removed from such experiences. The audience members next to me, all of whom were white and who appeared to be two heterosexual couples, got to decide after an hour of the play that they had had enough embarrassment for one evening, and left the theater altogether. That, to me, is privilege—the ability to say, “I’ve had enough of inhabiting this worldview, and I don’t feel comfortable here. I’m going to leave and go somewhere else, where I know I’ll be safe and in control.” Privilege is knowing with certainty that such a place exists.
So what role does art, whether in theater or in poetry, play in challenging its audience’s sense of safety? Acknowledging ignorance is painful for anybody, and plays a large part in why so many conversations about cultural differences come to frustrating, fruitless conclusions. What people mean when they say, for example, “I don’t see race/religion/gender, etc.” is that they don’t want to admit that they don’t know everything. That’s part of what makes poetry, like June Jordan’s “Poem Against Police Violence,” so powerful—it forces its readers to contend with the radical notion that their opinions could be wrong. In “Poem Against Police Violence,” Jordan explicitly challenges the authority that police have over the ability to end black life at will. This is a powerful argument to make, and her question about “what…would happen if / everytime they kill a black boy / then we kill a cop / everytime they kill a black man / then we kill a cop[?]” (2-6) has the power to be deeply unsettling for some readers. Indeed, when Loma introduced this poem during their workshop, they mentioned a recent even when one woman left the room crying when this poem was introduced. Death, especially in such a violent, unexpected manner, is always deeply upsetting and in some ways impossible to grapple with, and yet some communities are forced to come to terms with it at much greater rates than others. What “Poem Against Police Violence” accomplishes, then, is the creation of a reality, however hypothetical it may be, in which those at the top of the social hierarchy experience a threat to this apparent dominance. Jordan asks us to consider why it is that the death of police officers might engender such controversy and rage, while the much more frequent death of black men at the hands of cops can so easily go ignored.
Art, therefore, is valuable when it catches its audience by surprise. If reading, or watching, or absorbing in some way that engages the senses is an act of empathy, engaging with a piece of art requires empathizing with an opinion that might be diametrically opposed to one’s own. Poetry, like theater, exposes the participant to an emotional landscape that might seem entirely foreign, and then forces that person to find aspects of likeness so that this new version of reality can be contended with. I don’t think my grandparents personally know a single gay black person, nor are any of us acquainted with any reverends, never mind ones who give their sermon in six inch sparkly heels. Yet that did not prevent us from understanding the attitudes and specific circumstances of the characters in “Bootycandy, and we all left the theater with perhaps a more nuanced view of the world around us. But had we known how uncomfortable the process of reaching that point was going to be—had my grandparents and I all read the Boston Globe review a little more carefully, perhaps—it’s possible we might not have gone, and we would have missed out on the opportunity altogether. Being an audience member requires its own level of bravery, one that demands the suppression of ego for the sake of embodying someone else’s experience. Art makes empathy a necessary element of humanity.
The Boston Globe's Review of "Bootycandy" can be found here: https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/theater-art/2016/03/14/bootycandy-plenty-raunchy-humor-just-enough-discomfort/SdDWgLq6F3huw3SgwDOoUK/story.html