I was asked a question a couple of weeks ago that I get asked quite a lot.
I was on a panel with a group of amazing ladies, part of the opening of the Omnibus’ 96 Festival, and we were talking about the future of the LGBTQIA+ community in theatre. I was talking a lot about how my work featured a fair amount of ‘intersectionality’, characters who are multiply-marginalised: not just gay, but a person of colour, femme, trans, disabled, working class, an immigrant, etc.
‘LGBT’ plays are dominated by cisgender, (predominantly male) white gays and this upsets me. There are so many interesting stories to tell, and the most legitimate way to tell them is to tell them together: LGBTQ+ people of colour are rarely seen alone. We find one-another out, and we stick together. That’s why my first play, Pitch & Cologne, features a transmasculine (someone assigned female at birth, but who might be a transgender male or non-binary and prefers to present more masculine than feminine) British East Asian, his gay brother and his Black boyfriend, his lesbian sister, their bisexual British Indian friend and a cisgender white boy called Philip.
Philip was initially tacked on at the end of the first draft because I thought I should ‘diversify’ my play. To give the white audience some kind of representation. I felt bitter about the ‘friend of colour’ trope, usually a minor speaking role to make sure everyone feels better about the whole ‘race issue’, and the proto-Philip was my answer. Show the white audience what it feels like to be 1/6 of a cast (which, to be fair, is actually a pretty good ratio on the London stage.) Load him with obnoxious, trope-y lines that mark him out as White. Make him suffer under stereotypes and kill him off with an emotional goodbye at the end that furthers the characters of colours’ arcs.
But slowly, Philip became a focus for me because suddenly, he was the audience. No matter how much the Arts Council wants me to convince them that featuring BAME artists will bring in ‘diverse’ audiences, the audiences that ‘matter’ in London 2018 are the white, middle-aged middle class, because that is who is running the theatres, and that is who are the critics. Philip had to be perfect because while the 1/6 people of colour in the audience might go home and simmer about obvious actual racism in a play (and maybe start a slam campaign), the 5/6 parts of the audience will a) not commission the play, b) not review the play well c) not come to see the play at all.
My new play, Hold Me in Thine Eyes has a similarly ‘diverse’ cast and storyline.
So, the question I was asked by a white (presumably gay) lady was: ‘can someone like me come to see your play?’
It infuriated me because it assumes that people of colour, especially queer and disabled people of colour, don’t have to think about their intended audience at every stage of writing. Because I would have loved to write Pitch & Cologne, my well-researched, nineteenth-century set period drama with an all-BAME, all-queer cast, whose intended audience was 16-25, transmasculine and East Asian, but I didn’t. Once again, I prioritised the same audience that gets every play written for them, because I still want them to understand me, and people like me. I want them to watch my stories, and to see that we exist, and always have existed. I want to show them that our voices are worth watching, and
that the characters need not be white and cisgender to be relatable. I do not write ‘diverse’ characters because I want to oust the white middle-class from theatre, but because I think we have stories just as good as theirs.
To ask me whether I’d thought about you is wilful ignorance as to the current state of theatre. Your existence matters so much more than mine that you can ask the question. Because if I had gone to a panel about a white woman’s play and asked whether she wanted me, in all my complex identities watching her play, she would have been allowed a ‘it’s a play for everyone’. Hers is relatable for everyone, mine is not.
How did I answer ‘can someone like me come to see your play?’
“Of course! I mean, I wrote it with my cis white straight grandmother in mind!”
Petty, for bringing up her age, but still with a dashing smile and cordial tone. I have to be nice to bigots who are not nice to me, because otherwise I’m fighting fire with fire. That’s my reality. That’s what ‘identity and theatre’ means to me. That’s why I write.