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Children of Othello

Examining the White-Written Black Character and White-Centered Black Story, As A Black Writer

A Roundabout Archives Series

Children of Othello

A Black maid prepares for an upcoming wedding in the white family she services, while simultaneously rearing the family’s dissatisfied white children.

A Black tea shop servant grapples with the truth of his social position as he conflicts with the shop’s privileged white heir.

A desperate Black Slave and a white child attempt to escape the South while embarking on a wild adventure together.

The previous three sentences are loglines I came up with for three Roundabout Theatre Revivals written by white authors, (Carson McCullers The Member of the Wedding {revived by Roundabout in 1989 while based on the 1949 novel of the same name}, Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold”: and the Boys {revived in 2003 while written in 1982}, and Big River {revived in 2003 while written in 1985}, if the original loglines were re-written from the perspective of each works’ leading Black characters.

While each revival differs in physical setting, geographic location, character background, and genre, all three share a great deal of similarities that appear to illustrate the identifiers (or trappings) of Black-centered works/storylines written by white writers.

Tyrone Giordano with Michael McElroy in Big River. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

A large portion of the white-written, Black character-led revivals/productions (which take up over half of the 15 works with Black leads that Roundabout Theatre has platformed between 1965 - 2020) share four common themes:

  • Black Characters experience physical violence or interaction with law enforcement/the state
  • Black Characters act in physical servitude to white characters/ hold service positions
  • The plots take place in settings owned by white individuals/ or under oppressive white social settings which often leads to less total Black characters, when summing up both physical characters on stage and those merely mentioned, than white in order to highlight isolation of the Black personhood
  • The previous three result in narrative arcs revolving around how Black characters deal with systems of white oppression and very little else.

The aforementioned common themes create worlds in which Black characters’ narratives center surviving whiteness, more than Black existence amongst fellow Black communities. At the forefront of these narratives is not the realities of Black marriage, Black child-rearing, Black pursuance of education, Black religion, Black happiness or anything other than how Black people deal with “the otherness” whiteness can cause.

These survival plots are a part of a much larger trope-tradition which I like to refer to as “Black Islands,” a story in which a small number of Black characters confront the dangers of white supremacy and its spoils amongst a sea of whiteness (either physically represented or metaphysically), to unfortunate, often violent results. Frequently, these “Black Islands” are written with the goal of pointing the finger at white supremacy and lean towards a liberal audience.

The works, which were all celebrated at their individual times of release, see white writers engaging with difficult conversations about wealth, violence, and equality in Western (or Western-controlled in the case of Fugard’s South Africa based Master Harold and Blood Knot [originally published in 1961, revived in 1980 by Roundabout]) worlds via the vehicle of Black characters encountering hardships.

Danny Glover in Master Harold...and the Boys. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Indeed, the plays are a part of a long theatric practice of white writers exploring life in Eurocentric societies via Black (or “dark”) people which stretches from Shakespeare’s Othello, to the popular minstrels of the 1800’s which can be considered as the foundation of American theatre (albeit via much more harmful white supremacist propaganda in this case), to the 2011 Pulitzer Prize Winner Clybourne Park.

While anti-Black racism and its consequences will always be important to talk about, especially via voices from non-Black backgrounds who may have more access and privilege (which leads to more attention on the topic) it can be an alienating process for Black audiences across all mediums to only get to see themselves in predominantly cold, race-centered narratives, while their white counterparts see people who look like them experience more varied depictions of their everyday lives.

The alienation intensifies when Black audiences look at the numbers that show how little opportunity Black people (and BIPOC people holistically) get to write about themselves, no matter the topic, on theatrical stages anyway. According to the recent 2018-2019 Visibility Report by The Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC):

  • 80.5% of all hired New York Theatre Industry writers were white, highlighting a severe bias towards hiring white writers considering relativity to population
  • 11.7% of all hired New York Theatre Industry writers were Black

Specifically, regarding Roundabout (2018-2019 season):

  • Out of 9 available positions, 7 were filled by white playwrights while one went to a Black playwright

Holistically, all of this potentially reflects in audience numbers and can be part of the many reasons why Black people are not showing up in theatrical spaces. According to the 2020 article, “Broadway Crowds Are Still So White” by Derek Basler for Baruch College based on The Broadway League’s Demographic Report:

  • Among New Yorkers who attended a Broadway performance, 67 percent were white even though whites comprise 44 percent of the city’s total population
  • Blacks make up over one-quarter of New York City residents, but white theatergoers outnumber Black theatergoers more than 13 to 1

An additional issue lies in the choices of people who decide what works about Black people are worthy of being made, regardless of who they are written by. If gatekeepers (producers, artistic directors, board members) have a bias for work about Black people that still centers narratives about whiteness and white supremacy, those are the works that will be platformed, lauded, and inspire more works for years to come. For example, two of the most controversial while still successful new works by Black writers that I experienced in the last three years, Soho Rep’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury and the 2019 Broadway version of Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play, which currently holds the record for the most TONY nominations ever (12) for a non-musical work, both primarily focus on how white people can learn from/outgrow their racist ways, all the while Black characters (and sometimes Black audiences who must watch dramatized versions of their trauma) suffer the consequences.

I believe the support/funding of works by Black people that primarily focus on whiteness, even if they are well-made/well-performed works like Fairview and Slave Play, still point to the biases in leadership and a tendency to center whiteness. AAPAC’s examination of the New York Theatre Industry’s gatekeepers shows:

  • 94.1% of Broadway leadership is white
  • 84.4% of non-profit leadership is white

In a domain in which leadership is overwhelmingly white, it can seem impossible to get work produced that does not center whiteness or “life-in-opposition-to” whiteness in some type of way. Of course, this does not mean that works should never mention race or be from the lens of an oppressed group that acknowledges their oppression on stage, it just means that theatre gatekeepers should just consider backing more work that primarily centers BIPOC life outside of racism that BIPOC experience.

Amelia Campbell and Esther Rolle in The Member of the Wedding. Photo credit: Martha Swope. 

From American Enslavement, to the Civil Rights Movement, to the Black Lives Matter Movement of now and its relation to police brutality, so much entertainment about Black people is linked to the pain we experience at the hands of white people and the systems that uphold their power. While the issue of “Black Islands” is not unique to theatre, its pervasiveness in the field can feel overwhelming when looking at numbers that show just how little control Black people have over their own stories. In the article, “The Dangers of Exploiting Black Pain” for, Marris Adikwu writes:

Apart from the desensitization that arises from the constant exploitation of Black pain, it also perpetuates the stereotype that Black people are to be measured by the degree of their trauma. There is so much more to being a Black person than our pain. As a people, we will reach our full potential only when there’s fair treatment and equal opportunity. Not solely in the aftermath of anti-Black violence.

Part of the reason I wrote my Columbia University third year thesis play Plentywater, which follows four Black women experiencing an alien invasion in the Deep South (and a lot more), is because I wanted to see Black people confront problems other than racism on the American stage, even if they do as such in still hard-to-live-in worlds/realities. The women in the play encounter issues such as fertility, marriage, and dreams-deferred in a way that centers the Black experience outside of how we interact with white supremacy. My hope for the future of theatre, Broadway and non-profit alike, is that works that center Black characters, also center the many facets of Black life. In my opinion, these “Black Island” works that primarily focus on racism are rarely about Black people, but more so about white supremacy with Black characters (and Black actors and Black audiences) doing the leg work.

Columbia@Roundabout is a collaboration between Columbia University School of the Arts and Roundabout Theatre Company which provides exceptional educational and vocational opportunities for the next generation of playwrights and theatre practitioners.

The program includes an annual reading series for Columbia MFA students, Teaching Artist training facilitated by Education at Roundabout and two fellowship positions in Roundabout’s Archives.

As a part of the Archives fellowship, the MFA candidates conduct deep research into our historic records and are encouraged to produce scholarship that explores Roundabout’s contribution to American theatre. Devon Kidd is one of the Archives Fellows and, over the course of his time with us, he explored Black character representation in a selection of works from Roundabout's production canon.

Basler, Derek. “Broadway Crowds Are Still So White.” Dollars Sense, 6 Jan. 2020, audiences/.

Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S, et al. “The Dangers of Exploiting Black Pain.” Talkspace, 2 Nov. 2020, exploiting-pain/.

“The Visibility Report: Racial Representation on NYC Stages.” AAPAC,