Valerie Curtis-Newton makes bold choices and delves into thorny cultural territory. Her Intiman production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons with a black cast won praise for bringing new depth to the play. Last year she directed Trouble in Mind at the Intiman to wide acclaim, and she’s been nominated for this year’s Stranger Genius Award for Performance. This month she directs The Mountaintop, a reimagining of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the eve of his assassination, running at ArtsWest through October 5.
Curtis-Newton is currently enjoying greater interest in her work, for good reason; she's an established voice on an artistic upswing. Additionally, her current show happens to coincide with an especially tense racial period both nationally and in the local theatre community. The police shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri sparked a superheated dialogue on race and police brutality across the country. Here in Seattle, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s all-white production of The Mikado provoked protest and reenergized discussions about stereotyping, historical context and artistic responsibility. Difficulties in casting an African-American in the GreenStage production of Othello brought attention to the practical realities of inclusion. Race is an inescapable topic of conversation in second-term Obama’s America.
As a queer woman of color, Curtis-Newton’s analysis of identity in theatre is keen and forthright, informed by both life experience and academic study. She’s the Head of Performance and a Professor in Acting and Directing at the UW School of Drama and she oversees the Hansberry Project, a black-centered theatre lab. She’s got professional chops and a deeply considered perspective, so it’s no surprise she’s emerged as the de facto go-to in matters racial-theatrical.
I suspect she tires of her role as Unofficial Black Theatre Spokesperson, preferring instead to move the conversation forward through the work itself. At the Forum on Artistic Freedom & Artistic Responsibility, a public discussion organized at the Rep to talk about issues surrounding Mikado and Othello, she ended her panel remarks by saying, “I want to know what comes next. I’m not coming up here again.”
Curtis-Newton is soft-spoken, warm, and candid. We met at a bakery in Columbia City to talk about The Mountaintop.
In The Mountaintop you're desacralizing a revered figure in Dr. King, depicting him as a human being with stinky feet and all. Do you have a responsibility as a director to the movement he helped create?
Yeah! Angela Davis told me, “The greatest disservice we do to young people is to romanticize the young people of the 60s and 70s. We mythologize them and make young people think they can’t do what we did.”
I think what Katori Hall, writer of The Mountaintop was getting at was: he was a remarkable man, who was a man, who just looked at what was in front of him and made decisions. And his strength over time is strength all of us possess.
At the time it was just a provisional thing, but we’ve elevated it.
I think that what this play is about is how isolating leadership is. I wrote in my program note that it’s a play that shows us that the mountaintop isn’t just a pedestal, but a perch we won’t let him come down from. What he’s doing is calling us to pick up the work, and I think at the end of the play what you will get is the call to carry on the work. That’s how you honor the legacy, not through statues and near-deification but through your own hard work to achieve the goals he set out to accomplish.
There are some old school people who definitely weren’t happy when Katori first put the play out, but I think once it went to Broadway and Samuel L. Jackson did it with Angela Bassett, a lot of that calmed down.
I think people won’t feel that he’s disrespected but humanized, and there’s definitely a distinction between those two things.
What’s your first memory of theatre, of thinking it could be something you could do?
Those are two different memories. My first memory: my mother took me to see Snow White at the top of the Travelers Insurance building in Hartford, Connecticut. I remember I got new clothes. I was five or six years old.
Coming to feel like it’s something I was called to do came much later. I started in college then worked with a group called the Operation: Push Performance Ensemble. I was the youngest member of the company, and I was doing it just to have fun with these other people who I thought were cool and interesting. We’d take theatre into schools, YWCAs and church fellowship halls. The sense of community from doing that sort of grass roots performance just got into me, and it became how I created community for myself. Without having to do a lot of thinking about it, I started trying to make events that would bring people together to have good conversations, like hosting a good dinner party.
People in a lot of disciplines get into them because of the community, the immediate friendships, and the work is this secondary thing that comes out of it.
Arthur Miller said that part of the reason he wrote the plays was so that the guy in the audience would feel less alone and I think that’s why I do it, because when I’m doing it I feel less alone and I hope that the audience can feel less alone in their experience of it.
Let’s talk more specifically about this production. You’ve been quoted as saying of the discussion about race and social justice in theatre, “People think that’s the only discussion I’m capable of having-“
-all race all the time.
-and it’s not.” So I apologize in advance.
That’s alright. It’s a “race season” in Seattle right now.
At the Seattle AFAR event and you were pretty clear in not wanting to hammer on this all the time. But here we are.
You said, “The second I rise to speak, I’m problematized.” How can we talk about race and social justice and theatre without problematizing people of color and their place in that world? How can we move the conversation forward?
There’s a projection that because I point out something that exists, I’m somehow so deeply offended that I’m going to slap out at people. There’s a kind of stereotyping of people of color around the issue of race that comes from white people’s fear of us-
Yes. People are afraid of being called out on their own racism so they react to me before it’s happened, like I’ve already accused them of being racist, when all I’ve said is that there’s not an artistic staff in the city that has a person of color making decisions about what’s on the stage.
I’m not saying that any individual person is racist, or any organization. I’m saying that as a person of color looking at these institutions I don’t always see a welcome mat, even if the people inside believe they’re extending one.
People are afraid of being called out. They believe that people of color have a hair trigger and are just waiting throw down the race card, when most of the time we’re just wanting to have a discussion about what’s true, what the facts are.
You’re describing a state of affairs, not laying out a list of grievances.
More so, I’m not ascribing any particular set of intentions to how the circumstances arose. I’m not saying it’s because you are intentionally thinking about keeping all the black people off the stage—that’s not what I’m saying. But at some point people have to say, “There are no black people on the stage.”
What you do after you know—that reflects intention.
So how do we get beyond the problematizing?
This is going to sound harsh, and I’m not sure I want to have it printed yet, but I think that more white people have to get brave. I think they have to be brave enough to have their feelings hurt and still stay in the conversation.
There’s a beautiful play I want to direct one day written by Alice Childress, who wrote Trouble In Mind. It’s a play called Wedding Band. There’s a black woman and a white man in South Carolina who have been lovers for ten years. The play takes place in 1918--they could be jailed for being in a relationship. At the end of the play it’s just the two of them alone and he says, “Every time something would happen out in the world, you’d come in here and say, ‘the white people this and the white people that.’” He says, “I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.”
She looks at him and says, “Every time you told me to be quiet or get over it or move on, it was you.” She says, “What you don’t speak you swallow down.”
And I think we’re at a point that people have swallowed enough. I won’t hear again, “Why do you make it about race? Why’s it gotta be racial?” It’s not that it has to be, but if we want to have a real conversation about inclusion and the status quo is predominantly white, then the move to inclusion is about other classes, other races, other sexual orientations. It’s about the other—if I can’t talk about the other, how do I ever actually assist in the process of making a more inclusive environment?
In theatre they’re constantly scrabbling for new audiences. What better place to practice inclusion?
The truth is that inclusion actually exists on its own without any new bodies coming in. I think it was as important for every white person who saw Trouble in Mind to be a part of that conversation as it was for every black or Latino person. I make the plays to hold up the mirror to whoever’s in the room. Just because all the characters are black doesn’t mean that the story has no relevance or importance to a white audience.
I think when we say, “We’re gonna do the black play, but we expect black people to show up,” that inherently says white people have no vested interest in the story being told and the information it gives, the conversations they get to be privy to by being in the room.
Especially in a city as white as Seattle, it would be crazy to think I’m going to make a play and the entire house is going to be black people. It’d be wrong for a theatre to hire me with the expectation that the audience is now suddenly going to be all black people. Is it a good story? Does it have legs? Is it universal? Can we market it widely and broadly?
You’re an advocate of nontraditional casting, of colorblind casting-
I’m not an advocate of colorblind casting. Colorblind, the way we do it in the US, still uses whiteness as the standard of universality. So I’m going to cast the best actor for the role and not take into account that I made that character a black person, or Latino, or an East Indian person?
When I go to their house, I’m in the home of a black person. If we’re being “universal” about this, it would look the same as the home of a white person. I can tell you right now, in all my life experience, that very few of my friends’ homes don’t reflect some cultural specificity, from African masks to the rug that came from Madrid.
The whole world is not an Ikea world. When we do color blind casting we do it like we’re interchangeable. Nontraditional casting says: because my audience still reads race, is there nothing in the story that would be changed by ethnicity or race? If I make that person Latino, does that say something more or something completely different? Does it sidetrack the main story? What is the impact of deciding that a real, live Latino person is the lead?
Here’s a stupid question: could The Mountaintop be cast nontraditionally?
I think it couldn’t because it’s [about] King. A play about race is very difficult to do that to. The August Wilson plays are difficult to do that to because on some level he invokes the specter of white institutional racism. Where race is the issue, it’s much more problematic. It’s really hard in performance to have a white man play lower in status and have us buy it.
How do we get to that point?
Right now, for us to be having the conversation about white guys playing the roles for people of color when we haven’t actually figured out how to get people of color to be included-
-which is why it’s a stupid, provocative question. [Laughs]
If the playing field isn’t level, we don’t have access. So then to be having a conversation about—essentially what the premise of that question is, really, if I break it down, is, “If I as a white guy am going to have to give up some roles, what do I get in return?”
That’s the question white people are asking.
That’s the premise: “It’s mine, these roles that they’re taking, so I must have access to roles that are theirs.” Which doesn’t actually address the fact that 95% of the roles are produced for you.
I think that’s where 95% of white people are at: “I’m with the idea of inclusion in concept, but what am I giving up, and what do I get out of it? Where's our equity?”
“Yes, because if we have to let the colored people have some of the white parts then we should have access to the colored parts. Since we already own 95% of the real estate, what’s my equity in the 5% that’s remaining?”
[Laughs] “There is a possibility for us to expand our reach! What’s in this for me?”
Exactly. And I’m saying what’s “in it for you” is access to these stories, told through the lens of the community from which they come. That’s a unique and beautiful experience to have. People of color have it every single day in every single media; we get to know about five white twentysomethings in New York City from their point of view. We are exposed to them all the time.
It’s seems like it’s a way to be innovative in theatre just by telling different stories.
The thing we have to do is actually interest white people in our stories, to be viable in a place like Seattle. That you care about The Mountaintop is important, because getting 15 more black people to come to ArtsWest, that’d be 10% of their house. That doesn’t change anything. But changing the other 135 people in a full house to open up and say, “Wow, I never thought about it from that point of view,” and, “I never really thought about the cost of [MLK’s] leadership and what that meant.” It’s the same for both black and white audiences.
So often, we’re not allowed to have the space to tell the story so other people can find their connection to us. When people saw Trouble in Mind and watched Wiletta struggle with an awakening of the fact that she was accepting less than she deserved, white people in the audience got that. They got the disappointment, the struggle to be heard, the tenacity of it. They saw it through her eyes, the eyes of the other.
I think that we’ve lost that. It’s part of our struggle politically as a country. We’re not interested in finding common ground right now. “I want to point out how right I am and how wrong you are, and I’m gonna keep you wrong always, because I’m always gonna be right.”
One of Barack Obama’s first mistakes was in believing that the political apparatus of this country was ready to work from the center out rather than from the extremes.
We all watched it in slow motion, like “Nooo! You can’t ‘make nice’ with these jackals!”
[Laughing, addressing Obama] “I so wish it was what you thought! I really do!”
We’re ungovernable as a country right now, because we’re not interested in solving problems. We’re more interested in being right. And theatre is the worst place of all to have that mentality
Because the purpose of theatre is to make community. It’s what it is. When it’s good, that’s what it’s supposed to do. I’m one of these people who believes that we’re here on this planet to achieve our best selves, and building community means encouraging people around you to be their best selves. Sometimes you do that by saying, “Wow, you’re amazing!” and sometimes you do that by saying, “You see this part over here? I don’t know if you want to change it or not, but this is what I see.”
I think theatre helps us help each other be our best selves, to have the conversation and argue about it and then make a plan to fix it. Lorraine Hansberry said, “Let our audiences be so exhausted in the amphitheatre that they welcome the pamphlet and the debate.” Let’s stir up people! Let’s piss them off enough to go and research all the points to refute everything I just said! Get them so agitated that they want to get with four of their friends to help the homeless guy who’s always on the corner!