Thursday, January 24, 2008

Speak Theater Arts Provokes a Racial Dialogue with N*W*C*

Nigger, Wetback, Chink. How does it feel to see these words in print? To hear them spoken? To say them yourselves? They are three of the most offensive, racially charged, incendiary terms in our language. We wince at them because we know they are used to hurt, oppress, demean and devalue.

In Speak Theater Arts' show, "N*W*C*" at the Mondavi Center last week, writer/performers Miles Gregley, Rafael Agustin, and Allan Axibal toss around these terms as they share their experiences and thoughts about racial identity. They're not saying it's OK to use these terms. They're not giving anyone, including themselves, permission to use these words. Instead, by bombarding us with them, they seek to create a dialogue around the labels, how they are used, and how they affect people.

In their 90-minute, slickly produced drama, the three men trade testimonials in the form of role play, rap, slam poetry and hip hop - making us laugh, hurt, empathize and think. Their comedic timing and chemistry with one another make for an entertaining, accessible ride from start to finish.

They begin by pinpointing the moment each first encountered racial stereotypes and realized they were different. For Miles, it was while reading "Huck Finn" aloud in class. At the word "nigger," everyone around him winced and began acting weirdly towards him. That was the moment he "realized he was a nigger. Seemed like everyone else already knew." For Allan, it was when his grade school crush told him he was "too Chinese" to be Tom Cruise (he was convinced he looked just like him). And for Rafael, it was when his father yelled at him for speaking Spanish after witnessing a Mexican man being arrested while on vacation. His father meant, "don't speak Spanish right now" to be less conspicuous, but Rafael heard "don't speak Spanish ever again."

The three continue on, swapping tales from "the summer Miles became black" (by learning Ebonics and revamping his dress code/swagger) to "the year Rafael played his 'race card' and became Latino" (by playing up his diversity in a drama competition to win) to "the night Allan tested his sexuality" (by donning leather pants and visiting a gay club). Throughout these stories we see how racial stereotypes are used to oppress - by categorizing and limiting who certain people can or cannot be. We also see our characters fight the stereotypes, flaunt them, reject them, then embrace them as they incorporate them into their identity.

In a moving section, the men take turns listing all the reasons they would want to be the race of one of their friends. After hearing the affirmations, each is simultaneously flattered, yet frustrated, because even the positives represent a category into which they feel they should fit.

Overall, the play was surprisingly less aggressive than I thought it would be. It played well to the audience because it provoked through humor, inclusion and education rather than through discomfort. Miles, Rafael and Allan revealed some very personal stories, and while each story was unique, they were also universal. They were human stories, and they reminded us of our own lives and struggles with stereotypes of all kinds.

Do you have personal experiences with race/gender/ethnic/sexual orientation stereotypes? Post your experiences/feelings/struggles/ideas concerning stereotypes and your identity. Let's continue the dialogue Miles, Rafael and Allen started...

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