by 99 Seats
So. I'm out of town, in snowy, cold Rochester, NY. An old good friend of mine has a theatre company here and is putting up a reading of a play I wrote with a few collaborators awhile back. (If you're in the area, drop by tomorrow!) But this has brought up an interesting question/dilemma/conversation.
This project is composed of three short plays written by three different writers, exploding the world of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. As pretty much anyone in the theatre world will tell you, writing an adaptation of A Christmas Carol is like making a license to print money. Regional theatres program the holy shit out of that thing, every year. Our little project was partially conceived as a response to the classic and as an alternative programming idea. If A Christmas Carol is too old, white and stuffy for you, well, here's Jews, blacks and white trash folks coming at ya! Seriously. I'm making it sound cheesier than it is. It's a fun project, one of my favorites.
Anyway. All of this is context. The real issue at hand is this: the n-word. In my section, I have characters that use it pretty liberally. It's been part of the characters, part of the fabric of the play, part of the humor. It's not a word I use, in my life, in general, though I'm not really part of the Ban the N-word crowd. But I used in this play and it's worked well in the past.
For this reading, though, my producer was having trouble finding actors of color for the reading. Which created some agita for all involved. I was in New York and my friend was scrambling looking for actors of color. For a while, it seemed like he was going to come up snake-eyes on that score and we'd have to find a way around it. I wanted the reading to happen and I actually feel like the basics of my story aren't necessarily "black." I started thinking about changing the language. No one asked me to, not in any pointed way. I felt that the story could work with the language changed. We finally settled, it seemed, on having one black actor, for sure, and one Latina actress, but the other part could be white, could be Latin, could be anything. It felt weird to have anyone other than a black person using that word, so I stripped it out, leaving the rest of the story intact.
When I got here, though, my friend and producer had found a second black actor for the piece. We just had our first read-through with the cast and some of the changes...well, as my dramaturge called it, it sounds like the basic cable version of the play. But...the story is there, the world of the play is there. And it feels somehow weird to add the N-word back in. I'm not sure how I feel about it. It feels like I'm not adding it for really story or character reasons, but for the shock value and for the humor. But...on the other hand, it feels like these characters would use the word. And on the third hand, out here, with an audience I don't know, I don't know if it will pull people out of the play to hear that so liberally. And on the fourth hand, should I be concerned about the audience at all?
So, gentle readers...what do you think? Am I censoring myself? Or expanding my character's vocabulary? Unnecessarily using a strong word? Or giving it too much weight when, in the end, it's just a word? What say you?