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December 18, 2010


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Guy Yedwab

I guess I have a question to you. When you removed the word, did you look at alternatives to the word? It sounds to me like the word was serving a purpose. You may not need the word, but there might be another choice between taking it out completely and leaving in that particular word.

I would try a run of those scenes to see if there are other words, phrases, or even gestures that achieve the same purpose. Maybe let the actors improvise with it. The n-word is a pretty flexible one, it means different things in different contexts.

I don't mean seeing if there's a "softer" word (like 'darn' instead of 'damn' or 'goddamn' instead of 'fucking') but I mean seeing if there are other words with similar textures/effects.

Jack Worthing

If they WOULD use the word, then it's a denial of the characters. You're not telling the truth about them and their world.


Guy- I did use alternatives for the N-word, that were (in most cases) still true to the characters and their world, but were in general less offensive. In one particular case, I used a word that didn't sit right with me or the actors, and wound up only changing that word, to an other, non-race-specific obscenity that I'm sure we're all familiar with.

Jack - I think that simplifies the dilemma, but it is part of the heart of it. Not every urban-dwelling, hip-hop-loving person of color is enamored of that word or makes a point of using it all the time. If it's un-remarked on, is that a character trait? If it's changed, but the character is essentially unchanged, is it really that important?

I mean, this isn't documentary theatre. These are people I've made up, inhabiting a world I've created to tell a story. The words I use are part of that story. Aren't they?


Oh, and in the interest of updating, as I indicated above, I left the N-word out of this version. The reactions from the actors was very, very interesting: one actor expressed gratitude for having the word removed. One was more concerned with the general level of obscenity of his character and was concerned that, if the N-word was added, he would distance the audience from the story. In the reading itself, he seemed fairly uncomfortable with the obscenity in general. The third actor mostly kept his own counsel but seemed game for whatever. The reading worked, rather well, in my opinion, but the question still remains: do I leave it this way?


i like every foul word ever, most notably the "c" word and the gay "f" word, so maybe I'm the wrong person to weigh in, but my suggestion to you is to come up with a fake n-work, Like "nickler" or "nugger"- Like when BSG came up with "frack". saves the humor, avoids discomfort?

Jason Odell Williams

i find this fascinating, J. as i have a similar experience with a play i wrote (and am still working on). there are some actors and producers who are uncomfortable with that word. but i like your point about how this is a made-up world - it's not docu-theatre. it's a play - it's fiction. these are characters. they can say and do anything as long as it's justified by the characters and the action of the play. so i'd go back to original version. because i think it comes down to this: if it's FUNNY and WORKS in the world of the play, keep it. and screw what anyone else thinks.


While I understand the importance of staying "true" to the characters and to the story and I like work that takes people out of their respective comfort zones, there is a difference between challenging people and alienating people. It is a fine line to walk, but the reality is that if you don't consider the audience, chances are they won't consider you, either. I think whether or not you add it back depends on your comfort level with it AND who the next audience will be. Some things just play better in more diverse (urban) areas than they do in Rural Town, USA--I mean, can you imagine being forced to sit through something they'd enjoy in Kansas?


Janine- Interestingly, that's what Spike Lee did with Clockers. He was upset about writers like Tarantino using the word indiscriminately, so for that, he used "yo's." A thought...

JOW and Kerry - The more I think about it, the more I think I might have misrepresented the original script a bit. I didn't use the n-word as a punchline, though it got laughs. In retrospect, it may have the nervous laughter of uncomfortable audiences. And the play was still funny without it.

The question is how much is it justified by the characters.

Jack Worthing

If it's not remarked on, it's a character trait. But if they're the same people without it - and it doesn't significantly change the world of the play - well, it's a push. It's tough to see how it wouldn't change things, though. A person who says it is different than one who doesn't. Why did you include it in the first place?


When I wrote it, I wasn't thinking about that word, I was thinking about the characters and their world. The n-word flowed pretty naturally from there.

You're absolutely right, Jack. A person who says it IS different from someone who doesn't. But in ways that maybe aren't so obvious. I've known some fair "hard-core" people who shy away from it. It's such a lightning rod word, in most cases, I'm a little surprised that I used it as lightly as I did.

Part of the issue is that it's a short play that's about a lot of other things, other than the n-word. There's a play for me to write about that particular question, but this may not be it. It's a short, comic spin on a classic, not a heavy discussion. Which may be part of my resistance to adding it back.

Does every play need to explain every thing it does?

Tony Adams

I don't think every play has to explain everything it does, but if the writer is unsure it usually manifests itself to an even greater extent as told by/filtered though the actors.

My $.02 If no one would miss it being gone, cut it. If it would be missed, or the work lessened, put it back in. (a general rule of mine for everything in a script)

Is your questioning really about the word in the script? Or in the casting, ie who will say the word? If they hadn't had trouble casting a black actor would you have given it a second thought?


That word really bothers me and I can't explain why, since I'm white and slurs that actually apply to me, like "faggot" or "kike" don't bother me at all. Not that anyone says "kike" anymore, but you know what I mean. I'm a big user of profanity. Bad grammar grates on me far more than the c-word. And yet, THAT word... I have no problem with it being used onstage when appropriate, but I have to admit I bristle a bit when I hear it. It's just become so weighted.

I worked on a production of "The Front Page" a few years ago and the whole company debated what to do about the n-word. There are multiple versions of the script, some with and some without, so we had a sanctioned alternative. We tried it both ways and in the end everyone was more comfortable without. But interestingly, the black characters never appear, they're just referred to, so this was an entirely white company (and creative team and stage management staff) having this discussion.


Tony- I think Adam hit the nerve underneath it there. There's something else about that word, something that tends to pull people out of the play. If the play can live with that, it's okay. And I think it does depend on who can say it.

If we'd had two black actors right from the start, this definitely wouldn't have happened. But the question of putting it back is what really hung me up. Because of exactly that: if that word in and of itself is important to the story and the characters, it shouldn't matter what the race of the character saying it. But it did.

My friend asked me if I wanted to write a universal story or a specific one. I hadn't really thought about it. If they absolutely couldn't find two black actors, should I have pulled it? Should I have pulled it for one?

Tony Adams

I dunno, ultimately that's a question that only you can answer. But, I think if you weren't given pause till you heard about casting, it's likely not an issue with the text (which obvs. I haven't read).

Even if you're not afraid to polarize people, not everything has to be said in every play. And really all a playwright can control is the script. You can't decide what the audience will get out of it, or that an actor won't flub a line.

Some people might be taken aback by it, just as they would if they heard "fuck" or god forbid, see two men kissing or any any other thing any random person might deem vulgar onstage. (not saying I think that's vulgar but there are senators that apparently do.)

But then again, I don't think you can separate universal from specific. If it lacks specificity it can't really be universal, it's usually just watered down muddiness. In a way, we often forget that.

So I'd say yes you are censoring yourself--trying to change something that others might find objectionable. But only you can say whether or not that's okay.


I like how you put that, and it's all very true. I'm not sure about how we think about the universal/specific issue, though.

What my friend was trying to say was: Are you telling a story that could be anyone's story, that could be played by anyone of any race or color or is this a story that can ONLY be told by two black actors? There is a difference. And, for a minority writer in a way, a limitation because, kind of implicit in that is the question: can a white audience connect with this material? This brings us back a bit to the Driving Miss Daisy question. Or to put it another way, with a work that I think is stronger, technically: John Simon praised Horton Foote's Orphan Home Cycle as having "a smiling empathy with all people." I saw it and was left completely unmoved. Nothing in it spoke to me, despite the excellent production, acting, etc. Same, honestly, goes for Annie Baker's The Aliens. I know people who were left weeping by it, but it didn't touch me. I'm not saying that I would have found it more touching if there was a black actor in it, or if it told a "black" story, but isn't there a point where specificity collides with universality and you, as a writer, have to expect that a story may not translate? I feel as a minority writer, interested in exploring the minority experience (and my own) in all of its facets, I run into that place sooner than others.

Jack Worthing

I worked on a play once that used 'nigger' two times. It was a period piece and the white characters were not racists; but in their time and place they would've known little else but the word. It made the audience dislike the characters and the playwright took it out. I suppose my argument all along has been be true to your original instinct until given other evidence. There's no call on this until it's played.


isn't there a point where specificity collides with universality and you, as a writer, have to expect that a story may not translate?

I think this is sort of setting up a false dichotomy. Whether people acknowledge it or not, a lot of Great Works of Theatre are actually pretty culturally specific. There is a sensibility that goes into every work of art, one that is informed by gender, race, ethnicity, language, religion, sexuality, class, (dis)ability, and so forth. These subjectivities enrich the work, not detract from it. Frankly, it's a work that pretends to be generic or universal that creates a distance for me. Hence, why I could never get into Seinfeld.

Regarding how race plays into this, August Wilson had some pretty interesting things to say about the role of Blackness in the work of a Black artist. The take-away quote I get from it is that "there is no idea that cannot be contained by black life."

Re: "nigger" vs. some other word - I've been watching "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" lately. I was pretty tickled by replacing "fuck" "shit" and such with "cuss." I also remember some short video I saw where "nigga" was replaced with "ninja." If you're going that route, may I suggest a two-syllable word that begins with N? Like needle?

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