Black Like Us at Annex Theatre

March 3, 2014

Kia Pierce as Denise and Marquicia Domniguez as Tanya in Black Like Us. Photo by Shane Regan.

Annex Theatre just closed Black Like Us, written by Rachel Atkins and directed by José Amador.

This show, like our last winter show Undo, managed to open up to demographics we had not had in our audiences in the past. We did not even realize our success until late in the run, when we sold out the final four performances and most audience members said, “I didn’t hear about this show until two weeks ago,” or “I’ve never even heard of the Annex theatre!”

As a company, we knew it was our responsibility to give the audiences an opportunity just to talk about the play, since it brings up so many questions that it leaves unanswered. I was present for the talk back on Friday night, after the performance, where several people stayed to listen to the playwright, director, and some of the actors. I’m including it here for you to read! Black Like Us was a play that spoke beyond race, beyond black and white, and brought us an opportunity to produce a play about families in Seattle.

Black Like Us Post-Play Discussion

Moderated by Pamala Mijatov (Artistic Director)

Since this show raises a lot of questions, but does not answer them, we decided to put together a post-play discussion to address some of these questions with the audience.

Rachel (playwright) spoke about support in the show’s development from 10-minute to 20-minute to 1-hour long versions with various companies: Live Girls, Annex’s Second Date, Rain City Projects, BrownBox, and others.

General questions about the show and performance:

Where did the idea for the last scene come from?

The first scene was the three sisters discovering the box. The 20-minute version added the 1958 scene before the sisters discovering the box. The final scene was not in the one-hour version, it was added for the full production. As Rachel thought about the parallel timelines of the play, she continually thought of milestones for Florence/Maxine and she came upon the moment that would end up being the most poignant: if it was Maxine who came up with idea for passing. She wanted the last scene to context to the information in the play, but also leave the audience wondering more.

Patron previously saw a play at Berkeley Rep set in 1800s in Louisiana with similar themes of advantages to have a lighter skin color, wanted to know Rachel’s background, since she is a white American writing this play and the play the patron saw in Berkeley was written by a woman of color.

Chelsea (Florence) spoke about her instant connection to Rachel’s writing style and ability to write for a black audience and also write beyond race, expressing the human condition.

José (director) believes that there are no hard and fast rules for who can write what based on color of their skin. His parents were white and black Puerto Rican, and when he came to America, he had to deal with just being “black.” This play spoke to him on the level of identity and choosing to be one or the other.

Did actors have input for the story?

Although there was feedback from the producers and director, the actors did not have direct input to the plot of the script, but they did have extensive discussion and address questions in rehearsals. The personalities of every character came out through learning the dialogue. McKenna (Amy) said she observed language of the script being changed depending on how actresses could say a line more “naturally.” Rachel was present and involved in the rehearsal process, and readily received feedback from actors and the producers.

“Where you sit is where you stand.”

A patron spoke about how the race issue was very clear, and how race is introduced to address privilege and advantage and non-privilege and disadvantage. Chelsea spoke about her experience as a black woman from a white family, always knowing what it is like to be a black woman in a white society, and then making the choice to play the part of a woman who chooses to pass for white.

What compelled you to write this project? What drove you to write it, and what is your statement with this play?

Rachel grew up in the 1970s and 1980s as a young Jewish girl with a black father. She heard stories about his family having a wide range of colors of skin, like her father’s father sometimes passing for white. The first scene of the three sisters discovering the box is about “How do we define ourselves? What does it mean? What assumptions do we make about who we see? How do we present ourselves in society?” A lot of people spoke to Rachel about their family secrets, which shows that the themes resonant with people. It is a question of identity and what identity means**.** Also, as her stepdad was passing away, she knew she had to write the play for him and to honor him and to honor his place in her life.

Pamala spoke for Annex and why we, as a company, championed it: it’s about an issue, but it’s not about an issue, it’s about a family.

“Complicated people doing complicated things.”

McKenna spoke about the characters being in a private space (their homes in most scenes) so that they were able to bring up uncomfortable questions in a “safe space.”

Rachel hopes to continue to produce the play in other spaces and continue to develop it. Ready and willing to disseminate the script to classes.

Why does Florence become a feminist, even though we don’t see her in that role onstage and she has a domineering husband?

Pamala discovered through script development that “people don’t always behave in narratively consistent ways.” Dior (Maxine) and Chelsea talked about how Florence has removed her racial identity from her life, so she can no longer say “I am a black woman.” She sees Maxine stepping into being a black activist, so feminism becomes something that she can connect to. Florence can’t say “I’m black,” she can’t even say “I’m a black woman,” but she can say “I am a woman.” Maxine gave Florence the ability to be a strong independent woman (as we see in the final scene of the play), then Florence gave up being black. Meaghan Darling (audience member) said, “we are all much better women in front of our daughters so that they will take the best in to their lives.” So Florence passed on strength to Donna by being a feminist. The daughter-mother relationship is also present in the play, and Florence’s choice brings up what does it mean to be a feminist?

More audience reactions:

Loved that men were spoken about but the men were not in the show. Sandra is believable that she wants to get everybody together, she is the comic relief, and she also brought the other cousins (Denise and Tanya) together to deepen their relationship. Jose chose to direct the eight women all together because of the challenge of seeing everyone together onstage, half of them African-American, and is glad to know that it worked as a whole.

Patron who grew up in Seattle sees the issues she grew up with in the play and other topics present in our community today being broached in the play.

Maxine mentions that it was difficult to organize in the 1960s, that the Bon Marché was not a store black people would shop at (this patron would shop at Nordstrom instead). It really is a local play and resonated strongly and accurately for people from Seattle, making the city a character in the play. This play is not the deep South, it brings up issues that come directly from Seattle.

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