The past couple weeks I’ve been doing a lot of listening and hardly any posting. I’ve spent the last three days just sitting in front of my screen, paralyzed, processing what I’ve seen there. Trying to figure out what exactly I was feeling, what I could possibly add to the conversation that hadn’t already been said. This is what I’ve come up with, for whatever it’s worth: My life has been deeply, incontrovertibly shaped by expressions of Black joy and grief, and if I don’t acknowledge that, I am lying to myself and others.
They are a part of how I pray. I grew up attending a diverse Pentecostal church in L.A. on what was, at least then, the border between the majority-white suburb of Westchester and the majority-black suburb of Inglewood. The words and melodies I used as a conduit to commune with God were written and/or popularized by Mahalia Jackson, Andrae Crouch, Thomas Dorsey, and the Winans. These Black voices, singing of hope through deep suffering, are part and parcel with how I experienced and celebrated my connection to the Divine.
They are a part of how I think about love and happiness. My parents, being the aforementioned Pentecostals, were very strict about what music I was allowed to listen to. Anything on contemporary radio in the ’80s and ’90s was deemed too “worldly,” but since my dad was pretty much addicted to the Motown hits of his youth, we listened to “oldies” or gospel almost exclusively. Most of my childhood memories were set to a soundtrack of Black joy – The Platters, The Four Tops, the Temptations, and The Supremes. They are the songs I danced and goofed off and enjoyed myself to. They are the songs I nursed my first crushes to, the songs that still spring to mind when I think about what love is.
They are why many of my favorite art, artforms, and hobbies exist. Most people who know me know I love to dance. I’m not particularly good at it, but I love to do it. The music I most love to dance to is hot jazz and swing. The ways I most like to dance to that music are swing and tap dancing. None of these would exist without Black people looking to express emotions that didn’t fit neatly inside the European musical and dance traditions that surrounded them. I have spent hours and hours experiencing friendship, strengthening romantic connections, and expressing my own joy in forms created by Black bodies to music that sprang from Black hearts and minds.
They are part of the artistic practice that I’ve dedicated my life to. Yes, the first plays that attracted me to theatre were Irish, English, and French, plays by Wilde, Stoppard, Beckett, and Giraudoux – inherently theatrical works whose games with language captured my imagination. But the first plays to really move and disturb me, shaking preconceived notions and sticking in my head and heart for years were Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson, and Top Dog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. European linguistic whimsy started my flirtation with theatre, but Black theatrical imagination turned that flirtation into a deep, abiding love and affects the work that I write to this day. I’ve written a musical with songs in the idiom of 1920s jazz, an expression of Black joy. I’ve written a play about a rock song, and am writing rock songs for a new musical right now. Songs that stand on the shoulders of Sister Rosetta Tharp, Big Mama Thornton, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, to name a few. Not only has my life been enriched by these forms of Black joy and grief, I have used these forms to enrich myself, to build a career and put actual money in my own pocket.
Much of my life has been built on the foundation of Black people singing and writing about their happiness, their love, and their sorrow. So why has it been so easy for me to tune out Black voices when they give expression to emotions that aren’t as comfortable for me? When they speak plainly, when they can no longer expend the energy to dress it up for my entertainment? Do I, who have benefitted in so many ways from Black excitement and determination, not owe a debt? Do I not have an obligation to listen to Black anger, Black frustration and exhaustion, Black cries for equity as closely as I listened to their exaltations? Does my body, which has imitated Black motions on the dance floor, not have a responsibility to act for their relief? There is much in this current moment that I don’t know how to respond to. But I know this. I cannot in good conscience only choose to listen to Black feelings when they suit me. I have basked in their rejoicing for my whole life. Now I have to soak in their cries for justice, their shouts of consternation and protest. Even when it makes me uneasy. Especially then. Our country has spent centuries blithely singing along to black voices raised in laughter and love. It is past time we flipped the record over and seriously listened to the emotions painfully etched onto the other side. It’s past time to move our bodies to that music. Just think of the sounds we can all make together…