Intersectionality and the Arts: A Talk about BootyCandy
“We worked really hard to make sure all of the productions are intersectional in a very intentional way to make sure we have a presentation of different gender and sexual identities but also to make sure we do due diligence to breaking down stereotypes in theater so trying to limit the aggressive sexual black man and the overly angry black woman,” said Darius Johnson as we spoke in the lobby of Farkas Hall on last Thursday afternoon.
Darius Johnson is a junior, president of BlackCAST, a student organization dedicated to promoting and performing black art and to increasing black participation in theater. Bootycandy is the current play performed by BlackCAST. It is a play written by Robert O’Hara as a semi-biographical portrayal of his life. Johnson described it as a trip through the formation of a queer black identity and the struggle that comes with forming identity with comedy. According to them, this play was chosen because of its interesting nature and its ability to invoke “deep black memories that would touch a lot of the audience.”
I could see what Darius meant after watching a showing of the play the Thursday afterward. There were situations that occurred that many people in the audience recognized like the interactions with family members and particular jokes you just get. Though BootyCandy originally incorporates the portrayal of less covered identities such as black queerness, it also had to undergo some changes as well before it was performed.
When doing any play for production, BlackCast wanted to possibly make sure that its portrayals of characters, especially black women and queer men, were unproblematic. Watching the play, there were character portrayals that could have been easily pushed into the realm of problematic or stereotypical if not done correctly. Characters were nuanced so that a black mother is not just an “overly angry black woman,” but she is a full person who can feel hurt and other types of emotions. “We use these images to expose them but not to make a mockery of those people. In that way our audience members, staff and cast members really enjoy the process of putting that all together,” Johnson said. “It could be a great experience for black people of all identities but especially queer black people who don’t usually see their identities expressed on campus. And it is a way to invite other people into a black space and have them respect what it is to grow up as a black person or more specifically a black queer person.”
This intentional willingness to change adaptations to break stereotypes and allow for more nuance in roles isn’t a new phenomenon in plays on campus, especially not for BlackCAST. Last semester, they put on a performance of “Songs Of the Harlem River,” a collection of plays created in the 1920s and 1930s by several black playwrights. They changed it to break it from its heteronormative origins.
And Darius admits the ways arts organizations on campus could be more intersectional. “The interesting thing about doing theater here is that it is very hard to break into the system and the culture,” said Johnson. “They say that you don’t necessarily need the experience to get certain spaces but it helps to know the system. I think the larger theater community on campus still has a lot of problems. The language of diversity and inclusivity in terms of people using it and saying that they want it has increased but the execution of it has not increased by very much.
Johnson states that the larger theater community needs not to put on shows like BootyCandy themselves but rather give up some “power and access” by removing barriers that would limit people from different communities from joining. They even admits that BlackCast needs to do more in order to involve more differently abled students to participate as one way the organization needs to be intersectional themselves.
In the end, Johnson believes that there needs to be more outreach on the part of the theater community to reach out to people in communities who never thought of being part of theater and make sure they learn so they can use as much of the resources as they can to share their own identities through these stories. “Inclusivity means taking these narratives as important narratives to be told.”