My name is Gregory Lush and I play a white guy.
Well, I AM a white guy, of course.
What I mean is, occasionally in my theatrical career I have been called on to play a white guy in a play that explores how whiteness and all the privilege that comes with it adversely impacts non-white communities. I’m actually incredibly thankful for that experience, as it has given me insight I would never have otherwise had.
I’ve portrayed my share of bad guys. Even though everyone in the audience knows I am “playing a character,” it’s not at all uncommon to get some pretty intense stares and even words sent in my direction as I leave the theatre. That’s pretty easy to leave at work. This experience, however, is entirely different. This isn’t Iago, where racial animosity is only one of many forces guiding his villainy. These particular white characters are defined by a specific fear and hatred that drive an anger everyone in America recognizes as not being limited to an individual. It’s part of our heritage. Living in that space for months at a time can really mess with your head. It can also force you to acknowledge your part in the culture that created this dynamic.
The first time this happened professionally it was actually pretty terrifying. I had the great fortune to be in the world premier of DENMARK by Charles Smith at Victory Gardens in Chicago. It was a historical drama about a slave who purchased his freedom and then led an uprising. It was also the first show for Victory Gardens in their new space at the historic Biograph Theatre and they were putting an extraordinary amount of resources into making it a major event. It was my first show in Chicago and I was super excited… and more than a little intimidated.
I hadn’t yet moved to the city when we had our first workshop. I was the only outsider in a group of people who had worked together many times. The play had a cast of seven actors: four black, three white. I was late arriving to the workshop, so I joined the already full table of Chicago regulars feeling pretty nervous. My character’s name was Reverend Canker… which should give you a pretty good idea of what his favorite word might be. The script was still in development, so when I finally sat down at the table I was reading it for the first time. In my first scene, my very first line was directed at an actor named A.C. Smith, who had just finished playing Troy in FENCES at the Court Theatre. If you’re not familiar with that play (um… how are you not familiar with that play?) that means A.C. was a big, intimidating dude.
So I took a deep breath and delivered that line to my new scene partner. It just so happened that this particular line ended with the big one… the N word. I will never forget that next moment for as long as I live. A.C. bowed up and glared at me as the room went silent. You could have heard a pin drop as my soul was sucked out of my body through my feet. There was a moment that seemed to extend into eternity, but was probably not more than 5 actual seconds. I was about to point at Charles, the playwright and a good friend of mine, and say, “Hey, he wrote it, not me!” when A.C. let out a huge laugh and the rest of the room joined him. When my fight or flight reflex finally relaxed (if there’s any doubt, flight was the option I was going with) and my soul re-entered my body, I joined in the laughter and we all enjoyed the moment.
I became friends with A.C. and the rest of the cast over the course of rehearsals, as is usually the case when you’re working with a bunch of great artists. Because of that, I was privy to conversations to which I would never have otherwise had access, both on stage and behind the scenes. Because we were doing a play about race lots of important and even some really interesting tangential issues were discussed candidly.
Fast forward to about fifteen years later, when I get a call from Theatre 3 asking if I’d accept a role in Denise Lee’s new play, FUNNY, YOU DON’T ACT LIKE A NEGRO. Stop; you had me at Denise Lee. A) Denise Lee is a dear friend and inspiration. B) The further I get in my career, the more I want to explore new spaces, especially developing new work. C) The play explores race and I get to work with some of the most talented people in town? All. In.
Needless to say, sitting down for that first read was an entirely different experience this time. I wasn’t the new kid any more. Instead, I was sitting down with colleagues with whom I love working and several that were clearly going to join that group shortly. Also, this is a very different play. Instead of digging into the roots of slavery and the explicit racism that allowed that to happen, we were on a journey to explore much of the implicit racism and bias that folks don’t recognize but is a continuation of that system— a system that continues to oppress people of color. Upshot: I don’t have to say the N word.
That said, the actual business of working on the play has been remarkably similar. I’d like to share some of those similarities:
- Artists are, by and large, incredibly generous people. Of course, the whole diva trope is real and we’ve all dealt with performers who were only in it for their individual glory. But most of the time, we’re all just there to share in telling a story. LIVE. TOGETHER. Celebrating being human in all its pain and glory.
- If you are actually genuinely interested in someone’s story, they will usually share it with you. Maybe this is somewhat a function of being in theatre, but I have also found it true in everyday life. In working on shows like these, I have learned so much about history, new points of view, and other cultures that I would never have had the opportunity to learn otherwise. I feel such a debt of gratitude for being allowed into these conversations. I feel so fortunate that my fellow artists have allowed me “behind the curtain” even if just a bit.
- Doing this work has sometimes allowed me the opportunity to be the only white dude in the room. It might sound weird, but I am incredibly thankful for that. For the POC with whom I work, being the “only one” is a feeling with which they are all too familiar. In my view, having this experience (both in working and social situations) opens one’s eyes in a profound way. It can feel awkward, informative, cool, scary, etc… often at the same time! It also reminds me that my friends of color experience that on the regular. Recognizing that is really important.
- Reentry into the “regular” world can be jarring AF. Seriously. It’s easy to forget that you have to earn any sense of familiarity with each new group of people you encounter. I don’t think there’s a legitimate shortcut. It can be pretty jarring when you forget that.
- Spoiler Alert: What unites us is WAY more important than what divides us. I KNOW HOW BANAL THAT SOUNDS. That doesn’t make it less true. Being human means feeling loved and unloved, connected and disconnected. Building bridges is worth every minute of your time.
All that to say, of course it’s going to take more than a couple of plays to address generations of injustice. But if I can take my experience and communicate it through live theatre, hopefully I can be part of that long, slow arc that bends toward justice. Love y’all.