©The Shakespearean Tavern Playhouse
Why doesn’t racism ever go away? Why, after yet another round of protests and reforms, does it still rear its noxious head? In a word: Us. As in humans. We can change “the system” again and again—and we should because systems always need changing. But we humans still have onion-layers of racism (along with other noxious isms). And these must be personally peeled away layer by layer year after year.
I was so enlightened when I was 20-something. Or so I thought. Fresh out of college I formed a comedy group called The Right Pithee Players. There were three females and myself; we could never find a suitable second male. Still, we had great fun performing Elizabethan improv (something we more-or-less invented) in period costumes at Shakespeare festivals and Renaissance fairs.
We met a talented young black actor named Henry at one of these and became fast friends. One night after performing at a festival in L.A. we drove in Henry’s car to an all-night Denny’s. Around 2 a.m., Mary, Teri and Henry walked outside while Monica and I paid the bill.
When we came out, the car was gone. We grinned and walked across the street to a dimly lit bus stop. Sure enough, a moment later Henry and the others cruised by and began harassing us in the guise of a stereotype pimp and his “girls.” So Monica and I instantly turned into an uptight middle-aged white couple. “Look, we don’t want any trouble!” I shouted. Monica urged, “Just give them your wallet, honey! Don’t make things worse than they already are!”
This was great fun. Until the two cops who’d watched the whole thing from their cruiser across the street, hit their siren. Before we realized what was happening, they’d raced over, pulled Henry out of the car and slammed him up against it, shouting, “Spread ‘em!”
“No!” we screamed. “It was an improv! We’re actors!”
The cops didn’t think it was funny. After lecturing us and threatening to arrest all of us (for improvising without an audience?) they finally left. Were we ashamed? No! We were too clever to be ashamed! And in our own way, we agreed, we’d made a statement against racial stereotypes!
And yet I never asked Henry to join the group. Why? “Because there (most likely) weren’t any black actors in England in that era,” I reasoned. Mary, Monica and Teri disagreed, but Henry good-naturedly went along.
Duh! Why did it matter? This wasn’t a freaking history class, or even a documentary—it was a silly improv group! Henry would have been amazing in the group–and frankly would have outshone me on the stage! But I was blind. My reasoning made sense to me.
Do I still have layers to peel away? I’ll answer that with another question:
Am I still human?