Wednesday, April 05, 2017

"It's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

"To Kill A Mockingbird" opens in a week and a half. And I'm loving every minute of rehearsal, even though there are moments that are emotionally draining just to watch. I've been doing something I've called "daily doses o' dramaturgy," where I research some aspect of 1935 or Alabama or the world of the play, and post about it on our private Facebook page. (Yes, yes, my nerdiness is well-established.) I'd do this research anyway, just for myself, so I might as well share what I find.

And something I sort of knew, but didn't quite fully comprehend, was how much this fear of a black man raping a white woman was a part of the American psyche. It was (and sometimes still is) everywhere. I started researching a few examples for my "daily dose o' dramaturgy," and it's been overwhelming.

For those unfamiliar with the story of "To Kill A Mockingbird," it takes place in a small Alabama town called Maycomb in 1935. A poor white woman, Mayella Ewell, has accused Tom Robinson, a Black man, of rape. The lawyer Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson, even though most of the town assumes he's guilty. During the trial, Tom tells his experience, and it becomes clear that Mayella Ewell tried to seduce him, and when he rejected her advances, she accused him of rape.

I was going to share some of my research with just the "To Kill A Mockingbird" cast and crew, but it just...felt too important to keep there. I waited and waited and waited to post it, because it’s just so relentless. It’s heavy and wrong and offensive and hard to read and I hated researching the details of these cases and stories.

I originally just intended to talk about the film "Birth of a Nation" and the founding of the KKK. But my research led me into this awful rabbit hole of fact after fact after fact. White people have feared that Black men will rape "their" women for centuries in America. That unfounded--COMPLETELY UNFOUNDED--fear has been the shaky foundation of so many riots, so many crimes, so many tragedies. (The real danger has statistically always been white men sexually assaulting Black women.) There are whole books written about this idea. But here are just some of the things I found. Here are some of the plot points on the timeline that led to Mayella Ewell accusing Tom Robinson of raping her, confident that everyone would assume his guilt:

The 1765 Index to the Laws of Maryland has one entry for laws surrounding rape. It reads “RAPE: See Negroes.”

From 1812 – 1965, rape was a capital offense in Alabama. During this time, the state put 72 men to death for the crime of rape. Dozens of others were hanged or sent to the electric chair for unspecified crimes. All but 3 of them were Black. 

The word “rapist” wasn’t used in America until the late 1800s. The first recorded use was in a newspaper article, which referred to a “n****r rapist.”

In 1900, Congressman Benjamin Tillman stated on the Senate floor that “We have never believed [the Black man] to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.”

In 1914, “experts” at Congressional hearings on drug use claimed that “most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.”

In 1915, the film "Birth of a Nation" portrayed Black folks as incapable of being civilized, and as animals who lived by instinct. One famous scene shows a former slave sexually (and literally) pursuing a white woman, eventually leading to her death. The film inspired a re-birth of the Ku Klux Klan (which was basically obsolete at the time). The current Klan imagery was adopted directly from the film. 

The 1917 pamphlet “ABC of the Invisible Empire” listed one of the main goals of the KKK as “to shield the sanctity of the home and the chastity of womanhood.”

In 1921, a white mob incited a riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after 19-year-old Black man Dick Rowland was accused of raping a white female elevator operator. The riot destroyed more than 35 city blocks, and left 300 people dead. The claim of rape was unsubstantiated.

In 1923, a white mob destroyed almost the entire community of Rosewood, Florida, which was mostly Black, in response to a rumor that a white woman in a nearby town had been raped by an unknown Black man. At least 8 people were killed, 6 of them Black. During the massacre, two Black women were raped and then strangled to death by white men.

In 1931, 9 Black teenagers were accused of raping two white women on a train in Scottsboro, Alabama. All but 12-year-old Roy Wright were convicted of rape and sentenced to death, despite a lack of evidence. Their story includes rushed trials, all-white juries, and poor legal representation. The case was appealed several times, and charges were finally dropped for 4 of the 9 defendants. All but two served prison sentences. They were threatened by a lynch mob while waiting in jail for trial.

In 1934, "To Kill A Mockingbird" author Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama put a Black man on trial for raping a white woman. There was no hard evidence and witness testimony was unreliable, but Walter Lett was convicted and sentenced to death. Eventually, he was pardoned, but by that time, he had spent so long on death row that he suffered insanity. He died in an Alabama hospital in 1937.

And it didn’t stop in 1935, the year that "To Kill A Mockingbird" takes place.

In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. The woman’s husband and brother brutally beat and mutilated the teenage boy before shooting him and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River. The white men who murdered Emmett were acquitted by a jury of their peers. A year later (protected by double jeopardy), they openly admitted that they had murdered Till.

In 1989, five Black and Latino teenagers were accused of raping a white woman in Central Park. Each of them was convicted, despite a lack of evidence, and served time in prison. They were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2002. At the time of the crimes, $85,000 worth of full-page advertisements in four major New York City newspapers called for the death penalty to be used on all five of the accused teenagers, regardless of the facts of the case. The ads were written and paid for by then-real estate mogul, Donald Trump. 

And on June 17, 2015, 21-year-old Dylann Roof entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and told its Black congregation, “You rape our women. You’re taking over our country. You have to go.” He shot and killed 9 people soon afterwards.

THIS is why we have to keep reading "To Kill A Mockingbird." This is why we have to keep doing this play, and telling these stories. I'm a white girl who has no actual idea what it's like to be a Black man in America. My own privilege means that I'm sometimes clumsy and ignorant when it comes to issues of race. In some ways, this isn't my story to write. But I don't want to ignore it either. I can't ignore it. I'm so grateful to be a part of this production of "To Kill A Mockingbird." When Tom Robinson sits onstage and speaks, he is sitting there on behalf of all of the men and women who can speak no longer. He's sitting there for the men and women killed by Dylann Roof. For the Black folks in Rosewood, Florida. For the Scottsboro boys. For Walter Lett and Dick Rowland and Emmett Till and Darryl Hunt and Thomas McGowen.

Mockingbirds are still flying among us, and we're still shooting them.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Hello again, and thank you.

I'm still here!

I'll write all about the roller coaster that the last few months has been, but I'll do that later. I'm still kind of motion sick from the ups and downs, so I need to take a little while to process them. Despite the rough ride, just know that there are lots of good and wonderful things in my life that make me grateful to wake up every morning.

Here are just a few of them:

1) The bedroom ceiling. 

I got a pack of glow-in-the-dark stars from, and spent two and a half hours covering the ceiling and upper walls of the bedroom, unsure about the result. And then when I went to bed, I couldn't sleep for a solid half hour, because I was just grinning at the ceiling. I am OBSESSED. (Note: The above picture is not my bedroom. I do not have a camera that has the ability to capture a star ceiling that well. Also, that bedroom is five times bigger.)

2) The apartment in general, actually. 
I've made a few changes around here, and it looks awesome, and I enjoy coming home to it every night. Someday I'll muster the energy to do a before-and-after blog, but today is not that day.

3) The Great British Baking Show. 

You guys. I am obsessed. I can't help it! It's so charming and British and everything is so yummy and I love cooking shows anyway, but there's none of this cut-throat American falsified DRAMA. It's just British people baking their tushes off and it's so charming. I'm in the middle of re-watching it. Already.

4) California. And family. 

The stars aligned last week and Beckah and I got to visit Mom and Ray and Oma and Opa and everyone in California AT THE SAME TIME. With our grown up jobs and grown up schedules, that's not always easy. Beckah got there the day before I did, and when they picked me up from the airport, we went STRAIGHT to the beach. Didn't even stop to drop off luggage. We also spent some time at my uncle's log cabin in the woods, and that was wonderful, too. Mad Libs and good music and books read aloud were all included, of course.

5) S-Town. 

The producers of "This American Life" and "Serial" created a new podcast called "S-Town" and it's amazing. It's one story with seven chapters, which they released all at once on Wednesday this past week, and I finished the series today. It's funny and sad and poignant and beautiful and mysterious. 10 out of 10, would recommend.

6) Curls

I love having curly hair. I had an especially good hair day today, and it made me feel especially pretty. I love days when I feel especially pretty. (Ain't vain. I just think women should spend less time focusing on what we think are flaws in our appearance and celebrating the pretty instead.)

7) The wind outside the bedroom window as I write. 
I can hear it rustling through the trees, making the branches creak slightly. It's eerie and lovely.

8) To Kill A Mockingbird

I've loved every show I've ever done. Even if it was hard or had challenges or wasn't as fulfilling, I've always found something to love, or at the very least, something to learn. But some shows just sort of stand out in your memory as special. There's just some extra magic somehow, and everyone is passionate about the work, or maybe the story means something important to everyone involved. Macbeth. Enchanted April. And now, To Kill A Mockingbird. This show came to me at a very difficult time in my life. And that's the case for a few of us in the cast...a lot of us are dealing with loss or heartbreak of some kind. It's so meaningful to have a place to go every night where we can all pour our hearts into a story...all the heartbreak and joy and anger and fear and laughter and sadness.

And everyone is SO TALENTED. These freaking little kids and tweens, even, the ones playing Dill and Scout and Jem, are INCREDIBLE. And that actually goes for everyone. We had a run-through earlier this week, and I cried roughly eight separate times? (In reality, I started crying at the top of Act Two, and sort of kept crying off and on until the end.)

I have some dear friends in the cast, and it's been wonderful to strengthen those friendships. And despite my feelings of social anxiety, I'm slowly forming new friendships, too. Most of the cast were strangers to me at the beginning of rehearsals, but I love that friendships sort of naturally form while we're all building a show. Even though I feel awkward and uncertain sometimes, I feel so lucky to be surrounded by such amazing people. People who care deeply about this work, who are funny and kind and smart.

So many members of the cast have shared what "To Kill A Mockingbird" has meant to them over the years. During rehearsals, people have shared personal experiences, poems, things they've learned, thoughts on the show. Tears have been shed. Not every rehearsal is this overwhelming emotional experience. But that's beautiful, too--the banter-y rehearsals, the missed lines, the just dragging through it. I may be blinded by my love of theatre, but I'm legitimately disappointed when I'm not called to rehearsal. During our first read-through, the director pointed out that this story is timeless, but unfortunately, it's also timely. I think all of us feel a small sense of responsibility in telling this story. It's such an honor to be even a small part of this process. I feel so so so blessed.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Social Justice Perfectionist

It's a tough time to be an INFJ.

That's a "Meyers Briggs" personality type, and it's "pop psychology," which can only be trusted so much. But in my case, it's pretty damn accurate. You can read more about it here, but basically, the nickname for this personality type is "The Advocate." INFJ's are deeply sensitive people who feel a strong moral obligation to create fairness for all.

And at this point in American history, "fairness for all" is feeling pretty threatened.

I don't know how to talk about this without sounding like an insufferable, self-righteous jerk. So you'll just have to like, trust that I'm not sharing these things to somehow prove how good of a human I am. I have to talk about it because it's the premise to this entire blog entry.

Because here's what's going on. I'm EXHAUSTED. I'm tired of explaining systemic racism to friends on Facebook. I'm tired of defending my place in the Women's March. I'm tired of making phone calls to senators whose voicemail boxes are always full. I'm tired of checking Twitter/Facebook/any news website, and finding something else that terrifies me and breaks my heart and demands some call to action. I am mentally and emotionally overwhelmed. I need a break.

And I feel like I can't take one. I feel like the whole fragile world is collapsing, and I've got to do my part to keep it upright. I know I'm not single-handedly holding it up. I am CERTAIN that I'm not that important. But I feel like if I let go, if I walk away, even for a moment, it forces everyone else to work harder to keep it all up. I'm making other people do my work. And it just feels so selfish.

Here's what's always in the back of my mind:

How can I walk away when people are fighting for their lives?! I have a moral obligation, as a human being, to fight for the equality of all human beings. I want history to show that I did that.

Now let's talk about the fact that I deal with anxiety and depression. My anxiety manifests itself most often in perfectionism. That perfectionism is a double-edged sword...I feel like a lot of the success I've had in my life has come from my relentless desire to do things really well. My perfectionism is what drives me to make to-do lists, and organize office drawers, and rehearse with intensity. A desire to do things well can be healthy and productive. But there's also a dark side to that it's heart, perfectionism says, "I HAVE TO do this, because if I don't, no one will love me."

So here's the mental loop I've had buzzing in my head/heart since Inauguration Day:

"These laws and practices and ideas are dangerous. I need to fight them because I care deeply about the world around me!" 
"This inspires me! Look at all these other people doing awesome things! I'm so glad I can do things like march and make phone calls and stand up for what I believe on the internet." 
"This is getting tiring. I don't know how to explain this to people in a way that will make them understand."
"I am exhausted. I can't do this anymore. It hurts too much to do this in the face of so much adversity and criticism." 
"I'm going to take a break." 
"But how unfair is it that you CAN take a break?! Other people can't! Why should they pick up your slack because you were 'too tired' to post that reply?"
"You're being so crappy right now. The world needs your voice. You need to do your part." 

There's no clear order to these thoughts...I cycle through them all at varying speeds and for varying durations. In general, I swing back and forth between feeling obligated to fight for truth and fairness, and feeling obligated to save my own sanity.

Jacob has a beautiful habit of asking me how I am, in a way that shows that he really wants to know the answer. If I answer, "Fine," he'll usually say, "Are you really?" And I try to truly be honest. I don't want to play mind games. But I've lacked the words lately to explain how overwhelmed I've been.

Because the other thing is that I also need to my life. I need to go to work and file the things and clean the bathroom and do my homework and perform the show and prepare for the auditions and text the friends. And I WANT to do those things. I CARE about those things. And sometimes life is stressful enough trying to balance JUST THOSE THINGS, without the additional weight of trying to fight fascism in the highest offices of one of the most powerful countries on earth. But how stupid and selfish of me to be like, "Hold up, I can't make this phone call to express my concern about a WHITE NATIONALIST holding a position of power in the United States government, because I have to fold my laundry."

I have wondered briefly if theatre is frivolous in these troubled times. But I know it's not. Whether political or personal or comedic, theatre is a tool for such good. Theatre is one of the greatest teachers of empathy I know of, and empathy is what leads to fairness and equality and the world generally being a better place. And if the show is a ridiculous comedy, then it gives people an emotional boost, to just sit and laugh for an hour or two, so that they can then go out and do good in the world. For as long as I live, I will be so grateful that the show I did right before the election was "Cabaret," and the show I did after the election was "The Nerd." Both hold such an important place in fighting injustice.

Cognitively, I recognize the need for self-care. I mean, I just said that it's valuable to just sit and laugh for an hour or two to recharge. I know that in theory, everyone needs to take care of themselves so that they can be a force for good in the world. I won't be much help to a social cause from a padded cell. But I'm a perfectionist, remember? I need to be better than everyone else. I shouldn't need breaks. I shouldn't need re-charge time. I should just be able to do it--to marathon this sucker until it's finished. I have a MORAL OBLIGATION to marathon my way through this. Other people have to because they have more skin in this game, and I'm a hypocrite if I SAY I fight for these causes, and then watch Netflix for hours and hours.

Writing this out has been helpful. But I think I need to make a solid plan of action. I need to figure out what I can change and what I can't, and come up with practical strategies. I need concrete things I can do and say that will help me find balance. Advice like, "Remember to take care of your mental health" is too vague. I don't know that this blog is the time and place to make that solid plan of action in detail, but because it's helpful to write it out, here are a few ideas. I may not use all of them...I'm just sort of brainstorming here. Feel free to use these in your own life if you need to, and I'd welcome any strategies you all have to stay sane.


1) Limit time on social media. This is a source of a lot of anxiety for me right now. I do want to remain informed, so I don't want to cut myself off. But limiting my time there may be a helpful way for me to get the info I need without overwhelming me. Maybe I could limit to a certain number of hours per day/week, or have days when I don't go on social media, or have social media "black out" hours.

2) Schedule time in for social causes. Sometimes the desperate need to contribute to the social good sort of looms over me. I can schedule in time during my week/month/day to specifically concentrate on researching issues, donating to causes, attending meetings/marches/protests, making phone calls, etc. Doing this will allow me to contribute in meaningful ways without overwhelming me. It allows me to cross off "stand up for what's right" on my empath and perfectionist checklist, but it also allows me time to heal and recuperate if needed.

3) If things are bad, use healthy coping mechanisms. Yoga, meditation, cleaning/organizing, exercise, walks. Sometimes, cake and Netflix can be healthy, too, even. All things in moderation.

4) Use positive self-talk. This is a cognitive-behavioral therapy technique (which is real psychology, as opposed to pop psychology). It involves tuning in to what your inner monologue is, and creating positive counter statements. I can write a handful of these statements and post them where I can see them often. I can repeat them to myself when I need to interrupt the negative thought loops my brain gets stuck in. (If you're interested in learning more about this, I highly recommend the books "The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook" and "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.")

5) Take time to surround yourself with positive and hopeful things. I was so inspired by the powerful things I saw and heard during the Women's March. I'm bolstered by the efforts of others around me. Reminding myself of the progress that has been made will help me to move forward.

Okay. Keep on walking, Chapman. Deep breaths. Fist raised, heart held soft and grounded.

We can do this.

photo via

Monday, January 09, 2017

Intersectional Privilege: Check it (out), or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Diversity"

Okay, I know it's a buzzword. “Check your privilege!” The rallying cry of liberal arts students everywhere! Not to be disparaging…it’s my rallying cry, too. But I’m learning that not everyone has the same clear idea of what “check your privilege” even means. I know this because anytime the word privilege comes up in conversation or a Facebook debate, inevitably someone will eventually say something like, "But you don't know what I've been through!" So I want to define some things here.

DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A SOCIAL SCIENTIST. There are plenty of people who know much more about this stuff than I do. I relied heavily on two resources when writing this blog, and I encourage you to check them out: John Hopkins University Diversity Wheel, and "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh. This blog just contains the thoughtful thoughts of a thinky thinker with a blog. Okay. Here goes.

Less Accurate: Boxes of Privilege
We tend to think of privilege like this:

Either you’re in the privileged box, or you’re not. And when your life has been really difficult, it can suck really badly to have someone say, "You're in the privileged box!" That hurts, and it feels like that person is ignoring everything about the challenges you've experienced. But the truth is that privilege is much more complicated than that. The truth is that privilege is "intersectional." That's another fancy buzzword that just means that there are entire categories of who we are that all intersect to create our identity. Each of us have some privilege in some areas, and not as much privilege in other areas.

More Accurate: The Mighty Wheel of Privilege
So it's probably actually better to think about privilege like this:

I came up with these categories based on a ton of articles on the topic, and on the input of a few other smart folks I know. In the center of the wheel are things that can be changed, but it takes some doing. And sometimes it takes privilege in one area to improve your privilege in another. (For example, you often need a higher income level in order to make changes to your appearance.) The outer ring of the wheel are things that can't be changed or controlled. (Note: chromosomal sex refers to male/female/intersex...what your DNA says. Gender identity is in the brain, and refers to being either cisgender or transgender or gendered in some other way.)

What is privilege? 
I guess we should get specific. In social terms, privilege is not something "extra" given to you by society. It's not something that lets you cut to the front of the line, or makes your life easier than it is, or means you have no struggles. No one is saying, "Oh! You are a straight, white, heterosexual male--you get 15% off at the register today!" Privilege is in the things you don't have to worry about. It's not in extra things you get because of your circumstances, it's the things you get because of your circumstances that other people don't get because of theirs. 

Think of it this way. Think of a group that you are part of, just because of your circumstances, whether it's race or sexual orientation or gender. Ask yourself the following questions:

If the answer to the majority of those questions is "yes," then you have privilege as a member of that group.

For example, let's take gender and answer these questions. I'm a woman.
1. Are the majority of people in your area a part of your group? KIND OF--IT'S PRETTY EVEN.
2. Are the people portrayed in film, music, magazines, ads, and other media a part of your group? KIND OF. THERE ARE FEWER WOMEN, AND THEY ARE OFTEN OBJECTIFIED. 
4. Are public facilities set up to accommodate you? YES.
5. Are people in your group in positions of power? IN VERY SMALL PROPORTIONS.
6. Are you statistically less likely to be a victim of harassment from strangers or law enforcement? NO. WOMEN ARE MUCH MORE LIKELY TO BE HARASSED, ESPECIALLY SEXUALLY.
7. Are you statistically less likely to be targeted by laws of your land? NO. HEALTHCARE LAWS IN THE UNITED STATES, PAID LEAVE, AND OTHER EMPLOYMENT LAWS TEND TO HURT WOMEN.
8. Are issues specific to your group taken seriously? NOT ENOUGH.

So based on these questions, women have a little bit of privilege, but not very much. If we need a clean-cut answer, the answer is no, women don't have privilege.

But, hey! Wanna know who has privilege in each of the categories of the wheel? I did some of the leg-work for you! You may not agree with this, but based on my reading and talking with others, here's a handy kind of short-cut guide to who has privilege in the United States.

Targeted vs. Underprivileged
There's also the important idea of members of certain groups being "targeted." Often, these are groups that lack privilege. But sometimes it gets a little more complicated than that. Let's say you've got an American community that's 55% Christian, 5% Muslim, 20% atheist, 10% Hindu, and 10% Jewish. The Christians may have the most privilege in this community, since they're the majority. The sayings on our legal documents and money reflect their beliefs, for example. So on the surface, it looks like Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and Jews are all underprivileged. But in recent years, Muslims have been targeted as victims of hate crimes or harassment, more so than Hindus or Jews or atheists. So members of the Muslim community may need more protection, or at least more attention.

Privileged vs. Valued 
There are also some groups that are more highly valued than others, but that aren't necessarily "privileged." Being valued by society means that you'll get more respect for being in a certain group...and it may come with some of those "extras" that we mistake for "privilege." The questions listed above (the ones we used to measure privilege) don't quite apply, but life is easier for the people in these categories. Here are some examples of valued groups:

So what?! 
Here’s why I think this is important. Because it helps us get on the same page when we’re talking about social issues. It acknowledges the fact that even if you have gender privilege, you may lack economic privilege. It answers the point “But you don’t know how hard my life has been!” It’s true. I don’t. And sometime, we should talk about the ways that your lack of privilege in certain areas has affected you. But right now, we’re talking about this specific area of privilege where you have more than me, and I’m telling you how you can help. And then you can tell me how I can help in areas where I have more privilege than you do.

Because until we acknowledge these things, many of our conversations about social issues are going to devolve into “My life has been harder!” and “Privilege isn’t a real thing!” And that doesn't help anyone.

Let's look at an imaginary situation. We've got two people here: Imaginary Person A and Imaginary Person B. The X's represent areas where the person lacks privilege, and the checkmarks represent ares where the person HAS privilege.

Person A is a rich, college-educated, middle-Eastern, heterosexual, cisgender, Muslim woman, who is disability and disease-free, has an average appearance, and has been bullied. Let's call her Amira.

Person B is a poor, college-educated, white, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian man, who is disability and disease-free, has an average appearance, and has been bullied. Let's call him John.

Let's say Amira posts an article on Facebook about discrimination against women wearing hijab in the workplace, and then this happens in the comments...

JOHN: Why don't you just pick somewhere else to work?
AMIRA: That's really unfair. I shouldn't be limited in where I work because of my religious beliefs.
JOHN: You're asking for special treatment! That's the definition of unfair!
AMIRA: Dude, how is it special treatment to want the exact same thing other people want--being able to work someplace?
JOHN: Look, I don't want to sound like a jerk, but it's WAY easier for you to find a job someplace than it is for me. I had to scrape my way through college, and I've got huge student loan debt. I can't afford to be picky, so you should just be grateful for any job you can find! Some of us don't have it that easy.
AMIRA: Just because my parents were rich doesn't mean my life was easy. My childhood was really difficult. You're a white, straight, Christian male, and I really don't want to hear you complain about your privilege.
JOHN: That's BS. I'm so sick of people telling me to "check my privilege" when they don't know anything about me. Did you go to school hungry? Did you have to buy all of your clothes second-hand? Did you have to take out huge loans to go to school? Did you get beat up every day of high school? So don't tell me to check my privilege.

Sound familiar? So here's where I think having a "Wheel of Privilege" paradigm would be helpful. At this point in the conversation, both Amira and John could take a step back and examine their own personal wheels of privilege. Then maybe, just maybe, something like this could happen:

AMIRA: John, I hear you. I know your life has not been easy. Being a white, straight, Christian male doesn't automatically equal an easy life. I shouldn't have implied that. But we're talking specifically about women wearing hijab in the workplace, and that's a game you don't really have skin in, if that makes sense. It feels crappy to have you dismiss my very real struggles when you don't know what it's like to experience them.
JOHN: Fair enough. But will you at least acknowledge that being rich does make things easier for you?
AMIRA: Fair enough.
(conversation continues, remaining focused on the issue at hand)

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I don't imagine (see what I did there?) that I can single-handedly shift the world's paradigm when it comes to thinking and talking about privilege. But maybe it will help a little. If anything, this gives me a handy link to paste into the comments section of the next Facebook debate about privilege. Feel free to do the same.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Wednesday, January 04, 2017


We made it into 2017, everyone!

There’s been a lot of talk about how 2016 was kind of the worst year ever. And I know that’s purely subjective. There were definitely years in human history that were worse, and there were definitely really awesome things about 2016. I think the insanity of the U.S. election sort of colored everything else that happened—we were all seeing the world through these terrible red/blue-tinted glasses that made everything ELSE feel terrible. (I don’t think red/blue-tinted glasses are always terrible, but they sure felt that way this year.) There’s something to be said for a positive attitude, but even I have to admit that 2016 was a rough year.

But I want to talk specifically about the celebrity deaths of 2016. And why it’s 100% valid to mourn them in whatever way you need to.

During this past week, I overheard a conversation that went something like this:

“I’m really sad about Carrie Fisher.”
“But you didn’t know Carrie Fisher.”
“But I’m still going to miss her.”
“But you didn’t know her!”

The general sentiment is that it doesn’t make sense to mourn the deaths of celebrities we don’t know. Other arguments against mourning celebrity deaths include the fact that we should be mourning the deaths of soldiers/civilians/children/animals/etc, that you’re just mourning because everyone else is and you’re not even a real fan, or that their contributions weren’t valuable.

I’m calling BS. On all of that.

Of course most of us didn’t personally know Carrie Fisher. Most of us don’t personally know any of the celebrities whose deaths we are mourning. But many of these people invited us in to know them by living a public life, or by creating works of music and writing. I know that a public life and a private life are often two very different things. But the public life can still be inspiring.

Regarding the deaths of soldiers and civilians and children and the many other thousands of humans that have died this year: OF COURSE THAT SUCKS. Death just sucks. It’s an unavoidable part of the human experience, but it still sucks. Each life lost should be mourned. But I think the difference is that my own personal life wasn’t as deeply or directly affected by the deaths of many of those others. Yes, I understand that a soldier giving up their life in the line of duty often helps maintain the freedom I sometimes take for granted. And I am grateful for the sacrifices made on my behalf. I ache for the families of those who have lost loved ones to war, to cancer, to poverty, to disease. I ache for that loss of life. But my mourning the death of a celebrity doesn’t have to diminish the meaning of someone else’s death.

And I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a horrible person, but the truth is that Edward Albee’s life and work personally and directly affected my life in a different way than the death of a nameless soldier. I mourn the loss of Edward Albee more than the loss of other strangers simply because I know exactly how he changed my life. I will feel it more personally and more often. It’s more measurable.

If we were to truly mourn every death, we’d all end up in padded rooms somewhere. It’s too much to process that much loss. The human psyche can only take so much. I think sometimes the sorrow we feel for celebrity deaths also includes sorrow for all of the nameless…like we channel some of the despair of the world into the black armbands we wear for the singers and actors and writers who leave us.

And the whole “you’re just mourning because everyone else is and you weren’t really a fan” thing? IT DOESN’T MATTER. Let people mourn, even if you think they’re faking. Let people connect over stuff. Your sorrow doesn’t have to be more legitimate than anyone else’s—this is not a competition. I didn't know much about Prince before he died. But I was deeply inspired by everything I learned about him in the aftermath of his death, and it made me sad we won't have more of him.

As for whether or not the contributions of a celebrity are valuable, that’s in the eye of the beholder. There were some celebrity deaths this year that didn’t affect me very deeply. But there were others that did. I think each human being brings something utterly unique to this earth, and sometimes their contributions get to be widely shared. And when those contributions are meaningful to you or me, their loss is something to mourn. I’m still sad about Ray Bradbury—there will never be another like him. There will never be another story written by that man, in his voice, from his imagination. That’s a loss I still ache to think of, and it’s been almost five years. His dedication and imagination have been a huge part of why I’ve done NaNoWriMo, why I’m doing an MFA in Creative Writing. His books and stories allowed me to escape when I needed to. I know I didn’t personally know Ray Bradbury, and I know he didn’t sacrifice his life for my freedom. But I mourn the fact that the world, and my own life, will no longer read new words penned by his hand.

Many of the celebrity deaths I have mourned this year have left lasting contributions. And I can thank them for those things even as I mourn the fact that they have left us—that there’s a cap on what they brought to the world. So I mourn them.

David Bowie and Prince, thank you for rejecting toxic masculinity. Thank you for being fiercely yourselves, for blazing trails in music. Bowie, thank you for your prolific and ever-shifting career. Prince, thank you for your musical mastery and for being a delightful and enigmatic human.

Alan Rickman and Gene Wilder, thank you for the honesty and humor with which you approached your work. Thank you for Galaxy Quest and Willy Wonka and Severus Snape and Young Frankenstein. Thank you for your passion and dedication.

John Glenn, thank you for being brave enough to put on that suit, climb into that metal contraption and allow yourself to be shot into space. Almost infinite horizons have opened to the entire human race because of your work.

Harper Lee, thank you for “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and the simple lessons it has taught for generations. And thank you, too, for “Go Set A Watchman,” and the harsher, more complicated lessons it teaches. I hope we learn that it’s not as simple as Atticus made it seem.

Edward Albee, thank you for giving so much to the world of theatre—for your fierce and life-changing words. Leonard Cohen, thank you for the music. Debbie Reynolds, you have inspired generations of singers and dancers. I spent hours in my garage and in dance studios and in my living room, learning the steps you danced on that silver screen. You were the lucky star for so many.

And Carrie Fisher. You intelligent, talented, brave, funny, honest woman. Thank you for showing the world that a woman can be both a princess and a war general. Thank you for teaching Hollywood to make the women smarter. Thank you for your honesty in dealing with mental illness and addiction. Thank you for reminding us that good looks are happy accidents of time and genetics and nothing more. Thank you for not giving any f***s.

And there are others that I felt pangs about, even if their lives weren’t inspiring to me in the same ways. Kenny Baker. Muhammed Ali. Elie Wiesel. Ron Glass.

(Ugh, it was awful to make this list.)

I am so so so grateful that I get to live in a world where the works of talented and brave and smart individuals can be spread far and wide. I'm grateful for the lives these men and women led, and I am better for what they brought into the world. So mourn them with me, if you need to. Or don't, if you don't need to. But know that it's perfectly valid to be sad that their lives are over.

photo via

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The myth of progress

Listen, children. I've had a revelation. And I want to share it here.

I've been working on being a "professional actress" for a little over two years. In those two years, I've had some incredible opportunities. (This is going to sound very Gilderoy Lockhart-ish of me, so I apologize, but there's a point to this, so stick with me...) I've been on sets with Rob Reiner and Cary Elwes, I've acted opposite Michael Cerveris under the direction of Steven Soderbergh, I've done one local commercial, and I'm currently in rehearsal for my sixth stage production since moving to Utah. Which is all so so so amazing.

But there have been (and continue to be) plenty of "no's" along the way. And there's something particularly painful about "no's" that come after having success. You start to think awful things like, "I've played a lead in a Hale West Valley show, and now I'm ensemble?!" Isn't that awful? It's awful. It doesn't feel good. It isn't good. It's snobby and prideful and self-serving. So then you swing to the opposite and start thinking things like, "Those times I was cast were just a fluke. I'm not actually good. I'll never actually 'make it.' I truly deeply suck." Which also doesn't feel good. Both of those philosophies distract from doing the actual work of acting.

So here's my realization. I've been thinking of acting in this "linear progress" kind of way. Something kind of like this:

(Don't judge my hasty clip art illustration.)

And it makes total sense that I would think that way. There are plenty of forces at work to put this idea in my head. Darwin, for one. This is the subject of a Master's thesis, so I won't go into details, but there's this weird idea that people seemed to take from the theory of evolution, and that is that everyone and everything is working towards becoming more "advanced." And it's all tangled up with fairly recent ideas of imperialism, too...that some societies are more civilized than others, and that they can bring civilization to the primitive peoples of the world.

Not only is Darwin and imperialism at work, but all of the mythos of the American dream centers on the same idea of progress, of slowly rising to the top, out of your own hard work. And this is how most other industries work. You slowly get promoted until you're at the top. If you don't get to the top, well then, you didn't deserve to be there, or you didn't want to be there.

But for acting (or a lot of other industries, actually), I don't think it's quite an accurate way of looking at things. And I don't think it's quite as healthy a way of looking at things, either. There are a few accurate things about it, but I think it's mostly problematic. It allows for both pride ("I'm at the top!") and self-loathing ("I'm at the bottom!"), and it creates a world in which we set people up as "better" than others. It oversimplifies things, and ignores all of the other factors that go into casting. It doesn't leave much room for complexity. It also doesn't actually reflect reality. You don't move steadily up that green arrow. But when we think of acting in this way, we're filled with resentment when we feel we've moved "down." Because "that's not how it's supposed to work! I'm supposed to work hard, get better, keep getting bigger and better roles, and then I'll make it!"

So, maybe it's better to look at progress in acting in a more "cyclical" way. Something like this:

(More clip art action.)

If you think of acting this way, there's less feeling of "I'm not making progress." There's less resentment when you get a smaller role than you think you "deserved" or when you don't get cast. You take the incredible opportunities that come to you without thinking they're owed to you. You can't think of yourself as above someone else on some march of progress to the "top" when they're just across from you, or next to you. And if you keep your own acting goals in the center, then everything you do can be seen as moving towards that somehow.

Fame and fortune and success are strange, often impermanent things. John Travolta was nominated for two Academy Awards. He also made multiple talking baby movies...between Oscar nominations. If you think of acting progress in that linear way, those are steps backwards and jumps forwards...the momentum is exhausting.

Of course, it can also be exhausting to move around the circle above, too. Especially if you spend a lot of time in the "not being cast" portion of it. That's hard. And the only thing you can do is be patient and keep trying. I have a friend who recently moved to New York to pursue acting. She said that when she's talked to people, they all say, "You've got to work steadily at this for ten years. If you can stick with this for ten years, you can make this your full-time job." But most people only give it a year or so. A year isn't long enough. You've got to keep yelling "F*** you, Matt Damon!" until you're where you want to be.

There's also the very real possibility that doing this relentlessly for ten years will take too great a toll on you. It could be that the exhaustion of moving around that circle of progress is greater than the reward. It's a scary thing to realize--that you might need to take a step back, adjust your goals. There are two kinds of dread when it comes to doing that: the dread that you're giving up too easily, or the dread that comes from giving up a dream you've held onto for so long, even if it doesn't fit you any more. What will people think? Who will you be if you don't hold this dream? But you will suffer less if you listen to your own intuition, try not to give a damn about what other people think, and make the choices that will make you happy and whole.

I'm still trying to shift my own paradigm here. But this change in thinking has already helped me find peace, helped me live in the moment, helped me do better work onstage and be a better person offstage. I hope it can do the same for you.