Respectful Necessity, and the Necessity of Respect

by Fin Coe

After last night’s performance of The War Zone is my Bed, we had the honor of having the playwright on hand for a talkback after the show. Although all of the actors were onstage to take questions alongside Yasmine Beverly Rana (said playwright) and Dani Snyder-Young (our director), I just kept my mouth shut and listened. I wanted to hear about the genesis of the show, and what the person who wrote the script had to say about her work.

The first question, from the talkback’s moderator Jenn Adams, inquired about the inspiration for the piece, which was years in the writing. I was surprised when Yasmine told us that while real life events had inspired the first iteration of the show, her desire to explore and portray identity also informed the script. She talked about growing up biracial, with a name people found difficult to pronounce, and how being the product of different cultures influenced the interplay of identity within this show.

I can relate. I am an American actor of Irish and Chinese ancestry, living in Chicago. People have mispronounced my name on occasion, and I don’t often see my particular genetic combination in the ethnic breakdowns of audition listings. Plays that explore identity speak to me, especially stories of love across cultural divides. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for one such story.

This is all fine and dandy. A biracial writer’s play happens to be performed by a company and cast by a director who are comfortable casting an actor who happens to be biracial himself. Not tremendously important—yet. But then we had another question, from an audience member (Helen Young, who has herself worked with Halcyon several times), who asked Yasmine about the idea of appropriation presented in the play, and the danger of telling the stories of others to one’s own gain, and not that of the original subjects. Yasmine replied that these questions were conscious ones raised by the script, based on first-hand experiences with people treading the very thin line between appropriation and exploitation. And that is indeed a seamy current that runs through the show; a two-sided coin of resentment and guilt, for stories stolen and stories coaxed away. The journalist characters of War Zone tell themselves that they are bringing national attention, and bearing witness, and following noble intentions. But time makes them question themselves, and their guilt grows stronger with their cynicism. It gets complicated; as Yasmine said, when an audience member asked if Yasmine herself had ever returned to the place that inspired this story; “No. I never went back.”

And that’s what’s been on my mind since this project started. How do we tell this story without taking advantage of it? How do we do this justice to this piece?

I think the first question that needs to be answered is: Should we be doing this piece? A lot of gauche theatrical faux pas can probably be avoided if that’s the first question asked: “Should we do The Mikado?” “Should we do this minstrel show?” “Should we really do The Merchant of Venice without any Jewish actors at all?” In this particular case, for this piece, I feel that the answer is an emphatic “Yes.” You can read the Director’s Note about why Dani chose this script, but the short answer is this: it’s an important story. It’s topical, it asks tough questions, it’s well-written, and it will open some eyes, some hearts, and some minds.

Ok. So it’s a story that should be told, but how to do so respectfully? For our production, we did everything we could. We cast a wide net for audition listings, with accurate ethnic and age range breakdowns, in a casting process that spanned months. We had an incredible suite of support staff, providing us with in-depth dramaturgical resources, as well as designers that did serious homework in order to clothe us and place us in settings that did not caricature or distort, but rather honored the people whose stories we tell. We had a dialect coach at almost every rehearsal, and met with her one-on-one so that anyone who was speaking with an accent other than their own could do so with fluency and with accuracy.

I am an American actor of Irish and Taiwanese descent. I am playing a Bosnian journalist. I am doing so because I too feel that this story needs to be told; and I am doing so with the respect that the role deserves. I don’t go onstage to tell my own story; I hope that my own story, my own background, helps me tell this story, the story of these things that happened in Sarajevo and Kabul, and in Rwanda andBaghdad and at Foxconn, in Gaza and in Ferguson. We must tell this story, so we will tell it as best, and as honorably, as we can.

Special thanks to Yasmine for her beautiful work, and Kendra, Tristan, Celeste, Antonio, Tony, and everyone else who is helping us to tell this story as authentically and as respectfully as we are.