In our Contemporary Drama class, we began a discuss about appropriation after reading Ken Urban’s Sense of an Ending where he dives into a story surrounding the Rwandan Genocide. Ken Urban is a middle class white guy from Jersey. So, we started to talk about that. Like, is that okay…?
As a playwright, it terrifies me. My biggest fear as a writer is to be perceived as a hypercritical oppressor. When writing about life experiences that are a stretch from your own, there is always an element of fear. In writing, we are trying to get down to the truth, right? Well, how do you know the truth if you’ve never actually experienced it? Maybe there is the idea of a universal truth?
I guess this is where we get down to the difference between appropriation and appreciation. Appropriation occurs when a culture is being taken and used for a foreign entity’s benefit with no payback to the original culture. Appreciation is when a culture is introduced to a foreign community as an act of celebration or with respect to the original culture. The respect for the art, fashion, music what have you should go to the culture rather than the artist that is borrowing it.
In Sense of an Ending, Ken Urban is writing the play to introduce the conflict in Rwanda to American audiences as a way to honor the unimaginable experience of the victims and survivors. Also, Urban is trying to explore the root of what could cause such violence to prevent it from happening again. Or, to prevent people from turning a blind eye to global issues.
Urban has privilege as an American, White, cis male playwright. He is using his privilege to put stories on the stage that otherwise would not be seen. We have plenty of stories that resemble our American life. He wrote a play that pushed further than that, because the world’s problems are our problems.
Ken Urban is exhibiting empathy. As artists, empathy is our strongest weapon. Without it, why are doing it?