A few evenings ago, I saw Kirsten Greenidge’s Baltimore at the Boston University Theatre. Baltimore investigates how systemic structural racism affects all members of American society regardless of their race, and examines the ways in which we are complicit in perpetuating those systems. It’s full of awkward, difficult conversations that leave us with more questions without answers. The play interrogates structural racism from many different points of view, without ever making a judgement on any character.
I was one of 300-350 people in the audience that night, filled with BU students, New Rep subscribers, and many others. As the play got going into the thick of it, I was surprised to discover that the actors on stage weren’t the biggest performers, but rather those sitting around me in the audience.
The event quickly became an “I bet I’m less racist than you” contest, where members of the audience would issue groans of disapproval or snaps of agreement or. At one point, a cheer erupted from a significant portion of the audience when one character put another in their place. I want to make it very clear, these reactions weren’t organic, they were manufactured. They were loud, intentional, and performative; dissociative acts designed to distance themselves from the perceived moral failings of characters on stage.
I sat in the audience fascinated: the response that the play evoked was palpable, but from my perspective disingenuous. Rather than listen and reflect upon how they might be engaging in the same behaviors as the characters on stage, select members of the audience decided to publicly condemn those behaviors. I found myself questioning the intent of the play. Perhaps it aims to facilitate self-reflection, perhaps it attempts to evoke faux outrage to expose the tendency to condemn actions of others that we engage in ourselves.
It’s telling that the scene that received the most audience response was when a white character told the other white character that she was being racist, even though characters of color had told her the exact same thing before.
But what does all of this mean? I do not accept the notion that we aren’t there yet or that we aren’t ready for that kind of conversation. We’ll never be ready for that conversation, because it’s a difficult conversation, a conversation that is not fun, easy, or conclusive. So how do we prepare to have those conversations? How do we prepare an audience members so that they don’t get defensive?