Director and playwright Monty Cole (Theater MFA 19) discussed his in-progress play Black Like Me in a recent interview with interactive, artist-led platform Rescripted.
Black Like Me is based on a book of the same name (published 1961), written by white Texan journalist John Howard Griffin. Structured as a series of journal entries, the book follows Griffin’s attempts to understand the Black experience after darkening his skin with the aid of a dermatologist. Griffin spent six weeks traveling the South as a “Black man,” documenting his encounters and experiences along the way. Cole says he was simultaneously engrossed and repulsed by the account.
The theatrical adaptation further investigates Griffin’s “perverse” balancing act between appropriation and allyship: “If the original book was an ‘Idiot’s Guide to Being a Good Ally’ in 1961, the play is an ‘Idiot’s Guide to Being a Good Ally in 2020.’”
Cole envisioned his play as serving as an onstage town hall, and a platform upon which the actors are encouraged to ad-lib and voice their opinions. He also spoke to Rescripted about the process of workshopping Black Like Me while at CalArts:
I attended CalArts to receive an MFA, but mostly to hone my work as an artist and find that specificity I was talking about earlier. They gave me the opportunity to develop the play on my feet with incredible resources, an international team of designers and an unbelievably talented ensemble of six Black actors and one white actor. The life that you see in the script today is completely because those young artists put their heart and soul into that process. I have their different voices and opinions in my head as I continue to make edits to the script. As a writer/director, it’s so useful for me to have that workshop production in my head as I move the piece forward.
Black Like Me was originally among the four plays slotted for the 2020 Ignition Festival at Victory Gardens. However, all of the plays were withdrawn from the program by the respective playwrights due to “hollow gestures of solidarity” from Chicago theater leadership. Read the open letter here.
Cole is a Chicago- and LA-based playwright and director who has produced productions, workshops, and readings for venues including Goodman Theatre, Center Theatre Group, Alley Theatre, Court Theatre, American Theatre Company, and others. He is known for works like The Brothers Size, Kiss, and Incendiary. Cole also directed fellow CalArtian Sophie Blumberg’s (Theater MFA 20) multidisciplinary production We’re Gonna Die this past spring.
“If we try to understand a struggle outside of our own, we can access empathy,” said Cole. “If we can access empathy, maybe we can become better as a society.”