Racialicious Crush Of The Week: Isaiah Wooden

By Andrea Plaid

Isaiah Wooden (left) with Joe Morton. Photo: courtesy of the interviewee.

I met Isaiah while I was staying at the home of a mutual friend who seems to gather all who are Black and brilliant into his orbit. Isaiah being a native Baltimorean, I was able to chat with him about the physical and socio-economic layout of what I could see of the city when I was there for the Facing Race conference in November. Considering that he’s this week’s Crush, you know I find Isaiah rather amazing, and I’m all about sharing the amazing in this column, right?

So, here’s Isaiah, in his own words…

Isaiah, my first question is: whatcha studying at Stanford that pulled you way away from the East Coast?

First, I have to say: it is such a pleasure to be in conversation with you again! I so deeply appreciate the work that you are doing at Racialicious and, indeed, in the world. To answer the question: I am currently a doctoral candidate in Theater and Performance Studies (T&PS) at Stanford, where I am in the throes of writing a dissertation entitled, The Afterwards of Blackness: Race, Time and Contemporary Performance. The project begins with the premise that one of the more urgent questions to emerge in what has been theorized as the “post-soul,” the “post-black,” and/or the “post-civil rights” era is: what is the time of blackness? Attending to examples of expressive art, I analyze the aesthetic strategies and practices that several contemporary black cultural producers deploy to dramatize the deeply intertwined relationship of blackness and time and, correspondingly, to critique concepts of normative or modern temporality. The project, in many ways, is reflective of my broader teaching and research interests in twentieth and twenty-first century dramatic literature, theory, and criticism; performance studies; African American studies; (black) queer studies; and popular culture. It also evidences my continued engagements with both theory and practice: I have been fortunate to direct a number of the plays that I take up in the dissertation.

Part of what drew me to Stanford in 2008, in fact, was the T&PS Department’s integrative approach to the study of theater and performance. Stanford has been tremendously supportive of what I call my “directing habit” and, indeed, has provided wonderful opportunities for me to flex both theoretically and creatively during my tenure. I was reminiscing just a few days ago with the brilliant playwright A-lan Holt, a recent Stanford alum, about the time we spent in Kampala, Uganda devising a new performance piece that I staged, along with a colleague, at the National Theatre there. As you might imagine, it was a transformative experience. Beautifully, I have had many similar experiences since venturing westward.

What I’m too upset at myself about is missing you and the great (and greatly underrated) actor Joe Morton on December 7th in NYC. What did you two perform, what did you talk about, and what did the audience ask about?

We certainly missed your warm presence! It was a rather magical evening. To say that I was thrilled to share the stage and to be in productive conversation with the inimitable Joe Morton is to understate just how psyched I was and still am about the event. The event, I should say, was the brainchild of the incredible Aimee Meredith Cox, a Professor of African American Studies at Fordham and a truly luminous light in the academy. Aimee envisioned the evening as an opportunity for Joe and me to share in community some of the work that’s energizing us and to engage in a discussion about that work as well as our different trajectories as theater artists.

It has been a while since I’ve stretched my acting muscles; as such, I asked one of the gifted undergraduates at Fordham, Courtney Williams, to open with a performance of Ed Bullins’s 1967 play, The Theme is Blackness. I used the play, which tasks spectators with sitting in the dark for twenty minutes (we did a shortened version), as a way to launch a discussion about and to offer a précis for my dissertation research. I was interested in highlighting some of the questions that Bullins’s text invites and noting the importance of those questions to my project.

Joe is presently at work on a stage adaptation of Athol Fugard’s novel Tsotsi: he relocates Fugard’s tale of gangs and survival to New York City and opens space to think critically about notions of choice and agency in the adaptation. He performed snippets from the piece, and it was nothing short of spellbinding. Words cannot even begin to capture just how elegant a performer he is. It was rather moving to watch! Indeed, I was still trying to collect my thoughts during the beginning of the question-and-answer section! The crowd in attendance was quite diverse and, thankfully, came game to engage us in a conversation that shuttled between the philosophical and the practical, the abstract and the actual. We covered a lot of terrain. The questions posed included: When did it become clear that theater and performance would be the fields in which we would settle? What particular paths did we take to get to where we are in the field? How do particular modes of work—acting, directing, teaching, scholarship, for example—allow us to investigate notions of blackness? And, is it helpful for students to engage coursework across disciplines? It was an invigorating discussion. Darnell [Moore, writer/activist at The Feminist Wire], of course, moderated with aplomb. Towards the end, we were collectively brainstorming about additional ways that we might forge community.

Since you’re a director-dramaturg, perhaps you can give your own perspective on the casting of actors of color in theater—or the lack thereof, as in the case back in July of this year with the La Jolla Playhouse in CA for casting non-Asian actors in The Nightingale, which is set in ancient China, or the Royal Shakespeare Company casting just three Asian actors in one of the most famous plays in Chinese history, The Orphan of Zhao. Where’s the point when a director can and should go for casting actors in theatrical roles regardless of race (like Denzel Washington as Brutus in Julius Caesar when it was on Broadway in 2005) and when should the director go for a casting actors of colors in roles specifically described as a person of color, like Paul Robeson or Chiwetel Ejiofor in Othello?

As evidenced by the recent controversy around The Nightingale, The Orphan of Zhao, the Berlin production of Bruce Norris’s play Clybourne Park, which was shuttered after Norris learned that a white actor was set to play an African American character and would do so in blackface, and Stephen Adly Guirgus’s public criticism of the casting of two white actors as the Latin@ leads in TheaterWork’s production of  his play, The Motherf*cker with the Hat, the uses and limits of nontraditional, multicultural, colorblind, cross-racial casting practices are debated perennially. Ultimately, these are debates about the politics of representation and visibility—and, indeed, they’re often about access, opportunity and, undoubtedly, capital. They take place in and against a system that still understands whiteness as universal or neutral: that is, in and against institutional structures that are frequently unwilling to do the necessary work to make space for bodies of color or, when they do, are incapable of doing so without trafficking in the kinds of fantasies that refuse to accommodate difference and, perhaps more problematically, refuse to even recognize inequalities or inequities. To be sure, I am glad that all of the casting practices for the productions cited above were met with resistance. Indeed, I am especially appreciative of Guirgus’s challenge to that oft-repeated, insidious refrain that “the very best actors available” were cast. It is a refrain that I despise precisely because, in its parroting of conservative meritocratic rhetoric, it not only indicates a disinclination for checking spots [of unexamined privilege], it also suggests an unwillingness to consider the possibility of their existence: really, why is it that “the very best actors available” are usually white?

Still, to the question: as a director committed to promoting cross-cultural exchange in and through my work, I believe that there are both uses for and limits to nontraditional, multicultural, colorblind, cross-racial casting. The key for any director is to remain cognizant of both—the uses and the limits—when making casting decisions. Given the dearth of roles written specifically for actors of color and given the dearth of instances in which actors of color are hired to play roles traditionally performed by white actors, I am of the mind that, if a script describes a character as belonging to a particular racial or ethnic group, then efforts should be made to cast a performer that meets that description. And, if a different choice is made, then I think that decision should be framed or explained in some way or otherwise be subject to intense scrutiny. Chiefly, I think it’s crucial for directors and those making casting decisions to always understand that the decision to, say, cast Denzel Washington as Brutus or to hire a white actor to portray an African American character in blackface is a political one. Accordingly, it’s important to scrutinize the politics and ideologies informing the decision-making process.

Of course, I feel like we can’t talk about theater without talking about August Wilson and his legacy. What do you think his legacy is to theater and to both Black literary arts and the larger world of literary arts? And who are the other playwrights of color do you think we need to look out for?

Interestingly, August Wilson has been showing up in my dreams as of late. I have been having these really intense dreams where I am running and running and running—at full speed. The world around me is a moving blur, and I’m running and running and running. Inevitably, I find myself at a destination—it changes: an open field, my childhood home, my middle school—huffing and puffing, desperately trying to catch my breath. Once I feel like my feet are solidly on the ground, I realize that the reason that I’ve been running so fast—so hard—is that Wilson’s visitation reminded me that I needed to write: I’m pressing up against a deadline, and I must write! That realization usually jolts me out of my sleep—sweating. These, no doubt, are anxiety dreams! Ha! After having a chance to really sit with and think about them, though, I am now able to appreciate their poetry: August Wilson has been showing up in my dreams—his presence makes sense given that I just started re-reading Gem of the Ocean, my favorite of his plays, for a book chapter I’m working on—to inspire me to write. Funnily enough, a different encounter with Wilson is what reignited my love for theater. In 2003, after an extended hiatus from doing any theater work, I designed the scenery for a production of The Piano Lesson directed by a mentor, the late Lisa Rose Middleton, at Georgetown. It was my first foray into set design and, honestly, I had no idea what I was doing or what a tremendous task it was. Thankfully, Lisa and another mentor, Ted Parker, gently guided me through the process. With their encouragement and the help of countless hands, I was able build a house for Berniece and Boy Willie—a house where Wilson’s poetry could really sang!

All that to say: when I think of Wilson’s legacy, I often think of the many wonderful gifts he bestowed on this world: notably, the inspiration to write and, really, to write for and about the theater. To be sure, each of the plays in the Twentieth Century Cycle, with their poetic language, beautifully drawn characters, and exacting dramaturgy, is a gift: a reminder to dream, to hope, to sing, to laugh, to love and, yes, to write. That the plays have been enjoyed and embraced in theaters globally has, no doubt, prompted many black dramatists to pick up their pens, many theater companies to produce “black plays,” and many scholars and spectators to think seriously about these works. This is Wilson’s legacy. He kicked many doors wide open so that others might strut through with ease, and he did it while producing a body of work that accomplished exactly what he’d hoped it would do: offer a nuanced and complex portrait of black life in America across the twentieth century. As someone who studies contemporary theater and black playwrights, I see Wilson’s legacy manifested whenever I catch a play by, say, Eisa Davis, Lydia Diamond, Marcus Gardley, Danai Gurira, Katori Hall, S.M. Shephard-Massat, Tarell McCraney, Lynn Nottage, Robert O’Hara, Suzan-Lori Parks, to name only a few. It’s a legacy with incredible reach.

In our conversation over the Thanksgiving weekend, we chatted about the phenomenon of what I call “California racism,” because I do think the state has a particular flavor of racism that isn’t quite found in any other part of the country.  Would you mind explaining/describing it and how it crops up in your daily interactions?

I imagine I could write a book-length response to this question! Ha! I’ll spare you that here. In short, I’ll say: I am not sure if California has a particular flavor of racism (though you now have me thinking about the spatiality of racism or, put differently, the ways that racism might variously register in different spaces). I do think, however, that there is a way in which an investment in a particularly Californian, utopic narrative that renders the state as the site of nothing but sunshine, Hollywood glitz, fresh produce, progressive thinking, and technological advancements often prevents real discussion about the ways race, racism, and racial inequality—serious discussion about the “cruel and unusual” over-population of prisons with black and brown bodies, for example—continue to structure the lives of those living in “The Golden State.” More than that, I’ve had frequent discussions with friends about the distinctiveness of the anti-blackness we’ve experienced and encountered “out west.” I would venture to say that this “distinctiveness” is what has, in part, spurred so many of the Black radical movements that have been launched from the state.

Read the rest of the interview at the R’s Tumblr