Black vocal cadence: when our tone can mean life or death

The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis (do I need to say there have been many more?) has prompted some important discussion about the way we view these young men in public spaces and how we interpret the way they speak. John McWhorter recently examined the Black male vocal cadence in an article at The Root, in a piece titled, “Do White Folks Fear Violence When Black Folks Are Just Being Blunt?”

He writes,

“Yet in an honest, and perhaps more productive, discussion of this topic, we have to allow something uncomfortable— the possibility that language plays a part in the stereotype. To whites, I highly suspect that often, black boys and men have a way of sounding violent.”

And I would add to this: the stereotypes of Black women being thought of as confrontational, aggressive, loud, and angry. I experienced this directly during my undergraduate degree on Long Island. I was on a Peer Counselor team for a few of the summers. PCs were in charge of the incoming students during their 3-day overnight orientation for the school. It was the first time I was ever put on a staff that was roughly half Black and half White. The first year I did the job, it didn’t take very long for racial tensions to begin. The White women were complaining that the Black team members were too loud and aggressive during the staff meetings and they found it intimidating. The Black women responded with frustration and resistance as they were “just talking how they normally do and didn’t mean anything personal by it.” But others were interpreting it differently and taking offense. Despite the tensions, the upper management did a fairly decent job forcing us to talk this out openly and come to level of understanding that allowed us to work together and forge friendship with each other for the rest of the summer. But that experience taught me a valuable lesson about tone, communication signals, and assumption.

McWhorter writes,

“However, if outsiders hearing it don’t get the joke and wonder whether black people, especially boys, are feisty souls, then the problem is less racism than an intercultural misinterpretation.”

As someone who teaches accents, dialects, and EFL pronunciation, I try to engage my students and clients with this idea of intercultural misinterpretation. I talk about the prejudice of our listening and try to make explicit how our communication is heavy with cultural signals. To an American, Mandarin speakers can sound angry, British people sound posh, Eastern European speakers can sound serious. We make judgements based on people’s vocal tone all the time. I liken our use of language and tone as a type of computer program or a genre of music. When another person hits the notes or code in a different way, we misinterpret the emotional state, personality and/or intentions of the listener. If you add in a healthy dose of privilege, hegemony, and Standard Language Ideology, now you have a sense that an interpretation of how someone speaks is right or wrong, correct or incorrect, appropriate or inappropriate. Suddenly there is an authority, whether it is the justice system, teachers, businesses, or the media.

But perhaps more importantly, we need to share and teach this idea to those from a dominant White culture, so they can critically reflect a bit more about language, tone, and identity instead of interpreting things through their own privileged experience and lens.

When we work with the voices of actors of color or those from a pluralistic background, we must bear all of this in mind as educators. Hegemony and the privilege of our own interpretation do not stop at the door of our classrooms and rehearsal studios. And in trying to find our students’ “true” voices, we must acknowledge that this navigation may be complicated given the socio-political dynamics between classmates and faculty. And we must acknowledge that we may not always like what their “true” voice sounds like and are potentially prone to misinterpret it culturally.

Lastly, sometimes People of Color ARE actually angry. And that is totally okay too. Considering the severe inequity in our country, there is a lot to be upset about. McWhorter points out that “for a people whose history has been so confrontational, maybe it isn’t surprising that their speech reflects it.”

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“What the pill provides is an opportunity…”

This NPR story caught my attention for obvious reasons – I’m a voice teacher and of course I’m interested in the idea of learning perfect pitch as an adult. I’m also a bit paranoid after the person I happen to live with keeps talking about how robots will be taking all of our jobs. I see things like this and I’m worried that even voice teaching will be left to the Cylons in our near future.

But as usual, this sort of thing is deliciously complicated. The drug discussed is Valproic Acid, which is used as a mood stabilizing drug. This study, led by Takao Hensch, was investigating its effects on the plasticity of the human brain. It seems as if the subjects were able to learn perfect, or absolute pitch, which opens up a lot of possibility for all types of skill acquisition, particularly language learning. Perfect pitch is generally a skill thought to only be learned quite early in life.

The part that was most intriguing though was Hensch’s caveat in terms of our learned and performed identity:

I should caution that critical periods have evolved for a reason. And it is a process that one probably would not want to tamper with carelessly … If we’ve shaped our identities through development, through a critical period, and have matched our brain to the environment in which we were raised —acquiring language, culture, identity — then if we were to erase that by reopening the critical period, we run quite a risk as well.

It is fascinating to reflect on the idea of how and why we have shaped our identities through our development and environment and how the brain loses plasticity, a view of ourselves become much more fixed. I’ve noticed recently how many people like to cling to absolute narratives about themselves using words like “always,” “can’t” and “never” (ie: “I was never into singing” or “I always avoid confrontation”) and I wonder where and how do things become fixed in our sense of who we are. Culturally, this has interesting implications for those of us who grew up as part of diaspora or those who simply moved around a lot as children. What would happen to our identity and sense of who we are if we changed the plasticity of our brain in a different cultural context during adulthood?

Can Shakespeare be ‘timeless’ and hegemonic at the same time? …Let’s hope not?

I was fight coach for Julius Caesar and my BFF was Cassius. aaamaaazinggggg.

I was fight coach for Julius Caesar and my BFF was Cassius. aaamaaazinggggg.

In her recent article in The Guardian, ‘Did Shakespeare sell women short?’ Vanessa Thorpe examines the limitations of Shakespeare’s female characters and namely the RSC’s recent response to this concern. The RSC has announced that they will be producing three Jacobean dramas that feature major female roles. Brigid Larmour, has this to say:

“The impact of Shakespeare is still inspiring, of course, but it can also be limiting,” she said. “There are huge characters, such as Cleopatra or Beatrice, that we reference all the time in the rehearsal room. But the problem is that we have kept the same gender balance in today’s theatre because of the success and genius of his plays. It created a blueprint that means playwrights do not notice when they have written something for nine men and one woman.”

My emphasis. I can’t be sure how intentional, but it was great to see women’s opinions sought after for this piece (albeit they all appear to be White women, but I guess the scope of this article was made pretty clear). There is also some comprehensive summaries of some of Shakespeare’s ladies actual line counts vs. their male counterparts. And how did I not know that only Cleapatra had what is closest to an actual soliloquy!?!?! Jesus. I’m glad the article mentions Volumnia, Lady Macbeth, and Gertrude – all powerful women in their own right, but at the end of the day, how many of the Bard’s plays pass the Bechdal Test? Two sources, here and here, say that things look pretty grim. Orlando, the writer of that second examination of my link, has this to add:

The great strength of what Shakespeare does for women lies less in their number than in their complexity. At first glance they seem easily classifiable as ingénue, matron, villainess and so on, but always reveal themselves as much more when examined closely. In addition, one of the scenarios he returns to most often is of women supporting each other, even in the ranks of death, which belongs to that quirky category of things that happen all the time in life, but hardly ever in the movies.

Ok, I’d agree with that, and maybe even one could say that Shakespeare was one of the original, Western, writers to employ a sense of “Trojan Horse Television,” where “using characters and ideas with whom audiences think they’re familiar to lure viewers in, and then taking them to entirely unpredictable places.”

But so what? Why should we be applying modern social criticism to a White, male writer who died 397 years ago? Because a lot of people teaching Shakespeare’s text to both literature students and actors (and also our theatre industry but don’t get me started) tend to perpetuate that Shakespeare is a voice for timelessness and the scope of human nature.  Shakespeare Scholar Sarah Werner cautions:

This emphasis on individuals and common humanity distances the actor from any type political action or sense of history, and naturalizes the social order found in Shakespeare…

I would clarify here and say it has the potential to do that. And that it’s been done a lot. I’ve been co-teaching a Shakespeare text workshop over the past few weeks in Seoul to participants who have mostly had limited experience with the performance of his writing. In my enthusiasm to make his words less academic, more egalitarian, more accessible – I have found myself tempted to go into universalist overtures. The well-intentioned platitudes like “Shakespeare is for everyone!” “His stories and characters are timeless!” and “they speak for us all” allow us to efface Shakespeare’s identity locations of being White, male, and English and decontextualizes the society he lived in, which was patriarchal and colonialist. Thorpe writes in her Guardian piece,

In Shakespeare’s time, gender politics was a perilous subject, with Elizabeth I’s power waning at the end of her reign. Women were forbidden to appear on stage and this may well have dampened Shakespeare’s enthusiasm for female roles. Larmour suggests that had this dramatic genius been born later, British theatre would be different now. “If Shakespeare had been writing during the freer Restoration era, we would have far more women’s parts.”

Of course, the fact that women weren’t even allowed to play his characters onstage during his lifetime is going to have an impact on his writing. How could it not? I remember seeing Much Ado about nothing for the first time, and watching Hero choose to ultimately marry Claudio after all the humiliating bullshit he puts her through. I was filled with rage. Rage and disgust. Shakespeare was not speaking for ME in that moment. And of course, one could say that the theatre was staging this play or that we have our students play these parts in order to raise concern, discussion, debate, reaction. But that justification isn’t exactly going well for The Ordway in Minneapolis, who is referencing those very same things in defense of their upcoming production of the very racist musical, Miss Saigon.

Things are starting to become tangential (but important tangents nonetheless) so I will move forward. What are the implications, then, for our students?

‘What postcolonial actors need to develop is a theory and practice of actorly agency – a way of achieving interpretive and performative autonomy – by means of, within, through,and finally, outside of, clearly separate(d) from the will to power represented by the Shakespearean text’

– Denis Salter, ‘Acting Shakespeare in Postcolonial Space’

Shockingly, I keep returning to the idea of context and the rejection of lazy binaries that Shakespeare is either universal or an ignorant misogynist. I like to think that all of our voice, text, acting work is an invitation. We invite and the students have every right to engage or not. And as teachers, we hope to empower them through their choice of engagement. We are also responsible for finding other texts that offer us more diverse and powerful woman characters. That, and playing with more cross-gender casting, in both productions and class scene work. Let’s honor the shifting of gender identity locations and how they can shift in both Shakespeare’s work and in the literal bodies of our students.

“…It’s unforgiveable not to be clear and heard.”

In a recent Guardian article, Edward Klemp, Artistic Director of RADA and actress Imogene Stubbs bemoan excessive mumbling and unintelligibility in theatre and films like the recent “The Great Gatsby.”

These two thespians, along with the article author, cited numerous reasons for this: directors and producers who believe that “mumbling is more truthful,” actors being encouraged to improvise scripts, decreasing opportunities for repertory work, and typecasting:

“The naturalistic, mumbling acting style tends to go with people who are playing something closer to their obvious self … People who are playing against their obvious self tend to embrace the acting a bit more,” added Stubbs.

Stubbs goes on to criticize actors who are afraid of sounding “like an old-fashioned actor.” I fundamentally agree with all of these industry factors and I certainly want all of my students or clients to be heard and understood by their audiences. It was the final reason given that prompted a number of reflective questions for me.

Part of the problem also lies in the education system. Teenagers leave school unable to understand what they are asked to read, with no apparent relationship with language, let alone a sense of how to shape it, Kemp said. There is no longer a guarantee that even someone with an English degree from a leading university could handle this stuff, he added.

I am interested in why “teenagers leave school unable to understand what they are asked to read, with no apparent relationship to language.” Of course, an “education system” is made up of complex relationships between teachers, students, law, and curriculum, so I am not trying to properly delve into this in a few words in a blog post. Is it possible, though, that this is partly because that as the UK student demographics grow increasingly more multilingual and multicultural, educational “language” is continuing to stay, for the most part, from canons of White males? And is it possible that many students these days may have little motivation for or inspiration from such indigenous cultural experiences written/created by a group that has systematically disempowered them? Some of British drama students I’ve spoken to have alluded to the idea that they don’t feel entitled to play certain characters from specific period plays and/or that if they do, they must be spoken in a ‘standard’ accent. Could another reason for mumbling be that actors are not being sufficiently trained in or feel empowered within their own accent, and are therefore struggling with the articulation of the text in performance?

“But Britain was not a multicultural country in 1920.”

Full disclosure: I do not watch Downtown Abbey. But I feel that this should still be discussed. If you feel like the show itself might nuance my argument, I would love to hear from you.

Downtown Abbey has announced (through a press release) that it has added its first Black British cast member, Gary Carr. In an interview with the NY Times, one of the show’s executive producers, Gareth Neame, said,

A few people have said, ‘Why isn’t there more diversity? … And the argument would be, we would depict it if were true and accurate. It’s a bit like saying, ‘I don’t approve of the class system, at all, that existed on the show.’ It did exist, and we should depict it in the way that existed. It doesn’t mean I approve of it. But Britain was not a multicultural country in 1920.

My emphasis. As an American, I know very little about Black British history (although I would posit that a lot of Brits don’t know much about it either) but last year my brief encounter with Black British theatre historian, Leon Robinson, was enough to warrant some serious concern over what I believe was a seriously effacing statement by Mr. Neame. Neame did not say that Yorkshire Estates were not multicultural, he said that Britain was not multicultural in 1920. Thanks to Robinson, I had already learned about the contributions of artists like Ira Aldridge (who was actually American) and Les Ballet Negre, but I thought of Aldridge as more of an outlier example and Les Ballet Negre didn’t really begin until the 1930s. This didn’t seem like it would be enough to consider the country “multicultural.”
So I started to dig a bit and quickly found some diasporic patterns of both Black and Asian communities and their influential presence in the UK during the time period which Downtown Abbey is set. In her article for “History Today,” Barbara Bush writes,

But during the First World War the influx of coloured colonial seamen, munitions workers and others substantially increased the numbers of the British ‘coloured’ population. In the aftermath of the war, British white liberals – the section of the community with a broad sympathy towards the problems of blacks which stretched back in the liberal, humanitarian tradition to the abolitionists – were confronted for the first time with a sizeable domestic ‘race problem’. From this time an embryonic form of the modern concept of race relations began to emerge.

She goes on to detail legislation that the UK government drafted and eventually passed as a response to such riots in 1920 and 1925. I don’t know exactly what Neame’s definition of multiculturalism is, but I think once your government starts making legislative responses to race relations in your country, we’re pretty much there. You might be tempted to clarify on behalf of Neame that of course he meant that Yorkshire country estates were not multicultural in 1920. But he didn’t. And in one, sweeping, justifying excuse of a statement, he effaced centuries of pluralistic communities in the UK, despite the fact that the UK government hired its first Black British employee in 1786, that interracial marriage was happening about that time as well, and that Black and White communities were actually coming together in poverty in the 1800s.

It might seem that I’m banging on about a small thing that Mr. Neame somewhat carelessly (at least I hope) said. By discussing his comment in more length, I am hoping to raise awareness for a number of points:

  1.  Mr. Neame and those in his industry continue to be incredibly influential in our artistic communities and entertainment industries and have enormous power when it comes to crafting and depicting narratives. Their choice on what to focus, highlight, efface, or ignore has a profound impact on society at large – which includes young people who may or may not choose to pursue acting and teachers who are teaching in conservatoires.
  2. Whoever was interviewing Neame should have either called him on his overarching statement or later fact-checked and posed a critical response in the article as a reflection. That’s just good journalism. I fear that most readers, especially Americans who know very little about British history, would not question his quote.
  3. I’m concerned with show creator’s Julian Fellow’s statement that he wants to introduce actors of color in a way that is “historically believable,” particularly in light of the scrutiny that the writing on the show is full of linguistic anachronisms. Plenty of people are still watching the show, despite this criticism.

I look forward to the day where producers are not issuing press releases for their first new, ‘vibrant’ Black Character. Audiences can handle it. And if they don’t know that there were non-White people in the UK before 1920, don’t cater to, confirm, or encourage their ignorance.

“Embracing the complications and the contradictions”

In a recent roundtable discussion in Minneapolis, Asian American artists came together to discuss the current state of Asian American theatre, their influences, and the relationship between their creative work and their identity.

Key quote from poet Bao Phi:

I feel like America’s narrative talking about race and all of these things – gender, sexuality – is becoming more and more complicated, for the better. And I’d like to see media coverage embracing the complications and the contradictions, rather than figuring out what stories fit into preexisting narratives and paradigms.”

As educators, we can embrace this challenge as well and provide our students with more opportunities to express their own stories and explore identity intricacies. A number of students have told me that they have been given text to read/perform in class by authors that maybe shared their parents’ nationality or just the color of their skin and they sometimes felt pressure to connect with this writer.

Linda Her, a spoken word artist and activist, reflects on the intersectionality of their identity locations and the challenges this sometimes presents:

“My experience as a Hmong American queer woman and performer has been that when I’m invited to a LGBT specific event it’s filled with all white folks, and then when I’m invited to a Hmong space to perform it’s filled with majority straight folks. I would love to have a space that is inclusive of all your selves, your identities. For example, how is the notion of marriage equality different for couples in which at least one person is an immigrant? How can we include those experiences?”

I would also love such a space, Linda. When I’m with adoptees, I’m rarely able to articulate the deep somatic experiences I’ve had as a trained actor and voice teacher that have impacted the trauma caused by the separation from our birthmothers. When I’m with theatre people and academics, it is hard to articulate the part of me that is non-White and frustrated. Interracial adoptees and other diasporic have to deal with this fragmentation their whole lives. I’m used to it but never comfortable with it. And like these artists in this roundtable, I’m manifesting spaces that are more inclusive of all our different selves.

Bao Phi’s poetry is really stunning and full of complex layers. I will be posting some of his work in the future.

“There is not a single role in any one of my plays that must be played by a physically intact white person.”

I know this is the longest blog title ever, but I don’t care because it is awesome. It is taken from a casting note by American playwright Chuck Mee. The full note is here:

In my plays, as in life itself, the female romantic lead can be played by a woman in a wheelchair. The male romantic lead can be played by an Indian man. And that is not the subject of the play. There is not a single role in any one of my plays that must be played by a physically intact white person. And directors should go very far out of their way to avoid creating the bizarre, artificial world of all intact white people, a world that no longer exists where I live, in casting my plays.

My emphasis. I really like the mention that simply casting someone outside of dominant culture does not necessarily need to make some sort or directorial or dramaturgical statement. Audiences are far more intelligent than the theatre industry gives them credit for.

Mee’s note opened a recent Jezebel article about antiquated but still very prominent casting issues for actors of color. Writer Laura Beck cites some of the more recent examples at large venues such as La Jolla Playhouse and The Royal Shakespeare Company. I’ve talked about these incidences ad nauseam with my colleagues and friends so I won’t detail them here but please, please follow the link and read about them if you haven’t already. Most theatres state that they have a color blind casting policy. However, as Beck argues, it’s not really color blind casting if you are willing to cast White people in plays about Asian people, but are not just as willing to cast Asians in roles that are presumed for White people.

I really love this part, where she calls out the casting teams on their privilege and their relationship to universality and dominant culture.

The white men casting these three shows have never had to place themselves in other people’s shoes. Because most stories are catered to them, it’s possible they never had to develop the same imaginative flexibility the rest of us are continually practicing. You might assume that when an Asian man or woman walks in to audition for the lead, the casting people think “other”. They could wonder, “How will the audience access this story since they’re not a Chinese woman?” But in reality, many of us have been doing that our entire lives. It’s possible that this might come into play in casting, with the end result almost always being: You want it to be universal, you gotta cast white.

I’m more focused on pedagogical research than I am on the industry itself, but I will continue to highlight these articles because I feel the need to remind all of us who work in or are preparing students for this industry that we are kidding ourselves if we think that simply because we are artistic, creative, and progressive, that we are not affected by dominant culture and are not capable of disempowering others through our choices.