“Someone complimented me on my English last summer. This was my response.”

This is a new performance piece I wrote for the VASTA Cabaret in London this summer at my alma mater, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. I workshopped it at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, which I am quite proud to say that I am now summer faculty there, teaching Voice and Speech.

This piece has lived in me for over a year now, as the actual incident that opens the performance happened during the summer of 2013 in Brooklyn. I felt like it was important to highlight the idea that oppression does not come in only explicit, hateful forms but from the educated and millennial peers that I hang out and work with in my progressive circles.

When microaggressions happen, I don’t always want to confront the person and give them some diatribe about social justice; sometimes, I just want to drink my fucking cocktail. Storytelling and performance allow me to express all the things I think and feel in that moment when I was made to feel small. And hopefully, I can share it with more people this way and they will be more open to seeing their own complicity in these structures because performance leads to a type of distanced perspective that gives us more space to reflect.

A number of people have asked me what my process is for creating this type of work. For this piece in particular, I allowed it to sit in me for many months, not putting anything on paper. A month or so before Perry-Mansfield, I made a basic Mind Map of major milestones that I wanted to cover. Then I began to look up songs and lyrics to see how I could weave them into my stories.

After over a year of blogging about voice and identity and culture and social justice and theatre, it is wonderful to create something that is exactly the thing I’d find online and want to post about anyway. I’m grateful to my Hofstra, Seoul, Perry-Mansfield, and VASTA families for all their support through this process.

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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.”

“…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?

“I’m a burger.”

Pakistani-born writer Omar Akhtar reflects on how his Pakistani accent has become Americanized from living in the US.

Nothing wrong with an American accent on its own. But for someone like me, who had grown up in Pakistan, there were all sorts of connotations. I was a sellout. I must be ashamed of my own culture and identity. I must think I’m better than everyone else. I’m a burger Back home, there was a special kind of loathing reserved for kids who had American accents. British accents were acceptable since all our post-colonial teachers held it as a gold standard and we still related to that culture. But if you had an American accent, it conjured up the most irrational rage in the people around you.

These are great reminders as to how we make cultural judgments based on how a speaker sounds, particularly if they used to sound like us and don’t anymore. This is a common experience for acting students who go home to see their families after they begin training in a ‘standard’ stage accent such as Received Pronunciation or General American.

Akhtar goes on to question the change in his accent:

I justified it to myself saying that I spoke in an American accent to Americans while maintaining my native accent when speaking to friends or family from home. But isn’t that sort of phony as well?

No, it’s not phony. It’s code-switching and we do this all the time depending on the status of the person we’re speaking with the relationship between us. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tone and vocabulary, but it can also shift into accent/dialectical changes as well.
The rest of Akhtar’s article discusses why many of us shift our accents to succeed in things like getting jobs and improving our credibility. It’s well worth a read and is a good reminder that it is the listener who has the power to make judgments about a person based on how they sound, whether they are consciously doing it or not. As Patsy Rodenburg says, “To the ears of others we are what we speak.”