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.”

“Isn’t it sad that I can’t use my real voice with White people?”

Someone asked me recently what strategies I propose or support in encouraging effective and progressive engagement about race and identity. One such way I often respond with is different types of comedy and performance. Some of the most interesting cultural criticism and reflection can come from comedians, particularly comedians of color or from pluralistic backgrounds like Aziz Ansari, W. Kamau Bell, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Hannibal Buress, etc (although it should never be a PoC’s responsibility to discuss or educate others about these issues and people like Louis CK are doing a great job talking about Whiteness).

Aamer Rahman is a stand-up comic of Bangladeshi descent who spent much of his life in Australia and a lot of his material deals with identity, race, and White privilege. I first heard of him through this brilliant bit debunking the myth of reverse racism, which is I think still one of the most concise ways of commenting on this idea thus far.

Rahman has another bit from his show, Fear of a Brown Planet, where he talks about what workshops he wants to create for White people. As a voice teacher, this part struck a particular chord.

You know, we actually have speak differently, to White women? If I’m in a bank or any kinda of job interview, any kind of professional setting, I have speak differently, to a White woman, just so she doesn’t get scared. I have to smile more, I have to appear less threatening. I don’t pull out a knife or a gun, suddenly I actually have to make my voice higher, this is not even my real voice, this is my White voice. Isn’t that sad I can’t use my real voice with White people?

I think a lot of PoCs have a “White people voice.” It can vary depending on our background. Women in general can often change their resonance or pitch to be taken more seriously by men as well. My “White people voice” is actually louder and more forceful and masculine to convince White people that I’m not a passive, subservient geisha-type of Asian person. I believe that as a result, accessing a more vulnerable-sounding head, face, and mouth resonance has been most challenging for me in my personal voicework journey and that I tend to push or create unnecessary tension in my throat.

Rahman’s point here is important as many voice teachers in the US/UK/Australia, etc still are nice White ladies. And acting students of color are often trying to assimilate and code-switch in order to successfully navigate the socio-cultural constructs that still continue to play out in our education systems. Given the goals of many voice teachers to free the voice and make it a reflection of who a person truly is, I would say that we must be aware of the power relationship our own identities create and how they impact our students, no matter how caring and well-meaning we may be. And this is not to say, of course, that ALL PoCs have a “White people voice” or that people from White, monocultural backgrounds don’t have socially induced vocal hang-ups. But I think what Rahman’s talking about is a very real phenomenon and we should be dialoguing and reflecting about it more.

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.

Jay Z said it so it must be true.

Love this:
Rap is pretty much thinking out loud, you’re talking and you’re putting your fears and your vulnerabilities and your, you know, your bravado, insecurities, all on music. And it’s there for the world to see. You’re really giving a glimpse of who you are.
Same could be said for voice, for speech, for singing. You are giving a glimpse of who you are. Speaking, singing, rapping is a gift of ourselves into a space, to others. I also really appreciate that Jay Z is trying to create both a bodily and abstract space for the interaction between what society has deemed low art and high art. This is why Cis Berry loves rap so much.
It’s important that to find a genuine and humble appreciation for the “low art” or “pop culture” movements our students are authorities are on. And not some bullshit, “oh that’s nice, now here’s the REAL stuff.” Our students can sniff that out pretty quickly.

“You give voice to your grief”

This week I am in Cape Cod, MA exploring voice and movement through Archetypal Journeys with Janet B. Rodgers (formally of VCU) and Frankie Armstrong.

We started with the Archetype of the “Spiritual and Temporal Leader” (think of Mandela, Gandhi, Dalai Lama) and this part always resonates with me.

Now you round the corner, and for the first time in such a long time you see the habitation. You see the destruction that has happened. Many buildings have been destroyed. Many people walk thin and hungry. You give voice to your grief as you lament for the people and your community.

Especially given the devastating Zimmerman verdict yesterday, I always feel like I have so many communities to grieve for. And I am hyper-aware of how I am publicly perceived in that I am not allowed to appear as angry, hurt, or frustrated as I really am.

So yesterday, I had permission to grieve. And I grieved. I grieved through the Archetype and its narrative journey. I made sounds that are not acceptable or appropriate for a young woman of color in a Western society. I grieved for Trayvon’s family, I grieved for young black men in America, I grieved for my birthmother, I grieved for all 200,000 adoptees whose lives were manipulated from the moment of their birth.

The Archetypal mantra for the Spiritual and Temporal Leader is:

I have the right to be here./ And I have nothing to prove./ I am who I am.

I will keep saying this and believing it. Some days I’ll believe it more than others. I hope you are saying it too.

“…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 guess I’ll go this way. I think there is a Staples down there.”

Ok, so this is only tangentially related to my research foci, but it is evocative and intriguing. I had thought about doing a similar video installation (on my list of 9,383,832,928 things to do) that explores our running narrative about seeing people and their visible identity locations (or the assumptions I’d make about them) in public spaces.

Anthropologist Andrew Irving has recorded 100 people verbally narrating their inner thoughts in New York City as they walk through the streets. I found this part of the artist’s particularly compelling:

“…once urban life is understood as a whole-body phenomenon—indivisibly combining inner speech and imagery, muscle movement, the circulation of blood, heart-rate and the nervous system—it reinforces the idea that the seemingly congruent social activities we observe in a city are differentiated by diverse inner lifeworlds that remain uncharted across the social sciences and humanities.”

The idea of inner speech, imagery, muscles, blood, and nervous system all working together in a symbiotic relationship – this is exactly what many of us are trying to do with our acting students when they are working on text. And I particularly enjoy the emphasis here on urban life. Often, as voice teachers, we resort to a lot of nature imagery and metaphors. We often use our voice classes to escape our modernized world and get back to what is “natural” and “organic.” I’m interested in shifting the binary of nature = good/urban and modern = bad. Is nature imagery important to voice work, text work, poetry work? Omigod, yes. Especially if the text was written among those landscapes of yore. Can urban living create habitual tension in our bodies from low levels of the fight or flight reflex? Definitely. Living a city can have a negative impact on our ability to be vulnerable. That being said, what I like about this video project is that I see some green shoots springing out of some of these established paradigms. How do we, as students, artists, society, find a way to be expansive, empathetic, and vocally open within an urban environment? Can we challenge ourselves to use urban landscapes to explore our vocal potential?

For more information on Irving’s project, you can go here.