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The diversity test or why does the Black character get screwed first? Part III

This is part three of a series examining This, Disgraced and Good People; three contemporary American plays that feature interracial relationships.

I have understudied the role of Jory in Disgraced and played the role of Marrell in This. Here’s the tricky part. They are fun roles. It's not often that Black actresses get to  to play a smart, contemporary woman, who is specifically written as Black.

Still I struggled while playing both characters because I wrestled with whether I was complicit in reinforcing ideas that do not change the messaging or challenge the implicit bias. This and Disgraced are published play. There was no opportunity to voice my concerns as I might have had if the play were in development.

In Disgraced Jory’s husband cheats on her. Consider the additional injury caused when it is a White man cheating on his Black spouse with a (as the playwright describes) a “lithe and lovely” White woman. Consider the age old injury and subsequent re-injury inflicted upon Black women in the audience.

The character Amir doesn’t believe it when Jory tells him their spouses were kissing and says the following:

First you steal my job and now you try to destroy my marriage. You’re fucking evil. After everything I’ve done for you.

In a subsequent monologue Amir unleashes more vitriol:

Were you ever the last one to leave? Cause if you were I didn’t see it. I still leave the office after you do. You think you’re the nigger here? I’m the nigger! Me!

Jory is verbally abused right after finding out her husband has had an affair. Again, does the fact that she’s Black make it easier for the audience to witness the abuse then ultimately turn their attention and empathy to the “lithe and lovely” Emily who committed the offense?

This is Jory’s response:

There’s something you should know. Your dear friend Mort is retiring. And guess who’s taking over his case load? Not you. Me. I asked him. “Why not Amir?” He said something about you being duplicitous. That it’s why you’re such a good litigator. But that it’s impossible to trust you. Don’t believe me? Call Mort. Ask him yourself. Let me guess. He hasn’t been taking your calls?

Jory has tunnel vision at a moment when her whole world has been turned upside down. She is focused solely on the relationship with her co-worker and not her husband that has cheated on her and walked out the door. And Rory’s reaction doesn’t include how she feels about being called a Nigger. The character doesn’t get to express a range of emotion. Jory doesn’t get to be human.

My mission isn’t simply to point out problems. I want to offer solutions. The Bedchel Test challenges filmmakers to write more compelling female characters by offering these guidelines for a screenplay:

  • 2 women
  • talking to each other
  • about something other than a man

If a film can’t meet those standards then it has failed the Bedchel Test. 69% of IMBD top 250 films fails this test.

I offer a similar test for writing minority characters in a play. These are questions playwrights can consider:

  • What is your intention or purpose in including a minority character? Do you want to tell their story?
  • Is diversity and inclusion a part of your overall mission as an artist?
  • Is your choice to include a minority character a shortcut or shorthand? In other words are you using the character as a scapegoat that enables your main character to avoid accountability for their actions?
  • Is the minority character strictly in service of the White characters without serving any other purpose?
  • Have you spoken to or sought feedback from anyone who is from the ethnic group your character represents?
  • Are the minority characters given the same scope of humanity as the White characters?

Including a character of color might be a stride toward diversifying, but with the choice there comes a responsibility. For what appears to be progressive can still be mired in ignorance and misdirection. Writing outside one’s own world view must include collaboration and input from that world view. The work will be better, more honest and it will hopefully move the conversation forward.

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