Saturday, January 23, 2016


Nigger. Yep, the n-word. Nigger.

There, I said it. Simply because you’re reading it (and not hearing the nuanced intonation) the word’s power is drained. Tone is everything. You have no ideas if I am saying it with venom, with matter-of-factness, or with a certain flirty friendliness.

But even seeing the word is stinging. And stinking.

You might say that I, as a white man, have no business using the word even if there is absolutely no malice intended. For a white man to utter those two syllables conjure centuries of horror; it is not possible for a white man to say “nigger” without assuming some degree of hatefulness. It is a mortal sin.
Katherine Kearns with her Dad
“Don’t say it,” my daughter pleads. “You’re my dad. Please don’t.” She is crying, tears that are springing from a bottomless well; tears that are as wet as the tears of Trayvon’s mommy; tears that are as fresh as the tears of Michael Jordan’s daddy; tears that splash on the streets of Ferguson and every other street in America.

I will be appearing at the Silver Lake Library in Los Angeles, mixing a Discussion that intends to capture the zeitgeist of the moment with a Performance that intends to pull the audience into a world that is foreign and yet ineluctably universal.

“Don’t, dad,” she says, with a determination that she’s been encouraged to cultivate.

She is my child. I am so proud of who she’s becoming: her intellect, her commitment, her politics.

“Honey, it’s an artistic choice. I’m not doing it to hurt you. Or hurt anyone. She’s a character, a construct. It’s a word that I believe—with all my heart—she’d use under these circumstances. And she’s using it affectionately.”

She is even more outraged that I dare to play a black woman who says “nigger” as a distorted term of endearment. “That doesn’t make it okay,” she says.

The subtitle of the event (“Michael Kearns: White On Black”) is “How Parenting a Black Daughter Has Taught Me Lessons About Race.” Little did I realize I’d be learning lessons less than forty-eight hours before the scheduled time of the afternoon gathering.

“I live in fear of being called that,” she says, sniffling. “I haven’t been—not yet—but when I’m walking down the street, I’m afraid someone is going to yell it from their car window. Or come up behind me and say it. It’s a horrible, horrible word.” Providing that startling context unnerves me.

Although it’s tempting, I don’t bring up the “faggot” comparison because she knows it wouldn’t bother me; not in the primal, imprinted way that the n-word would land on her.

We keep at it. I bring up Lily Tomlin and Anna Deavere Smith, both of whom have played men, men who are racially different. She listens, she does.

I listen, I do.

“I feel like you’ve made up your mind,” she says.
Anna Deavere Smith
I have. Somewhere along the line, a writer makes certain choices that could be construed as moral. I write characters (many of whom I play) who are society’s throwaways. Their language—so “foreign” to the ear that it is difficult to understand—bursts from an alternative dictionary of language that is littered with words that may be unsavory but not, sorry, unspeakable: words that are part onomatopoeia stirred in with some deliberate malapropisms.The same word could be hurled like a bullet at the end of Cupid’s bow.
“It is my job to be authentic,” I say. “I contract with the characters I play and it is my job to bring them to emotional life; I engage in an agreement that promises to adopt their way of speaking. If I believe a character is going to lovingly refer to her boyfriend as a ‘nigger’—when no other word will do—I have no option other than to put that word into her mouth.”
“But you’re going to say it—in front of people I know—and you’re my dad.”
“Do you think anyone who sees my work thinks that I’m a racist?”
Her silence indicates that she does not.
As the hours go by, I substitute other words; they fall flat. Is this my white privileged self justifying the pain I see on my baby’s face. Perhaps—in a very rare instance—I am putting my work before my kid’s feelings?
In the late-Eighties, prior to being tested—“to be or not to be,” that was the question—my work had, almost overnight, accelerated into an artistic stratosphere that was as exciting as it was terrifying.
I saw a photo in People Magazine, one of many depictions of HIV/AIDS at the time of the publication, more than a quarter of a century ago: An emaciated black woman, sitting in a bathtub, one arm uplifted as the other one lathered up her underarm. Her head of dreadlocks is thrown back, accentuating the huge smile on her face. It is that smile that would haunt me; it contained an ebullience that screamed “I’m alive” but her countenance was also carrying rage, sadness, and confusion. In the accompanying article, my lady in the tub was formerly a lady of the night, a veritable moving target, daring the virus to do its dirty work.
Big Red
This is the writer’s task: to climb into your subject’s body—naked body, in this case—and while in residence, perform a magic act of empathy that conjoins two spirits. This leap into otherworldliness requires workmanlike skills (demands of the voice and body) in tandem with muscularity of the heart (beware: breaks are inevitable).
“Big Red” was the manifestation of my initial connection to that photograph and the first black woman I would audaciously portray; she would become part of intimacies, but not before I did more exploration. I felt like I had to observe street hookers workin’ it, so I ventured into the bowels of Hollywood—on Sunset Boulveard, east of Western—where the action was during that time. I observed these women up close: pursing their love-for-sale lips, flipping their exaggerated hair, examining their reflection in the storefront windows that stared back with blurred facsimiles. In acting lexicon, these are often referred to as “emblematic gestures.” I memorized them and later, when I got home, I performed them—purse, flip, examine, again: purse, flip, examine, again: purse, flip, examine—over and over and over again.
I did not interview anyone but I got what I needed. More than any other time in my career, I felt like I was doing field work, becoming an anthropologist in a quest to deepen my writing and acting skills.
intimacies evolved into a solo performance piece in which I uncloak a number of characters who are ostensibly not within my grasp—as an actor or a human being. "To be an actor in the theater is to teach yourself and keep yourself disciplined and honorable,” Frank Langella said. “If you do that, you get a chance to fly in this kind of emotional paradise…Acting is just as much hard work as digging a ditch. And if you do all the yeoman work, inspiration will come." I did the work and the work put me on the map, in America and abroad.                                                                                                                            
The performance itself, I explain to my twenty-one year old, must be stageworthy (entertaining and believable with something to say) without ever forgetting my partnership with the audience. It may be a “solo” show but there are those who witness; they witness the transformative act of empathy, a visual metaphor.
Inhabiting the character authentically becomes a way to invite the audience to go on the ride with me. If a white man, over six feet tall, with a head of brown, straightish hair and often sporting a bushy moustache, can “become” Big Red—in all her transcendence—so can you, the audience member (no matter what your physicality or emotionality dictates). Empathy is the artery that leads you to a profound understanding.
Along with many other things—including parenting my daughter (which trumps everything else)—empathizing with The Other, on stage and on the page, has become my life’s work.


Saturday, January 9, 2016


During most of his presidency (1981—1989), Ronald Reagan avoided using the word “AIDS” until nearly 60,000 cases had been reported and more than 27,000 of those men and women had died.

The word he did employ, more times than anyone could possibly count, was “crack” as in “crack baby,” “crack house,” “crack mother,” and “crack whore.” Instead of a war on AIDS, Reagan had declared a war on drugs in 1982 when drug use was declining, not rising.

To read Michelle Anderson’s seething book, The New Jim Crow, is to awaken to a reality in American politics that virtually proves (with meticulous data and overwhelming statistics) that mass incarceration in America is testament to that the virulent disregard that we, white people, have for black and brown people.

The New Jim Crow is a call to arms.

In order to respond to Anderson’s detailed account—as emotionally rendered as it is intellectually generated—I look for myself in the book’s pages (as I do with most books), trying to insert myself so that, whether I like it or not, I am part of the action.

The pain that I feel, combined with anger and embarrassment, must be channeled into action.

Halfway through the book, I am overwrought with so many thoughts that I must begin organizing them. The connections create sparks, lightening bolts of empathy, fear, regret; the illumination is blinding.

There are times when I don’t want to believe Anderson’s words, often hurled off the page, seemingly in my direction. But I cannot duck; I let the words stick.

I do not question the conclusions that are masterfully drawn in The New Jim Crow: Americans (Democrats and Republicans alike) have (consciously or not) allowed (and in some cases, engineered) an environment in which black people—because of a perverse, immoral legal system—are afforded no more dignity than slaves were at the start of the Seventeenth century.

(Please don’t stop reading.)

"The pain that I feel...
must be channeled into action." 

Anderson’s reasoning is not based on conjecture; she relies on facts when she says (in the Introduction to her book):  “An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were.”

Because her canvass is so massive, Anderson could not go down every road. But I, as a reader, am able to fill in blanks that personalize the book’s intent. In fact, isn’t that our job as conscious readers?

In the early Nineties, when I began to seriously pursue becoming a parent, I knew that—as a single, gay, HIV-positive man—my options were limited. While I explored the possibilities—everything from being the weekend “father figure” in a lesbian relationship to being “Dad” to a foster child from the county of Los Angeles.

" a single, gay, HIV-positive man--
my options were limited."

After several fostering stints of varying durations (two brothers for four months), I came to the conclusion that I wanted a baby of my own; I wanted to be the parent of a child from as early as possible so that our bond would be as unalloyed as possible.

There is an unwritten and unspoken transaction that often transpired (or did during the particular period of time) whereby situations arose that were “foster-to-adopt”—in other words, a high likelihood that if you fostered one of these babies in limbo (most of whom had no apparent familial ties) you would logically (a word not usually associated with adoption in any of its myriad tangled manifestations) become the adoptive parent.

However, this proposition did not come without risks, risks that The System knew gays and lesbians were willing to take. Keep in mind that we were not perceived as the most

desirable candidates for parenting (still aren’t by many factions, including the Vatican); single men (no matter how they identified themselves sexually)—presumed to be pederasts—were were at the lowest echelon. In my case, if you included HIV status on my parenting resume, I would be considered somewhere after Joan Crawford. So I lied.

When the implied foster-to-adopt, rather than straightforward foster care, became the quest, each potential mama and papa was put through an exhaustive training, designed to weed out the lightweights.

Even though I had no specific mandate in terms of my future child’s gender, ethnicity, or potential disabilities, I do remember being told repeatedly that one must be prepared—especially if you took on the parenting of a black baby—for the probability that you’d be dealing with a “crack baby.”

And what exactly did that mean? At every level—from medical authorities to legal pundits to adoption experts—a “crack baby” would likely be physically challenged on many levels, unable to bond (even make eye contact) and unteachable. One maven told me that the child would forever mimic the affect of the mother in her addicted state.

In The New Jim Crow, Anderson explains: “A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicizing inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores, and drug-related violence. The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.”

In January of 1995, I became the foster-to-adopt parent of the most beautiful little creature on the planet.

She was a “crack baby.”