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.


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