Attending a show in Seattle has always been an experience surrounded by whiteness for me.
Over the past couple of weeks, I saw “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” at Seattle Rep and “This Bitter Earth” at the Seattle Public Theater. Both shows had incredible casts and stories to be told. Both also made me acutely aware that the experience I was having would not be remotely the same as the one most of the people around me would walk away with. Most of them being white.
In the early aughts, I saw August Wilson’s “Fences” at the Intiman Theater. At the time, I didn’t know it was a classic or how important Wilson’s impact on American theater was. However, despite being in a crowd of majority white faces, I knew that I was seeing something incredibly important and meaningful on the stage. I didn’t have the language or knowledge of BIPOC-led productions yet, but I also remember the feeling that my white friend sitting next to me had no idea what it was like to see this story play out in front of us.
Seattle Rep’s production of “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” adapted from the novel by Erika L. Sánchez, follows teenager and aspiring writer Júlia (Karen Rodriguez) in the aftermath of her sister’s death. Júlia tries to process her trauma and dives into her sister’s life to distract herself; Rodriguez brilliantly shows the depth and range of Júlia’s emotions.
Júlia finds herself comparing her parents’ idea of her sister, the perfect Mexican daughter, and who her sister actually was, while living her own life. She has friendships and her first love, Connor (Michael Monicatti), a dorky white boy from the suburbs far away from Júlia’s home on the south side of Chicago. While it is clear he has affection for her, he also asks questions like “where are you really from?” and “is it safe for me to be here [in your neighborhood]?” Their relationship is fraught with teenage romance, with a side of microaggressions.
“This Bitter Earth,” written by Harrison David Rivers and directed by Brandon Ivie at the Seattle Public Theater, centers around Jesse (Broderick Santeze Ryans), a Black aspiring playwright and his relationship with his white boyfriend, Neil (Tyler Rogers), who becomes more and more committed to Black Lives Matter activism.
At first, the character of Jesse felt somewhat inauthentic to me. I wasn’t sure what it was — how he talked, dressed or interacted with whiteness — but it was something I found myself re-examining as the couple went through their ups and downs. Their conflicts arise as Neil constantly calls Jesse apathetic for not knowing about the latest Black man who died. He puts his phone in Jesse’s face, playing the video of someone’s death. Jesse comforts him as Neil is distraught again by another death; eventually, the play doesn’t even specify which incident in recent memory. There’s too many, and there will always be another one. Maybe this week, we think of Tyre Nichols.
Outside of a beautiful monologue delivered by Ryans, where Jesse reads part of his play’s draft to Neil, we see very little into either of their inner worlds. Jesse revealed his true feelings on Blackness in a way that felt beautiful, that made his character make sense to me for the first time, and I felt the authenticity I was missing before. However, so much of the play revolved around whiteness: Neil’s overwhelming whiteness, as he consistently stuck his foot in his mouth and subjected the love of his life to microaggressions. The nonlinear plot is clearly Jesse’s recollection of how their lives intersected, and in the end maybe how Neil’s whiteness overtook him.
“I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” and “This Bitter Earth” both deal with the concepts of love and loss as a person of color in a deeply flawed American society.
Just like when I saw “Fences,” I was not able to fully immerse myself in the experience, and not simply because I shared a space with white people. It was because I shared a space with people who did not understand they were also being criticized. As I watched “This Bitter Earth,” a white woman behind me started imitating another attendee, a Black woman in the audience, who was snapping and laughing at some of the jokes about white people. Her behavior, along with the tee-heeing of various white audience members, felt disingenuous, and part of me wanted to stand up, turn to her and yell that white Seattle audiences are among those being criticized. Neil’s liberalism is a mirror for them, not a window.
As I sat in the Seattle Repertory Theater and watched Júlia learn about the trauma her parents endured, an older white man next to me chuckled at her disbelief over sexual assault. The heaviness of the moment was lanced by the laughter of the privileged.
The stories in both plays are important and complex and, because the audience did not feel ready for their truths, I wasn’t sure what to walk away with anymore. How we experience art becomes part of the art itself.
Theaters, casts and even playwrights are not responsible for how the audience as a whole interacts and observes their product. But plays exist because the audience experiences them, the same way in “Perfect Daughter” that the dead exist because we remember them. Whether that is Júlia’s sister, a lover’s memory or most importantly those who died at the hands of police brutality, they exist. Ultimately, as Júlia grows to learn, people are messy and unknowable. Even the people we love give their inner lives to us as an act of trust, not because we as humans have an inherent awareness. Even with this knowledge, it can be hard to reconcile why people we love can still do things to hurt us, the same way it is hard for me to relate to the characters in these stories. This is as much a commentary of myself as it is of the stories.
Maybe white people saw these plays and learned that they need to be more considerate of the people of color in their lives. Maybe they realized they can still commit microaggressions without meaning to.
But, as a person of color, I couldn’t help but wonder at these characters’ choices. Why did Júlia stay with Connor, even as she worked toward and achieved her goals? Why did Jesse continue to stay with Neil, despite their fights and the way Neil forced his idea of racial trauma onto him? Both Jesse and Júlia were expected to comfort their white partners after telling them of their own trauma. None of that felt right to me.
Maybe I couldn’t walk away with the playwrights’ messages because of the spaces I was in. Maybe if there were more Black and Brown faces around me, we could have truly dived into the intricacies of being people of color. There could be something I’m missing, because I couldn’t be comfortable in the space I was sitting in.
There’s no inherent solution to the problem without deconstructing white supremacy. That is why this review is more focused on my discomfort sitting in the audience instead of the work of the actors and the crew. No matter how beautiful the stage design by Efren Delgadillo Jr. at the Rep. or the wonderful chemistry between Ryans and Roger in “This Bitter Earth,” the theater experience is still informed by the audience I am sitting in. I am not the perfect theater attendee, but I wish white audiences knew they weren’t either.
Leinani Lucas is a Black writer from the Pacific Northwest. She can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas
Read more of the Feb. 1-7, 2023 issue.