“A lot of people are actors,” says Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, Ph.D. (or Dr. T, as she is more commonly called).
As a professor of acting and directing at VCU and the director of the devised theater piece, “Whitesplaining,” that opens next week, Dr. T works with performers all the time. But that’s not the kind of actor she’s talking about.
“There are a lot of people pretending to be woke, acting like they’re genuinely interested in social justice, but it’s all about their own glory or getting pats on the back,” Dr. T asserts. “With this production we hope to help people see themselves so that perhaps change can happen.”
Actors can become allies, Dr. T. says, but ultimately, “we would love to inspire and provoke people to move from being an ally to being an accomplice. That’s when we make real progress.”
A co-production between VCUarts Theatre and Dr. T’s theater company, The Conciliation Project, “Whitesplaining” uses satire, story, music, imagery and dance to interrogate ‘whiteness’ as a cultural construct and white supremacy as an ongoing structural norm. The script was devised over the past year through three workshops that involved VCU students. In addition to contributing their own perspectives and anecdotes, the students were asked to interview friends, families and even strangers.
“The Conciliation Project (TCP) devising process always starts with key questions, like ‘what does whiteness mean to you,’” explains Dr. T. “I tell the students to ask people they know but also challenge them to ask people they don’t. If you’re out somewhere at night, ask your bartender. There will be revelations.”
Trey Hartt is an actor and activist who has worked with Dr. T on more than a dozen different productions. He says he was impressed by how in-depth and comprehensive the “Whitesplaining” script is.
“It’s funny and cringey and devastating and ironic,” says Hartt. “There are so many layers to this script. I’m really excited to put it out in the community and see how the characters we portray relate or don’t relate to the community.”
Hartt works as managing director at The Hive, a Black-led, youth-centered community that advocates for alternate pathways through the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. He says part of the “magic” of TCP productions is that audiences are challenged to go beyond being a passive observer: “We provide an opportunity to come as a witness and actively participate in the conversations the play generates.”
At the same time, Hartt worries that only people who are already involved in social justice issues will come out to see “Whitesplaining.”
“The play is for everybody, from people who are doing the work of unpacking white supremacy culture to people who are skeptical and want to point out all of the flaws in these arguments,” Hartt says. “We want everyone to come out because we need a robust range of perspectives in the audience if we are going to have interesting conversations.”
Co-producing “Whitesplaining” represents a bold choice for VCUarts Theatre and the show opens during a time of self-reflection at the university. “The Organ Thieves,” a book that examines institutional racism at the Medical College of Virginia (now VCU Health), was selected as VCU’s Common Book, meaning all first-year students will be reading and discussing it.
“Because of the logistics involved, we chose ‘The Organ Thieves’ more than a year ago. So there is serendipity involved in the convergence with ‘Whitesplaining,’” explains Constance Relihan, Ph.D., dean of VCU’s University College, which administers the Common Book.
“A lot of us at VCU are interested in being honest and reflective about the institution’s strengths as well as our historical shortcomings. I’m very excited about all the intersections we’re seeing.”
Hartt, a 2008 graduate of VCU, remains skeptical about real change.
“I don’t know if this is a turning point for VCU,” he says, “but what I hope people take away from this production is that talking about white supremacy culture is just the first step. We have to move toward action and move tangible resources into communities that have been most impacted by racial injustice.”
“I feel cautiously optimistic,” says Dr. T, “that this new generation of learners and educators is going to hold VCU accountable and that, when they ask for accountability, it’s going to come.”
“Whitesplaining” runs from Friday, Sept. 9 to Sunday, Sept. 18 at The Basement, 300 East Broad St. Tickets available at https://www.showclix.com/events/1318.