Playing the Blackground
Musical challenges the portrayal of black women in entertainment.
As a kid, I didn’t see too many people on the stage and screen that I felt I could identify with.
Black actors were relegated to secondary and tertiary roles when it came to most mainstream Hollywood productions.
For decades, the role of blacks in film has been very stereotypical.
Black characters are often assigned to background roles charged with adding some “urban flava” to an otherwise bland vanilla plot.
I recall countless teen comedies of my youth where you’d see gorgeous black extras dressed in the latest fashions clumsily shoved into a cavalcade of Caucasians.
The characters would occasionally have some dialogue but said dialogue would just be a collection of urban catchphrases cluelessly written by some out of touch writer (maybe throw in a neckroll or two and a finger snap)
For a long time, black characters were confined to a space where they were seen but, at best, were only occasionally heard.
We remained perpetually stuck in the background or, as described in the musical “White Girl in Danger”, the blackground.
The musical White Girl in Danger is written by Michael R. Jackson and will be directed by Malika Oyetimein.
As previously mentioned, the play is about black people being confined to a unique space called the blackground. This blackground serves as a pretty overt metaphor for the space occupied by secondary or tertiary black characters in fiction.
According to Jackson, “Blackground is a term that I came up with to describe a phenomenon of people of color…,specifically, black people, in stories who sort of are not only supporting characters, but sort of incidental characters that are there to hold up and color a white narrative.”- Jackson
The main character of the play, Keesha, is a blackground character essentially tasked with hijacking the narrative of a Lifetime movie-style drama flick from three white female leads, all of whom have names that are, comically, different pronunciations of “Megan”. Megan - like beggin. Meagan - like vegan. And Maegan - like pagan.
Throughout the play, Keesha slowly appropriates aspects of the three white female (perceived lead) characters until the story centers on her. Drug use, abusive boyfriend, an overachiever with strict, conservative mother.
Hijinks ensue and the musical starts to make a series of comical twists and turns that are reminiscent of old soap operas in their absurdity.
I won’t spoil the ending here but the conclusion definitely has a lot to say about representation and storytelling.
This is a topic of particular importance to Jackson as he feels its an important aspect of the play.
“The piece is very much about representation and I find that in all of these images that are out there… there’s a lot of wish fulfillment going on… when you look at something like scandal, the character of Olivia Pope is a very complex, weird, [and] problematic character but there’s something about that that’s very appealing to audiences. She gets to be something that black women don’t normally get to be.” - Jackson
Though this piece ultimately has a comedic bent, there’s a lot of that good ole multilayered storytelling and themes that I love so much.
The most obvious being the three white leads essentially having the same name.
This, to me, felt like a commentary on the interchangeability of white women in entertainment and the relative sameness of their character type.
Studios that are more occupied with getting the guaranteed bucks, opposed to artistic storytelling, will often stick to tropes and character types they think audiences recognize.
As for why the lead roles are usually cast as white—for some reason, studios think that black leads don’t sell well in overseas markets. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that anti-blackness is pretty globa,l but we’ll tackle that some other time.
There are even some purposely unnamed blackground characters who have a chat about what’s going on in this lifetime movie that they’re all in— a conversation that many films like it don’t often have as 90’s and 00’s films with predominately white casts almost never have their black characters talk to one another.
Jackson also spoke about the importance of having black women direct the piece as he felt that was ideal for his vision.
“I don’t want to say I can’t work with anyone other than a black woman but I have a hierarchy of who can do it… so Black woman Director, queer black male director, a white woman, white men cannot direct it… I mean [they] could direct it but only if all those other three tiers have been exhausted… a black woman directed it prior to this iteration… it feels right not just because it’s a black woman but because it’s a black woman who’s a brilliant artist who I can talk to about these issues. There’s a shorthand we can develop pretty quickly”. - Jackson
When asked whether or not he feels black woman have stepped out of the blackground, Jackson replied with a tentative yes, but insinuated that the path to achieving this lays with having more black female Directors, writers, and so-on.
"We have come a long way in a certain sense like if you take it all the way back to Gone With the Wind and Mammy and Butterfly McQueen’s character Chrissy all the way down to now we have Olivia Pope and Scandal... Olivia Pope is a character that’s like very...has a lot of agency and is powerful and all that but there are things about her that you could trace directly back to Mammy and that for me is what is interesting… it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write the show. To just sort of show that a little bit...but at the same time that character is very powerful and complex and interesting and compelling… black women have stepped out of the blackground. That show is written by a black woman… a very powerful black woman who has a lot of influence so that’s really really important...I think that the answer to black women not being in the blackground is black women writers". - Jackson
The important takeaway that I want everyone to gather from this is that musicals like White Girl in Danger point out the issues and the tropes that pop up for blacks in theater and cinema. Though some films defy the tropes presented in the musical, there are twice as many if not more that don’t.
In the meantime, I’m glad there are minds out there that see the issues and aren’t afraid to address them.
Article by Rovell Vialva