Magazine article Humanities

RIGHT to WRITE

Magazine article Humanities

RIGHT to WRITE

Article excerpt

PENNSYLVANIA IN MARCH 1997, the headline "Great White Hoax" sprawled across the front page of Sydney's Daily Telegraph. The "Hoax" was the award-winning memoir of a part-aborigine woman named Wanda Koolmatrie, actually written by a white, male taxi driver named Leon Carmen.

When playwright Thomas Gibbons read an article on the controversy, he realized he had found a way to address a question that had been nagging him since 1993, when he began receiving criticism for his play 6221, set in his hometown of Philadelphia.

The play dealt with the 1985 police bombing of a predominantly black, middle-class West Philadelphia neighborhood. Eleven people-including five children-died and around sixty-five homes were destroyed. During talkbacks after performances in Philadelphia, Gibbons was frequently asked what made him think that he had any right to write about that event.

"I'm white," says Gibbons. "And a lot of people perceived that as being an African-American event. So the question was, Does a white person have the right to write about something that's perceived as an African-American subject?"

That question grew and expanded over the course of his inquiry, encompassing dozens of subsidiary questions: Can a man write about women? Can a modern write about the ancients? What is it that makes writing authentic?

The five-actor play Bee-luther-hatchee emerged from these questions.

The plot draws from the Koolmatrie/Carmen controversy. African-American publisher Shelita Burns accepts an award for the acclaimed memoir of Libby Price, a seventy-two-year-old African-American woman shy of publicity. When Shelita goes to Libby's nursing home to deliver the award, she discovers that the book was written by the very white, very male, middle-aged Sean Leonard.

What follows is a lively debate, characteristic of what Gibbons calls an "issue play," where the characters serve as rhetorical tennis players, lobbing an argument back and forth for the audience to observe, evaluate, and consider for themselves.

SEAN: I'm asking you to look beyond me. A book offers some truth or it offers nothing. It convinces us or it fails to convince. The writer should be invisible.

SHELITA: I publish writers who were truly invisible, Mr. …

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