Who Can Play the "Other"?

In 2000 Linda Christophel and I began interviewing Mennonite women of color about their experiences with racism and how God had worked in their lives. The result was a film, Living Water Living Faith, which premiered in 2005 at the Mennonite Church Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. The stories of these women were so powerful that I decided to present the stories of additional women we had interviewed in a play, Heavenly Voices, written in part for the completion of my doctorate in 2010. Part of the dissertation project involved cross-racial casting of women in the roles in order to discover what they learned by playing these roles of women who were “Other” to them. In performing the play for audiences, however, we soon learned that the cross-racial casting had a different kind of effect on some audience members. This essay is about both experiments, that of interracial, intercultural learning that occurred among the actresses, as well as the controversy that arose when the play met audience members who did not participate in the theater community in the same way.


The play Heavenly Voices might best be categorized as an ethnodrama as it is based on interviews with Mennonite women of color. Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 are both ethnodramas. Fires in the Mirror is based on Deavere Smith’s interviews of people involved in the riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, between Jews and blacks after a car driven by a leader of the sect of Lubavitcher Jews killed a young black boy. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is based on interviews with people involved in the Los Angeles riots of 1992. For the latter play, Deavere Smith interviewed 280 people and later performed all of the roles of the people whose stories she told in the play. She recalled that the two most challenging roles she played were those of the people in charge – Daryl Gates, the chief of police, and Tom Bradley, the mayor (Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines, 2000, pp. 95-98). Deavere Smith thus played the roles of many “Others” she had interviewed, including those of men as well as women and of varying backgrounds and ethnicities. Heavenly Voices provides a similar challenge for actresses who are playing across race and ethnicities and most of whom are playing multiple roles.

Johnny Saldana, professor of theater at Arizona State University and a qualitative researcher with experience in ethnodramatic work, (2005) refers to recent plays like Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and The Laramie Project which features the Matthew Shepard story as demonstrating that “gathering the voices of real people and transferring them onto the stage in aesthetically sound ways can become riveting theatre. Historically, the time is right to formally disseminate a collection of ethnodramas” (p. 9). Saldana’s words give me the courage to claim that Heavenly Voices also belongs in that “collection of ethnodramas” since it is based on the voices and words of real Mennonite women of color.

Five significant findings suggest that playing the “Other” is a valuable way to come to know and understand those who are “Other” to us culturally and ethnically. Although this research used seven actresses - five white, one Indian, and one Indian/Mongolian - the findings suggest that the learnings across cultures might indeed be so rich that playing the “Other” is a preferable casting option for Heavenly Voices.

Reducing the “Other” and Enlarging the “Other”

Of all the themes which surfaced from the post-performance group interview with the actresses as well as the post-performance individual interviews with the actresses, the most substantial was that as we come to know the “Other”, their “Otherness” is reduced while at the same time, our knowledge of the “Other” is, paradoxically, enlarged and multi-layered. Actresses Robina, Deb and Joy all noted this reduction of the “Other” as we come to know the “Other’s” stories. Joy discovered that her characters were not “Other” in the trials and tribulations parts of their stories. She found connections between her own current life challenges and those of Hazel Whiteman Killsnight and Louise Fisher. Joy’s struggle with a young adult son who is an alcoholic felt similar to Hazel’s story of the young man in her Lame Deer, Montana, community who was in a car accident because he was driving drunk. This young man later came to Christ and turned his life around. Joy dares to hope that her son might do the same. As Joy came to know the women’s difficult experiences and their pain, she noted, “It didn’t feel like they were ‘Other’ to me at that point” (Yoder, Joy, Post-performance group interview, 25 July 2010).

Group with Pat.jpg

Julia’s growing awareness of the different facets of a person increased through the rehearsal and performance process. “My first definition of ‘Other’ was this more ideological, religious, political—these things that ‘Other’ us...encountering these different lines that some of the women said that held a very different theology than I believe, and it was hard for me to say these lines. Then as I got to know the women, their stories, saw their humanness, I think it really helped to give some context for that and helped my cynicism ease away. Something about seeing a person’s humanness is something that I really want to continue to think about and how to do that and asking the right questions and listening and creating that space for realness, vulnerabilities to happen, to be shared with those different things where I immediately think, ‘Oh, we won’t understand each other because we think really differently about this’, but this has just affirmed the truth that there are a lot of different facets of a person” (Baker, Julia. Post-performance group interview, 25 July, 2010).

Robina realized that her earlier definition of the “Other” as “someone who holds things pretty tightly” was no longer completely accurate as she realized that everyone holds things tightly. Her realization that the “Other” was simply the unknown resulted in her own analysis that although Barbara Miller and Bertha Little Coyote were unknown to her at the beginning of the play because their experiences differed greatly from her own, that as she got to know them in the play “I really felt some connections with them both in actuality in terms of life experiences and then also empathy and an understanding of some sort, and so then, they weren’t the ‘Other’ anymore” (Sommers, Robina, Post-performance group interview, 25 July 2010).

Deb found that it was easier to tell her character’s story than to live her story. She remembered that as she told the story of Seffie de Leon picking cotton, “you forget how difficult of a job that is, and you think about the fact that she did not know a language till she was eight and could be expelled for speaking a different language that was her own, and you realize how hard someone has to work when they are not the majority...so that was an understanding that I gained and just really gained respect for as well” (Brubaker, Debra, Post-performance group interview, 25 July, 2010).

Deb also reflected on this deepening understanding of the “Other” when she remembered how Julia’s character, Mary Ann Ezell, noted that after she and her friends and family got to know the people from Ninth Street Mennonite who led the youth group that “They wasn’t really white anymore.” Deb also recalled Joy’s one character, Louise Fisher, who noted that when she and her white pen pal visited each other, “There never was any kind of racial thing between us.” Deb noted that this type of getting to know someone on a deeper level as exemplified by these characters and the women who played their roles reduces the sense of “Otherness” (Brubaker, Deb. Post-performance group interview. 25 July 2010).

Meanwhile Chagan felt that her experience playing the roles of women who were ‘Other’ to her and watching the other actresses play their roles has resulted in a strong position in her mind about the use of the word “Other”. “The ‘Other’ is something I will not use ever again.” She reflected that when you look deeply into a person and discover that they have had similar experiences to you and others, “it is really hard to disregard them and be like, ‘Oh, they are “Other” to me’ for ...look how much we have got similar although we are different people. That was something I was mildly aware of...that I always look at similarities rather than differences, but that definitely jolted me while we were doing the play...Bertha, she had so many stories about boarding school, and I was like ‘I do have these experiences; I have had friends that have never had toys.’ Just a lot of things from people’s stories made you so connected that the word ‘Other’ just dissolved” (Sanathu, Chagan. Personal post-performance interview, 22 July, 2010).

The individual post-performance interviews further deepened the knowledge revealed in the group interviews. The actresses revealed how playing the role of Mennonite women who were “Other” to them broke down barriers, making the women become more real to them. Joy noted, “The more I played them, the more I felt my own self relating to them as more of an equal...they were real people, but I think they became more real to me” (Yoder, Joy. Post-performance individual interview. 22 July, 2010).

Julia echoed Joy’s discovery as she referred to Gloria Anzaldua’s groundbreaking article “Borderlands”, a piece often cited in cultural theory and women’s studies. Julia noted, “We are so multifaceted, many layers of us, and that there can be this beauty that comes out of sharing of all these ‘Othernesses’ we have with each other. I would say that that just deepened through this process...through saying those words and the other words of the women and hearing these other stories really coming to see...we are people made up of all these different layers, and it seemed really to see each other’s humanness of all those layers that we are not just defined by this one ‘other’ thing that we, or I know I do. We like to categorize and box people. It makes things ‘easier.’ So I think leaving this I have been challenged to realize that we are made up of these layers, but how can I really try to go deeper in those layers and learn about that in the people that I encounter especially when I want to immediately put them into a box?” (Baker, Julia. Post-performance individual interview, 23 July, 2010). Julia recalled specifically the very hard experiences of the one character she played, Vernelle Briddelle, who quite frankly said in the play, “A bunch of us were arrested in Chambersburg on the same night for doing drugs—crack actually.” Julia remembered, “It was hard for me to know how to say that because you usually aren’t in a conversation where you are...laying it out there, which I think it is beautiful that she did this kind of openness” (Baker, Julia, Post-performance individual interview, 23 July, 2010).

Further deepening of the “Other” was revealed by Robina who said, “I really think that is what ‘Other’ is—when you don’t really know. Because anyone can be ‘Other’ to you” (Sommers, Robina. Post-performance individual interview, 22 July, 2010). Nancy stated simply, “The ‘Other’ is my friend.” She contrasted her experience with that of the majority culture where ‘Other’ has always been a polarization experience with an ‘us’ and ‘them,’ a ‘me’ and a ‘you.’ Nancy shared, “I welcome the ‘Other,’ the ‘Other’ is good, the ‘Other’ enriches me...the ‘Other’ is not something I am afraid of. It is not something that I find difficult. It is an opportunity for me to learn and grow and broaden my perspective. I have always maintained that people are afraid of what they do not understand or what they do not know, and I think that portraying these people that all I need to do is try to come to know when I am with someone who is different from me, for whatever reason, and that is okay” (Ryan, Nancy. Post-performance individual interview, 22 July, 2010).

Nancy remembered her own experience as someone from a non-Mennonitebackground coming to attend Goshen College and being called a “heathen.” She also recalled her current work experience where she has experienced “Otherness” and been treated in ways she never expected to be treated and the accompanying pain and anger which she feels. She noted that it was hard to enter her characters’ worlds, but how she also felt that they had a lot in common. “I am a lot like Mabel’s children in that my parents didn’t go to church. They stayed in their nice toasty bed, and I had to walk a mile and a half in the snow to Grace Lutheran Church when I was a little girl, so I had that in common with them...both of my women talked about how they went to the Mennonite church because it was convenient and many of the other women did the same. That sheds light on the impact of economic status on people’s options” (Ryan, Nancy, Post-performance individual interview, 22 July, 2010).

Transcending the “Other”

A second theme revealed through the post-performance interviews was that of transcending the “Other”. This theme complemented the first theme since the transcending referred to is one way in which the understanding of the “Other” appeared to be enlarged. Nancy noted that you “transcend your whiteness or your blackness...not that you minimalize it, but you move beyond it because there are other things you are learning and valuing in a person” (Ryan, Nancy, Post-performance group interview, 25 July 2010). Julia agreed with Nancy’s evaluation, explaining that she does not like the term “colorblindness” because “those are different colors or things or life experiences that make our lives so rich and add to that humanness and add to how we connected - so, yes, it is transcending but transcending it with the acknowledgement of the richness that can come from differences” (Baker, Julia, Post-performance group interview, 25 July 2010).

Seeing Similarities and Differences – Understanding Themselves More Deeply as They Came to Know Their Characters

One area of learning for cast members became how their own lives were similar to or different from that of the characters they played and how those similarities and differences helped them to understand themselves and their own experiences more deeply. At times they saw their own life experiences through new lenses. Joy identified with the pain and suffering which her characters went through. Louise Fisher had to have lung surgery in a hospital far from home, and her parents couldn’t be there because of her brother’s illness. This brother was healed of his sickness but later died. Louise’s mother had told the doctors in the hospital when her son was released, “I go to somebody higher than you doctors.” When Hazel prays for the alcoholic young man in the car accident, Joy resonated with this story as her own son is a recovering alcoholic and with the stories of need because her husband lost his job two years ago. “I didn’t see these women as comparing themselves to other people that didn’t have—it is just the way it was and maybe through some of this it has helped me to realize—well, I know I have grown in my faith in the last two years with my husband losing his job and everything, and God has taken care of us just at the time when you think - how are we going to do this?— something miraculous happens...people don’t share a lot of those experiences because we want to portray that God is good, but God helps us through those and are such strengthening things to be able to share” (Yoder, Joy. Post-performance individual interview, 27 July, 2010).

Julia’s one connection with Vernelle Briddelle was a light-hearted one; she remembered playing imaginary games much like Vernelle did when she was young. Julia also identified with Vernelle’s vulnerability in prison; although Julia was not in a literal prison, she did go to “an eating disorder clinic where pretty much all our time was accounted for; we were always watched even in the bathroom. We were always accounted for, and that was only a month of my life. Or I think of mental prisons I have been in, being stuck in that cycle you can’t escape, and I have learned the need and how important it is for that space to be alone. That was another similarity; that was pretty neat to be able to say those lines. Just simply getting to know the stories and the women better and finding those ways that I connected, seeing those similarities. When I realized that thing about Vernelle and I feel like that monologue for me at least got more powerful and authentic” (Baker, Julia. Post-performance individual interview, 23 July, 2010). Julia also acutely realized that she never wants to be like her character Hattie who talked about her husband a lot and made Julia want to ask, “What about you, Hattie?” She expressed concern that Hattie did not know and had never had the opportunity or resources available to know herself more fully (Baker, Julia. Post-performance individual interview, 23 July, 2010).

Robina recognized her similarity to Bertha Little Coyote as they are both happy-go-lucky to some extent. She also noted that both she and Bertha are not afraid to say things as they are. “I don’t have the finesse and that stuff that I have always had--I am deliberately shedding some of that. With Barbara [Miller] I connected with her being the usher. I thought, you know, that is something I would enjoy as well...Barbara being one of 11 children, how that would impact—just the number of children in the home...Bertha, you know being sent to boarding school. It reminded me when I was five my mother pushed me to go to a boarding school, so I went to a Catholic boarding school for one month. This was after my parents split up, and I just remember being just completely so overwhelmed by being there...I didn’t piece that till right now that that is a similarity between Bertha and me—except, poor thing, she had to stay there for a long time” (Sommers, Robina. Post-performance individual interview, 22 July, 2010).

For Nancy, the disparity between her own life of privilege and the lives of Mabel Jackson and Que To stood out sharply. She noted her desire to use that privilege to help others. Nancy reflected on her connection with Que To and how she knows what it is like to be a single mother raising a son by herself. “Shit happens. That is a part of life; that life is filled with joys and it is filled with trials and my sense is that those women would say that the joys outweigh the trials—not in number necessarily but in depth. I think both women would say it is what you do with it that matters” (Ryan, Nancy. Post-performance individual interview, 22 July, 2010).

Chagan identified with Barbara Moses’ leap of faith in taking the job as principal of Philadelphia Mennonite High School. She herself took a similar leap when she came from India to college here. Like Barbara who looked up the doctrines of the Mennonite Church, Chagan will search out what she doesn’t know. She also identified with Doris Martin’s husband’s experience of not being able to go to school very much; Chagan values education highly and was troubled that Mr. Martin could not get the training he needed. She commented on the commonalities and differences between Barbara Moses and Doris Martin. “I realized that both are very determined people—I feel like Doris needed an opportunity that she missed as a child for education, and I feel like that is something that she thinks about or something she would have really liked...Barbara is more of the rock kind of personality while Doris would be the opposite...maybe like a river...The more I learned about them, the more I read it, the more I tried to feel what they would feel, the easier it was for me to just reenact what they said and how they must have felt” (Sanathu, Chagan. Post-performance individual interview, 22 July, 2010).

Deb recognized her connection with Seffie in the area of music. She longed to do when she grew up what Seffie was doing – singing in a choir, traveling, recording. Thus Seffie was a role model for Deb in a unique way. Deb also connected with Seffie’s experience of family including her uncles. “I have a wonderful set of uncles on either side who have mentored and parented me,” Deb reminisced. Although their economic situations were different as well as their place in the family (Seffie was the oldest and Deb the youngest), they each had the experience of helping with a large garden (Brubaker, Deb. Post-performance individual interview, 13 August, 2010).

Deb also reflected on how she related to Seffie in the way Seffie used visual and emotional terms to describe her experiences with God. “I’ve had some very specific moments when God’s presence has been revealed,” she mused, “so ‘other worldly’ that they don’t make sense in the real world” (Brubaker, Deb. Post-performance individual interview, 13 August, 2010).

Recognizing and Appreciating the Difficult Experiences of the “Other”

Recognition of difficulty of the experiences of the “Other” helped the actresses to understand the lives of the women whose roles they played. This recognition resulted in deep appreciation and empathy for these women. Deb realized just how hard the lives of these women were, but she was impressed that they could still be “solid, strong people” and that they came to understand that they were “okay” through living their own lives (Brubaker, Deb. Post-performance individual interview, 13 August, 2010).

Joy noted also that she at first thought that she couldn’t relate to her characters, Louise Fisher and Hazel Whiteman Killsnight, because “I didn’t grow up without electricity and water and a dirt floor.” However, it was the trials and tribulations of these women that connected her to these women and deepened her understanding of the “Other” as noted above (Yoder, Joy. Post-performance group interview, 25, July, 2010). Joy further explained, “I feel like I really could absorb that pain that they were going through in those difficult times but also seeing how God worked in their lives and how God is working in my life at the same time. It didn’t feel like they were ‘Other’ to me at that point” (Yoder, Joy. Post-performance group interview, 25 July 2010).

Nancy remembered that she found it hard to relate to Mabel Jackson because she never “tells you the bad stuff. She tells you a lot, but she never tells you her pain.” Nancy contrasted Mabel with the other character she played, Que To. “Que To, boy I really got Que To, you know, because she was vulnerable...I met Que To on a level where I never met Mabel” (Ryan, Nancy. Post-performance group interview, 25 July 2010).

Deb wondered aloud at one point why it always seems that “we often feel, almost always feel the deepest connection when we are sharing our pain...when somebody else opens up and shares that it is like it breaks a dam in us too and that is where the deepest connection comes” (Brubaker, Deb, Post-performance group interview, 25 July 2010).

The Mirroring Effect: The Cast Mirrors the Characters

Here is where one of the most fascinating themes surfaced. The actressesconcurred that the cast became a mirror of the women characters’ own sharing within the play. Just as the women characters usually were part of collectivist cultures where they had other women to relate deeply to on a regular basis, so the cast realized that they had become a collectivist culture where they shared their own stories with one another. “That certainly happened with us,” Robina recalled as she addressed Deb. “I still remember where we were all sitting on the stage when you started sharing, and it changed the group dynamic after that” (Sommers, Robina. Post-performance group interview, 25 July 2010). Robina further reflected on that conversation. “Julia would seem ‘Other’ to me –mainly because she is so much younger than I am. I think that would be different life experiences. But then, remember when we had that sharing time, and I was sharing about organizing, and it sounds very trivial, but I know what it means psychologically to me, and it is just gut wrenching for me. And then Julia shared about her struggles, and it was like all of a sudden, she changed from the ‘Other’ to being known to me” (Sommers, Robina. Post-performance group interview, 25 July 2010). Nancy remembered that she was not at rehearsal that particular evening but that she had felt the change in group dynamics when she returned (Ryan, Nancy. Post-performance group interview, 25 July 2010).

This in-depth coming to know the “Other” seems to have been a result of Anna Deavere Smith’s research as well. Deavere Smith mourns the unhealthy hearts of many of her colleagues. “They may have healthy hearts for those closest to them, but it is difficult for them to imagine the pain of the other. These very people, who can pay big bucks to go to the theater, or to see other works of art, talk in a vocabulary of ‘what they identified with,’ what they ‘personally connected with.’ It’s rare that they can reach beyond what they can identify with to feel for the other side” (Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines, 2000, pp. 160-161).

Deavere Smith also discusses the time “that the theater made some efforts to get to a bigger ‘we,’ that is, around the time it was clear that it could no longer mirror society if it made room for only Williams, Simon, O’Neill, Miller, and Shakespeare, a variety of people emerged. They worked outside the limited box of art as mirroring only the lives, dilemmas, and stories of white families, white people, and particularly white heterosexual men. They were of color, they were women, they came to art with questions about society and about art that were not answered by the status quo. This group of people, adventuring to make a bigger expression of who ‘we’ are, often worked in unusual ways, mixing forms, working outside forms” (Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines, 2000, p. 198). Heavenly Voices as performed in Chicago and Goshen does some of this same work, asking questions about society through art and trying to make a bigger “we”. I hope that the diverse actresses in Heavenly Voices might be part of the bigger “we” which Deavere Smith hopes for, indeed that playing the roles of women who are “Other” to them might ultimately transform the actresses themselves.

Implications for Healing the World Piece by Piece

Another theme surfaced as the actresses reflected post-performance on the possibilities for the play in the future. Goshen College’s current advertising slogan is “Healing the World Piece by Piece”. Since it was developed several years ago, students and faculty have been encouraged to think how they can heal the world within their individual worlds and experiences. This context provided a basis for discussion as some cast members considered how this play might be part of “Healing the world piece by piece.” Deb noted, “I had the feeling in Chicago when we were performing it that almost we were at a family reunion and there were all these different parts of the family and we had something special to share with all of them. I sensed a real connection between us and them. I saw a lot of heads nodding; people just really didn’t want to take their eyes off of you when you were talking…this kind of thing makes me really excited and makes me start thinking, ‘Well, how else could we do this with groups of women? How could we make this happen? How could this become part of healing the world?’”(Brubaker, Deb. Post-performance group interview, 25 July, 2010). Joy responded that a lot of women have powerful stories and that “if something isn’t happening for you, then try to create something so that you have that…I think women have an edge on that, but we can always use more” (Yoder, Joy. Post-performance group interview, 25 July, 2010). These reflections led to the most powerful implication of this study – story as a strong bridge to understanding one another and bridging difference.

Story as Bridge to the “Other”

Joy commented on the need to share our stories after the performances were over. “I just think there is so much to share with each other, and we can all grow from hearing someone else’s story and relating our life to them through that” (Yoder, Joy. Post-performance individual interview, 26 July, 2010).

Julia referred back to the Anna Deavere Smith quote in Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines (2000) which the director of Heavenly Voices, Angie Noah, has spoken of from time to time. Smith says, “I’m not the other and can never be the other…I can only try to bridge the gap, and I’m looking for ways to bridge the gap” (p. 53). Julia noted, “Of course, I could not be the African-American women I was portraying but could bring Julia to that, as we all did” (Baker, Julia. Post-performance group interview, 25 July, 2010). Julia’s recognition that she can never fully comprehend the experience of being an African-American woman is precisely the kind of self-understanding that this experiment with ethnodrama requires. However, Julia realizes that she still brings special insight to the role from her own lived experience even though her experience can never replicate that of the “Other” whom she plays. Just as Anna Deavere Smith recognizes both the potential and the limitation of playing someone who is “Other” to her, Julia also recognizes this dynamic. This act of reflection itself affirms the project of cross-cultural casting.

A Controversy: Who Can Play the “Other”?

Heavenly Voices premiered in Chicago at Living Water Community Church on July 14, 2010. The play received a warm reception with many positive comments to the actresses, director, and playwright after the performance. However, a controversy over who can play the “Other” erupted several days after our performance. I knew that a group called the Racial Reconciliation Group at Living Water would be meeting after the play to discuss the play in terms of their group’s focus. The Racial Reconciliation Group is an ongoing small group at Living Water Community Church. Sarah Lashley, the young woman who served as the cast’s liaison with the church and who is a Goshen College alum, is a key part of this small group. Thus I had known about the meeting but had assumed it would be a regular meeting of this group which just happened to focus on Heavenly Voices. I did not plan for the cast to remain as part of this discussion group because we had a three hour bus ride to return to Goshen, we were hauling our own set, and one actress who had undergone an appendectomy ten days before the play was scheduled to open was still feeling less strong than she had before surgery. This decision not to remain for the discussion was a mistake on my part.

Indeed Nancy had reflected some concern about the Chicago performance in the post-performance group interview. “I was really nervous about Chicago and not because it was our first time. I wasn’t sure how people would feel about the majority of us being Caucasian and dramatizing the lives of Mennonite women of color” (Ryan, Nancy. Post-performance group interview, 25 July, 2010). Nancy had reason for concern as the response to our performance revealed.

Soon after we returned from Chicago, my colleague, Dr. Duane Stoltzfus, asked me if I had read what had been published on The Mennonite’s website. (The Mennonite is the official paper of Mennonite Church USA.) A short article had given the facts about the play including a short description, where else it would be performed, etc. Then one of the women who attended the Living Water performance responded on Monday, July 19, 2010, on the website. “’Heavenly Voices’ was presented at Living Water Community Church in Chicago as well, followed by a discussion of about 20 persons who stayed afterward. Unfortunately, none of the cast could stay for the discussion, as they had to travel back to Indiana. In the discussion, there was much appreciation for the effort of bringing these true stories to life—but many people were startled and disappointed to realize that almost all of the actors were white (and not a single African-American), especially since several of us had deliberately invited African-American sisters to hear these stories from ‘women of color.’ While everyone respected the good intentions of white actors ‘putting themselves in someone else’s shoes,’ almost all agreed that the play would have been much more powerful with women of color playing these parts and infusing the singing with the rich heritage of African-American music and voices (the majority of songs used were written by white songwriters). We all commended the importance of bringing these stories into the life of the church and don’t want to diminish the hard work the women did who presented “Heavenly Voices”, but it is important to note that most of the African-Americans who attended the discussion, as well as a number of the whites, had fairly strong reactions (ranging from surprise and disappointment to being offended) that no black actors were recruited to help tell these stories, and the question was asked, ‘Why not?’” (Living Water is an urban, multi-cultural Mennonite Church. Respectfully submitted by a LWCC member.) LWCC member (2010, July 19) ‘Heavenly Voices’ Was Presented at Living Water Community Church. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.themennonite.org/bloggers. (2010, July 21).

On Wednesday, July 21, a strong reaction was posted on The Mennonite’s website. “Thank you … for sharing your critique of “Heavenly Voices”. I appreciate your gracious tone, but one word sums this situation; unconscionable. The fact that a white woman (or two?) was involved in collecting and interpreting the stories was already troublesome. I’m so glad the PA tour was cancelled; people from our congregation were all set to attend a performance in Philadelphia. I will do everything I can to prevent the play from coming to our area.” Mary Brown*, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church, Norristown, PA. M. Brown*. (2010, July 21). Thank you, …. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.themennonite.org/bloggers. (2010, July 21).

It was at this point that Dr. Stoltzfus thought I should be responding. And I did. I realized later that I should have fully explained the research component of the play in the Author’s note in the program, including why people were cast across racial and ethnic backgrounds, but originally I had thought this research explanation might be confusing to the audience. Now I tried to explain our intent: “I want to respond to the postings …Perhaps some context would be helpful here. Heavenly Voices is a play which shares the stories of Mennonite women of color. The stories were originally gathered by myself and my colleague. Both of us come from interracial families who have experienced a great deal of prejudice and discrimination (both within the Mennonite Church and outside of it!) Our goal was to have a multicultural cast portraying these stories – African-American, Hispanic, Native American, white, etc. Unfortunately, some of the actresses who hoped to be a part of the cast (one woman from Colombia, one African-American woman) were not able to do so. Indeed the African-American woman was called abroad to a family funeral and visit which prevented her continuing to rehearse with us and play two of the roles in the play. We tried very hard to replace her with an African-American woman, and due to the lack of availability of several other African-American women, we were, regrettably, not able to do so. We had a long conversation about this challenge when our cast member became unavailable. Also, it might be helpful to know that this play is part of my doctoral study and was exploring a key question: what happens when Mennonite women play the roles of Mennonite women who are ‘Other’ (a term used frequently in intercultural communication) to them in a play? How does their understanding of the ‘Other’ develop and deepen as they play roles of Mennonite women of color who are unlike them in ethnic/racial background? Our goal was to have women of many ethnic backgrounds playing the ‘Other’. For example, one of the actresses from India played the roles of two African-American Mennonite women. A woman of Mongolian-Indian heritage played the role of a Native American and an African-American. Thus we intentionally invited women to play across race and ethnicity rather than playing roles of women of their own ethnicity. We have been asked to perform the play again; our hope during the second ‘round’ of performances will be to have a more diverse cast than we were able to have the first time. I would actually invite suggestions and names of people who might want to do so! I hope this context is helpful in understanding these performances. One of the African-American women interviewed noted, ‘I prayed the Lord would use whatever my life had been like to help somebody else.’ I hope both women and men of all backgrounds will be inspired by these stories of faith.” P. McFarlane (2010, July 21). I Want to Respond. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.themennonite.org/bloggers. (2010, July 21).

Mary Brown*, responded the next day. “Pat, the context you provided is helpful. But I still have several concerns. I will address these to you directly and shortly in a separate email.” M. Brown (2010, July 22). The Context You Provide. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.themennonite.org/bloggers. (2010, July 22).

Mary’s response to me was detailed and direct. She explained that she also is a white woman in an interracial family which has experienced prejudice and discrimination. Yet she does not feel that this gives her the right to interpret the faith and life stories of people of color as she is still a white person who has the power and privilege given by her to society. She noted, “Even if people of color give me permission to tell their stories, I cannot do it as well as they can. I cannot because of my whiteness, walk in their shoes. I can only sympathize, try to empathize, be supportive and respectful” (M. Brown*, personal communication, July 22, 2010).

Mary took the clear position that I should have immediately stopped public performances of the play when an African-American cast member was no longer available. She also questioned that the purpose of the play “was to complete the doctoral study of a white woman, with women of color as the subjects of stories that could possibly be interpreted by white women” (M. Brown*, personal communication, July 22, 2010). She recommended that such a study be done with an audience which is a “small, closed group who understand the reasons for the cross-cultural casting” (M. Brown*, personal communication, July 22, 2010).

Unfortunately, although Mary had neither seen the play nor read the script, she made two recommendations. First that I “Take the play off the road, and out of public performances”, suggesting that it be presented only in controlled settings if the study is needed for the dissertation. She also advised that the cross-cultural casting be carefully explained before it is presented and then debriefed carefully by a woman of color. In addition, she felt that the cast should debrief separately from the audience and that the audience should understand “some antiracism analysis prior to seeing the play” (M. Brown*, personal communication, July 22, 2010).

Secondly Mary recommended that any future public performances should cast women of color according to their own ethnicities (and the same for white women). She also advised that we change the songs to ones that “people of color choose and perform” and that a woman of color should lead a debriefing session with the audience” (M. Brown*, personal communication, July 22, 2010). Mary ended by telling me that some families from her intercultural congregation were planning to attend the play in Philadelphia and disappointed by its cancellation. However, she noted, “Perhaps it was providential, because I am quite sure that it would have been a difficult evening for everyone” (M. Brown*, personal communication, July 22, 2010). She signed her email “Peace” followed by her name.

I took some time to think and absorb. I became aware that the character analysis and development experienced by the actresses during rehearsals of Heavenly Voices is its own kind of antiracism analysis. As actresses learn to know their characters, they also come to know that character’s relationship with others in their community and the various power dynamics of race and gender. Such analysis is difficult and uncomfortable for actress and later for audience. But if the actress has done her work, the audience will benefit from her portrayal of characters, being challenged to reexamine deeply held positions. This “uncomfortability” is not a feeling to shy away from in the theater but rather to embrace, potentially leading us toward reconciliation. Some antiracism leaders believe firmly that only people of color should tell their own stories. Although I resonate to some extent with these positions, I part ways with these leaders in the area of theatre performance. I believe that all actors and actresses are trained to play the “Other”, someone who belongs to a different racial, ethnic, religious, generational or socioeconomic category than themselves. As such, these theater folks must learn to know the “Other” whom they play. Characters in casts on and off Broadway are not always cast according to ethnicity, and this casting itself often lends a creative dynamic to the script. The methodology Mary Brown* suggests simply does not align with casting in most theater circles today where actors and actresses sometimes play across racial and ethnic backgrounds as they portray characters in a variety of plays.

When the cast discussed the controversy after the Living Water performance, Joy noted her openness to have someone from another racial or ethnic background tell her story. “There are many stories from Caucasian people too; we didn’t share any of those, and I don’t know that I would have a problem if a person of color would share my story some day” (Yoder, Joy. Post-performance group interview, 25 July, 2010). Deb rejoined, “That is a good way of putting it” (Brubaker, Deb. Post-performance group interview, 25 July, 2010). Nancy registered excitement that people are talking about this issue. “Ever since the beginning of publishing there has been a very big concern about...can a white person write from the perspective of someone who is not white? Can I as a Christian write from the perspective of a Muslim with integrity? …the Newbury award was almost taken from Susan Staples-Fisher several years ago because she wrote in a Muslim context. So that’s an issue I am excited that people are talking about it to be real honest; you know, I tell people all the time in our work in diversity at Bethel [College], if someone is not yelling at you, you are not doing your job. I think that is important. I know both of the people who have written in; the one person who has been so vehement and that has sent you a personal email, she writes to anyone who does anything about diversity” (Ryan, Nancy. Post-performance group interview, 25 July, 2010).

Sarah Lashley who had organized our coming to Living Water Community Church and was a leader in the Racial Reconciliation Group gave me another perspective on the meeting which took place after the play. Using the notes which reporter Tim Nafziger had taken at the meeting and summarizing them in an email, Sarah helped me to understand more clearly the points raised. She listed several appreciations which the Racial Reconciliation Group had shared: “the theme of discovering gifts in the midst of struggle”, that the play had “less to say about race and more to say about spiritual growth through struggle. Those stories must become our stories”, and the “educational aspect for white Mennonite churches to tell the stories of different experiences in the Mennonite Church” (Sarah Lashley, personal communication, January 11, 2010).

Criticisms included the problem brought up by the one member of Living Water Community Church and Mary Brown* in their email communications. “The problematic history of white people playing black people in oppressive ways created frustration that this play had so many whites playing blacks” (Sarah Lashley, personal communication, January 11, 2010). This group also wanted the songs to have a little more “Holy Ghost flavor”, citing the concern that black songs were done in a white way (Sarah Lashley, personal communication, January 11, 2010).

The controversy which had developed over the casting of Heavenly Voices helped me to remember my own experience playing the “Other” in Graham Greene’s The Potting Shed as a senior in college. I played the role of the atheist grandmother. An audience member later asked me how I could say the lines that this role required. I remember telling this person. “I will not ever be an atheist. But playing this role helps me more clearly to understand someone who is.” Were similar learnings at work in Heavenly Voices when one character plays the role of an “Other” of a differing culture?

Ironically Brown’s* critique of the Heavenly Voices performance is that of a white woman representing black women, the very position for which she is criticizing the white actresses in Heavenly Voices. This championing of the black women whose stories are told in the play appears to exemplify the very white privilege which Peggy McIntosh writes of in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. McIntosh lists 46 examples of her white privilege. Number 30 states, “If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have” (p. 14).

Do the results of this research shed light on the controversy which developed over “Who can play the ‘Other’?” Are the learnings evidence that playing the “Other” is a significant path to cross cultural understanding? Might playing the roles of those who are “Other” to us increase our knowledge of each other’s culture and personal experiences? How do we portray the authentic voice of someone “Other” to us, enabling us to risk playing this “Other” on stage?

Anna Deavere Smith (2000) wrote of how she knows when she is really getting the authentic voice of a person. “I told her, in essence, that I wanted to get people to talk to me, in a true way…I wanted to hear—well—authentic speech, speech that you could dance to, speech that had the possibility of breaking through the walls of the listener, speech that could get to your heart, and beyond that to someplace else in your consciousness” (p. 51). It was this kind of authentic speech which Linda Christophel and I also sought when we did the interviews for the Mennonite Women of Color Oral History Project from which the stories in the play Heavenly Voices are taken. We would listen for what we came to call the “emerging story” when a woman’s voice would change, and we knew she was talking from the heart about what was most important to her. Anna Deavere Smith (2000) described this moment in a way I later realized described my own interview experience with Mennonite women of color. “…it’s like jazz. They start out singing a familiar song, with a predictable pattern…but what I want to do is get them to break that pattern while they’re talking to me, because when they break it, they do things that are specific to them and only them” (p. 51). Anna Deavere Smith had described exactly the moment Linda Christophel and I would breathlessly listen for during the Mennonite Women of Color Oral History Project interviews. These moments and stories had become key parts of Heavenly Voices. It was these moments and stories which the actresses worked to portray no matter what the ethnicity of the character they were portraying.

This goal to create authentic characters and authentic moments of connection for our audience was strong among the women who acted in Heavenly Voices. Deb reflected on the woman at the Living Water performance in Chicago who came up to her afterwards and said she “just wanted to jump right in there and yell a ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Amen’ and tell her story.” Deb had responded to her, “If you would have, we would have all sat down and listened to you” (Brubaker, Deb. Post-performance group interview, 25 July, 2010). Joy remembered how people shared with her after the Goshen performances “how moved they were; they felt like they had been through a spiritual experience just by hearing all of these stories” (Yoder, Joy. Post-performance group interview, 25 July, 2010). Deb also spoke about how the actresses worked at getting to know characters. “It is like, you know, there is more there, and you want to get to it because that is when she is really herself and maybe that is what some of it is. When we are sharing like that, we are really sharing our deepest core” (Brubaker, Deb. Post-performance group interview, 25 July, 2010).

So I return to the question: who can play the “Other”? And how might a director cast Heavenly Voices when it is performed again? The research findings reveal that Mennonite women who play Mennonite women who are “Other” to them discover the following. First, playing the “Other” simultaneously reduces “Otherness” and enlarges an actresses’ understanding of the character who is “Other” to her. Secondly, playing the “Other” helps the actress to transcend the “Otherness” of her character. Third, playing the “Other” increases self-understanding as the actress comes to understand similarities and differences between her own life and that of her character. Fourth, the actress recognizes and appreciates the difficult experiences of the “Other” in a deeper way as she plays that character. Fifthly, the cast comes to mirror the lives of the play’s characters in their own relationships to one another.

In addition, playing and performing the roles of women who are “Other” to the actresses appears to advance healing in our world as ethnodramas such as Heavenly Voices help audiences understand characters who are “Other” to them. This can be a disconcerting and difficult process. Story thus becomes a bridge to the “Other”.

How might these discoveries influence the casting of Heavenly Voices in the future? I think that for future performances I will be open to some actresses playing the roles of those who are “Other” to them. Secondly, I will ensure that the cast is more diverse and that the play itself includes some stories of white Mennonite women which might also be played by someone who is of another race and ethnicity. Thirdly, I will include Talk Back sessions led by a multicultural panel of women who will lead the audience to consider: What happens when Mennonite women play the role of someone who is “Other” to them in race and ethnicity? What learnings happen for the audience members? What questions are raised? How is such a theater experience valuable to the audience? To the actresses? What might be the drawbacks of this approach to casting theater?

Kwame Anthony Appiah in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006) reminds his readers to begin “with the simple idea that in the human community, as in national communities, we need to develop habits of coexistence: conversation in its older meaning, of living together, association” (p. xix). When actress Nancy Ryan played the role of Que To who escaped Vietnam by boat, leaving behind her husband, she stared into the recesses of the theater as she shared Que To’s story. “You see if we all left and we failed like we did the first three times, the government would take our house. So we couldn’t all leave at once. We had correspondence with my husband from the refugee camp in Thailand. But I never saw my husband again.” In that sacred moment, the audience themselves moved beyond their own experience to know Que To who was no longer “Other” to Nancy or to them. I believe Heavenly Voices with actresses playing roles across cultures and ethnicities can be one important way to facilitate the kind of conversations Appiah speaks about, a merging of actress and audience, character and scene, into a new understanding of the “Other” that is ultimately a new understanding of themselves.

*Not her real name


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About the Author

Pat Lehman

Pat Lehman is the author of Heavenly Voices (2010), an ethnodrama containing the stories of Mennonite women of color, which premiered inthe summer of 2010 in Chicago, IL, and Goshen, IN. She is also executive producer of the video Living Water Living Faith (2005) which contains additional stories of Mennonite women of color in the United States andaround the world. Stories in both the play and video were gathered byPat and her research colleague Linda Christophel between 2000 and 2006.Pat is Professor of Communication at Goshen College where she teaches intercultural communication and public relations.