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Why I Almost Slapped a Fellow Theatre Patron, and What That Says About Our Theatres

How a seemingly normal night at the theatre led to an altercation with a patron over microaggressions and white privilege.

Recently I went to see a play at an Off-­Broadway theatre that I love, a production I found remarkably profound. I was in town for only a day, and redeye jetlag fatigue or not, I was going to the show if I could find an affordable ticket. What I didn’t predict was that the show would lead to a confrontation with microaggressions and white privilege. Turns out the social conflict wasn’t just happening on the stage.

I got to the box office and asked the staff if they had any discounts. The price that they offered wasn’t low enough for me to afford that evening. (My recent playwright award check hadn’t been received yet, okay?)

A couple of nice folks told me to stand off to the side while they figured something out. In the meantime, I talked with my friends. After a short while, an usher approached, accompanied by an older white woman in glasses. The usher said, “You’re looking for tickets, she has tickets. Maybe you can help each other.”

The woman, possibly in her early 60s, looked at me. We’ll call her Jane. I said: “I don’t have any cash, so I can’t really take those off your hands.”She handed me the tickets: “Well, just take them, ” she said. Then, as she walked away, she added, “Just don’t pop your gum, because I hate that.”

I wasn’t chewing any gum at the time.

When I finally registered the comment, she was already walking off with her husband. My friends and I quickly deliberated on what she meant by it. We were all black. This elderly white woman could be making a generational assumption, a racial assumption, or both. Whatever the case, she felt she needed to educate me on theatre etiquette. Why she assumed I wouldn’t already have theatre etiquette, I would love to know.

Later, I find out.

As the production began, we were suddenly transported into an interactive audience experience. I had developed a role in this play as an actress, so I knew the culture and tone that the play was setting. The lights were up on the audience to invite us into our own personal “church‐like” experience. And my own church experience is a buoyant one, so I began to laugh and nod my head as the play’s music began. I clapped as the onstage choir clapped.

Because I was sitting dead center, I was even recognized by the lead of the show, who started to use me as he gave his opening monologue; he made eye contact and gestured to me. In the middle of the play’s opening, as my friend and I laughed and enjoyed ourselves, Jane leaned in toward me and whispered, “Can you stop and keep it down?”

A moment.

First the gum-popping comment, and now this. Two things went through my head. The first was instant rage. The second was audacity. And that audacity caused me to respond to Jane in a whisper: “I will laugh whenever I think things are funny, so get used to it. You’re not going to tell me how I should respond to art.” Jane tried to chastise me further, but I simply put my hand up and said, “No more.”

Now I’d like to acknowledge Jane’s husband. He was a black man. And he was sitting between us the entire show. He was our silent witness, but did not engage. It was curious to me that he remained almost stoic throughout this lively show and throughout our exchange, but who knows what he was processing internally.

Now I know some readers will think: They were just a little socially inept, maybe even crazy. Write it off as a random moment of one crazy person and let’s keep moving. Let’s not indict theatre and the theatre community as a whole, or, even greater, all of society, for the actions of one rude woman. And of course it wasn’t about race, because her husband was black.

Dominique Morisseau
Dominique Morisseau

But we fail to understand the multiple layers of white privilege, elitism, and entitlement when we make such bland rebuttals. We fail to understand that this isn’t only one incident. This is part of an elitist and supremacist culture. But more on that in a minute.

When the show was over, I tried to engage Jane in conversation around the topic of entitlement in the theatre, but she wasn’t interested. I asked why she felt it necessary to police my reactions to the play. She said, “Just never mind.” When I informed her that I was an artist whose work also welcomed call and response from the audience, Jane responded with condescension: “Oh, sure. I just love artists like you. So riled up.”

Okay, it was time to walk away from Jane.

I went into the lobby and ran into other colleagues and friends who also happened to be black. These colleagues were professors, Broadway actors, producers. I explained to them the incident that had just happened and they were appalled. Suddenly, Jane approached us. “I’m the woman you’re talking about,” she said. She called the act she did for me “charity.” I told her I didn’t need her charity. A friend escorted her away and told her that she needed to leave us alone.

I was beyond enraged. In five more seconds, this was going to turn ugly. In five more seconds, Jane was going to provoke the touch of my butterscotch palm across her cheek. In five more seconds, the only thing that was going to come from this evening was the headline:

“Award-Winning Playwright Slaps Patron at Theatre.”

I actually thought of this not in hindsight, but in the middle of our argument. I am aware that no matter what provokes us, there is an unjust rule that says we—the person of color, the younger generation—are always wrong. We are taught that the provocation doesn’t matter, that we are supposed to accept abuses and harassment as a social norm, and that a rebuttal is somehow more socially disturbing than the initial offense.

Those thoughts stayed my hand.

And this wasn’t an isolated incident. Here’s a quick list:

  • That time at a prestigious theatre festival when black women were responding exactly how I want them to respond to my play—loudly and expressively and “ummm hmm”-ing—and an older white patron approached them at intermission and said: “Can you enjoy the play a little quieter, please? ”
  • That time my play was being performed at a Tony ­award-winning regional theatre and older white patrons saw me coming to my reserved seat (that they were sitting in), and refused to get up from that seat until an usher assured them that I was the playwright.
  • That time my parents were coming to see my first Equity production at a beloved regional theatre, and again, older white patrons refused to believe that the seats they had taken were actually reserved for people that looked like my parents.

Why are all of these things important?

Because theatre has a white privilege and elitism problem. There is an environment that is fostering this kind of behavior. Our collective institutions—artistic staff, marketing departments, etc.—are placating the older white audiences, and are afraid to challenge them, or even educate them. We take their donor money and put them on boards, and we brush their microaggressions off as our old grandma or grandpa who might be a little racist and elitist but are otherwise harmless.

To that I ask: harmless to whom? I am telling you it is not harmless. It is harmful. It further marginalizes audiences of color and tells them they are not fully welcome in the theatre, except by permission of the white audience. It tells the upper-middle-class white audience that theatre is their home first and the rest of us are just guests.

In fact, when the theatre community buzzed recently about the all-white and all-male seasons announced by a number of NYC theatres, elder white audience members were the reasoning many colleagues offered in defense, saying that because they are the primary subscription holders for the theatre, we should not challenge their preferences. To this I always say: Who says that Grandma and Grandpa are done learning?

I have a grandmother who is 90 years old. She has a Facebook page. Sees plays. Listens to my husband’s hip-hop lyrics and tries to understand. I truly believe that keeping her challenged socially is what is keeping her alive.

If we want to keep theatre alive and keep our patrons, as well as attract new ones—old and young, white and “of color”—we can’t be afraid to push our older white patrons past their comfort levels and dismantle their supremacist and privileged worldviews, not just onstage, but in the culture of theatre that we are creating.

We need to say that, just like in church, you are welcome to come as you are in the theatre. Hoot and holler or sit quietly in reverence. Worship and engage however you do.

In writing this account, I wondered whether I should name the specific theatres of my experiences. I chose anonymity not to inspire a guessing game among my readers, but to avoid narrowing the issue. This isn’t a matter of one or two theatres. This is about us all. This elitist culture is a Frankenstein created collectively, and it will take collective action to shift to a model of inclusion.

Institutional leaders have to be the ones to set the tone for this kind of environment. We need to say it with our plays. With our programming. With the overall culture we set in the theatre. Or else we continue to foster a community of racial privilege and entitlement in the theatre, regardless of how many people of color there are onstage.

P.S. If you have witnessed or experienced any of your own versions of entitlement, elitism, privilege, bias, microaggression, racism, or other forms of prejudice as audience members and practitioners of theatre, please tweet and post about it using the hashtag #ppit (privilege problems in theatre). If we speak to it, perhaps we can actually address and dismantle it. And if you aren’t on board, please no #HashtagHijacking.

Dominique Morisseau is a writer and actress. Her playwriting credits include Detroit ’67 and Sunset Baby. Her newest play, Skeleton Crew, runs January 6–Feb. 14 at Atlantic Theater Company. She is the recipient of the 2015 Steinberg Award. 

  • Donald Joy

    Oh for crying out loud just give me a break and STFU already you ungrateful, obstreperous uppity race-hustling inferior terrorist

  • Gomer Pyle

    Free tickets and still she bitches. Sigh.

  • ClausVonBulow

    Its off-broadway. Who cares.

  • rman04357

    A little full of yourself, aren’t you? Fair or not, you come off as insufferable

  • TankerKC

    Sorry…it wasn’t clear in the article…are you an Award-Winning Playwright? Gosh, that’s SO awesome. Please tell us more!

  • sotiredofthebs

    Dominique Morisseau, you need to grow more skin. This is what one gets for giving out free tickets to some people.

  • Mike Danger

    The author is a racist. Her “black privilege” allows her to be rude and aggressive towards others without consideration how she is ruining the theater experience of those around her. Perhaps counseling can alleviate some of her anger management issues and her urges of macro-aggression towards people of other races…

  • Dantes

    This is a joke, right?

  • oneParty

    Hmm. Did the author stop to think that she is part of the problem? She exudes an attitude of condescension and entitlement. She got free tickets for crying out loud!

  • Liam781

    The author of this column did not do herself or her erstwhile cause(s) here good service in the publishing of this.

    That is all.

  • northernobserver

    Grow up lady.

  • dsr_nyc

    Doesn’t matter the race of the person, anyone who decides the make it all about them inside the theatre is usually the most obnoxious one in the theatre. That applies whether it’s the usual terrible manners we can’t stand in the theatre, or that overly-reactive one in the crowd that always knows they’re drawing attention, but doesn’t care as long as they’re having a great time. One of my friends, probably the whitest guy you’ll ever meet, by the way, has long since stopped being my plus-one because of said attention. We know that actors get a kick out of it, because it’s fun to see that in the audience, but for the paying crowds around you, it always the total opposite. (On a related note, congrats that the actor gesticulated towards your obnoxious behavior. That makes it all worth it’ll doesn’t it?)

  • joy m.

    “Several aspects of situations involving student discipline can activate implicit biases in school per- sonnel, thereby influencing outcomes for students. For instance, implicit biases may be activated when school staff members make subjective judgments regarding whether discipline is merited in an ambiguous situation, such as determining what constitutes
    “disruptive behavior,” “loitering,” or “disrespect.” Research from
the field of implicit bias indicates that ambiguous situations
are ripe for the arousal of implicit biases;5 therefore, when sub-
jectivity is part of a teacher or other school staff member’s de-
cision-making regarding the need for discipline, “background
experiences and automatic associations shape his or her inter-
pretation of the scene.”6 Influenced by implicit biases, this subjectivity can contribute to discipline disparities. For example, work by prominent school discipline researcher Dr. Russell J. Skiba finds that office referrals and other discipline for students of color tend to rely on subjective interpre- tations (e.g., “excessive noise”), while White students’ office referrals tend to stem from objective infractions (e.g., vandalism or smoking).7 ”

    • CallsignMissing

      Congratulations; you found a study on disproportionality of institutional discipline in elementary and secondary schools and decided that it must apply to isolated interactions between adults at the theatre.

      I bet it would have been really frustrating for you if the author’s story had involved two people of the same racial group; you wouldn’t have known who to lay the blame on. As it is, you can simply cry ‘racism!’ and not look beyond.

      • joy m.

        There are countless others like it. You should educate yourself. The science is clear and undeniable: racial bias often leads people to view benign behavior as disruptive or excessive. The research is there, even if you’re ignorant of it.

        • CallsignMissing

          You know what else is clear and undeniable?

          People can find the conduct of others to be annoying and disruptive without being racist, even if they’re accused of being so. You should try to understand that.

  • Frogs Fangs

    Modern theatre.

  • marymiriam

    Hey, as a white, older person who goes to the theater a lot…I get told to quiet down, too…I just laugh (out loud). You have to choose your moments. The other person had the problem. But please don’t pile all the blame on a whole generation of a particular color. What does that say about you?

    • joy m.

      The question isn’t whether this sometimes happens to people of all races, but the frequency with which it happens in the provocation for the behavior. White people are pulled over by cops sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that people of color don’t have a right to complain about the fact that they are disproportionately targeted, often for minor or nonexistent offenses

      • marymiriam

        Absolutely true. But sometimes, it’s just one stupid person. Of course everyone has a right to complain. But this wasn’t a pullover by a cop or illegal housing or being turned down for a job or all those other injustices that this society has to fight. Sometimes it’s just one stupid person being stupid. You have to pick your battles or you’ll just end up exhausted before the fight.

        • joy m.

          But the point is, it’s not just one person. To quote Dominique, “this isn’t an isolated incident”. I witnessed a play in an outdoor theater on a chilly night where a white patron was sitting behind a young black man in a hooded sweatshirt that was in no way obstructing her view, and she–without saying a single word to the boy–pulled the hood off of his head. For no reason, except her assumption that she belonged there and he did not. I’ve seen many other examples of flagrant disrespect. It’s there to see if you attend theater with non white people or if you have your eyes open.

          I ask you to listen to the people of color writing in this thread who say they have been made to feel unwelcome in our theaters for no reason, time and time and time again. And then think about how the American theater will survive in a diversifying nation if people of color are continually made to feel like intruders when they go to see a play. This is a real issue of grave importance and I’m distressed to see how easily so many on this thread are simply dismissing Dominique’s experience.

  • Michael L

    I’m rarely disturbed enough by a sentiment to merit a response, but regarding your article: It’s a concerning, divisive, and reductive notion of racial dichotomy, that does nothing more than reinforce you own segregationists views of the world. The reality, contrary to what you present in “Jane”, is her representation of a cultural shift in the social context and expectations of conduct in a public forum. 1: Her ticked was a gift, and your lack of expressed gratitude, and further insult with your public lashing, speaks to your own entitlements. (You would be better personally representation, if you’d focused on her initial kindness and how, in accepting her gift YOU became her guest. This would have drastically changed your interaction). 2: Your description speaks better to Jane’s age and experience vs. your own, and what she identifies as a more formal behaviors in social settings. Let me present an example, I was raised Pentecostal (boisterous, experiential & emotional). However, I act quite differently, when I (annually, I’ll note) attend an Episcopalian Church, (solemn, ceremonial, quiet). Your view-frame seems more “Pentecostal.” Re-frame: Jane’s seems more “Episcopalian.” (P.S. Though I prefer the “Pentecostal” experience, I am, by orientation, welcome in the Episcopalian faith, and conduct myself within the social context quite differently and with sensitivity to my surroundings). Jane’s world, by generation, is wrought of inclusion, and subscribes to collectivism . Your context is autonomous, and as evident in your writing, singular in reaffirming dichotomous assumptions of how “black” acts vs. “white” and how society, as in the theater, is a disservice to you. There is no direct, evidence of how race played into Jane’s interaction with you, outside of your own perceptions. (3) “Why I almost slapped a fellow theater patron,” further, and most heavily, speaks-to your own entitlements and generally supports that you might want to reconsider your liability in any situation, as with this one. In fact there is no worse entitlement than violence. (4) You missed a great opportunity. No matter what your ethnic identity is, I have found (probably like Jane), that if you don’t self-monitor, someone else will do it for you. (5) You owe someone a theater ticket.

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