Identity Politics and Fictional Characters

[First a word from our sponsors. Visiting Cezanne, a new play of mine about artistic struggle, is currently running in Seattle. Audience response has been embracing. In case you are near Seattle and might wish to see it, four performances remain.]

Walt Whitman: “I contain multitudes.”

If you do catch Visiting Cezanne one thing you won’t see on stage is a Latina named Ana. In rewrites that character fell away. During scriptwriting it’s not uncommon for characters to drop out or new ones to show up. One reason Ana departed was that despite the book research I had done, I wasn’t comfortable with my grasp of Dominican heritage and Dominican-American culture. I tried to interview Dominican-American women in the Seattle area but every lead I dug up dead-ended. Who knows, maybe Ana will reappear in a future script. That sometimes happens too. (If August Wilson was still with us we could ask him about that.)

Identity politics is having a moment in the U.S. In fact it’s been having a moment for quite a while now and, I believe, contributed to the 2016 election of Donald Trump. While I can appreciate the impulse behind identity politics – our 243-year-old American experiment has had imperfect results so far, with too much injustice and inequality – I fear that its ascendance is ultimately a divisive force that fosters grievance and victimization and will undermine rather than foster productive social change.

In fact, some on the left side of the identity politics camp (they’re found on the right too) would say that as a straight white man I do not have the right to create characters who have more melanin in their skin than I do or come from a different cultural background. I have problems with this position. For one thing, where do we draw the line? Because I have a Y chromosome am I unable to create female characters? (My last three plays have featured female protagonists.) Can a Latino not paint an Asian’s portrait? This racial Balkanization can grate in every direction. I recently read of a successful African-American TV showrunner who is exasperated by the everpresent expectation that she will write stories about black characters; she wants the freedom to write characters of any color and ethnicity. The one caveat I would assert is every writer must approach other cultures with respect and a commitment to research in order to avoid clichés and stereotypes.

The principle underpinning my view is that human beings share much more in common than there are things that segregate us. Expansive and inclusive makes for a better society than restrictive and exclusionary. In fact, expansive and inclusive are required for a democracy. I believe that art’s highest moral value is to show us all that we have in common. Grief, love, envy, hatred, the impulse to nurture our family, the desire for our life to have meaning – such foundational emotions are found in Tanzania, Greece, Vietnam, Iceland and Uruguay, that is to say, in every nook and cranny of this fragile, rotating orb that is sailing through the heavens.

I recently came across scientific research that represents a sort of corollary to my views on creating varied characters. This research is happening in a Harvard University lab led by geneticist David Reich. A book by Professor Reich about his research just came out this week – Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past. A few days ago Reich wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times describing his research and the social sensitivities that attend it.

Contemporary science has confirmed that there are genetic differences across populations, in simple traits such as the amount of melanin in one’s skin, but also with bodily dimensions, susceptibility to disease (for example, African-American men are more susceptible to prostate cancer), and in other areas. Reich expects research in his field to continue finding average biological differences across populations. He fears that if scientists avoid discussing those differences for fear of social or political backlash, their silence will create a vacuum that will be filled by pseudoscience and racists.

Reich emphasizes that while there are average differences among populations, there is far more variance within populations. He offers the example of how much vaster are the sex differences between any male and any female than any differences deriving from the ethnic populations they come from. We might reflect on the wide variation found among students in any one high school. How much vaster is that variety than average differences between its student body in the aggregate and the student body of another high school.

What Reich is saying is that individual differences are far greater than average group differences. He cautions that “An abiding challenge for our civilization is to treat each human being as an individual and to empower all people, regardless of what hand they are dealt from the deck of life.”

To bring this science back to drama and literature I would offer this parallel: An abiding responsibility for writers is to treat each character as an individual and not let their membership in a group overshadow their uniqueness as an individual. Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” A lovely paradox of the narrative arts (plays, movies, opera, and fiction) is that by laying bare the granular specificities of human behavior – Whitman’s multitudes – our commonality is revealed. In the particular is found the universal.

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4 Responses to “Identity Politics and Fictional Characters”

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  1. john vreeke says:


  2. Duane Kelly says:

    Thanks John. Whenever I wade into political water, it’s with trepidation. It’s not my normal milieu.

  3. Margaret ODonnell says:

    Love your writing, Duane — graceful and elegant and concise. And I agree completely — if we seek to limit playwrights to characters exactly like themselves — white, married, US-born female in my case — what a loss of richness and depth, and how sterile. This is what we do — imaginatively enter the world with our hearts and minds open. That is art.

  4. Duane Kelly says:

    Thanks Margaret. Hope to see you at the Cezanne play. It seems to be resonating with all struggling artists – whatever their shape, color and stripes.

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