Naomi Wallace Discusses Race, Class and Hospitality in Theater
Naomi Wallace, playwright and author of Slaughter City, spoke at Hamilton on February 15 as part of the Tolles Lecture Series. As a guest of the theater department, Wallace discussed the ethical obligations of theater performers. At times personal and other times political, Wallace informed and challenged the more than 100 guests in the Chapel. Her speech focused on the concept of “hospitality” in theater along with issues of race and class.
Wallace first explored one of the key themes in theater: relationships between individuals. She observed that one of the core components of theater is the relationship between how indiduals see the self against the rest of the world. When writing plays about “others,” she argued that playwrights are “violating” others. Playwrights push through an existing knowledge base to enter another life and vision on the world.
Her attention turned next to “safe writing,” which she defined as when writers do not challenge themselves to push to foreign viewpoints. She observed that playwrights have choices about who receives the spotlight, who is pushed off to the corner of the stage, and who is the butt of the joke. Writers that are not careful can fall prey to stereotypes or stick to keeping the “safe” people in the spotlight. She espoused writers who were willing to take the risk to enter the body of others.
Class and race were the next focal point of her speech. She observed that most theater is specialized in that it is “white middle class.” Hospitable theater should entertain guests but also pleasure and nourish them. At the same time, she advocates for a hospitable theater that is open to ideas. She outlined her childhood, citing the difference between her well-off background and the working-class communities that bracketed her home.
She told the story of a childhood boyfriend's father, who was slowly dying due to tin poisioning he acquired from rations while serving in Korea. At a diner, he asked her “how is it I worked all my life and still have nothing?” This question, she said, stuck with her, and it was the pivot point driving the rest of her talk.
Wallace next drew a distinction between herself and Angela Tucker, a black childhood friend who grew up with her in Kentucky. Wallace dreamed of being a writer; Tucker, a flight attendant. But Tucker could not get a job due to ingrained racism at the time; Tucker ended up homeless. She observed that class and race had opened doors for Wallace that they could never open for Tucker, and she criticized societies that focus on nourishing the empowered and hurting the poor.
She last addressed international and political issues, such as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the use of white phosphorous and drones by American troops. Criticizing these actions as unethical, she advocated for “disrupting the lie.” Human intellect, she argued, should be used for poetry and not oppression. Another target of her ire was the “myth of free enterprise” that argues we individuals are independent of one another. Asserting that “we are all social beings,” she argued that people should be hospitable to each other both on and off the stage.
Her final words advocated for the crossing of boundaries and “violating our own skin.” As she observed, when people push through the skin of others, they come closer to ourselves.