Theater In Conversation
The Other White America: Poverty, Inclusivity, and the Ball Grant: JOSHUA YOUNG with Elisabeth Ng
Joshua Young reads like your typical straight, white man, and I am an Asian female immigrant. We are not who the immediate zeitgeist would identify as allies in the push for diverse representation in theater. Yet our individual goals are not dissimilar: my theater company employs multiracial casting; Joshua grew up poor in an Ohio inner city and has put his focus on encouraging theater from lower income communities regardless of race.
Joshua’s theater company, The Playwriting Collective, recently announced its first annual Ball Grant, a $1000 grant expressly designed for a writer who identifies as living in or emerging from a lower economic status. The collective was formed to support voices and seek out writers from lower economic backgrounds. To celebrate the grant’s launch, I interviewed Joshua about diversity in theater and its implications for the grassroots.
Elisabeth Ng (Rail): Let’s talk about the Ball Grant. I am sometimes frustrated by well-meaning diversity initiatives that lock applicants into creating work which revolves around an identity the initiative seeks to champion. Well-intentioned, but nonetheless limiting and further cementing us as the “other.” Are there any requirements the Ball Grant recipient is expected to fulfill?
Joshua Young: Our main criterion is for the recipient to identify as being or emerging from a lower economic status. That’s it. As long as you can explain to us what that means to you and how this grant could help you, you can write whatever you want. We just want you to keep writing.
My dream is to find someone who can now afford groceries because of this grant. This money could help someone turn to playwriting as a form of self-expression, rather than to something negative, which is common in poor environments.
Selfishly I hope one day to elevate enough people from genuinely poor, impoverished circumstances to become working artists so that it might change some of the current trends and aesthetics.
Rail: Given your background, how did you go about funding this grant?
Young: Me and my company partner’s working stiff day jobs! We held a fundraising event in May that raised some money, but most of the grant comes from Phillip Christian (the collective’s literary manager) and myself.
Rail: The Ball Grant is dedicated to your uncle, Gary Ball.
Young: My father is a felon, and my parents had me when they were very young. I grew up poor.
My mother’s brother was exceptionally intelligent. He had the foresight and luck to leave his environment. He served in the military before winning a scholarship to university and eventually became a successful nuclear engineer. When I was in middle school he returned and was a positive influence for the community. He got me out of the public school system and into a private Catholic school.
He died tragically when I was 17 from a bizarre form of brain cancer that came on quick and took him quick. And he left me a sum of money that enabled me to attend NYU. I had already been accepted into the school, but his money gave me a realistic chance of attending and graduating. It meant I didn’t have to work three jobs on top of loans and grants. College education in this country is not designed to be accessible to the poor.
I am haunted by the question of whether I would have had exposure to theater, or thought of it as a career option, if my uncle hadn’t funded a more expensive education for me.
Rail: I attended the recent staged reading of your play School Bus Witch Hunt. You didn’t hold back in your portrayal of a poor working class white family that is loving, struggling, homophobic, racist. What struck me was that they were not written in a way to be reviled nor pitied. What is the next step with this play?
Young: Part of the inspiration in writing this play is the growing trend of tribalism. I consider it a tragedy if in today’s political climate a boy from a poor destitute family is denied an education because someone falsely accused him of saying a racist epithet. If you are poor, it would send you down the path of never being able to better your life. Because of the complexities of class and race in this country, I wanted to make sure I created a story that is an indictment of what I find to be problematic. The villain is a wealthy Catholic benefactor who manufactures this false crisis, because it is easier to expel a kid for being racist than for being gay. They are exploiting the racial battle to cement their hatred for gays.
Rail: The “Oppression Olympics” coming back to haunt us.
Young: I am about to start writing a science fiction version that is set on Mars, about two types of people who were affected by the colonization of Mars in different ways. But it is otherwise School Bus in essence.
Rail: A science fiction version that is entertaining and which only alludes to hard edged problems sounds easier to get produced.
Young: The core of the story is that an adherence to tribalism and racism will always lead to your own self-destruction.
I wrote School Bus for a predominantly white audience from the Midwest and the South. Sometimes you don’t know you have racist ideas until you hear someone else say it. The dialogue in the play is based on things I heard growing up, and written for the people I grew up with who do not identify themselves as racist. I want to bring introspection to these communities. I wrote this play primarily for them.
It was not written for a New York audience, which is why I am not bitter about writing an entertaining version that will resonate with people here. Will the original version be produced here? Probably not. But I hope the science fiction iteration will build momentum for the original to be produced in the communities it is dedicated to.
Rail: There isn’t a lot of professional theater being produced in the communities you wrote School Bus for. How do you think that could be changed?
Young: I discovered the Conservative Theatre Festival recently. I told my literary manager that the collective should submit our plays to this! We should use this as an opportunity to reach out. I looked them up, and they are not overly pejorative. I knew someone who did it last year, who is liberal. It was more accessible than I expected. Maybe that is the answer. Write something for those communities, go out there and talk to people.
I intend to move out of New York eventually and to make theater in these spaces. You have to be there to create change.
Rail: You mention the importance of integrating working class white America in the push for diversity.
Young: My white America is not the white America that most people making theater are getting exposed to right now. The majority of theater getting made, including the downtown theater scene, is dictated by people who are affluent and who are typically white. I always say: unless the people making decisions behind the scenes are equally diverse, it’s just affluent white people picking and choosing.
Then there is a whole other white America out there that Breitbart and Fox are capitalizing on, and I want to try and win those people back.
What you have on the right are affluent white Americans trying to get working class white folks to side with them purely on something like the color of their skin while enacting policies against their best interests.
I’m trying to fight that momentum by fighting for the inclusion of all voices from all poor backgrounds. That could be a poor person of color from a large metropolitan city, it could be a white person from a poor rural community, or vice versa. I just fight for poor people. And I am incentivized to fight for it on racial lines because the more successful you are at it the more there is a chance to harmonize and ally poor working class communities of all races.
Rail: It is impossible to discuss diversity without bringing up the term privilege.
Young: I think broad anti-white rhetoric is harmful. White people like me need to talk to white people who are disenfranchised about the conflict within them—not yelling at them like someone on MSNBC. You will never get a white person living in horrific poverty to remotely acknowledge their white privilege if they are being yelled at on television. It incentivizes them to vote for someone like Donald Trump.
If you took all the circumstances I grew up in—which were horrific and not privileged in any way—and put a darker skinned person in my place, would they have a harder time getting from A to B? Absolutely. If that is the essence of acknowledging white privilege, then I think it is a very healthy thing to do.
Where it becomes unhealthy is an overindulgence of white guilt, which is another affirmation of white supremacy. Diversity should not be about fixing white guilt.
Rail: We’ve been having this dialogue between ourselves for a while now, but obviously Trump’s election makes it clear we have to find solutions sooner.
Young: The thing that I find encouraging is: regardless of demographic, unless someone is extremely hateful or has an incredibly narrow-minded agenda, people are willing to listen.
Elisabeth Ng is the artistic director and co-founder of Brooklyn Repertory Theatre, a theater collective that focuses on multiracial and ‘colorblind’ casting. Brooklyn Repertory is a recipient of the 2016 ICWP 50/50 Award and was previously featured on the Brooklyn Rail. Elisabeth performed with The Playwriting Collective in their Ball Grant fundraiser performance Godzilla and His Ex-Girlfriends.
The Ball Grant is named in memory of Gary Ball. For more information on the grant, please visit https://www.theplaywritingcollective.com/the-ball-grant. Applications close November 1st at midnight.