By John Feffer, playwright and chief creative of Paper
Appropriation is a tricky issue from a legal point of view. You can’t use someone’s name or image for commercial purposes, without his or her permission, or risk a lawsuit. You can’t use someone’s words without attribution or risk charges of plagiarism. You can’t sample another person’s music without running afoul of copyright law.
But what if you appropriate a lifestyle or some other element of culture?
Justin Timberlake once wore cornrows, emulating a fashion associated more with African American culture. Iggy Azalea, a white Australian rapper, has made a name for herself by mimicking the black musical styles of the American south. Most recently, the heterosexual actor Andrew Garfield created headlines by claiming that “I am a gay man right now just without the physical act” because of his preparations to play a gay man in the hit play Angels in America. In all three cases, the appropriations have generated controversy.
My new play Paper, which debuts on July 9 at the Capital Fringe Festival, looks at this question of appropriation through a social justice lens. Sophia, an older white professor, squares off against Emmanuel, a younger African American student. She has a written a novel from the perspective of a black homeless person. He decries her appropriation of a culture so obviously not her own. Paper presents the audience with the confrontation from her point of view and then from his point of view. In the third act, the characters attempt one more time to resolve their conflict – but from an entirely different angle.
Cultural appropriation was once a largely unremarked-upon process. The Romans stole ideas and entire plays from the Greeks. Shakespeare ransacked the cultural heritage of several different countries to produce his tragedies and comedies. White rock and rollers – Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones – borrowed (or stole) freely from a largely African-American blues tradition.
Sensibilities, however, have changed. In large part because of the success of social movements, cultural appropriation has become a contested terrain. No one today would think of putting on the “blackface” that white performers once used in 19-century minstrel shows. Yet Emmanuel believes that his teacher has essentially adopted “blackface” in writing a novel from the first-person perspective of an African American. Sophia retorts that it’s the job of a novelist to inhabit the skin of very different people.
This issue of appropriation goes to the heart of American culture and society today. The United States is a deeply divided country – by politics, by region, by race, by class. The notion that the United States is a “melting pot” has long since melted away. The question that faces Americans today is whether there can be any unity in all of this diversity – or whether the diversity is at some fundamental level irreconcilable.
We live in a representative democracy, but who has the right to speak for whom? We live in a culturally kaleidoscopic country, but when is appropriation the highest compliment one artist can pay to another and when is it disrespectful theft?
Paper portrays this conflict as an elemental struggle between two different people. Can Emmanuel and Sophia find common ground? Come to Paper to find out.
John Feffer is the author of Paper, as well as several other plays and one-man shows. His books include, most recently, the novel Splinterlands.