I received an email recently about something called "The American Slavery Project," sponsored by "The New Black Fest," a theatre project arranged around the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
The purpose of this monthly reading series is to "celebrate the work of African American playwrights who boldly and refreshingly explore slavery and/or the Civil War" and to "promote a new generation of African-American voices who are telling the diverse and rich stories from an era that most adversely affected us."
This appeal to ethnic authenticity really bugs me because, to me, it indicates a distrust, rather than an enlargement, of the power of imagination.
At one point (and it may still mean this in certain quarters), people and artists saw "imagination" as a kind of a passport: through the "travel agency" of the artist, a reader or listener or an audience member could cross over to places and into people that were "other" or "exotic" or simply unknown.
And this imaginative power was available to everyone as a base pair in their genetic inheritance, each of us graced with some degree of its alchemical power simply by being human. With the imagination in gear, any person, with enough research and whimsy, could write about distant lands and behaviors and make them visceral, pungent, rhapsodical, exchangable.
In fact, if such a word as "duty" could be used, it was the artist's duty to employ the imagination in this way, to show virtuosity in translating personal visions into communicable enthusiasms. (As an example, take Patrick O'Brian, author of a series of sea novels. In a paean to the writer in the April 2000 Harper's, writer Lewis Lapham states that "he was not the kind of writer who traveled around the world with a pencil and a camera. He relied on his imagination and prodigious research...")
In short, this kind of applied imagination allowed artists to pretend to be people they were not and go to places they could not afford and offer all of this to an audience who could, in their turn, do the same thing.
But with the advent of Freud and the tyranny of the psychological, imagination became consonant with subterranean dream worlds and phantasms of individual psyches and opposed to "reason" or "rationality."
The imagination became a privatized internal redoubt, unknowable by anyone outside and sometime even unknowable by the individual. No longer was "imagination" considered a public power, a communal lingua franca, catholic and democratic.
One political and artistic expression of this change is what I call "script ghettos," extrapolated from "identity politics," which takes its cue from a more generalized and subtle re-segregation of the world called "multiculturalism."
The assumption is that only women can really write about women, African Americans about African Americans, and so on, discounting (in fact, demonizing) any attempt by anyone "outside" to employ imagination as a tool for crossing boundaries because someone from the "outside," by definition, cannot be authentic and, therefore, cannot get it "right."
I am thinking about all of this out loud because I have created projects which, by this order of thinking, I should not have done. One involved writing a play about breast cancer. The other was adapting a book about miscegenation in North Carolina at the turn of the century into a play, A Question of Color.
Clearly I am neither a woman with breast cancer or a descendant of an illegal African American/white marriage in the late 19th century. Yet I feel "qualified" to do these projects because of my imagination, that is, because of the power we all have -- with enough research, discussion, self-examination, vision and revision -- to move ourselves into other places, times, and psyches.
In fact, I felt energized by the challenge of these two projects because they were so unlike me. I had to really move outside my usual blind-spotted, culture/gender-bound self as I read memoirs of breast cancer survivors or accounts of sharecroppers in the Piedmont, and in doing so, a lot of fat and fatigue fell away from the creative muscles as they stretched to take in suffering I had not suffered, indignities I had not had to endure.
My imagination enlarged me by feeding deeply, fattening me for the journey into these new worlds. What an absolute and positive joy it was to be plowing new fields and not be confined to the finitude of my own ego.
Some may say that I had no right to do this because I could not possible know, deep in the bedrock bone, what these experiences were, that I could not know the pain of breast cancer unless I have had it, or lived with someone who did.
I would agree with this somewhat: there will always be a zone that the imagination cannot cross because the imagination is all about simile, what something is "like." I can get close with "like," but I can never quite hook the essence, the "isness."
But that "close" has much power, and for the purposes of making art, it is more than enough to authenticate its own motives. The art created out of this proximity is not meant to be finished, the way a sermon or a testament or a screed is finished.
Instead, it is meant to spark in the viewer or listener another expedition, linked but also unchained, with the hope that multiple expeditions will somehow soften our sometimes brutal selfishness and really make our collective existence kinder and gentler.
So, I celebrate the imagination as it traverses wherever it wants to go and reports on whatever it learns in whatever way it wants. Imagination should not be harnessed to making art that validates limitations or an "insider" status.
Every playwright feeling free to write about anything, like or unlike, enlarges the vocabulary for collective understanding; if chained, all we will get are communiques from competing camps or limp bagatelles on a foreshortened "human condition" mostly confined to internal psychological doodlings.
Meanwhile the richness of the whole world continues to blow its clarion of invitation. I, for one, cannot wait to get my passport stamped.