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Toxic Rehearsal Reflections: What I learned about creating beautiful art - Susan Kerr

First Dibs playwriting course alumni Susan Kerr writes about the complex challenges dismantling racism and black shame in her second blog about Toxic.


Toxic is complex and takes the audience on a rollercoaster of highs and lows and spaces between. However, it studies intimacy and intimacy requires trust, and trust demands honesty. In this instance that means for the two lovers portrayed in Toxic, an unveiling of secret spaces steeped in shame.

A black woman in a white t-shirt is hugging a white man with shaved hair in a pale patterned shirt. They are stood in front of a grey and pink stage set.

During my second visit to the rehearsal room, the words of the mixed heritage character in a particular scene were wrestled with. Nathaniel (the white writer and other performer) had been open to suggestions by his mixed heritage scene partner Josh-Susan and this collaboration amplified the authenticity of the black voice. I think what Nathaniel does well is to realise that for a white writer to write a black character, he can only write from his white perspective. The process revealed to me the challenges we face when trying to understand the very subtle cultural nuances that come from our different lived experiences. Racism (or homophobia or HIV stigma) isn’t just slurs or micro-aggressions.

As they rehearsed the dialogue resonated deeply with me and like a lightning rod hitting home, Josh-Susan’s character spoke words so steeped in painful truths that the experience became overwhelming for them. I recognised the awful shame that had led to the shame hangover I had experienced at the QTIPOC sharing a month or so earlier. I am aware that the experience of being black is mostly hidden from the white gaze. Yet here they were, ‘acting’ but outing harsh painful realities.

The dialogue proved to turn a bright light on a process whose main mechanism for effective fearful compliance is silence and secrecy. The process was discussed and the parallels with fear and shame around HIV were spoken of, but this isn’t Nathaniel’s first rodeo. ‘First Time’ had been the place where he had confronted those demons, but it offered invaluable insight.

Josh-Susan is a person of colour in an all-white space and that can be really challenging. But in my opinion, it offers the white people in the space the opportunity to be more conscious, and there's a lot to be learned, and enjoyed and wonderful creative things can happen.

So, everyone took a moment. Josh-Susan chose to bravely take the space they needed to feel the powerful emotion in their body, to be acknowledged and supported and then at Nathaniel’s suggestion, very gently the scene was lovingly played out.

And something beautiful happened.

They were the same words, but we witnessed two souls truly meeting.

And so, for me, this has been a lesson in real communication when it comes to the barriers created by racist ideology. Racism is so normal. It’s woven into every strand of the tapestry of everyday life. It’s hidden in plain sight. Unveiling and deconstructing is no easy task.

It demands commitment and a willingness to learn on both sides. And it’s painful and uncomfortable and requires a particular kind of courage.

However, what lies beyond is powerful, meaningful and so very beautiful.

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