Awkward Conversations with White Men
This was supposed to be a wrap up about my time at the Stratford Festival but I’ve decided to postpone writing that for a couple of days. Instead I felt that it was important to tell you about a situation I found myself in that was, unfortunately, familiar and uncomfortable for many women.
We are living in times that allow formerly marginalized people to speak up without censure. It has been revealed recently that Jeffrey Tambor, of Transparent and Arrested Development fame, was verbally abusive to Jessica Walters, who plays Lucille Bluth, on set. Jason Bateman and Tony Hale defended and excused his behaviour but have since apologized for doing so. Two years ago a male friend I trusted was so verbally abusive to me I cried for hours. In public! My confidence made him cringe and feel like a loser, he’d said. The last time a man verbally abused me was this week, and I did not cry.
I was at a theatre event when I saw him (let’s call him 'VIM' for Very Important Man) greeting and smiling at patrons. I sat in the lobby watching the busy action, people with drinks, and there was a lot of laughter. Eventually as he passed by I called out his name. He stopped and looked at me. I stood up, held out my hand, which he took, and said, ‘Hi! Andrea Scott’. He didn’t respond and his face didn’t move, eyes cold. ‘I’m in the playwright unit here’, I said, helpfully. His face still didn’t move. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘I know who you are. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m quite busy’. He turned and walked away. It was loud in the lobby and nobody heard the interaction. I was shocked. I wandered over to the other playwrights in the unit and told them what happened which they also found surprising. At no point during the rest of the evening did he follow-up and speak to me. This was the head of the playwright unit and I had flown in for the reading of my play the next evening.
I understand how stressful organizing an event can be, but you only get one chance to make a first impression and I was left with a distinct feeling of profound discomfort after that brush off. Maybe Wednesday would be different. How could anything go wrong on Odin’s day? In the past if someone wasn’t kind to me I’d work overtime to make them like me. I’m likeable, dammit. I can't help but think of Zora Neale Hurston's quotation: ‘How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.’
That evening someone at the theatre introduced me to the VIM, unaware of our previous interaction. We shook hands, he didn’t say anything, and I maintained a Mona Lisa smile. He barely smiled and neither did his eyes. What, I thought, has made this man dislike me so? We’d had no significant contact online, or otherwise, in the last month. The other playwrights had discovered last week that the reading wasn’t mentioned on the website, our names and plays weren’t in the program, and nobody knew it was even happening. Once I heard that no marketing had been done for the play-reading I realized that the actors would be performing to a tiny audience. I hoped that a miracle would happen and the theatre would have a nice, big audience.
As we all walked into the theatre to sit down I counted about 6 people in the audience and I said, ‘yup, 6 people.’ And that is when the VIM sidled up to me and hissed in my ear, ‘yea, 6! And do you know how many they had last year? 4!’ I kept walking but felt very tense because his body language was rigid and tone of voice mean and jeering. I responded breezily. ‘Oh! Only 4? Well 6 IS an improvement but-‘, and he cut me off, ‘Yea, 6 is better so you should think about that before you say anything else and adjust your attitude.’ I smiled. I stopped to whisper in the ear of one of the playwrights, ‘I think VIM is angry at me.’ The other playwright insisted I sit with her. She put her hand on my knee and whispered, ‘I’m so sorry. I heard everything he said. I don’t know why he’s treating you like this. You should see the way he’s glaring at you right now.’ I shrugged and said, ‘he doesn’t scare me.’
VIM got up on stage and introduced the director and actors; he then asked us to turn off our cell phones. I raised my hand and asked VIM, quite nicely, ‘Would it be okay if I recorded a couple of minutes of my play for archival purposes?’ His eyes narrowed a little and he said condescendingly, ‘Well, Andrea, as you know, the actors have signed Equity contracts that forbids recording, unless they don’t mind, of course.’ He looked over at the actors, they smiled at me and said, ‘no problem’. The interesting thing about this moment was his tone, inflection, and clear dislike of me was visible to everyone in the theatre. I felt vindicated, but also very sad that a man in a position of power treated me that way publicly without any provocation. I am also mad at myself for trying to figure out what I had done to cause this man to behave this way when I'd only arrived in town 24 hours prior. He was not a romantic partner, or a friend, but I immediately began making excuses for his behaviour instead of holding him accountable for his actions.
Ironically, I had a moment of insight as a black woman being disrespected by a white man in a theatre while presenting a reading about Viola Desmond. It doesn’t matter if you smile, speak softly, or acquiesce to certain people because they will continue to treat you poorly if they believe you are less than deserving of dignified treatment. I know my worth and did not let that experience define an otherwise wonderful opportunity to see talented artists interpret my work.
I wasn’t going to write about what happened but I believe it’s important to shine a light on troubling behaviour that could bloom into something more damaging if it’s not addressed. When I left the theatre that night several people spoke to me and made it clear that they had my back, which felt good. As Zora Neale Hurston said, 'there's no use in talking unless people understand what you say.' Preach!