‘Whitesplaining’ interrogates the legacy of racism

The cast rehearses for “Whitesplaining: Interrogating a System and a Legacy.” Courtesy of Sarah Moore

Milo Richards, Contributing Writer

VCUarts Theatre program and The Conciliation Project will present a collaborative piece throughout September with “Whitesplaining: Interrogating a System and a Legacy.” 

Tawyna Pettiford-Wates, artistic director of The Conciliation Project and VCUarts professor, uses the project’s approach of storytelling to devise “Whitesplaining.” The show directly confronts whiteness, white supremacy and white culture, according to the team’s statement

The cast and crew were able to investigate whiteness with their research on educational systems, the media and religion, according to the VCUarts website

Pettiford-Wates developed The Conciliation Project when she lived in Seattle, Washington. She created the project in 2001 to engage in direct conversation regarding race and racism within the use of theatre. The Conciliation Project is now home to Richmond for its social justice theatre company, according to the project’s website

“When The Conciliation Project was born, it was not something that we intentionally created,” Pettiford-Wates said. “It came out of an experiment — a project I was working on when I was living in Seattle and teaching in Seattle.”

Her students in Seattle created their first piece called “Uncle Tom Deconstructed,” which inspired the idea to create a theatre company that does social justice work, according to Pettiford-Wates

“We had to spend a lot of time talking about the issues that connected what was going on back in colonial Antebellum in the Antebellum South to what was going on now in our country with regard to race,” Pettiford-Wates said.

The project’s mission statement is to use challenging dramatic work to create conversation surrounding racism and oppression in America in order to mend its damaging past, according to their website.

“Whitesplaining” shares this same mission, Pettiford-Wates said.

The devised piece “Whitesplaining” centers on the racial history within certain color groups of people in the United States, according to Pettiford-Wates.

“It’s about explaining, justifying, protecting and trying to give legitimacy to your position,” Wates said. “Let’s explain why it’s important why you understand me instead of me understanding you.”

Pettiford-Wates said she challenged her team to have conversations regarding race in order to help audience members engage in difficult conversation.

“If we had to do a lot of talking, then the audience, who was also witnessing the work, also would want to do a lot of talking,” Pettiford-Wates said. “They would have passion, feelings, questions and would decompress after seeing that show.” 

Pettiford-Wates said the idea for the project came about a decade ago, but white nationalism has always been an issue. 

“As a country, the wounds that we have around the development of what we now know as the United States of America and whiteness and white supremacy and white privilege are all players in that equation,” Pettiford-Wates said.

The cast and crew of “Whitesplaining” would like the conversations regarding racial injustice to continue even after the show’s closure, Pettiford-Wates said.

“We hope that the play will teach them something that they didn’t know before,” Pettiford-Wates said. “We hope they can take away from the production something that they didn’t know, perhaps something they can share and that they can keep the dialogue going.”

VCUarts alum Emily Ellen is the production stage manager for “Whitesplaining.” Ellen said being there for the actors is important.

“I kind of also act as a people manager,” Ellen said. “I make sure that everyone is doing okay in exploring this difficult piece of work, which can often be triggering for people.”

The piece centers around whiteness and the idea of asking white people to acknowledge their whiteness in a way that some will avoid, according to Ellen.

“It’s about acknowledging and expanding on the fact that white people often lead lives that have nothing to do with their race,” Ellen said. “People of color don’t necessarily have that option, and I just think that it’s something that can be really impactful in understanding people’s experiences.”

VCU junior Nesziah Dennis is a part of the ensemble in “Whitesplaining.” This will be his first show in VCU’s theater department, Dennis said. 

“‘Whitesplaining’ is a collaborative piece that simplifies the issues within America and its history,” Dennis said. “It forces the viewer to walk away looking for a solution rather than walk away feeling like they’re watching alone was just the solution.” 

The “Whitesplaining” cast and crew support each other and support the idea that “we are all human,” Dennis said. 

“It’s not a blame game,” Dennis said. “If everybody could just take away accountability and not blame, I think the steps that need to be taken after this show will be taken correctly.” 

“Whitesplaining” will premiere off-campus in The Basement on 300 E. Broad St. from Sept. 15 to 24. Get your tickets here.

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