Chuk Obasi is an actor, writer, director and choreographer who has written or co-written over 15 theatrical works, including plays, musicals, screen plays, and operas. He is currently the Artistic Director at TÉA Productions, a Company Member with The Private Theatre, a Company Member with the People’s Theatre Project, and Choreographer for STAR Theatre (Serving Teens through Arts and Research) at the Director’s Company. A New York native, born in Queens and raised in the Bronx, Obasi currently resides in Manhattan with his family.
I sat down today feeling compelled to write, but not knowing where to start. Because it’s overwhelming, you know? It’s a bit ironic to me when I have so much to say, but find my fingers just hovering over the keyboard when it’s time to speak. This happens often, but today I told myself that I must write, even if I don’t know where this will go. Or who will read it. “Do the job first. Worry about the clearance later.” Sargent Shriver said that. So I took a deep breath, and said to myself, “here we go.” Then I sat back and thought about how often I say that phrase. I mean, in regard to this overwhelming monster.
There was that time yesterday when the police officer walked toward the car I was in with my family, gesturing for me to roll down the window, and I took a deep breath and thought, “here we go.”
And there was that time two months ago when I was rehearsing for my upcoming zoom performance, and the lighting in my kitchen just wasn’t hitting right for the production team. After making several lighting and spacing adjustments to provide the best possible screen visual, and asking “how’s this?” for maybe the tenth time, the Artistic Director bluntly blurted out, “I can’t see you, you’re Black.” I looked my all-White team square in their zoom-rectangled faces, and my mouth went something like, “I don’t know what to tell you,” but my mind went exactly like, “here we go.”
Oh, and there was that afternoon, maybe three years ago, when I ordered a sandwich, and the friendly restaurant worker began preparing my order. In the middle of his preparation, a White family entered the store. He immediately put down my sandwich, briskly made his way to the family, and asked, “How may I help you?” And then he went to work on their orders, as I stood and waited. And I thought to myself, “here we go.” And as he realized what he did and looked over to me with an embarrassed expression and mouthed the words, “I’m sorry,” but continued helping the family, I took another deep breath, and again thought, “here we go.”
And then there was that time, maybe five years ago, at a barbecue where I was talking to two friends, both White men, about race, and the older gent turned to me and asked, “honestly, do you experience racism on a daily basis?” Waiting for a fast, one-word answer from me so that he could finish his point without missing a beat. I gave him exactly that - “Yeah.” And so he pivoted, “I mean, like overt racism.”
Here we go.
It turned out the police officer approached my family because he noticed my kids in the back seat. He gave them each a gift certificate for free ice cream at the local ice cream shop. I wish to God I could have simply seen a police officer approaching. But instead I felt the knee pressed in my back and the gun pressed against my temple when I was twelve. And I heard the sarcastic voice that said “So if I call the principal of this school he’ll tell me you’re actually a student there?” when I was fifteen. And I winced at the flashlight in my eyes as I was suddenly approached and ordered to “get against the wall,” walking home when I was sixteen.
I might have told these incidents to the older gent. And he might have wondered aloud, “were they racist, or just assholes?”
The sandwich shop clerk might have attributed those incidents to the overwhelming monster. A young Black man himself, and one self-aware enough to have felt embarrassment, I wonder if he knows the monster in ways that I do. At the same time, I wonder what made him continue to serve the White family before me, even as he realized his transgression. What kept him from doing what I believe he knew would have been the right thing? Whatever it was, it must have been overwhelming.
What kept me from telling the Artistic Director, in front of her zoom-rectangled colleagues, why her blunt statement wasn’t okay to say to me? Was it my job, at that moment, to tell her? If so, what was I worried about? Is worry an excuse? “Do the job first. Worry about the clearance later.” Or maybe it’s not about being worried. Maybe it’s just that it’s best to rock the boat when you’re not sea sick. Even better when you’re not alone. I’ve been sick. But I’m breathing - and grateful for that. But what about us? Us who look at the boat, see it for what it is, and ask, why is it still afloat? Us who have been exhausted? Us who are awake, awakened, and woke? Us who, in our own ways, are ready to dismantle centuries-old American systems rooted in racism, insidious and overt. Are we breathing together? Are we ready to rock?
Maybe. I don’t feel like I’m alone. At times I did, but today I don’t feel like non-White America is alone. However, if we are now breathing together, we actually should be taking deep breaths. What do I mean by that? In the wake of major transgressions exposed to a wider sea of witnesses, 2020 has become a year of tangible changes. New laws. Toppled statues. Name changes. Rocking the boat that the monstrosity that is law enforcement and criminal justice in its current form lives on. Big change. Small change. But it’s all just the tip of the iceberg, and so I hope others, especially my White communities, will look at this, and channel their inner reactions, and breathe deeply. As if you are preparing yourselves to do something extraordinary. When it starts to feel overwhelming like it does for me, we are hitting a stride and we are in it together. “Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate.” Malcolm X said that. That said, here we go.