Written by Samantha Mueller, Literary & Public Programs Intern
Yesterday evening following the Sunday matinee performance of Sucker Punch, Victory Gardens was fortunate enough to create a space to discuss the intersection of race and sports. We were fortunate enough to be joined by Dr. Tanya Prewitt-White, a sports psychologist and professor at Adler University, and Shannon Ryan, a sports reporter at the Chicago Tribune.
Isaac Gomez, the moderator for the evening and also the Victory Gardens Literary Manager, began the discussion the way he begins most post-show discussions.
Say you receive a phone call from a friend on the way out of the theater and the friend asks you what Sucker Punch was about. In a few words, what do you say?
The audience – including our panelists who joined us for the performance – quickly found themselves on the same page about the themes of the play.
Fighting. Family. Competition. Race.
It’s a common answer in these post-show discussions, one with which Roy Williams, the playwright, would agree. Sucker Punch is set against the 1980’s Brixton Riots in London, a time when racial tensions were high and racial inequity was not only socially accepted, but legislatively enforced. That answer also brought us to the main focus of our talk.
Our panelists spoke about the research they have been involved in or written about on the topic. Ryan explained a study carried out by Ithaca College’s James Rada*, in which he found NFL sportscasters to speak about physical qualities in black athletes, but tended to speak of intellect in white athletes. In Rada’s follow up study in 2005, he found that comments of intellect in black athletes were negative comments. “Again, these are real scientific studies,” Ryan said.
Prewitt-White spoke to this sentiment as well. “Minority athletes – they’re having to prove their intelligence,” she said, speaking also to her own personal experience while counseling athletes of color.
At that point in the conversation, only a few minutes in, was there a question from the audience. “I’m not sure why we have to talk about these athletes in terms of race,” the patron began. He continued on to wonder why we couldn’t treat people as individuals in these cases. “I feel like the way we began this post-show is not fair. The fact that this conversation was focused solely on black athletes was, in my opinion, racist.”
In that moment, the ability to use a play as a catalyst to talk about the world we live in, was exemplified. What started as a panel discussion became a true conversation among our rather diverse talk-back attendees, ranging in age and race.
A second audience member pointed out several moments in the play that displayed overt racism. We were reminded again of the race-based legislature during the Margaret Thatcher era that provides the backdrop for the play. “It’s not about water fountains anymore, it’s about systems.”
Another audience member touched upon the media’s response to America’s black president. “When we have a white president, that’s just normal. He’s just called the president. Yes, we have a black president, but we are reminded of that every day.”
Between the original two audience members to speak:
“Maybe I just don’t see it, but I am trying to learn”
“I know you are, and I’m going to try to explain it to you.”
Our panelists gave us more insight into the systems at play. “For anyone interested in learning more about this topic, I would recommend Forty Million Dollar Slaves, a book by William Rhoden,” Prewitt-White said. The book breaks down the framework that black athletes find themselves fighting against.
Ryan brought her own research into the conversation. She spoke to the declining number of African-American coaches, even the number of African-American assistant coaches that are denied the ability to move up in the ranks, with teams hiring new head coaches instead of promoting. She commented on the methodology used by teams when decisions like this are made: “they say [the black assistant coaches] are really good at recruiting, they’re incredible at their jobs, but they might not have field experience” thus becoming a new kind of racism.
Isaac Gomez referenced Viola Davis’s 2015 Emmy Speech. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” The dangerous thing about the lack of opportunity is that depending on your place in society, you may not even notice the inequity.
For Prewitt-White, it is important then to try to look outside of the space you occupy. “If I don’t acknowledge my white privilege, then I am not acknowledging other people’s struggles,” she said. And for the small amount of time we had following the show to discuss this topic, we carved out the space to talk about athletes of color where there usually isn’t the space.
I personally thought back to when director Dexter Bullard joined playwright Roy Williams after a performance for a conversation. Williams made a comment that has resonated with me ever since.
“Do plays have the ability to change the world?
Of course not.
But they can change people.”
Even if that means providing a space for audience members to be exposed to viewpoints different from their own and making it safe to be wrong in conversation. Yesterday, our audience left the theater having not only witnessed but also discussed. They also left with recommendations of books and studies to find. They left armed with the ability to learn and extend the conversation beyond the four walls of the theater.
Right before leaving the space, an audience member who had otherwise been silently listening through the discussion raised his hand. “Can I just say one last thing before we leave?” he asked.
He explained that he is Native American, and with his final two words, he exemplified how mainstream society can accept something deeply racist, how when we hold privilege we may not even notice the systems at play against a minority group.
*For anyone interested, the original Rada study is titled Color Blind-sided: Racial Bias in Network Television’s Coverage of Professional Football Games, the follow up study is titled Color Coded: Racial Descriptors in Television Coverage of Intercollegiate Sports.