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‘Black Like Me’ Explores Race And Allyship In Staged Reading At The Rep

Playwright Monty Cole worked through some parts of "Black Like Me" during workshops at the California Institute of the Arts, including how to avoid blackface for the actor playing John Griffin Howard (center left).
Hao Feng
Playwright Monty Cole worked through some parts of "Black Like Me" during workshops at the California Institute of the Arts, including how to avoid blackface for the actor playing John Howard Griffin (center left).

Journalist John Howard Griffin went undercover for six weeks in 1959 — posing as a Black man in the Deep South. Assisted by a physician, Griffin temporarily darkened his skin, to the point friends no longer recognized him and strangers assumed he was Black. He chronicled his experiences in a journal, published two years later to considerable acclaim as “Black Like Me.”

But the book has fallen out of favor. Some modern readers have called it patronizing, others tone-deaf. Smithsonian Magazine reported that Griffin himself later “curtailed” his speaking engagements on the book, saying it was “absurd for a white man to presume to speak for Black people when they have superlative voices of their own.”

Chicago-based artist Monty Cole has one of those voices. He found himself drawn to Griffin’s material in complicated ways. As he explained it on St. Louis on the Air, he first came across a movie poster for the 1964 film adaptation. The tagline: “I changed the color of my skin. Now I know what it feels like to be Black.”

“That in itself just kind of blew me away,” he said. “I was immediately intrigued.”

Upon reading the book, Cole found himself grappling with conflicting emotions.

“I had an experience reading it where I was both deeply intrigued into this almost Twilight Zone story of what was happening to John Howard Griffin, but also pushing off from it, too,” he explained. “Like, ‘I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think that’s what it’s like to be a Black man.’ Or, ‘That is what it’s like to be a Black man, but how does John know that?’ Just being sucked in and pushed away. And I wanted to make a play that’s a theatrical version of that reading experience.”

Cole’s new play, also titled “Black Like Me,” grapples with Griffin’s book by featuring modern-day Black characters. He knew he had to avoid blackface (the idea of having an actor wear it in 2020, he said, is “terrifying”). Instead, the white actor playing Griffin is joined by various Black actors who embody him in his disguise.

“In the play, he goes to put some of the makeup on his face, and the [other] actors just shut it down — ‘No, we’re not doing that, we’re not doing that in this production!’” Cole said. “[The actor portraying Griffin] is speaking his own dialogue, but any of the narration is spoken by a Black author offstage. … You’re never really forgetting it’s a white actor playing John. But you are hearing the narration in a new light because you’re hearing it from Black voices instead.”

Cole has called it “both an adaptation and a commentary on the book,” adding, “If the original book was an Idiot’s Guide to Being a Good Ally in 1961, the play is an Idiot’s Guide to Being a Good Ally in 2020.”

The play will be featured in a staged reading at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis on Sept. 10. The one-night-only online reading is free, but tickets are limited, and registration is required.

Along with Becks Redman, the Repertory Theatre’s producer of new play development, Cole explained why he chose the Rep for the staged reading.

The play was originally supposed to debut at the Ignition Festival of New Plays at Victory Gardens in Chicago, where Cole previously worked as the artistic programs manager before he turned to writing and directing. But Cole pulled the play from the festival over concerns about the actions of leaders there.

“I started to realize as the play was a bridge to understanding, and showing what allyship looked like, they were trying to use ‘Black Like Me’ as a bridge to understanding without actually doing the work beforehand,” he said.

Upon pulling the play from the festival, he said he immediately reached out to the Rep’s artistic director, Hana Sharif, with a 3 a.m. email to gauge her interest.

“Hana Sharif is such an amazing leader in the national American theater conversation right now that I just trusted them more than anyone else in the country to lead the conversation,” he said.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.