by playwright Camille Washington
One of the most pleasurable aspects of playwriting, or creative writing in general, is how characters reveal themselves. Sometimes they are fully formed before I begin drafting. Other times, I don’t get to know them completely until later in the process. In the case of my new play opening at Plan-B Theatre, Oda Might, all three characters were clear from the beginning.
In their world, the Patient says she hears spirits. So, Oda Might requires a suspension of disbelief by the audience. More than that, establishing the credibility of the characters within that world is hugely important.
In order to write the Patient, I had to accept her as a criminal. A spiritual medium and mediocre grifter for whom godliness and worldliness overlap in everything she says and does. In order to write the Doctor, I had to accept her as a psychiatrist. A well-intentioned professional, perpetually tardy and determined to help the Patient.
The vast majority of the action occurs between two strong personalities: the Patient, and the Doctor. There is also an orderly, who plays a smaller but critical role in the events that unfold. Early in the show, as the Doctor, who’s a psychiatrist, and the patient, an alleged murderer, meet for a session, the Doctor reveals that she lives in a brownstone with the love of her life. A woman.
She opens up in an effort to maintain the Patient’s trust, but her queerness is not an earth-shattering revelation in the context of the play. It is simply a fact of life for the Doctor. A fact that is also integral to her motivations throughout the story, which is set at a New York mental hospital in the mid-1990s. Both the Doctor and the Patient are African American. The orderly is Latinx.
I am well aware of the misperception that African Americans are more homophobic than other racial/ethnic groups, even though Black Christians are more supportive of LGBTQ+ people and rights than their white counterparts. Reflecting on the complexities and diversity found within black America life is important to me. Some of us are queer, and our visibility matters.
In my research for this play, I found that it was, and is, far more rare to encounter a black mental health professional than a black queer person. According to the American Psychiatric Association, .04% of practicing psychiatrists in 1999 were African American. Compare that to the roughly 3-5% of the American population who identify as LGBTQ+.
The 1990s saw an increase in new black gay and lesbian organizations and activism in groups like ACT UP. It was concentrated in major metropolitan areas, and often in response to the sociopolitical climate of the early 90s, which saw a rise in multiculturalism and identity politics. An example is the group Sisters of Something Special, a black lesbian group founded in Brooklyn in 1990. It was easy for me to imagine the Doctor and her partner attending one of those early meetings. They might have walked from their place in Carroll Gardens.
Camille Washington is co-director of Ogden’s Good Company Theatre. Her new play, Oda Might, receives its world premiere at Plan-B Theatre November 7–17. Details and tickets at planbtheatre.org.
Photo: Sharah Meservy