When I Took On a Role Originated for a White Man

Last year, I began playing the role of Sam Simon in the one-man (and two musician) play The Actual Dance, the story of a married couple’s navigation of the wife's breast cancer diagnosis, told through the husband’s perspective. The anxiety and anticipation of potentially losing her is compared to waiting in a ballroom to have “one last dance” with her, to be witnessed by all of the couple’s friends and family. It was an interesting choice to have me take on the character of Sam, because the actual Sam Simon, who originated the role and continues to play it, is different from me in several ways: He’s Jewish, I’m Catholic; he’s at least twice my age; he’s from El Paso, Texas, I’m from The Bronx, New York; he’s white, I’m black.

An inevitable question that came up when I first approached this role was, “Would it feel authentic?”

I’ve wondered how the story would be different had I lived a similar experience with my wife. Of course it would be a different story because I'm a different person. But would it be different in regard to my race?  Would there be differences stemming from “the Black American experience?” What would I need to add to the script, a love story, that has to do with me being black? Reflecting on my own marriage to answer this question, I find that in comparing experiences in Sam's story to similar experiences in mine, my race might well become a significant part of my dramatized “dance.”

If I were writing about my (sort of) first date with my wife, I'd want to mention that we met up at a dance club where I was frequently and at times overtly racially profiled, but went to anyway because I was used to it and still had fun. I'd want to reference a key part of this first date, when a bouncer approached us to make sure I wasn't an unsolicited stranger harassing my future wife, who is white.

Or if I were referencing our families’ initial reactions once we made our relationship “family official.” I wouldn’t need to go deep into that, but I would want to write about the acknowledgement of relatively uncharted territory we were entering with our difference in age, religion, economic standing, and yes, race. These differences weren’t lost on our families, whether they spoke about it out loud or not.

Or if I were writing about my bi-racial kids and my fears concerning the scenario of them growing up without one of their parents. Among my anxieties would be the worry of them losing representation of half of their racial identity in the household. This would be important to my story because my sons are in fact very aware of their physical attributes compared to those around them and are already keen on exploring these differences. There's an awareness of implicit value that society places on skin complexions, particularly noticed by my older son, who is six years old. My wife and I are the key figures in guiding their exploration of how they will ultimately value themselves as fully aware beings.

In my version the music would be different. This wouldn't necessarily pertain to my Blackness, but it might be perceived that way. Jenny and I love all kinds of music, and we don't have “a song” in the way that Sam and Susan’s song is “Unchained Melody.”  But if we did have a song, or if I had to choose one for my script, there's a good chance it would be an R&B song. There's a good chance it would be John Legend — we love him. Yeah, I think we’d dance a slow dance to John Legend in our “ballroom.” Again, this wouldn't speak solely to the Black American experience, but it would just happen to be the music of a black musician rooted in a black-dominated music genre. Nobody in any audience would be surprised by my taste in music.

Does this mean that my portrayal of Sam Simon is inauthentic, because I'm telling his story as he lived it (for the most part)?  Absolutely not, because 1) Nothing in Sam’s story as I tell it is exclusive to the white American experience, and in fact people of all races, cultures and nationalities can identify with Sam, and 2) It is not necessary to identify with every nuance of someone's story. Love, fear, confusion, hope, support and strength are universal dances. Not to mention the fact that cancer affects us all, directly or indirectly. I’m able to channel this when I embody Sam, and I think audiences see that.

I appreciate this experience of human commonality. Sam’s dance is a common journey, and yet I am able to identify the unique nature of what my own version would be, thus allowing me to say that there is such a thing as the Black American experience. Simultaneously, the play reaches my heart in a way that allows me to also say that there is such a thing as the Human experience.

I will play Sam next on April 7 in Montclair, NJ. I invite you to experience his story for yourself.