‘God Kinda Looks Like Tupac’ blows open the conversation about race
ANN ARBOR, MI–Talking about race in the workplace, or even amongst friends and acquaintances at a backyard barbecue, is a mine field. Playwright Emilio Rodriguez has written a play, God Kinda Looks Like Tupac, that substantially captures the tension, friction and cultural disconnect that courses through just about every community and organization about race no matter how woke people think they are.
Presented at Theatre Nova through August 21, God Kinda Looks Like Tupac, is set in an all-black high school. Art teacher Garrett (Nate Brassfield) is white and a bit muddled about what the right swim lanes and lane markers are for talking to his students and teaching them. Karin (Maria Ochoa), a Cuban-American teacher, seems to intuit what they are, but does talk to Garrett with her politically-correct antenna lowered.
The surface story centers on Garrett and his need to solidify his staff position by contending for a “Teacher of the Year” award. His classroom wall is empty of any such awards, and people are starting to notice. His plan to at least vie for an accolade hinge on his best student, Corrine (MJ Handsome) who he directs to create a painting that connects with Black History Month for an upcoming Arts Symposium at the school.
When this process gets going, Rodriguez’s deft depictions of Garrett and Carin flowers dancing around their responsibilities as PC teachers. Corrine paints an optimistic image of Detroit with a Godly image of Tupac Shakur looking down on MoTown. I’ll leave it there to avoid spoilers. But what unfolds is a totally believable process by which Garrett is afraid the deification of Tupac will put off the symposium judges despite his hero-status in the black community and beyond to anyone who appreciates his hip-hop artistry.
While the character of Karin does not have a lot to do in the story other than being the friend to Garrett who counsels him and tries to show him her roadmap for surviving the mine field, Rodriguez also lifts the sheet a bit on the difficulty in navigating diversity within the Latin-American world. Karin asserts more than once that she is “Cuban,” as opposed to being “Spanish” or “Latina.” Cubans are famously independent, and nationalist minded among Latin American cultures.
Referring to the current state of race relations in American culture as a “minefield” is in no way intended to diminish the elevated place that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) now holds in every organization not identified with right-wing politics. But as this play points out accurately, an entire industry of being “offended”–no matter who you are or what color, gender or ethnicity one is– has exploded in the last five to ten years. Several exchanges between Karin and Garrett, and then between Garrett and Corrine, are punctuated with “That’s racist!” One of Rodriguez’s strengths as a playwright, which we have seen in his other works, is to create dialogue that sounds genuine. Dealing with a topic as radio-active as race in a school setting could lend itself to conversations that sound more like excerpts from a LinkedIn article on DEI, but Rodriguez avoids hitting you on the head with stereotypes or stilted lesson-language. Instead, he exposes the pain and frustrations of people who are trying their best, who care about people of color as much as those from their own racial community, and who have life realities that are not always consistent with what they think is right. There is just as much tension between people of color and white self-described “allies” as there is between people of color and haters. There is plenty of nuance in the efforts to legitimately balance the scales.
The question of using Tupac as a God-like figure actually exposes one of the least talked about issues in race relations today–the fact that white people can never authentically see the black experience even through the wokest of lenses, and a vast number of white people have difficulty connecting with stories that are black-community focused with black characters. In hip-hop music, whites who are not fans have tended to define the genre only by the misogynistic lyrics most often singled out by largely white media as an indictment of all hip-hop. Disconnections impede making connections. That’s a truth.
Directed by Vincent Ford Jr., casting of the show is very successful. Mr. Brassfield inhabits Garrett as a well-intended teacher who is not clueless, but does need some patience and longs to talk about the issues of friction he encounters on a daily basis. When he asks, “How is that racist?” He means it. He wants to know. Ms. Ochoa, whose Karin has romantic inclinations for Garrett, comes across well as a bureaucratic survivor who seems to have more answers than questions. And Ms. Handsome as Corinne, delivers on Rodriguez’s characterization of her as just a kid trying to do her best for herself and her parents expectations, but with a spine of hickory that turns to steel to stand up for herself and her art when she feels the heavy hand of white authority on her shoulders and in her head.
The set, designed by Forrest Hejkal, is pretty accurate for a high-school art teacher operating in a poor school district, with a few nods to the theme, like a box labeled “colored pencils.” Sound design is by Kennikki Jones. Lighting and props by Briana O’Neal. Asst. Director/Dramaturg is Reilly Conlon.
That there is friction between races in America is not news. But especially since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, organizations have been overhauling their culture and communications regarding race and DEI at breakneck pace. Hardly a few weeks go by in many organiations these days without a forum or human-resources directed DEI training session.
There are lots of good people trying to make change that is positive for society. But it can be hard. The rules of engagement are fuzzy and highly subjective. One person with a healthy social media following can set the rules that aren’t written down anywhere. Too many people have a hair trigger for being offended and make conclusions based only on what they have heard or seen charged in social media. There are un-useful whisper campaigns against people. False narratives about people created on social media or in the halls of companies are commonplace–Rodriguez also gives a nod to the caustic bomb-throwers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram who get off on advancing false narratives to appear woke and on the right side of their own crowd.
Is there a message in God Kinda Looks Like Tupac? If there is one, it’s probably that the more we talk openly without fear of being cancelled on social media over issues of accused racism, the better off we are all going to be. Listening is always a good place to start. And part of listening should include seeing this play. Get your tickets before they are gone.