Approaching Race in The Adding Machine
Written by Bear Bellinger
Art by Alexis Zambrano
April 25, 2016
Our production was probably miscast from the start. The Adding Machine, as it exists in our musical form, is a surrealistic expression of Mr. Zero’s journey that, loosely, takes place in the 1920s. The production was cast with an eye towards inclusivity and color-blindness with two Black men, one Black woman, and a Latino man participating in a show that lives in the mind of a racist White man. Along with three White women and another White man, we become the boss who fires him, the friends who ignore him, and the machinations of his destruction. We are a Benetton ad set in a polarized time.
That show, as I have described above, is possible. It could be compelling and beautiful while examining the role of race in America’s past and present. The problem is that The Adding Machine, as written, was, seemingly, not thought of with these issues in mind. It’s inhabitants hurl epithets around the stage in a stylized musical sequence that is an apparent send-up of American White nationalism in an age of discrimination. But, when you add minority bodies to that mix, the message becomes muddled.
None of this is an indictment of the actors on our stage. I could not have asked for a more talented, enthusiastic, and collaborative group to have the honor of taking the stage with every night. Everyone on that stage deserves their spot and more and has poured themselves into this production. The issue is how do we address this racism in an era of inclusivity?
Before I even auditioned, I asked the director about the racism in the show and how it would be approached. He responded with an enthusiastic desire to tackle race as presented in the script. I accepted his explanations with measured skepticism – I am, truthfully, jaded by years of experiencing people talking inclusivity, while not doing the real work of examining race.
Come a few weeks before rehearsals start, I am surprised by two emails. The first one is addressed to the cast, welcoming us; I’m immediately struck by the diversity. The second is a personal e-mail from our director asking to have a meeting on race in the piece: Wait, is he actually following through?
We meet, and one of the first things he does is apologize for asking me to be the voice on minorities and race. Maybe he does get it . I respond that, being so outspoken on race issues, I’ve come to expect and embrace it: anything I can do to help promote better understanding of marginalized voices. He then asks the exact same question that popped into my head upon reception of the cast list: How do we approach this racist world with a multi-racial cast? It’s not inherent in the script so, what do we do? We speak for three hours, weaving in and out of the topic of race in the show, the current state of the world, and politics at large. I leave encouraged.
First rehearsal – The director gives a speech about how the overt racism in the piece, while being a function of the time period, is a reminder of Mr. Zero’s dysfunction in the world and another manifestation of his ugliness. We’re told we will lean-into the racism while honoring our relationships to race as the actors playing the parts, the characters within the story, and as an audience viewing the racism.
Four weeks into rehearsal – We are tackling the most difficult sequence, racially: A list of slurs spoke-sung by the ensemble while in lock-step. I’m sitting on the side of the room, uninvolved in the sequence. The director walks over and asks what I think, given our earlier conversations and his stated intentions. I give feedback, we discuss, and he immediately starts working to address the more problematic aspects of the scene’s possible impact.
Tech – We’ve had a few audiences, and are working on that same sequence in a post-show rehearsal. If you’ve never been in a technical rehearsal, time is incredibly limited. You triage which issues are the most glaring. The director stops running the sequence to hold a 30 minute discussion about everyone involved in the scene’s opinion on what they’re being asked to do personally, creatively, and technically. In doing so, he, whether conscious of the impact or not, acknowledged that conversations about race are just as important as every other aspect of a show.
We’ve opened now. There are no more rehearsals. Reviews have poured in and they have been glowing. The show is a critical success. But, where did we land racially? Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve had friends of color ask me about it. I don’t think it’s perfect. I’m not even sure that it’s good. I don’t know that there was a way to achieve the sweet spot we desired given the racial make up of the cast.
What I do know is that I can, confidently, respond that it was addressed. I can say that it was a true collaboration and that the multitude of our experiences and perspectives were valued throughout the process. While I have to limit details about the depth of our conversations here for brevity, I can tell those who ask that, while we may not have gotten to the perfect choice, the conversations were valuable, respectful, and consistently held – This is not something I can say, with conviction, about many processes I have been a part of.
I’m not sure there is a “right” perspective on race on stage. What I am sure of is that, in a medium where our bodies are our instruments, candid, honest, and open conversation about what is being perceived is a huge step towards true diversity and inclusion. Start by asking questions and truly listening to the answers as equals. Theater is a community; we succeed, most, when we remember that.
Bear Bellinger is an actor, writer, singer, bartender, activist, and all-around trouble maker based in Chicago.
He has been seen on stage with The Hypocrites, Court Theatre, Paramount Theatre, The Inconvenience, and Chicago Children’s Theatre among many others. And, his words have graced such prestigious spaces as Vox First Person, The RedEye, and his Facebook page. If you would like to follow more of what he has to say, you can follow him on Facebook under his name or on twitter: @lifeofablacktor.