Sunday, March 29, 2015

Illinois State University: Boutté play to explore questions of race and identity [Boutté is also an accomplished pianist with a love of classical music]

Duane Boutté

By on March 25, 2015

When Duane Boutté, an assistant professor in the School of Theatre and Dance, read James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the story struck a familiar chord. It also served as further inspiration for Boutté to develop a play based loosely on his own family history.
Johnson was an author, songwriter, professor, lawyer, diplomat and civil rights leader in the early 20th century. The executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1920s, Johnson also composed the lyrics to Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, a song the NAACP promoted as a black national anthem.
The book’s plot revolves around the life of a man struggling with his own racial identity. The un-named main character leads an idyllic childhood in the American south, taking piano lessons and developing a love for the music of Chopin. His world is changed when he learns that his mother is of mixed race, even though she passes for white. He eventually comes to terms with his heritage, but ultimately decides to keep his true identity a secret, even from his children.
Boutté was immediately intrigued. Johnson’s novel explored themes of identity that resonate deeply with him. His family tree, rooted in Louisiana, includes black and white branches. “I have maternal and paternal grandparents of mixed race, but they always identified as black,” he said. “Throughout American history, mixed-race children were more often raised by the black branch and shunned by the white. My great-great-grandfather in Louisiana established his own family cemetery so that both black and white family members could be buried in the same area, but I’ve always been struck by stories about a few mixed-race relatives of ours who simply passed for white.”
Like Johnson’s main character, Boutté is also an accomplished pianist with a love of classical music. “A perceived dichotomy between black American culture and European classical music was always a source of humor in my family,” he said. “My mother was an African American pianist and vocalist with innate classical flair. Some family members jokingly considered that rather “white” of her. By chance, she had given me a book of the same Chopin nocturnes that are mentioned in Johnson’s book. Johnson’s main character explores both classical and ragtime music. I find that a fascinating meeting of cultures.”

Although his play is not an adaptation of Johnson’s novel, Boutté was excited about how the story of the book’s central character paralleled his own personal history and his family’s experience. “The main character played classical piano, like me; that really pulled me in,” he said. “I’d collected information to write about my Louisiana roots but I suddenly saw more. I could imagine myself in a different time. What would I have done if I lived 100 years ago, a few shades lighter than I am but still black?”

Comment by email:
Thank you for posting it, Bill, and for letting me know.  Prof. Boutte [Prof.  Duane Boutté]

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