Support for black artists is important. However, when nonblack people enter these spaces, there needs to be an increased sense of respect and a willingness to learn.
Too often audiences are not prepared for how black culture manifests in performance art. It is loud, it is unconventional, it is impure, it is edgy; it is everything nonblack performance art is and more that many nonblack people are ready to perceive.
When black actors and comedians use African American Vernacular English, it is met with laughter; when black musicians perform well but are not as proficient technically, they are written off as bad musicians.
What is worse than any of this is that it happens regardless of the context. Even if black performers are expressing pain or race related trauma, their powerful testimony is disregarded simply because they said “you is” instead of “you are.”
Audiences laugh at racial slurs and talk during quiet scenes simply because the means of expression used in a given artform are different than those in nonblack traditions.
Black artists have to work twice as hard to get half as far as white artists in any performance space. When black artists take the initiative to create their own spaces in line with their own traditions, they are still mocked.
When attending a performance, it makes sense to be critical: performers mess up, things go wrong, and it makes us feel smart to comment on it and laugh.
However, it is important to understand where it is appropriate. When we watch operas in Italian, we do not judge them on their ability to speak English. When we attend a gallery, we do not judge the artist on their ability to play the drums.
Criticism can be great, but when we see black art, why should we judge it through a white performance art lens?
All art can be enjoyed by everyone, but a sense of respect and a gauge of who we are in relation to the audience is needed.
Just because a performance is not what we are used to does not mean it is not good, and it does not mean mocking it is okay. When having the privilege to observe another culture’s art in action, an audience should be grateful. An audience should be trying their best to observe the norms practiced by others in that space, and certainly should not act in ways they never would otherwise.
Respect should be the standard, even if we are not totally sure what is going on. We owe it to all artists to give them an opportunity to showcase their best, but that is impossible if they are being judged according to a standard they never set out to meet.