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?”
Boutté has worked on his play on and off in recent years; not an easy task given his teaching schedule and his busy stage and screen acting career. His most recent directorial project was the School of Theatre and Dance’s production of the musical Cabaret, and his work on the upcoming Beebo Brinker Comes to Town.
In tandem with writing, Boutté is also considering the intricacies of casting. He envisions his play being performed by professional actors, likely in New York City. “I think the play needs to be performed by a company of actors of indeterminate race. Characters who are white may end up being played by non-white actors, so the whole question of identity – which is a huge theme in the play – would also be portrayed through the choices made in casting.”
Boutté is planning to take a break from acting and directing this summer in order to devote time to completing a draft of the play.