‘Passing’ returns to Charles H. Wright Museum
Adds new panel discussion on biracial relations in America, stars new actress
By Steve Furay
Special to the Michigan Citizen
The play “Passing” — a one woman performance about the story of Minerva Roulhac and her journey as a light skinned Black woman who could “pass” for white — made its return to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History Feb. 1. Detroit playwright Dara Harper, who is the great-granddaughter of Minerva, was present to introduce the play and contribute to a panel discussion after the play about race and society.
Following the play, which touched on the sensitive issue of skin color gradations among African Americans and those who can gain favor in society because they have lighter complexions, the audience engaged in a dialogue on race relations and bi-racial dynamics in society. Personal experiences were exchanged, and the extent to which skin color still plays a role in society was discussed.
Dorothy Pirtle, a non-profit public relations consultant who recently relocated to Detroit from Los Angeles, was present. She shared her unique bi-racial experience and how it shaped her family and career. Pirtle was born to a Korean mother and African American father, who has a light skin complexion.
She referred to the “one drop” rule in American segregationist society, where “one drop” of African American blood led to one being considered Black by law and subject to the institutionalized racism within this country.
“I don’t think about it in terms of the one drop rule; I think about it in terms of the relationships that I have with people,” said Pirtle. “I think that the play explains the relationship (Minerva and her mother) have with one another and also explains the (Black) identity she chooses to be because she actively has a choice.”
Pirtle self-identitfies as African American and listed a number of ethnicities for which she could “pass:” Latina, Asian — “anything but Black.”
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘why do you want to be Black so badly?’” she said. “I told them because they are the ones who raised me and I love those people, and I won’t leave them for anything.”
Harper explained audiences should be aware of heritages hidden within people’s ancestry that can lead to an opening of dialogue for stronger racial relations. “Being in this country, it’s a weird tapestry that makes us all up,” said Harper. “They call America a melting pot and when you look behind the history, even finding out about Minerva, there aren’t that many people that can truly say ‘I’m 100 percent this.’ And even if you might think you’re one of those people, there might be a surprise great-grandparent in the family tree who could change that trajectory.”
Actress Holly Smovokitz, a white woman of Sicilian, Polish and Irish heritage, boldly played the role of Minerva despite not being identified as African American, as her character was. After the performance, she reflected on the impact playing the role of Minerva had in her life. “It’s been a very spiritual journey for me,” said Smovokitz. “I think Minerva has a lot to teach us today, even as we sit here and talk about it. I feel very grateful to be a part of it and spur these types of conversations among all of us.”
“Passing” performances will take place at the Charles. H. Wright Museum Feb. 8-9 and Feb.15-16 at 3 p.m. Advance tickets are $5 for museum members and $10 for non-members. For more information, visit www.PassingOnStage.com.