Incognito Revisited: A Student’s Perspective

The following review first appeared several weeks ago in The Flyer, the Upper School student newspaper.  Here is the link to the story on Incognito that was previously posted on USNOW.

The one man show by Michael Fosberg titled, Incognito, presented at the school close to a month ago has since then received mixed responses and has raised a lot of controversy within the student body and faculty.

After the hour and a half ended, I made my way back to Emery for advisory lunch and prepared for the inevitable discussion we were going to have. I went through my memory of Michael’s performance and sifted through the mass, through the too-long pauses, past the overplayed stuttering, and the cringe worthy portrayals of the “typical” black man until I finally managed to get down to the focus of the play: to make us aware of the way we perceive race, stereotypes, and overall identity. But the way in which he did this was where the controversy set in.

It started when Fosberg was on the phone with his father. After a short while, his father revealed a secret that his mother had kept all his life; that he was black.

Now, his first reaction to this news was expected. He was shocked into silence. His perception of himself that he had been raised as Armenian (or white as he referred to in his play) was distorted as he took in this new information: ethnicity, identity or whatever you want to call it. But after that initial silence, there was a small break in the logic of the show where African music played, he brought out a small, dark wooden statue, and raised his arms up high. His way of embracing his new self. This scene was mostly intended for humor and because of that reason, I let it slide.

However, as the play went on, his acceptance and embracement turned into something deeper and stickier. He was searching for something to latch onto, to make him believe that he was black because, in this part of the play, his doubts surfaced. “Am I black? Am I white?” He asked himself on the stage, his face skewed with indecision.

Since he didn’t go through the same struggles as he presumed all african americans went through while growing up, was he truly black? At that time, America was full of more bigotry and racism than it is now, but did Fosberg have to go through all the disrespect, racism and hatred that most African-Americans went through?

My answer is no. Mostly because he was asking the wrong question. The right one is: if he had gone that long without knowing or understanding any of the culture that came with being black, was he?

And to that, the answer is no.

Let’s go through a scenario. If you grew up knowing yourself as black, then woke up one day and found out you were part Jewish, could you call yourself Jewish?

It is completely acceptable to want to know more about that Jewish side of yourself, to embrace all the culture and myths and ideas that surround that identity. But to take your black past, act like that never existed, and suddenly declare yourself Jewish… well that’s just obtuse.

Knowing a culture takes time. It takes space, a childhood to grow around, a lifetime to understand. It is not something that can be established or represented by one tiny, dark wooden statue that you place on a stool on the side of the theatre. It is not something that can be dumped on you, a bucket of cold water that awakens the part of yourself you somehow knew was missing all along. It is not something that can be thrown onto you like some thin piece of clothing. It is too thick and scratchy, and will most likely not fit around your head.

Culture is something that is too big and vast to be stitched into you lazily. It has to be woven, delicately, over time. You have to experience every little thread that moves in and out of you. And with Fosberg, he simply didn’t have enough experience.

Although Fosberg’s actions after discovering his culture were a bit slanted, I do appreciate the challenge he went through trying to find his “true” identity. However, whatever your true identity means, it is clear that it will house more than one aspect of your life. Fosberg did mention during the question and answer period that his identity has accommodated his updated life (he was recently married), but most of that message was lost during the actual play.

An identity cannot only be categorized under culture, race, gender, sexuality, or anything else. It is everchanging and can encompass a variety of characteristics of oneself, and that fluid aspect of identity wasn’t portrayed in the play. Rather, it was between one or the other. Black or white. And not until the very end was there room for gray in between.