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A Reality of Being a Black Playwright; The Discrimination I Faced After Winning an Award

Equity in the Arts
Donja R. Love sits on the edge of a fountain, looking into the camera, unsmiling, and holding his phone in his hands.
Photo by Brandon Nick

I’ve been writing plays for almost ten years.

I started writing when I found out I was HIV+. It was a way for me to navigate through my status. The more I wrote the more I realized I was practicing self-care. Playwriting saved my life. I understand its power and purpose; and that is why I take it so seriously and give myself to it.

In January, my work as a writer culminated in me winning a very prestigious playwriting award. It’s an award that comes with a $150,000 financial backing. The Foundation gives a theater company $100,000 towards a production of my play, and they give me $50,000. An amount they said they decided on because they believed “that’s what a playwright could live off for an entire year and solely write plays.”

If I can be honest, I’m still processing winning this award – especially since I didn’t even know I was nominated until the Foundation called to tell me I won. I felt proud. It felt like my Blackness, my Queerness, and my HIV+ status got me to this point. All the things the world tried to shame me for, and offer me violence because of, were bringing me joy and affirmation.

So, when my check came from winning this award I cried. I wept from such a deep down place of praise. Seeing that check made my achievement real. Now, I could finally stop planning what to do with the money and start doing it.

After crying on the phone with my husband and mom, I threw on some sweats, and skipped my happy-go-lucky ass to the bank to deposit my check.

When I got there I filled out a deposit slip and went to a teller. As she started depositing the check, she asked if I wanted to speak to a financial strategist to figure out what to do with my money. Through all my excitement and envisioning me living my life as close to Beyoncé as I could, I told her that I did.

This is when things took a nasty turn.

The assistant manager told me she would ‘help’ me. When we got to her desk, holding my ID, she asked, “Do you live here? Your ID has a Pennsylvania address.” I told her that it’s my parent’s address; that I moved from there to New York five years ago and learned that housing in NY can be sporadic, so it's best to hold onto an address that's constant; all things I felt like I shouldn’t have had to tell her, but I could tell that I needed to.

I told her that the address on my ID is also the address linked to my bank account. I told her that I live not too far from the bank. Doing the most, she asked for a utility bill. Since I live in a basement apartment of a residential home, where utilities are included, I don't have utility bills to pay. But, with living in a residential neighborhood, a very nice one at that, I always carry my lease with me – because… being Black in America trains you to move through certain spaces in certain ways, in order to survive. So I showed her my lease. She looked at it and said, “This is old.” (I left my updated one on my printer, but why should that matter – right?)

After looking at the lease, then the check, then me, she says, “Mr. Love, I can’t deposit this check. It’s clearly fake.”

I immediately gagged. Severely. Through my shock, I say, “But it’s not. Why do you think that?”

She points to the signature on the check, a printed and not written one, and says, “That’s why. And because this is a personal check, not business.”

Still in shock, I begin to tell her that I’m a playwright. I share some of my story about how long I’ve been writing, about how playwrights make a living and sustain themselves financially, I tell her about the Foundation. And how I was chosen as the recipient of the award.

It felt like what I was saying to her went in one ear and out the other because she said, “This sounds like a scam. Why would anyone just give someone this amount of money?”

There was a level of unprecedented anger that came over me, but it was immediately cut by hurt. It was as if my achievement was being invalidated, it was as if all the work I’d done up until that point didn’t matter.

But I knew it did. So I pulled up the article on announcing me winning the award. And as I showed her my phone, that beamed with my face, the name of the Foundation giving me the award, and the amount they were giving me – as I showed her this accomplishment, I couldn’t help but feel low. I could tell she was thinking, ‘None of this matters. He’s lying about this fake check and foundation.’

I entered that bank feeling so high, but I left feeling so low.

On my way home I started thinking of all the things I should have done – like, instead of wearing sweats I should have worn a suit. But I know damn well that that wouldn’t have made a difference because respectability politics get you nowhere but delusional and still oppressed. While in my lowness, I got encouragement from my husband and the theater that nominated me. I also started to remember who I was and who I am. And I said to myself, ‘That lady tried it! And she’s about to find out that she tried the wrong one.’

As soon as I got home, I emailed every PNC email I could think of a detailed report of the incident. I even cc’ed her, since I snatched her card on the way out. I wrote about my incident on all my social media platforms. PNC read my tweet and asked to contact me the following day.

First thing that morning, I contacted customer services to see what’s protocol when someone is depositing a large check. As I figured, with the exception of not contacting the Foundation or the bank that the check is drawn from, she followed protocol. But it was her cold demeanor and harsh assumptions that frankly pissed me off and hurt. I was so hurt that I even talked with an Executive at Corporate; I talked to them about procedures and how they should go about handling this situation. Making sure that structures are held accountable, not just individuals.

The discrimination I faced is all too common. Big banks routinely discriminate against Black folx. It has to stop. And honestly, I’m not interested in ‘sensitivity trainings.’ The very idea of having to train someone to be sensitive and kind and compassionate is absurd to me. Holding space to unpack and eradicate toxic pathologies is the side I fall on.

Reflecting on the entire situation, here’s the kicker, here’s what I contemplated sharing… the person who I dealt with was Black. That’s why it hurt so much. Racism is so embedded into the DNA of everyday American life that, at times, it becomes internalized by those who it oppresses. In ‘What is Internalized Racism?’ Donna K. Bivens says, “Individuals, institutions and communities of color are often unconsciously and habitually rewarded for supporting white privilege and power and punished and excluded when we do not.”

I chose not to stay under that bank’s oppression and constantly be triggered, when doing something as ‘simple’ as using the ATM, so I left and started an account with another one. It was a relief to deal with a wonderful Afro-Latina woman, who kindly helped and directed me to an amazing brotha who talked me through strategies on saving and investing my money. Both of them made me feel proud – and like the people who reached out to me after the incident, they reminded me not to conflate my racial experience with an award I worked so hard to achieve.

And I’m not. This experience left me with two things:

  1. Purpose. I am committed, more than ever, to telling my stories. I am also committed to holding theaters/‘gatekeepers’ accountable in programming seasons that are more Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Queer, Trans, Gender non-conforming, Women, and Disabled Bodied centered. I wildly believe that if art, across the board, was reflective of more than white, straight, male, cisgender stories, then what happened to me may not have happened at all.
  2. Pride. I was reminded of the beauty in writing about Blackness and being Black. With all the traumas we go through, big and small, we still persevere and land on joy!

This purpose and pride got me ready to write. Happy Black History Month, y’all!