As a young black man, playwright Nathan James often felt like he had to mask his emotions. The Pittsburgh native returns to the August Wilson Center this week to perform his one man play “Growing Pains.” 90.5 WESA’s Virginia Alvino Young recently spoke with James about his show, which looks at how and where we grow up impacts who we become.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VIRGINIA ALVINO YOUNG: Growing up in Beltzhoover in the 1990s, you experienced a narrative that we tend to see a lot – being surrounded by gang violence, poverty and drug dealing. But then you were shipped across town for your acting classes. What was navigating that divide like for you?
NATHAN JAMES: My parents saw the importance of having me, my brother, and my sister active, and not just hanging around the house and definitely not hanging on the streets.
But when I was in those classes, I was there with middle class kids and rich kids. So I got to see how they lived and how they interacted with each other, which was totally foreign to me, because I was a product of my environment. And so I never felt completely included into that circle.
But then, in my community, I never really completely fit in either. So it gave me this ability to be a part of two different worlds, but to be able to step back and analyze both of them. I learned to reconcile those once I got a little older and once I started to turn that into artistic endeavors.
ALVINO YOUNG: Now you've been away from Pittsburgh for about 10 years. Being an outsider to the city itself, are you able to view your experience as a youth as a microcosm for the “two Pittsburgh's” that we're seeing now: the world of progress and then those that were maybe left behind?
JAMES: It is hard to be here and to see how much progress that Pittsburgh is making. But my people, particularly black people, are still in the same place. We're wondering: who is this city most livable for?
I'm starting to see places and childhood memories torn down and built up. I don't have a problem with sharing the city with people who are moving in, but it's just like saying that we didn't want nice things before. Like, we didn't want more of a police presence, we didn't want organic food stores, we didn't want a nice coffee shop. We wanted those things, too, but we couldn't get those things when we were just black people living in a neighborhood. We can only get those when other cultures come in.
ALVINO YOUNG: Does your one man show “Growing Pains” break down any stereotypes of the African-American experience in Pittsburgh?
JAMES: I think it actually goes underneath those things. I think we can we can attack black manhood and blackness from a surface level way too much, but rarely do we get to pull back the layers. And once you peel back the layers you begin to see some fears, some vulnerabilities, some hurt, some sadness that people really aren't dealing with. And so they put on this mask of hypermasculinity to pretend as though it's not affecting them. But underneath that all you have is fear and vulnerability. Growing up, how do these things affect us? How does not being able to express your feelings, ho not being able to say that you're hurt, not being able to cry? How does that affect you as a boy becoming a man?
ALVINO YOUNG: What do you hope audience members take away from your show?
JAMES: We don't teach our sons that they can cry. We don't teach them that they can be vulnerable, that they can be soft, they can be happy. It's OK to admit that you're depressed, and it's OK to seek help and you don't have to be strong all the time, and that men cry. Men feel vulnerable. Men have fears. Men feel pain and a lot of times we take that pain out on our bodies through drinking and substance abuse, and people don't realize that we're really trying to numb pain. There are other ways to deal with that pain.
So I would like people to leave with more of an understanding of why we are the way we are, instead of always talking about the behavior. What is the cause of the behavior? And I think that it's OK for boys not to really understand what's going on, but to begin to learn to educate themselves, and to learn that it's OK to be into things that people say only white people are into. You're allowed to be yourself. You're allowed to be an individual. You don't have to go with the crowd.
"Growing Pains" runs Dec. 8-9 at the August Wilson Center downtown.