5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Bennett Windheim

Darlene Hope, Aleisha Force and Judson Jones in Bennett Windheim’s Normalcy

What is there now, six billion people on the planet — pushing seven? Surely some sallow-cheeked statistician somewhere must have a sense of how many babies, how many children, want for loving homes, and how many of those kids never arrive in one. While it is very unlikely that there could ever be enough adults in the world eager to adopt to make a dent in whatever those numbers might be, surely the problem need not be exacerbated by a little thing called race.

Simply put, a lot of white people don’t want to adopt a child of color. Not that they’re sitting at home childless, their parental instincts atrophying while they froth with bigotry. But for many prospective adopting parents, the legal, ethical, moral and financial process of adoption has a funny way of forcing people to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves, truths they may or may not transcend. And that is where Normalcy, a new play by Bennett Windheim, plays a theatrical role.

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Directed by Benard Cummings, produced by Theatre East and running at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre (416 W. 46th St.), Normalcy takes as its title a word famously used by soon-to-be-President Warren G. Harding in a speech during the 1920 Presidential campaign:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality. It is one thing to battle successfully against world domination by military autocracy, because the infinite God never intended such a program, but it is quite another thing to revise human nature and suspend the fundamental laws of life and all of life’s acquirements.

True, Harding was bloviating right after World War I; to judge by the overblown language in that tiny bit of oratory, our 29th chief executive would have benefited from an editor who could infuse his words with some “normalcy” as well. Still, the word has stubbornly stayed in our vernacular. And, if you think about it, Windheim’s play aims to dramatize a war of a different kind — the war many people wage simply to adopt a child. The war to overcome mixed feelings about “transracial adoption” is just one front.

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The play focuses on white prospective parents and their circle of family members, co-workers, social workers and others and how the possibility of a transracial adoption affects (or disaffects) each one of them. (According to press materials, Normalcy is in a limited run. Click here for tickets.)

And now, 5 questions Bennett Windheim has never been asked:

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The first three questions are asked of all interviewees for the CFR feature:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
We’ve heard some really great questions during the Friday night talkbacks at Normalcy. Two come to mind: “How has researching and writing this play impacted your own life?,” and the is, “It spurred my wife’s and my decision to adopt.” The follow-up was about whether I changed the play after my son was born, knowing what I know now. The play has certainly undergone rewrites and refinements, especially in advance of this production, so I think it would be impossible for my knowledge – if not my actual experience – not to impose itself on the writing. (For more about this, see Question 4.)

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2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
There are often assumptions that individual characters are stand-ins for actual people in my life. I write fiction. My characters may indeed be composites of people I know, or have read about, or made up out of whole cloth. But the certainty that some people come to with their belief that this character equates to that person has always irked me. Writers seldom get credit for just making things up.

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3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
For some reason, countless people over the years – and this includes really close friends of mine – insist on introducing me as a screenwriter. I’ve never written a film. I’m a playwright. It’s not a direct question, but I’ve always found that to be pretty weird.

The final three questions (one is a bonus!) are devised by the staff of the CFR:

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4) Have you had a personal experience with transracial adoption? If you have, could you describe it? If not, what interested you about the topic and how did you research it?
Initially, the play’s ostensible subject matter was a metaphor for what I perceived to be our country’s missed opportunity after 9/11. In the immediate aftermath of that event, everyone kept repeating the mantra “Everything’s changed,” meaning we’ve got to change as individuals and behave better toward one another, and as a country, in terms of how we approach and deal with the rest of the world; that perhaps we’ll do a little less chest-thumping and have a little more humility…a little less “We’re number one” and a little more understanding that we live in a world with other people. That all lasted for about three weeks, and then the mayor called for a “return to normalcy,” instructing us to go shopping and dancing. And sure enough, instead of changing, we returned happily to our trusted old ways, missing the opportunity to learn, to grow, to improve. That frustrated and saddened me, and that’s what motivated me to write this play. There’s a lot of talk about extremism in Normalcy – and I was thinking specifically about how there’s so little moderation in our society, especially in our politics. So I chose to write about a couple who, in response to a series of 9/11-like attacks, gets on the “Everything’s changed” bandwagon and pursues something they are absolutely incapable of doing. They’re not bad people; this just isn’t for them. But they have so little self-awareness that they can’t see this as the mistake it is. After writing the play, my wife and I would discuss it at length, and those conversations caused us to look at our life together and say, “Let’s not be them.” As a result, we pursued transracial adoption. Our son was born in July of 2004 in Philadelphia (we got him straight out of the hospital), and the first reading of the play was performed that November. Our son just turned eight and he’s the best decision we ever made.

5) When white people become uncomfortable around the notion of transracial adoption, does that make them racist? If, in your view, “racist” isn’t the right word to describe that discomfort, what does it reveal about them?
In New York, we live in a shtetl. Mixed couples, transracial families, gay families – they are so commonplace that we don’t get a whole lot of discomfort here. Mostly, especially early on, we heard a lot of comments about what a wonderful thing we were doing, and how lucky our son was. We didn’t see it as that. It was just something we were doing because we felt it was right – for us, and, hopefully, for our child. Four years ago, on the eve of the Obama inauguration, we were in Boston. We were waiting for a train, and while I was studying the map, a guy snuck up behind my wife and whispered menacingly in her ear, “What’s with you and the black kid?” and then walked away. Racist? You decide. So those are the two extremes I’ve experienced. Not much in between. And that’s why we live in New York.

Bonus Question:

6) Statistically, more white couples adopt non-white babies than non-white couples adopt white babies. Is that because there are fewer white babies? Or is that because non-white families have even more discomfort around transracial adoption than do white families?
In the play, Catherine, a black social worker, talks about African Americans and adoption in reference to a policy statement released by the National Association of Black Social Workers in 1972 that was widely interpreted as coming out against transracial adoption and the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 that really opened the door for transracial adoption. There’s a funny line where she says that white couples are now as free to adopt a colored child as a black family seeking to adopt a white child. “Get a lot of call for that?” the husband asks. “Not particularly,” she says. It’s not about discomfort. She explains how black people have traditionally absorbed children into their families by necessity. The other consideration is that organized adoption was founded for the most part to help infertile white couples start a family, so it’s not really looked upon as something for the black community to be a part of. Finally, as Catherine says, “It cost a lot to adopt,” which takes many potential families out of the process right from the start.