Playwright and producer Lisa Marie Rollins was adopted as an infant and grew up in a white community on a three-acre organic farm in Washington state. In her new one-woman show, Ungrateful Daughter, directed by W. Kamau Bell, she stands on a bare stage, then tells us her parents are not the “hippie, pot-smoking” type of an organic farmer. They are white church-going Republicans. While the agency that placed Rollins had indicated to her parents that they were getting an “Asian-mix” baby, it is doubtful that with her kinky hair and cinnamon skin her parents got what they were expecting. Rollins thinks the agency “packaged” her without acknowledging the African American blood that clearly runs through her veins.
I have to admit that when I heard about Ungrateful Daughter, which Rollins performed at the San Francisco Solo Festival early this month, I found myself wondering if my own daughter might grow up to be similarly disenchanted. My African American daughter was adopted by me six years ago, and I’m white. Rollins’ powerful performance underlies the message that in transracial adoption it is not okay to sweep our differences under the carpet.
As Rollins’ hard-working parents raise her with little acknowledgment of their racial dissimilarities, her mother bustles about, busy with cooking, canning, gardening, and her church community. Rollins portrays her mother with grace and humor as a simple country woman who loves her daughter, but clearly doesn’t possess the tools that will help her navigate through life as a person of color.
As Rollins begins to notice that she looks different from her playmates, she “transforms” into her 7-year-old self. But her mother seems resentful when she has to respond to her daughter’s forthright questions about her background. Sighing, Rollins’ mother locates the locked box that holds the adoption papers. I could visualize the table where they sat, cluttered with paring knives and fruit as the mother uncomfortably reads the agency’s description of Rollins as being part Mexican, part Filipino, and maybe “part-a-few-other-things.”
Fast forward. It’s winter 2005, and Rollins is home for a visit. Feeling out of place, she wanders through the house but stops short when she notices that on a wall full of inspirational plaques has been added a new decoration: an Aunt Jemima figurine. As seamlessly as Rollins morphed into her other roles, she’s now Aunt Jemima, defending her right to sell pancake mix. She is Aunt Jemima, with a perpetually plastered-on smile, white teeth flashing. In the ensuing exchange Rollins alternates between Aunt Jemima’s voice and her own. She educates us, reminding us that Jemima’s “mammy” image is rooted in slavery, head wrap and all. The original Aunt Jemima character was based on an African American woman who likely kept house and watched the children of her “Massa.” When her mother comes back into the kitchen, Rollins feels tongue tied. Still, she tries to explain why she finds the figurine so offensive.
Unlike my daughter, Rollins was adopted transracially before a group of African American social workers came out with the stance that children of color are better off with parents who share the same cultural values. Transracial adoptions then proceeded to dwindle until the late 1990s after Congress passed the Multi-Etchnic Placement Act, which makes it illegal to delay the placement of a child awaiting adoption in order to find a racially matching family. Since then the rate of transracial adoptions has been creeping back up.
Rollins’ acting abilities are competent, and Ungrateful Daughter also shows off her comedic abilities, even if in this piece the humor feels laden with resentment. I think Rollins loves her parents, but obviously wishes they’d “get” it, and her message that shines through loud and clear is that being color-blind benefits no one. After the performance I talked with her and we agreed that the learning curve for people adopting transracially has to begin early, and it is a continual one.
I left Rollins’ Ungrateful Daughter feeling both hopeful and disturbed.
8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18, at the Marsh Theatre (in the Gaia Arts Center), as part of the Secret Circus series of solo-theatre and spoken word performances. For more information, see www.themarsh.org.