As a child, Bill Posley thought of himself as both white and black. However, he was told repeatedly that his biracial identity was invalid, such as when his teacher told him he couldn’t check both the “black” and “white” bubbles for race on a standardized test; he had to fill in just the black one.
Posley, who currently writes for CBS sitcom The Neighborhood, is a multifaceted performer with a gift for delivering serious messages wrapped in comedy. He tackles his quest to understand his own identity in his new one-man play, The Day I Became Black. When you’re biracial, he says, “you find yourself battling to maintain an identity that makes sense to you but the world is kind of forcing their identity on you.”
We spoke to him about his new play, his writing process, and how radical empathy can change the world.
What was it like for you writing such a personal show?
It was therapeutic, cathartic. […] People who aren’t biracial relate as much as people who are biracial. Sure the specifics might not be the same, but I’ve had a 70-year-old couple come up to me and say, “I’m German and he’s Jewish, and his parents disowned us too,” the same way that my parents’ parents were upset when [my parents] got together.
It’s just been really incredible because through the process I didn’t know if anybody would connect with me and so many more people have than I ever thought would.
How did your work as a standup influence the show?
I definitely wrote it to that strength. It definitely has moments where it reads as a standup show. I think of it personally as a hybrid, like a standup storytelling thing. It has a mix. So when I wrote it I definitely leaned heavily on my work as standup as a way to format and drive the way I tell stories so that there are breaks for there to be jokes within the stories.
Do you feel like humor helps to talk about such a serious topic?
You’ve gotta tickle the ribs in order to inject the medicine. Laughter is a vulnerable act if you think about it. Right? It’s an expressive act that says, “I’m willing to emote and open myself up enough to show somebody else how I feel,” and it’s a universal act among humans. And so when everybody’s laughing they’re saying hey, we’re all on the same page. And not only are we on the same page but I’m allowing you to see me being emotional.
And when you disarm people like that then you have the ability to sneak something in when their defenses are down. When they feel comfortable you can then say something that may be off-putting or difficult to hear because they’re open to it as maybe they wouldn’t if they came into it with their guard up.
Before every performance, you have a one-minute interactive experience where you invite audience members to a kind of human mirror. What has that been like?
That has been a blessing that I can’t even describe. To sit there and stare at another human being for one minute, and just, you guys have no words, there’s nowhere else to go, just the two of you guys holding space for one another. It’s powerful.
I’ve had people laugh, I’ve had people cry. I’ve had somebody tell me secrets. I’ve had people dance. I’ve had old people giggle uncontrollably. I’ve had people tell me they love me. It’s been a full on, 360-degree human experience.
Where did you get the inspiration for the mirror?
The show is […] based on the way we see each other verus the way we see ourselves. And we spend so much time looking at other people and putting them in a box, we never take the time to look at people and say oh, they’re just like me. And so the idea of the two way mirror was to put somebody in the mindset that when you look at somebody you’re looking at someone who’s just like you, a human being who experiences pain and love and loss. Sure some of the specifics are different but at the end of the day we are just the same.
[The mirror] really stripped me down to that. Because I didn’t know anyone else’s bank account in there, or their religion, or background or anything, I just saw somebody else who was looking right back at me. I didn’t judge them. And it was beautiful.
Is there a single moment that stands out?
So this woman came in and she sat in the chair and she stared at me and I stared at her and then she goes “I’m not OK.” And she said, “Things were better two days ago than they are right now and I’m not OK.” And I didn’t try to save her, I didn’t try to fix it, I just listened. And I sat there with her for one minute while she cried and I cried and she got up and left and I’ve never seen her again.
But I understood everything she was going through because I know that feeling. I’ve been in that situation where I threw my hands up and I said I’m not OK. And I didn’t want to hear somebody say oh, it’s going to be OK, cheer up. I didn’t want to hear someone say it’s going to be better. I just wanted to say it out loud and I just wanted someone to just sit with me. And I just sat with her and held space with her. And that was one of the most powerful moments. Not just in the [mirror], but in my life.
Do you want to talk about the show in terms of our current political climate?
One of the things that I really love about the show is that I get an audience from a bunch of different walks of life. The Soho Playhouse, [where the show is performed, is] a pretty affluent area. And I’m starting to get people from, say, Harlem coming down to see the show. From Queens, from the Bronx. From Jersey. And I have people from different walks of life all mixing together to come see this show which in some theaters just doesn’t happen whether it’s financial or location or whatever.
To take people who live 100 blocks away from each other and put them in the same building and to make them all laugh at the same thing goes to show that we aren’t different, that we have the ability to sit down and have a common conversation, to have a common experience. And if we looked at our country in that same way then we’d realize that our point of views may be different but our experiences and what we want from those experiences are exactly the same. And when we can understand another person’s point of view and not just hypothesize that it’s bad, or good, or whatever, when we can actually see where they’re coming from, then the two of us can actually sit down and enact change that makes that happen for everybody.
Is there anyone in particular that you would want to see this show?
Oh man. [laughs] Barack Obama. As a biracial champion, I would love to have Barack Obama see the show. He’s somebody who attempted to be biracial in society. He stepped out and put his guard down and said “I’m biracial,” and America slapped him in the face and said “You’re not, you’re black,” and he was forced to identify as black. It didn’t matter how he felt, it was decided for him.
What are you working on next?
The Day I Joined the Army will be the next one. It talks about my time as a veteran.
So you want to do more storytelling about your life?
Yes, about my life, about my experiences, and more importantly about experiences that people may not be familiar with, and how to make those experiences – whether it’s being biracial or being a veteran – relatable to everyone, so you know veterans are just like everyone. My goal with my shows is to unite people. I want to unite people.
Do you have any writing advice?
I’m sure everybody says this but you’ve just gotta write. One of the things that people maybe get hung up on is, like, I don’t have any stories to tell or I don’t have anything, I don’t know what I’m doing, and all that stuff. I think for me just don’t worry about what it is. Write the worst thing you’ve ever written, ever, just write it. If you’re like this is going to be so bad, just fail. Just fail, fail, fail. Fail so hard that the only place to go is up and don’t be afraid of failure because if you really think about it failure does not exist because failure is just the seed for success to grow from.
So as a writer don’t worry about if it’s going to be good or bad. Just write it. And from the moment you write it, it’s only going to get better.
How much revision did you do on this show?
I’m still revising now. I’m on stage… so from a month ago, there is ten brand new minutes from a month ago and probably 15 alternate jokes so there’s probably 20 new minutes, in a show that only happened a month ago. That’s how often I’m writing new jokes and trying new things and working it out. I’m writing all the time.
Do you have a process for swapping out a joke?
I record every show. When a show goes well I listen. When I feel something in a show I’ll go back and reference it. I’ll be like oh, this hasn’t been working, or this isn’t clear, why isn’t it clear. I will play the show back and hear oh, here’s what’s missing.
Once I have the ability to sit back and go through it, I rework.
So recording every show is what I do and when something doesn’t resonate with me or doesn’t resonate with the audience I go back and figure out why.
Do you have an example of a joke that you updated?
I had a joke that referenced Linkin Park, the band, and the joke did very well in Los Angeles and it didn’t work here and I didn’t know why. And I kept doing the joke for about two weeks. And at a certain point I was like OK, this joke isn’t working. And every time I listened back to it I was like what’s happening, what’s going on. Basically, the idea was an interracial couple was trying to mix rock and rap music like Linkin Park. So that was the way I used to set the joke up. Then I changed it to, it’s like mixing ice skating and shuffleboard. And then I used curling as the example. And when I did that it finally got everybody on board. So you didn’t have to know what Linkin Park was, you didn’t have to understand rap and rock music, you didn’t have to know all these other things. You just had to know what curling was.
And then it started working. And then I started building on that. So that’s an example of writing on the fly and kind of tearing it down and rebuilding it from scratch.
So you’re not married to any of your material per se?
No. Best joke wins, man.
Do you have a preference between writing something like this where you can keep revising or something like the Neighborhood where once it’s recorded, that’s it?
No, I mean, it’s just the same thing in a different form. They both have their benefits. Something like this, the thing that makes it great is that you can keep revising it, and in something like the Neighborhood what makes it great is that you can’t.
They both have their beauty. One is I have to keep making this better, and one is like, OK, I’ve got to let this go. And I think that they both are great platforms to use the medium of writing.
What makes you furious right now?
People who … aren’t willing to see their side of the street. Anybody who’s not willing to look at their side of the street and be self-aware enough to know that in any situation they have a part to play, we all have a part to play. Anybody who’s not willing to look at that makes me furious. It’s never all one thing or the other, life’s a grey area.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about the show or anything else?
I hope people get a chance to see [the show]. I welcome criticism, I welcome advice, I welcome all of it. I’d love for people to come and share their experience with me afterward. I welcome all people and viewpoints to come see the show.
The Day I Became Black runs at the Soho Playhouse in New York through May 26.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.