When Rachel Atkins was 7, she and her sisters got a new stepfather. Atkins loved this man, but when she and her family went out in public, they raised a lot of eyebrows.
"My stepdad, who raised me, was black," says Atkins. "We were three little white Jewish girls in New Jersey, when multi-racial families were not that common. We would get asked all the time, 'Who's that guy with your family?' And we'd say, 'That's our dad.'"
Decades later, Atkins' experience was part of the impetus behind her new play "Black Like Us," currently having its world premiere production at Seattle's Annex Theater.
"Black Like Us" is about two black sisters in 1950s Seattle. Feisty Maxine is attracted to the nascent Civil Rights movement; lighter-skinned Florence is in love with a white man. Following her heart, Florence passes herself off as white and estranges herself from her entire family.
The play's action moves between the 1950s and present-day Seattle, when Florence's grandchildren discover their black heritage after 40 years of silence.
Atkins says the play began as a short commission from the group Live Girls Theater. They were soliciting scripts based on the theme of change. Atkins came up with the scenario of changing identities and began work on what became her extended family drama.
Atkins says at the heart of the story are "these issues and questions of what does it mean to be black, or to be white, what does it mean to be who we are and how do we define ourselves?" Perhaps the play's most important question is, "What kinds of judgments and assumptions do we make about people based on what we see?"
Atkins isn't the first artist to tackle the topic of racial identity, and what it means to "pass" as another race. The 1927 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Showboat," based on Edna Ferber's novel, includes a tragic subplot about a black woman passing as white and what happens when her true identity is revealed.
Atkins acknowledges that 21st century Seattle is far more tolerant of inter-racial families and multi-racial people than was her childhood New Jersey home. "People are a lot more comfortable with the idea that there's a lot more mix and mingle," she says.
But she doesn't believe that just because America has a biracial president that we're now a post-racial society. At the same time, Atkins thinks there is no simple explanation of what race means.
And that's what she likes about her play, "Black Like Us."
"It raises a lot of questions," she says "but it doesn't answer many of them." Instead, Atkins hopes audiences who see it will walk away asking their own questions about who they are and the role of race in that identity.