Fellow Jews: Are We Going to Let Innocent People Go Through What We Went Through?

Thousands Of Syrian Refugees Seek Shelter In Makeshift Camps In Jordan

Syrian refugees in Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, in February. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images) 

I’ve been in tech this week, so I’m behind on the news, and this will be a short one. It certainly won’t take long to say what needs to be said here.


As a Jew, I firmly denounce the stigmatization of Syrian refugees, along with all the GOP proposals for surveillance of Muslims, including a national database and closure of mosques. Fellow Jews, if you are not loudly and firmly denouncing this as well, I am ashamed of you.


A four-year-old girl named Hudea mistakes photojournalist Osman Sagirli’s telephoto lens for a gun and surrenders to him at the Otmeh refugee camp in Syria last December. 

A national database? You know where registering people for being part of an ethnic group leads, right? And even if you don’t believe it could happen in America, you and I know what that kind of registration was used for even before the camps. You don’t know? You don’t remember? Talk to your grandmother. Pick up a book.


The identity card of Herbert Levy, marked “J” for “Jude” (Jew). Levy was brought to England through the Kindertransport program in 1939. Activists successfully lobbied Britain to loosen immigration restrictions to allow 10,000 Jewish children– but children only– into the UK, taken in by foster families. Most never saw their parents again. (Photo: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Proposing the closure of mosques should scare the living daylights out of you. For one thing, we have this little document called the US CONSTITUTION, and are we truly going to allow our hate, fear, and racism enable us to shred it? Are we going to mistreat our citizens? Or people looking for our legendary Land of Opportunity? The “opportunity” for what, virulent racism?


Three Japanese American boys stand at the perimeter fence at the Manzanar internment camp near Independence, California in this iconic photo by Toyo Miyatake. Japanese Americans were forced to live in internment camps 1942 – 1945. (Source: blog.janm.org, courtesy Alan Miyatake)


Probably the most heartbreaking, however, is the heartless turning away of refugees. It’s no surprise to me that there are so many conservative American Christians shrieking “No room at the inn” and slamming the door against Syrian refugees. They did the same to us. This was expected. But you and I? Our families? Not one of us, not one, should refuse these people a place AT OUR TABLES, let alone in our country. We know better.


These Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany fled to the US aboard the “St. Louis” and were forced to return to Europe after both Cuba and the US denied them entrance. 1939. Look at the hope in their faces. They believed they were safe. They believed they were among the lucky. How many of the children in this picture survived after we turned them away? (Source: ushmm.org)

Radical right-wing white men are the most dangerous terrorists in the US today (also see this and this). If you’re in favor of refusing Muslim refugees escaping extremist violence, if you’re in favor of (unconstitutionally) curtailing the rights of American Muslims, but you’re not in favor of tracking and/or limiting the rights of American far-right extremists, you’re not trying to protect America from terrorist attacks. You’re just a racist.


A Syrian child sleeps in his father’s arms after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Lesbos in October. (Photo: Muhammed Muheison/AP)




Syrian refugees struggled to keep warm during the snowstorms that hit the Middle East last February. Too many died of hypothermia. This was taken at a refugee camp in Lebanon. (source: UNICEF)

We’re talking 10,000 Syrian refugees here. That wouldn’t even sell out Madison Square Garden. You’re willing to shitcan everything America stands for because you’re afraid of a group of victimized innocents that number fewer than 1/50th of the people who saw the last Rush concert tour?

American Jews, please join me in denouncing, loudly and vociferously, the terrifying, all-too-recognizable treatment of Syrian refugees seeking shelter here, as well as our fellow Americans who happen to be Muslim. Join me in lifting the lamp beside the golden door, even if we have to wrench it from the hands of the racists seeking to hide it from them.

American Muslim Pride

(photo: Joel Gordon)

(NOTE: This is my personal blog, not CNN. While I approve all respectfully dissenting comments, I am under no obligation to approve comments I deem racist, disrespectful, derailing, or trollish. If you want to blame “the Jews” for government actions in nations to which most of us have never been, or “the Muslims” for criminal actions most of them have roundly condemned and in which many innocent Muslims have perished, I advise you to pick up your racism and move along. It truly pains me to have to include this, but bitter experience has taught me well.)



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The Real Story of Clarion and Lloyd Suh

I don’t have any insider information. But I’ve been both teaching theatre in the university system and producing professional theatre for over 20 years, and I’m sick of the articles being written about this that have no understanding of what we do or how we do it.

Marilouise Michel of Clarion University wanted to produce Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India, but never completed the licensing agreement, or responded to the agent when asked about casting. Michel cast with all white actors, including the roles written for East Indian actors. The rights, having never been granted, were denied.

Here’s what happened: In January, Clarion asks for a copy of the play. In May, they inform Lloyd they’re adapting it into a musical. For those of you unfamiliar with IP copyright, this is illegal if done without author permission. Lloyd generously tells Clarion that’s fine if it’s just a classroom exercise, but he (obviously) has questions if it’s for public performance. The director never responds. Meanwhile, she’s begun negotiations with the agent, who has asked her about casting. The director does the paperwork required for the university to disburse a check to the agency, but never completes the actual rights negotiations or licensing agreement. On October 30, five months after Lloyd asked about the musical adaptation, the director emails Lloyd asking if he would be able to skype with the actors who are currently in rehearsals. Lloyd, thinking WTF? heads over to google and sees that the production (still without the legal permission to adapt or even perform the work) has been cast with all white actors. He emails his agent. The agent emails the director. The director says LOL, we couldn’t cast it any other way, and I forgot you even asked. Lloyd discovers from his agent that the licensing agreement was never completed. He clearly restates what the agent was (obviously) trying to discuss with the director five months earlier: the Asian characters need to be played by Asians, or the rights will not be granted. The director says no. The rights were not granted.

And the world goes nuts BLAMING LLOYD.

The coverage of this has been enraging, painting Lloyd and his agent (the marvelous and wonderful Beth Blickers) as bullies, when nothing could be further from the truth. Clarion is completely to blame, even if you believe white people should be allowed to play people of color. 

The director maintains the agent never mentioned race in her email. That may very well be true. The email may have said something along the lines of, “Before we release the rights, how do you plan to handle the specialized casting in this play?” or even just “How do you plan to cast the play?” It’s disingenuous to assert that a question like that doesn’t, at the very least, make clear that casting is an important consideration in rights negotiations. I’m willing to bet Michel didn’t complete the licensing agreement because she didn’t want to have to confess to Beth that she had an all-white cast, knowing full well that would be a problem. I’m willing to bet Michel, who had a provisional yes and had already sent the paperwork required for the university to disburse a check, believed she was far enough along in the process that she wouldn’t get caught if she kept her head down.

I have had innumerable conversations with people in education about paying performance rights, rewriting scripts, or violating the playwright’s express instructions, and invariably I’m trying to convince someone that Yes, you WILL get caught, because internet. (I’m of course also discussing Ethics, and IP rights, and OMG are you even kidding me with this?) It’s depressingly common for my fellow educators (and even more so for administrators) to believe they won’t get caught violating contract or performing without rights, so I have no trouble believing that this director believed a little of both.

The people out there howling that Lloyd shouldn’t have cashed the check are spurred by misrepresentative coverage. First of all, Lloyd didn’t even see the check. The agency deposited the check along with every other one they received that day, and would eventually disburse payment to Lloyd for all the shows for which they’d contracted. It’s not at all uncommon to send a check before all the details of an agreement have been finalized. If the agreement isn’t completed for whatever reason, the agent returns the money. Cashing the check is not a tacit way of saying “I would love for you to violate my IP rights and do whatever you like with my play.”

Playwrights, agents, and publishers pull the rights for ALL SORTS of reasons. Beckett’s estate famously won’t allow women to be cast in Waiting for Godot (with some notable exceptions). Tams Witmark once shut down a production of Anything Goes because the company wanted to use a drag queen Reno Sweeney. MTI shut down a Bay Area production of Godspell— with a C&D!!–because the company changed the lyrics. Neil Simon refuses the rights to schools and companies that want to edit out his swear words. Lloyd owns his play. If he wants to refuse rights unless a production agrees to put a full-page elegy to Mr. Jingles the Sock Monkey in the program, he has that right. He sets the rules, just as you set the rules for who uses your property.

Clarion is in the wrong here, period, even if you believe white people should be allowed to play people of color. Which, in 2015, is just nonsense.

I’m sick of the mainstream articles (and posts and comments) wherein the years of activism, resistance, discussion, and progress around casting and diversity in theatre are invisible. Is the director at Clarion misrepresenting the issue deliberately? Or is she really so disconnected from the theatre community that she doesn’t know about these issues? Why are the writers of these articles so ignorant of the years of discussion, the hundreds of articles, and the massive national controversies around casting and diversity in theatre?

At least 95% of the available roles in any given season are open to white people. It’s embarrassing to watch white people throw a tantrum over the remaining 5%. We’re not entitled to everything just because we want it. I’ve written repeatedly about the many reasons non-white characters should be played by non-white people (search “diversity” if you’re interested). Many writers far better than myself have written about this issue repeatedly. In brief:

  1. History. Theatre, film, and television all have a long history of casting white people as people of color while shutting actors of color out. Those portrayals have almost always been insulting and racist. The historical context has made this issue a sensitive topic for people of color, and rightfully so as they have had to watch themselves portrayed in insulting ways by white people while being shut out of opportunities to play themselves. If you think this is a matter of the past, think again. And again. And again. And again. And again.
  2. Representation. Actors of color are still underrepresented in theatre. Most of the available jobs go to white actors, who are disproportionately represented. White men in particular have always dominated, and continue to dominate, the industry. It’s unethical to push people of color aside to allow even more white people to have even more roles, especially the tiny handful of roles written specifically for people of color. This is also why it’s not at all the same when a person of color plays a role written for a white person. That’s a step toward proportional representation, not “racism against white people.”
  3. Ethics. People of color in the theatre industry have been very clear that the continued use of yellowface, brownface, and blackface, as well as the continual whitewashing of characters, is hurtful to them in multiple ways. White people have three choices and three choices only: “We hear you and we’ll stop,” “We hear you, but we don’t care if it hurts you, so we’ll keep doing it,” “We don’t believe it should hurt you; you are incorrect about your own experience of the world.” The first choice is ethical; the others are not.

So when we discuss issues like the cancellation of Clarion’s production of Jesus in India, let’s focus on the facts. Let’s insist on accurate coverage. Let’s hold each other accountable. And let’s have the self-respect to admit when we’re wrong.

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AEA Should Be Making Realistic Choices, and I Wonder If This LA Lawsuit Will Wake Them Up

There’s been an interesting development in the small theatre/AEA controversy in LA. Actors have banded together to sue their own union. 

Part of the complaint is that the union ignored the will of its members when members voted down, by a 2-to-1 margin, AEA’s proposed changes to the 99-and-under code. To be fair, AEA signaled from the start they were going to do exactly that if the LA membership voted against them by telling them before the vote that it was “non-binding.” It doesn’t get clearer than that that a union has no interest in members’ opinions.

A major component of this fight is that LA actors are worried that AEA’s changes will force the LA small theatre scene to go largely nonunion.

Of course the plaintiffs are right. Indie theatre dominates the small theatre scene nationwide since so many places have no showcase, 99 seat, or waiver in place, or very limited ones. LA will just be joining the rest of us who produce indie theatre. I would imagine that LA AEA actors are upset about this because small theatres do the lion’s share of new plays and experimental new work. I’ve seen firsthand that many AEA actors are frustrated that they can’t get in on that. The indie scene is the literal ground floor of the theatre industry, discovering and developing the nation’s new talent. AEA contracts are limited in any market– most of the AEA membership is unemployed in any given week– and they’re usually offered by larger companies doing more traditional, safer, road-tested work, or new work by well-known playwrights. It’s no secret that large companies are risk-averse because they’re reliant on risk-averse subscribers and corporate funders.

It all comes down to funding. A large theatre with a massive overhead, including wages, building costs, and enormous production budgets, must scramble all day, every day to come up with that amount of money. They’re going to be risk-averse in programming so they can attract more subscribers and donors, most of whom come from an older, wealthy, white demographic, as well as corporate funding that doesn’t want to attach its name to controversial content, and very much does want to attach its name to glamour– star writers, star actors. Large theatres have developed relationships with foundations for years, decades even, and those foundations respond by awarding them the vast majority of the available funding. Meanwhile, most small companies are shut out of most funding streams. Companies under 100K a year– many thousands nationwide– are shut out of most grants out of hand, and the hundreds of companies between 100K and 1M are competing for an ever-shrinking slice of the pie.

The numbers are even worse when those theatres are theatres of color (which are underfunded at every level), proving that these funding decisions are not based on merit.

When you allocate the vast majority of funding to the same handful of large theatres year after year, who still must also cater to the tastes of their wealthy white subscriber base and conservative corporate patrons to make budget, it’s going to create a certain landscape. When you insist on defining “small theatre” as companies with a $1M annual budget or less, and then give all the “small theatre” money to those $1M theatres, it’s going to create a certain landscape.

You cannot make enough money in ticket sales for experimental new work to pay AEA wages. Sure, every so often you have a hit, but when you’re producing full seasons, year after year, show after show, you’re just not going to make enough money in ticket sales alone to pay all your bills, let alone union wages. This fact was so obvious to everyone, we created the 501c3 model around it, enabling these theatres to get grants and donations to make up the gap usually filled in other countries by government support. For quite some time, it was possible for small theatres to grow into larger AEA theatres. It was a little golden window of time. And then enough changed (detailing everything that changed about the American economy, funders, and the nonprofit theatre community would be a lengthy post all on its own) to make that growth well-nigh impossible for most small theatres. Some do grow– a few get through the glass ceiling. But for most small companies, growth is simply no longer something you can choose to do. Either you win the funding lottery, or you do not.

We deny most companies– most companies are small companies– the means to pay AEA actors and then refuse those companies waivers, saying they somehow magically “should” be able to pay AEA wages.

OF COURSE most theatres in the country are indie. OF COURSE nonunion actors are the ones getting most world premiere gigs by hot new writers. That’s the financial landscape we’ve created.

Actors in LA decided they would like to continue to have the option to work at small theatres that can’t pay union wages. It’s astonishing that they aren’t allowed that choice, and it’s astonishing that a common response is the demonstrably untrue “denying waivers protects union wages.” Since AEA wages are set by contract, they can’t be impacted by small theatres using waivers or showcase codes. A large theatre can’t suddenly decide to start paying less while they’re under contract. The existence of a waiver agreement at one theatre has as much impact on the existing contract at another theatre as a same sex marriage contract has on an existing heterosexual marriage contract. And when that AEA contract is up for renewal, the theatre can point to the existence of waivers all they want, but AEA isn’t going to agree to lower wages in the renewed contract, nor should they. So it’s just silly to pretend that shutting down waivers “protects” wages. Waiver work impacts no one but the actor doing the work. Either that actor gets to do the show, or they sit at home while a nonunion actor takes the role. AEA has decided that their actors should sit at home, and that this “encourages” theatres to grow.

But they’re wrong. Small theatres can’t be “encouraged” to grow any more than you can “encourage” a drowning person to breathe. We’re throwing out one lifeline per 1000 shipwrecked sailors in the theatre ocean.

Until the financial landscape changes, nothing else will change. Large theatres will be largely risk-averse, and most of the risk, the new writing, the experimentation, will continue to take place in indie theatres who are lucky to be able to scrape together small stipends for their nonunion personnel. Not every artistic risk or exciting experimental work is going to be a big seller, but that kind of work is enormously artistically fulfilling.

AEA has a choice: they can continue to move the country towards a more and more indie scene as they continue to gut waivers and showcase codes, or they can increase showcase codes and waivers for companies that meet strict financial requirements and empower their members to take the gigs now going to nonunion talent.

Either is fine, of course, from a producer’s standpoint. The indie scene doesn’t actually need AEA actors. We’d love to work with our friends, and it would be great to access a larger pool of actors, but it’s not necessary. We build your actors in our factories. We develop the nonunion actors you eventually sign and collect dues from. Your actors come from our theatres; they don’t spring full-formed from the head of Lynne Meadow.

AEA has pretended for years that they’re “encouraging” growth by shutting down waivers, but we all know that’s impossible, especially now, when the funding has been so dramatically tipped away from those small companies. The choices for most of us aren’t go indie or get more money to pay AEA wages. The choices are produce as an indie or stop producing. Most small companies are indie not because we’re horrible people who don’t want to pay actors, but because that’s the one option available to us.

So the real choice AEA faces is: Do you allow your actors access to the indie scene? Or do you work to keep it 100% indie? In LA, actors voted for the former, and AEA essentially told them to shut up and sit down. This lawsuit is the result, and we’ll see how that goes.

Until we change the funding landscape, the indie scene is only going to grow larger. There’s only so much funding for theatre out there, and it creates a finite number of AEA contracts each season at larger theatres. There is no magical untapped funding stream. Any company who gets money is getting a piece of a predetermined pie. Denying waivers will not create more funding. It just creates more indie theatres.

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The Problem with the Shakespeare “Translation” Controversy

There has been some fiery controversy around Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s announcement that they’re commissioning “translations” of all 39 Shakespeare plays into “modern English.” It was the rollout that launched a thousand screams of condemnation.

People were either condemning the idea that Shakespeare needed “translating” at all, or condemning the people who were protesting the “translations.” It was either “This is the death of art” or “People against this need to stop being so damn precious,” as if there was no room for mixed feelings or thoughtful discussion. I was a little disappointed in the terms of the discussion being set up as a battleground. I was asked to comment no less than ten times before I had even read the PR myself.

At first, I will admit, I was shocked that OSF would sponsor something that seemed so obviously horrible. Then I read OSF’s PR and realized what the problem was. In the PR, OSF referred to the project as modern language “translations,” and then went on to describe a project that couldn’t be further from that. The PR quotes OSF director of literary development and dramaturgy Lue Morgan Douthit as stating that the texts won’t be line-for-line “translations,” but much more subtle. Douthit is quoted as saying that she used the word because she likes “the rigor that ‘translate’ implies.” I have some skepticism about that quote. Considering that the most famous “Shakespeare translation” is the appallingly bad “No Fear Shakespeare,” the word “translation” in this context implies exactly zero rigor. It was a deeply unfortunate choice.

OSF has instructed its list of playwrights and dramaturgs– all of whom are leading national voices– to first, “do no harm.” Lines that are already clear are to be left intact. But what, exactly, does “clear” mean?

Let’s start with the bad news.

The pilot for this was Kenneth Cavander’s Timon of Athens. In it, Cavander sets the clarity bar incredibly low, and the resulting updates are problematic.


TIMON: What, are my doors opposed against my passage?
Have I been ever free, and must my house
Be my retentive enemy, my jail?
The place where I have feasted, does it now,
Like all mankind, show me an iron heart? [Arden 3.4.77]


TIMON: What’s this? My doors locked—to shut me in!?
Haven’t I been always open with my friends,
And now my own house turns against me,
Becomes my jail? Does my home, where I have feasted,
Show me, like the rest of mankind, an iron-heart?


CUPID: Hail to thee, worthy Timon, and to all that of his bounties taste! The five best senses acknowledge thee their patron and come freely to gratulate thy plenteous bosom. There taste, touch, all, pleased from thy table rise, They only now come but to feast thine eyes. [Arden 1.2.121]


CUPID: Hail to you, worthy Timon, and to all who savor the feast he provides…The Five Senses salute their patron, and gratefully honor your unstinting hospitality. I will now present…Taste…Touch…and the rest of them. Please rise, everyone…You have been well fed, so now—a second feast…For your eyes only!


While some of the “translated” lines above are stilted and clunky, I’m most concerned with accuracy and clarity. Cavander’s “Does my home, where I have feasted, show me, like the rest of mankind, an iron-heart?” is actually LESS clear than the original. Moving “show me” in the sentence order makes “like the rest of mankind” modify “me.” Now the house is showing an iron heart to Timon and all mankind, rather than the house joining mankind in showing Timon an iron heart. It’s not the only inaccuracy just in these two samples. “Have I been ever free” is rendered as “Haven’t I always been open with my friends,” which is a huge change to the meaning of the line. At the end of the second quote, “They only come now but to feast thine eyes” becomes the inaccurate (and trite) “so now– a second feast. For your eyes only!”

While I’ve only seen a handful of samples, in every one, Cavander’s “translation” is much deeper than it needs to be, discarding words and phrases that are clear on their own, and inserting stilted or inaccurate substitutions. So I respect the alarm some had when they discovered that OSF was commissioning like “translations” of the rest of the works.

Those who had no experience of the Cavander were alarmed by the word “translation” because, up to this point, it primarily meant uniformly awful modern updates like No Fear Shakespeare. No Fear is not only badly written, its “translations” provide a superficial understanding of the lines, and sometimes even inaccurate ones. A few examples: “sighing like furnace” becomes “huffing and puffing like a furnace”; “Bless you, fair shrew” becomes “Hello to you, my little wench”; “Two may keep counsel, putting one away” becomes “Two can conspire to put one away.”

There are excellent reasons to have legitimate concerns about a “translation” project. It’s not about being “precious”; it’s about the deep problems evident in previous “translations.”

But let’s look at the good news.

The Cavander “translation” is troubling, yes, but for the rest of the series (apart from The Tempest, which Cavander is also writing) OSF has commissioned a phenomenal group of writers: Christopher Chen, Sean San Jose, Octavio Solis, Luis Alfaro, Lloyd Suh, Migdalia Cruz, Aditi Kapil, Marcus Gardley, Naomi Iizuka, and Taylor Mac, just to name a few, supported by dramaturgs like Joy Meads, Nakissa Etemad, Julie Felise Dubiner, and Desdemona Chiang. These people are some of the cream of the crop of modern American theatremaking.

Most importantly, they’ve been instructed to leave language that’s clear intact, and I trust them to make good choices about what “clear” means. None of these writers could ever be accused of imagining audiences can’t understand difficult language. I also trust them to know the difference between “poetic” and “stilted,” and I trust those dramaturgs to prevent misreadings of lines that would wind up “translated” incorrectly.

Given the “do no harm” instructive and the focus on clarity, what’s surely happening here is not much different than what we all already do for production. The meanings of some of the words in Shakespeare’s texts have changed so completely in the past 400 years that performing them as is becomes, essentially, vandalism of the author’s intent. If you’re producing As You Like It, you can’t perform a phrase like “the humorous duke” and expect a 2015 American audience to understand that it means “unpredictably moody” and not “funny.” There are literally hundreds of words and phrases whose meanings have changed, and there are even more that are just no longer in use. Some are clear from context, particularly when seen acted on stage (prithee, anon, varlet, belike, wherefore), others, not so much (sack, doubt, shrift, horns, jointure, French slop). There are some words whose definitions are hotly debated (pugging, wappened). When we produce Shakespeare, we all make decisions about which words we leave intact, believing the audience will get the gist in context, and which need to be changed to preserve the meaning of the line. It’s rare to see Shakespeare completely untouched because it’s a foolish way to perform it.

And don’t forget that there’s no one definitive Shakespeare text. Every published edition, and many performance texts, are the result of a series of decisions made by an editor with every past edition, folio, and quarto open on their desks. With no definitive text, absolute purism is indeed just preciousness.

But the problem wasn’t precious purism. The problem with Shakespeare “translation” is not in what these playwrights will actually do– they haven’t even done it yet– but in the word “translation” itself. It’s one hell of a trigger. If OSF had used a less unfortunate, more accurate word, there wouldn’t have been a controversy.

We’ve covered the good and the bad– now it’s time for the ugly.

What if the doomsayers are right, and every one of these plays is as bad as the worst No Fear?

Well, so what?

There are already eleventy splatillion “translations,” adaptations, deconstructions, and the like of these plays. If Macbeth can survive Throne of Blood and Scotland PA, if Romeo and Juliet can survive West Side Story and Romeo Must Die, and if Hamlet can survive Strange Brew and The Lion King, then I think the plays will survive some of the best playwrights and dramaturgs in the country having a whack at deciding what to do about “horns” and “Barbary cock-pigeon.”

And I get that it’s upsetting to a lot of people that OSF, one of the stewards of Shakespeare’s work in the US, seems to be endorsing something you’re imagining as a combination of No Fear and Forbidden Planet, but if someone handed you a gigantic check, told you that it was only for this project, but that you could hire any playwrights and dramaturgs you liked, you would JUMP at the chance. This is EXACTLY what we want one of our flagship American theatres doing– paying artists to art. This is something to be celebrated. If you don’t like the results, well, don’t stage them or go see them. OSF has no plans to stage them either, apart from the developmental readings. Just be glad that these enormously deserving artists landed this fantastic gig.

Personally, I’d be FAR more excited by full adaptations from these writers, engaging with the texts rather than “translating” them, but I wasn’t the one writing the check and telling OSF what to do with it. That honor belongs to Dave Hitz from the Hitz Foundation. Honestly, it’s wonderful that they’re supporting the work of all these artists. I think that should be the main focus here. People you admire– some of them your friends– are getting paid to do what they love. That’s a great thing, whether you love the resulting texts or not. Either way, Shakespeare will be fine.

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Writers: Retire These Clichés (Version: LADYPARTS)

I know, I know: I write about overused tropes often. (Who said irony is dead?) Maybe one day I’ll compile them all into a self-published e-screed entitled “Melissa Reads Too Many Plays,” but for now, the blog will have to do.

Sometimes a cliché works. You’re engaging with the trope in an interesting way, or you’re commenting on the trope’s ubiquitousness. But most of the time, it’s just lazy writing. You plonk a clichéd trope into the scene because you haven’t given the moment much thought, and a well-worn piece of cultural narrative fits neatly into the scene with little effort. Sometimes the clichéd trope is a cultural narrative about race, gender, or religion that you take as given without examining your unconscious biases. Sometimes you’re more focused on other aspects of the scene. Sometimes you’re just . . . lazy. AS ARE WE ALL.

Feel the wrath of Ytar!

Feel the wrath of Ytar!

I don’t mean you don’t care about your work. I just mean, sometimes we take the easiest way out because the issue doesn’t interest us as much as other things at that moment. Sometimes we don’t even realize that’s what we’re doing.

Today’s edition of “Melissa Reads Too Many Plays” is centered around LADYPARTS. There are approximately eleventy gynillion inaccurate, irritating tropes about women and our MYSTERIOUS LADYBITS.  Here are a few of the most preposterous.


Artist’s rendition of a description provided by a male playwright

Nausea and/or vomiting as the first sign a character is pregnant. I AM CALLING A MORATORIUM ON THIS. This trope is so bad it drags down the quality of the rest of the work. First of all, it’s inaccurate. While 75% of pregnant women experience nausea, only 50% will have to endure vomiting. Most importantly, it’s nowhere near the first sign of pregnancy. (For most of us, that honor belongs to sore boobs.) Vomiting is, however, the first outward sign of pregnancy that men have historically noticed because it’s the first outward sign of pregnancy that women cannot hide. In the 20th century, when this trope was popularized in TV and film written almost exclusively by men, few women paraded around the office telling male coworkers about their sore boobs. However, no one can avoid noticing the stenographer rushing out of a meeting to vomit in the trashcan in the hall. Presumably some of those male writers were fathers who knew better (depending on the level of disclosure they were willing to tolerate from their wives about their ladybusiness), but they were never going to get “Ow, my boobs” past the network censors. I’m not saying we should replace the nausea trope with a sore boob trope. I’m saying: Think about the ways you’re hinting at pregnancy. The second a female character of child-bearing age discusses nausea, your entire audience knows she’s pregnant. Is that how you wanted your reveal to go? Every other hint and lead-in after that is a boring time-waster. Your reveal happened the moment she threw up.

Pregnant woman laughing alone with salad. It's like someone left a box of inane tropes in the car and they all melted together.

Pregnant woman laughing alone with salad. It’s like someone left a box of tropes in the car and they all melted together.

Random Unexpected Pregnancy. Why is your character pregnant? Is it because you have a specific reason for her to carry a child? Or is it because you’re out of ideas and you need to create some conflict for the male lead? Are you already calculating how to make this pregnancy magically disappear as soon as the male lead resolves the conflict? If you’re not writing about pregnancy– if the pregnant woman is just an event in your male lead’s life– think about what you’re trying to accomplish with this unexpected pregnancy, and see if you can accomplish it in a more interesting way. Also, once this trope gets started, it often opens up a can of worms of sexist (and boring) tropes– Women can’t tell what’s important and what isn’t (important = male lead’s central narrative, most of which he hides from her; unimportant = helping her install the carseat, a prenatal appointment); women are killjoys (pregnant girlfriend = the death of fun); women are dreamcrushers (pregnant girlfriend demands he stop being an artist and get a job even though he’s on the verge of a breakthrough because women just don’t understand).

Childbirth Starts with Water Breaking and Ends Within Five Minutes. Honestly, just have her give birth off stage. When your water breaks, it generally trickles out, and it NEVER STOPS. Your body keeps replenishing it. Trust the woman who sat on a towel for hours. Only 10% of women start labor with their water breaking, and for those who do, it can be as much as 24-48 hours before labor begins in earnest. If your character’s water breaks, and all hell breaks loose because THE BABY IS COMING!!11!, you’re manufacturing conflict. Average length of labor for a first-rime mother is 6 – 18 hours, not one scene. Why do you want to show the actual childbirth? What narrative motion are you hoping to achieve? Is there a way to accomplish that without using an unrealistic, clichéd trope?

(source: wrathofzombie.wordpress.com)

(source: wrathofzombie.wordpress.com)

Menstruation Turns Women Into Insane Blood Monsters. “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.” Just . . . no. Extreme mood swings occur in 3-8% of menstruating women. Chocolate cravings are not universal. I’m just going to set your play aside if your male lead comes home with chocolate for his bleeding wife who then screams at him for no discernible reason other than that you wanted to motivate his affair later in the play. This trope is both boring and misogynistic.

 Don't look at me; I just got here

Don’t look at me; I just got here

Fish Jokes. This is exactly the way to get me to delete your play, take a shower, and try to pretend it never happened. I’m honestly astonished that men are still making these jokes in 2015, but evidently, they are. If you’re seeking a way to make a male character seem like an obnoxious idiot trying to hide the fact that he’s a virgin, I can see using this trope, but I still hate it, and I am not alone. Begone, trope.

Women’s Sexuality is Mysterious and Confusing. WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?!? I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out: ASK HER. When a male character is flopping around haphazardly trying to please a woman who has almost no lines but who, presumably, just sits there with a vaguely disapproving look on her face, most of the people in your audience are going to get very frustrated very fast. She can communicate, can’t she? Using her as a prop to establish your male character’s adorable awkwardness, sincere cluelessness, or comic lack of skillz is a trope I never want to see again. Women’s sexuality is not a puzzle for men to solve. Women’s sexuality is not a comment on male sexuality. Women are, believe it or not, people.

If the playwright would give me some lines, I could tell Roger there's no need to go to all that . . . oh, no, not the full body latex. JUST ONE LINE, I BEG YOU (source: times.co.uk)

If the playwright would give me some lines, I could tell Roger there’s no need to go to all that . . . oh, no, not the full body latex. JUST ONE LINE, I BEG YOU (source: times.co.uk)

The advice is the same for all of these: Think about what, specifically, you’re trying to achieve with these tropes and then work to achieve them in a more interesting way.


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“Peeple,” the Yelp-style app that rates people, is the worst idea ever, even if it’s a hoax. Especially if it’s a hoax.

“Peeple”? No idea. Maude, cancel my 10:30 so I can read this post.

What is “Peeple”?

Perhaps you’ve already heard about this proposed new app, “Peeple,” that’s designed to be a sort of Yelp for people. The premise is that anyone with your cell phone number can create your profile and post a review of you. Yes, you personally. You’re alerted via text message. If you do nothing, Peeple only posts “positive” reviews, meaning reviews of 3 – 5 stars, regardless of written content. If you claim your profile, you receive your negative reviews (2 stars or fewer) via your Peeple inbox. You have 48 hours to try to “work it out with the person” and convince them to “turn a negative to a positive.” If you can’t, the review goes live, and your only recourse is to defend yourself publicly. The founders of Peeple, Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough, have repeatedly said that there will be no opt-out feature, meaning anyone who has– or who can find– your cell phone number can create a permanent profile for you without your consent, inviting others to post reviews of you, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

I don't know . . . sounds like a harassment engine . . .

I don’t know . . . sounds like a harassment engine . . .

Cordray and McCullough have given vague assurances that they will have structures in place to minimize harassment and enable people to contest reviews with misleading or incorrect information. They claim they will personally review all negative reviews (again, not in content, just in star count), and that anyone violating the terms of service, which bans, according to their website, “profanity, bullying, health references, disability references, confidential information, mentioning other people in a rating that you are not currently writing a rating for, name calling, degrading comments, abuse, derogatory comments, sexual references, mention of confidential information, racism, legal references, hateful content, sexism, and other parameters in our terms and conditions” will be booted.

In case you were wondering, these are the people making decisions about what constitutes

In case you were wondering, these are the people making decisions about what constitutes “racism” on Peeple. (Source: forthepeeple.com)

This Can’t Possibly Be Real, Can It?

Peeple is such a spectacularly bad idea that, in addition to the massive online outpouring of WTF, some people began looking a little closer at Cordray and McCullough (pictured above), among them Snopes, and started to float the idea that Peeple is likely “vaporware” (a nonexistent product announced but never produced), a hoax created to underpin a reality show Cordray and McCullough were creating about the development of an app. Peeple’s site features no less than ten “webisodes” entitled “Peeple Watching Documentary– 2 Best Friends Building an App in Silicon Valley in 90 Days.”

Another clue is the app’s website. As a writer who has done some professional copywriting for tech companies in the past, it’s immediately obvious to me that the copy in all sections has been written by an amateur. It’s rife with writing errors. Suspiciously so. Check out the first quote above– it mentions “confidential information” twice in the same list. The site also includes a note entitled “An Ode to Courage” that’s so self-serving and poorly written, it makes me wonder if the entire enterprise is a satire of app developers: “Innovators are often put down because people are scared and they don’t understand. We are bold innovators and sending big waves into motion and we will not apologize for that because we love you enough to give you this gift.”

While bad writing alone doesn’t point to a hoax, it certainly adds to the enormous lack of professionalism that is underpinning much of what’s creating suspicions.

Hmmmm. I was going to pose for this picture, but now that you mention it, that DOES sounds suspicious. Do go on.

Hmmmm. I was going to pose for this picture, but now that you mention it, that DOES sounds suspicious. Do go on.

Their failure to address basic, obvious concerns about privacy, consent, and intrusion demonstrates they have suspiciously low interest in probable legal complications.

They seem to have no understanding of social media harassment, which would be shocking for people creating a social media app. They appear (pretend?) to believe that possessing a cell phone number is proof of personal knowledge, when everyone online knows that to be laughably inaccurate. Their report and review policies are suspiciously weak, as if no one with expertise in the matter was consulted.

Finally, they have no legal right to the name “Peeple,” which belongs to a company that makes smart peepholes for your door (which actually look super-rad; you should check them out). Cordray and McCullough didn’t even bother to check the availability of the brand name before diving in. (Cordray appears to have belatedly– just last night, in fact– created a new twitter handle, @peeplereviewapp, and is offering $1000 for the “best new name.”)

Now that IS suspicious. Archibald, bring the coach around. We're leaving.

Now that IS suspicious. Archibald, bring the coach around. We’re leaving.

If It’s Just a Hoax, What’s the Big Deal?

Whether the app is vaporware or not, Peeple is a Very Bad Thing.

Remember: Cordray and McCullough are clear that reviews with 3 – 5 stars will automatically post, regardless of content, and without your consent. Harassers and stalkers know precisely how to game systems, and it doesn’t take a genius to sort out that a damaging, harassing, or abusive review, carefully worded so it doesn’t violate the ToS, will automatically post if you attach a 5 star rating. There are millions of people out there who understand all too well the potential dangers that Cordray and McCullough have been callously brushing off.

Apart from the ongoing struggle with online harassment of women, there are specific vulnerable populations that are terrified of this app, and for good reason. There are places in this country where a person would be fired if their place of employment discovers they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. There are places in this country where transgender people have no legal protections. There are transgender people whose lives are at risk if their identities are discovered, particularly low-income people and people of color. Gay and transgender teenagers have astronomically high suicide rates as it is, exacerbated by bullying. Just asking people to click through a “yes, I am 21” screen does exactly nothing to protect a kid. How long will Peeple’s review process take? Two days? A week? While a profile outing or bullying a teenager remains up?

There are tens of thousands of people hiding from abusive exes or stalkers, and Peeple presents an enormous danger to them, even from well-meaning people. All it takes is a 5 star review from a customer or co-worker detailing the excellent service Name O’Person provides in Specific City, and boom. The damage has been done. Peeple won’t allow the profile to be taken down, and the review can’t be contested because it’s positive. Even if the profile could be taken down, there’s no way for it to be taken down quickly enough to protect people adequately. The internet is forever. There are people who barely escaped murder hiding in cities far from their abusive exes, keeping as low a profile as possible. Peeple has announced, essentially, that it plans to out them all, but LOL, “turn a negative into a positive!” Peeple is “a positivity app!”


People all across the country are terrified about what Peeple’s scorn for consent might mean for them and their families. Will I lose my job? Will I lose my children? Will I have to race into hiding, desperately seeking housing and a new job, because the man who swore to murder me will discover where I work? What if I can’t afford to move when I’m outed? Will my transgender college student, away from home for the first time, be bullied into suicide? Will my transgender daughter be killed on the street on her way to work? Will my stalker be able to trace where my children go to school if our location is posted?

And sure, there’s nothing stopping people from outing each other now– and they do– but Peeple is built specifically to aggregate and disclose information about individuals without their consent. Peeple’s sole function is to judge others without their consent, and deny them the right to opt out.


Unlike other social media sites, Peeple enables others to create a profile for you without your consent, and denies you the right to delete comments on that profile, block harassers, or delete your profile entirely. Cordray and McCullough have decided that they, not you, are the appropriate judges of what constitutes your “confidential information,” as well as what constitutes “harassment.”

Peeple would be one-stop shopping for harassers and abusers, and that is terrifying millions of people while Cordray and McCullough brush off their concerns with casual cruelty.


If Peeple launches, there will be attendant invasion of privacy lawsuits launching, one hopes, in time to shut it down before it can get anyone killed. But the damage it’s doing right now– the terror it’s spreading among vulnerable populations, real people whose lives are on the line– is unconscionable.

I can almost understand wanting to launch a real app, and just lacking the expertise and intelligence to understand that your app is the worst idea ever, and why, and how to address those issues before you destroy your brand, someone else’s brand, several thousand lives, and your professional reputations.

But I CANNOT understand people who would persist in a hoax after being told, repeatedly, that they are scaring the living shit out of millions of people whose lives they would be putting at risk.

A Note To Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough

Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough, if this is vaporware, a hoax, and/or a fake premise upon which to launch your web series, you are truly despicable. You have repeatedly demonstrated no concern whatsoever for the personal safety or emotional and psychological well-being of our nation’s most vulnerable people. You’re terrifying people because you desperately want to be rich and famous. Well, you got the famous part all right– I hope infamous is close enough. If your app is real, and if you have one decent cell in your body– either of you– you will make this app opt-in, or you will allow people to pre-emptively opt out and/or delete profiles created for them before they go live.


I think the best and/or most frustrating part about all of this is how upset Cordray’s been over the criticism, and how ludicrous she looks trying to silence it while denying that right to others. It’s been a banner couple of years centuries for clueless, self-serving, arrogant, basic white girls, (here you go; with my compliments; help yourself; just one more; treat yourself), but this takes the cake.

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“They Never Thought He Had a Bomb”: Racist Narratives


The above meme (click to embiggen) has been burning up my feed, and I think the sentiment behind it is spot on. The motivation behind the arrest of 14-year-old engineering whiz Ahmed Mohamed for bringing a homemade clock to his Irving, Texas high school was racism, no question. But I’ve been thinking about this for hours, and I think the above conversation misses the point entirely.

I’m sure it took about .0007 seconds for people– even people like the faculty, staff, and police of Irving, TX, who clearly aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed (and your fellow educators thank you for making us all look like asshats, btw)– to understand that a bomb must be attached to something that can actually explode, and that Ahmed hadn’t built a bomb out of circuit boards and Muslim Magic. What they were accusing him of is building a hoax bomb. This is why no one acted like there was a real bomb on site. They were accusing him of creating a performance meant to frighten and intimidate– they were accusing him of performing the role of “terrorist.”


Ahmed Mohamed, 14, being led away in handcuffs in a NASA T-shirt. The look on his face breaks my heart.

The police asked him repeatedly to explain why he had built the device, and to provide a “larger context.” When he couldn’t, they arrested him. The above picture of him went viral, along with the story, and the public outcry has, of course, caused Irving officials to begin to backpedal furiously, saying that he “wasn’t forthcoming” during questioning, never gave any more information than explaining that the device was a clock (probably because the device was a clock) and that they would have done the same for any student of any race.



I think that’s not even within walking distance of the truth. If the truth were Mordor, Irving PD are still in The Shire having second breakfast. Look at what they said about the arrest:

Irving Police spokesman Officer James McLellan told the station, “We attempted to question the juvenile about what it was and he would simply only tell us that it was a clock.”

The teenager did that because, well, it was a clock, he said. […] McLellan told the Dallas Morning News that Ahmed insisted the device was a clock, and that police have no reason to think it was dangerous and “no information that he claimed it was a bomb.”

Still, police wanted “a broader explanation” from the teen, McLellan said.

“We have no information that he claimed it was a bomb,” McLellan said. “He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation.”

Asked what broader explanation the boy could have given, the spokesman explained:

“It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car. The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?”

They created a narrative (“Muslim creates hoax bomb”) and framed it as his fault when he wouldn’t perform that narrative– they claimed he was uncooperative when he wouldn’t perform the role they had invented for him based solely on his ethnicity. Irving officials imagined Ahmed was a hoax bomber, and could therefore provide context– a reason he would build a hoax bomb and bring it to school. But he couldn’t provide context that didn’t exist. When he “refused” to give a “reason” he had created this “hoax bomb,” they grew MORE suspicious because they had already decided he was performing a narrative about Muslim terrorists.

They were looking for an explanation like, “I planned to plant it under the principal’s chair so everyone would think it was a bomb,” or “I planned to show it to some kids who were bullying me to scare them,” or “My cousin Sayeed is turning me into Junior Jihadist.” Instead they got, “It’s a clock.” And they blamed him for not being “forthcoming” or “providing context.”

They literally could not understand the obvious context right in front of their faces– nerdy kid builds nerdy device– because they didn’t see him as “nerdy kid.” They saw him as “Muslim.” They could not put “nerdy kid who hangs out at Radio Shack and builds things” together with “Muslim.” Literally every single American went to high school with at least one awesome Radio Shack nerd. This is not some far-fetched, unusual, outlying teen identity. These kids are all over the country, and have been for decades.

Too bad Ahmed didn't look like Val Kilmer.

If Ahmed looked like Val Kilmer, this all would have gone down differently.

The problem is more complex than just “they wanted to humiliate a Muslim.” That may very well be true, but we need to pay careful attention to the specifics here. America has created narratives for the millions of Muslims who live here, and we are unable and unwilling to understand when real people do not conform to those narratives, to understand that Muslims are people, as varied as any other group of people. We’ve created multiple narratives that see people of color as DANGEROUS, and we’re skeptical and mistrustful when people of color say they do not conform to those narratives. We imagine they’re just hiding something. People of color must prove again, and again, and again that they’re not something we invented about them.

We’ve created a narrative that Latinos are illegal, drug-pushing rapists who are here to take our jobs. We’ve created a narrative that Black people, especially Black men (and boys) are essentially weapons lying in wait to attack innocent white people. And we’ve created a narrative that Muslims are all America-hating, bomb-wielding terrorists.

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 26: Participants wait for the start of the American Muslim Day Parade on September 26, 2010 in New York, New York. The annual parade celebrates the presence and contributions of Muslims in New York City and surrounding areas. The parade, which attracts hundreds of participants, concludes with a bazaar selling food, clothing, and books from various Muslim nations. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

And we BELIEVE in these narratives, despite demonstrable evidence to the contrary, despite the fact that anyone with four working neural synapses and 90 free seconds can sort out that those narratives cannot possibly be true. We BELIEVE in these narratives, and this is the result. Brilliant kids are arrested for nerding while Muslim. Sikhs are murdered, sometimes mistaken for Muslims. Muslims are murdered. A Muslim man was murdered in March just 12 miles away from Irving TX, part of a pattern of death threats and hatred inflicted on the local Muslim population. Let that sink in. Ahmed Mohamed lives in an area with an established pattern of anti-Muslim sentiment. If they had thought he had a real bomb, police would have killed him.

Black people are gunned down in the street because an armed white police officer “felt threatened.” Latinos are beaten and leading presidential candidates say about the attackers: “They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.” These narratives we’ve created for people of color are deadly, and we can’t just step away and dismiss them as someone else’s racism.

It is of crucial importance that we understand that Ahmed’s arrest is one example of specific, carefully created narratives playing out everywhere, all the time. They accused Ahmed of building a hoax bomb because that’s what the narrative says Muslims do. When you blame unfocused, random Southern conservative bigotry for an evil act like this, you are effectively washing your hands of it, stepping away, and saying, “That’s not me,” instead of productively working to deconstruct the racist narratives in which we all participate to some degree.

Source: First Dog on the Moon for theguardian.com

Source: First Dog on the Moon for theguardian.com

We’ve created narratives for people of color that cast them as “danger to America” and we must actively work to dismantle them, because people are dying, children are abused, evil is being committed in our names.

I sure as hell am looking hard at what I’ve done over the years and wondering where, and how often, I may have contributed to this.

You want to “make America great”? Work to dismantle these narratives and understand that most of what people talk about as “American exceptionalism” comes from the strength of diversity– bringing different people together to generate ideas and innovations they would not have otherwise come to alone. You want to “make America great”? Stop arresting nerds, stop killing people of color, stop pretending that America lost something when it became clear our white majority was quickly evaporating. Diversity is our strength.

A NOTE ABOUT COMMENTS (9/21/15): This is my blog, not a news site. This blog reflects my personal opinion and analysis. I approve all respectful and worthwhile comments whether they agree with my opinion or not. I do not approve comments that use disrespectful language, that mock, belittle, or attack, or that otherwise engage in trolling. As this is my personal blog, I am the sole arbiter of how those terms are defined. If you wish to engage in respectful dialogue about the issues being discussed, whether you agree or disagree with my opinion or analysis, I invite you to leave a comment, and I will approve it as soon as possible.



With last year’s massive national controversy about The Mikado in Seattle, it’s difficult to believe that anyone, anywhere, would be doing The Mikado in yellowface, right? I mean, Rick Shiomi at Skylark Opera in collaboration with Mu Performing Arts in Minneapolis showed us all how it’s done back in 2013: Since the work is actually meant to lampoon British Victorians, why not actually dress them as British Victorians? A few very small, non-invasive line changes and voila. Now you get to have Mikado sans racism. That’s what we all want, right?

As it turns out, no. The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players is doing a production of The Mikado this upcoming holiday season, with most of the characters in yellowface. Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler wrote a fantastic piece about it on her blog that was picked up by Angry Asian Man, in which she expresses her shock and calls for people to speak out in solidarity with the Asian American theatremakers (and audience members) who are fighting for better representation of Asian people on American stages. If you want to contact the Skirball, she lists all the contact information you need.

Several of the usual (awesome) suspects in the theatre blogging community are writing about this production as well (Howard Sherman, Erin Quill). With all these articles burning up my feed, I’m seeing the inevitable backlash comments as well, defending The Mikado in particular and racism in art in general. I’ve covered this issue before. We’ve all covered it before. And yet the apologia for racist content never stops.

So, I’m thinking it’s time to play Racist Art Apologia Bingo! EVERYONE PULL UP YOUR FACEBOOK FEED. Find the first article about this set to “public” and open the comments. Get ready to check those comments for these well-known racist apologia statements as Millie calls them! Ready? GO.

I'm ready!

I’m ready!

(Tumbles wheel full of racist apologist statements) OK, I’ll just reach in here and pull these out one by one. See if you can find them in your feed!

Source: bossip.com

Millie draws the first one! (Source: bossip.com)

B17: “The one who points out racism is the REAL racist.” Quote from my feed:  “[The Mikado] is only racist in the eyes of a racist.”

Analysis: ILLOGICAL. I get that you’re going for the time-honored “I’m not the nerd; YOU’RE the nerd” you picked up in grade school, but it doesn’t fly in grown-up discussions. Let’s think about this for a second. The primary voices speaking out against yellowface are Asian American. So Asian Americans who say The Mikado is racist are the real racists? Because . . . ?


Here comes the next one!

N44: “Why should we pander to political correctness/SJWs/liberal demands?” Quote from my feed: “A work of art shouldn’t pander down to ignorance but insist that an audience rise to its challenge.”

Analysis: BELITTLING. Treating people of color with respect is never “pandering.” You only “pander” to demands when those demands are unworthy of consideration. Making this argument is tantamount to saying that racist portrayals of people of color on our stages, including yellowface, are so perfectly acceptable that the protest against them is worthless, and any consideration of that worthless protest is pandering. This quote is even worse, as it assumes that people who protest the racism in The Mikado are just “ignorant” and unable to “rise to the challenge” of art.


Did you get both? Get ready for the next one:

I29: “It’s actually anti-racist if you think about it.” Quote from my feed: “What always matters in the question of whether something is racist is intent. It is actually making fun of an Englishman’s condescending attitude towards other cultures…or specifically, the Japanese.”

Analysis: WISHFUL THINKING. So let me get this straight: The cartoonishly stereotypical characters in The Mikado are actually fighting racism because they’re mocking Victorian racism through modern white people performing cartoonishly racist Asian characters. This is like claiming you punched someone to show other people that punching is bad. MY INTENT WAS CLEAR. I am anti-punching. Therefore, I get to punch whoever I want. QED.


Ooh, I bet you guys are getting close! Just a couple more spaces to fill……

042: “You just don’t understand.” Quote from my feed: “[The claim that The Mikado in yellowface is racist] is an astonishingly simple and one-dimensional understanding of this lighthearted but really profound and many layered work of comic art.”

Analysis: NONSENSE. We understand; we just disagree. We see all the layers that you do, sweetheart, we just don’t agree that the “profound” message that Victorians were racist and Orientalist (lol, “profound”) does not earn the right to perform yellowface in 2015.


One more . . . Come on, Millie! I’m so close!

G8: “This is ART.” Quote from my feed: “There’s a very good reason these works have endured…why they are admired.”

Analysis: IRRELEVANT. This is an apologia favorite. “Art needs to be protected; art should be pushing boundaries and making people uncomfortable; pieces like The Mikado have have endured and long been admired; we should never censor art.” No one is claiming these works should be demolished. We should continue to study them. Pretending our history of racism never existed is a dangerous idea. But what we’re choosing to perform as “light-hearted” comic performances, what we choose to put on our stages, and how we choose to present work, are all completely different considerations. The work didn’t endure because of the racism in it, and often, as Rick Shiomi demonstrated, there’s a wonderful workaround that makes the piece relevant to an audience for whom racism is no longer acceptable.

The main problem with the “preserving ART” argument is that racism and racist caricatures had one cultural context in the Victorian (or Elizabethan, or Classical, or what you will) era, and have completely different contexts now. Fighting to preserve a racist work as written most often vandalizes that work’s original intent. The racist symbol was created to convey a meaning it can no longer convey. Yellowface can no longer convey the meaning Gilbert originally intended when writing The Mikado because that meaning has been superceded by a modern understanding of yellowface’s inherent racism. Even if you believe the yellowface in The Mikado means “Victorians are racist; isn’t that funny?” it can never mean that to an audience in 2015 because yellowface is read as racist in and of itself, and stomping your feet and insisting that Gilbert’s intent was completely different does exactly nothing to change that.

But purism is a smokescreen to hide the real issue at hand. If people are fighting so hard to perform classic works as originally performed, where are the castrati? The boy actresses? The act intervals? The on-stage audience seating? These people have no interest in purism as such. They’re upset because they feel entitled to the right to be able to decide what is acceptable and what is not. White people have always had that right, and the idea that people of color might have the cultural power to contradict them and be heard galls them. An issue these white people find acceptable– racism in performance– is being challenged, and they will fight as hard as they can to retain the cultural supremacy that entitles them to continue to define racist performance as “acceptable.” They’re fighting more and more furiously because they know they are losing.

I, however have WON!


Suck it, Marlene, Esther, and Florence! See you at the next Hadassah meeting in my NEW HAT.

Suck it, Marlene, Esther, and Florence! See you at the next Hadassah meeting in my NEW HAT.

P.S. Shana Tova to my fellow tribespeople and Jew-ish affiliates! I hope you all have a wonderful 5776.

UPDATE 9/18/15: NYGASP has announced the production will be cancelled and replaced with Pirates of Penzance. I still think a better solution would have been to update the work like Rick Shiomi did, but I understand why they felt they should just shut the whole thing down. I hope this opens a conversation at NYGASP (and elsewhere) about representation and diversity on our stages.

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“Too Street”: Hypocrisy in Policing the Speech of our Actors

Idris Elba, the living embodiment of

Idris Elba, the living embodiment of “suave,” was labeled “too street” to play James Bond by Bond author Andrew Horowitz.

I just had an interesting conversation with someone whose white teens are using the slang words “finna,” “aight,” “brah,” etc. She characterized it as “shortening words to sound hip.” I’m almost certain she just didn’t know where the terms came from; I don’t think she was trying to be erasive. But it brought to mind how poorly we’re handling political issues around language, especially in the theatre.
Those slang words aren’t about being hip and cool– they’re about being Black. I’m not trying to stop Black people from influencing the language as a whole. Black slang is, and has always historically been, one of the most important influences on the way English is spoken in America. But understand the context here. When a Black person uses the slang they create, they’re slammed for not being “professional,” not being “articulate,” but when that slang finally makes it to white mouths, it becomes “hip” and “cool.” Usage changes language, and language is political. Our culture constantly appropriates Black invention as “hip” and “cool” while deriding and marginalizing Black people for using their own inventions. Language is an enormous part of that. If it’s become “hip” for white kids to say “finna,” how are we approaching Black people who use their own slang? Because right now, I see a hallway full of shut doors for Black people who aren’t speaking perfect English at all times.
I corrected a girl for saying “ax” in my class last year, and I’m deeply ashamed of that now. I read up on that usage, and I came to understand how wrong I was. Language is political. We have to understand what we’re enforcing, and why we’re enforcing it, when we police usage.
I know a Black actor who was told by a Black professor at the university where I used to teach that he would never be cast in Shakespeare because his speech was “too Black,” and that he needed to amend his speech in order to be cast. The actor told me this after I had cast him in several Shakespeare plays at my company (as well as several new plays– this actor is phenomenal). As a white director whose approach to classic work deliberately eschews stiffness and formality, I’ve always had an eyeroll for “American Standard,” which we still teach actors to this day. Even actors completely untrained in it will often fall into its faux-British, formal tones when doing Shakespeare. A couple of years ago at my company’s general auditions, I had a very diverse bunch of college actors, all from the same university (perhaps not coincidentally, where I used to teach), and every single one came in with a cookie cutter, faux-British, semi-Standard American accent. I actually considered contacting the chair with a “What are you teaching these kids?” email, but I knew exactly what they were doing: prepping them to perform in a world that rejects anything that doesn’t reek of privilege.

When we cast Shakespeare, when we cast new plays, when we teach actors, when we go to the theatre, when we choose our seasons, what choices are we making that reinforce privilege? How often have Black actors heard they were “too urban” or “not urban enough” for a certain role? How often have Asian and Latino actors been asked to “do the accent”? How often are we shutting people out because their speech– or their writing– does not conform to the expectations of white privilege?

The evidence is everywhere. Critics who slam plays because they don’t conform to the values and expectations of white privilege. Actors are told by white directors and casting directors in auditions to be “more urban” or “less urban,” meaning, “perform Blackness in the way I expect you to.” Black comedians Sasheer Zamata and Nicole Byer wrote a fantastic sketch, performed by Byer, called “Be Blacker,” mocking the many auditions in which Black actors are told to “be more urban.”

What does it mean to ask an actor to perform Blackness in a way white people expect or want? How often are we encoding the enforcement of privilege in our casting? How often are we encoding the enforcement of privilege when we say we’re teaching actors “speech and diction”? How much policing of speech is enforcing privilege?
American culture– and that includes American theatre– needs to take a long, hard look at the multitude of ways we police speech, especially the speech of people of color and people without class privilege. I’m including both spoken speech and written speech in that. If we’re making commitments to diversity, then we need to think about the multitude of ways in which we’re reinforcing the idea that diversity must be performed only in ways that are acceptable to white privilege. White people are measuring the acceptability of people of color by how closely they resemble whiteness off stage, and how accurately they can portray Blackness to white specifications in various situations on stage. I’m not claiming this is limited to Black people– cis people measure the acceptability of trans people by how closely they resemble cis people, and so on. But the topic at hand is how we believe Black speech is acceptable coming out of white mouths, but reject it coming out of Black mouths unless we can directly profit from it.
 In other words, if white America is talking about how hip and cool it is that white kids today are saying “finna,” then we need to look long and hard at the actors we’re rejecting because their speech isn’t “ready,” is “too urban,” or who “aren’t articulate.” We need to look long and hard about how we teach our students. We need to look long and hard at the people we’re not hiring at all levels because we perceive their speech– or their presence– as performing a kind of Blackness (or Asianness, or any other kind of identity that differs from straight, white, cis, class privileged) with which white people are uncomfortable.
I’m not excepting myself from this. Quite the opposite. I’m saying: This is a place wherein we’re falling down, and dragging far too many people down with us. Let’s examine what we’re doing more closely, and find a better way forward together.
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Labor Day


Labor Day celebrates the labor movement and labor unions in the US, whose gains are always being challenged by the far right. The 5 day/40 hour work week, overtime pay, worker safety protections and worker’s comp, sick leave, military leave, minimum wage, and guaranteed breaks are all thanks to the labor movement. One of the labor movement’s most spectacular gains was the enactment of national child labor laws.

A little boy selling newspapers, 1921.

A little boy selling newspapers, 1921.

While there were activists fighting for child labor protections for many years, and even some serious Congressional efforts to enact such legislation nationally, there were few child labor protections until 1938, when FDR signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which outlawed child labor under the age of 14, and limited the kind of work and the hours of work for people 15-17, in addition to many other gains the labor movement had been fighting for. Conservatives have been seeking to erode or even destroy the FLSA since its inception. For decades, those conservatives who sought to undo basic labor protections like child labor laws and the minimum wage were considered the fringe far right. Even Reagan championed unions and collective bargaining, calling them crucial to freedom. Now, anti-labor and anti-union sentiment is at the center of the party, including a push to roll back child labor laws, complete with a romanticization of child labor instilling “values” and “work ethic.”

Oyster shuckers in Port Royal, SC, 1921.

Oyster shuckers in Port Royal, SC, 1921.

Republicans across the country are working hard to eliminate child labor laws, succeeding in four states thus far. GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, abolished all restrictions on the hours kids between the ages of 16 and 17 can work in his state. In Idaho, child labor laws were changed to allow children as young as 12 to be employed by their schools for up to 10 hours a week. The conservative legislatures of Maine and Michigan both increased the number of hours minors are allowed to work in their states. While these four states are the only ones whose conservative politicians have succeeded in rolling back child labor protections, Republicans in Ohio, Utah, Missouri, and Minnesota are fighting hard to roll back child labor protections in their states as well. Some seek to ease restrictions on the number of hours children can work, some seek to ease restrictions on the type of work they can do (teens are currently restricted from performing dangerous work), some seek to create a sub-minimum wage for people under 20, and some are seeking to eliminate child labor laws completely. While Republicans have continuously fought hard against child labor laws beginning the moment the ink was drying on FDR’s signature, the most recent push to end child labor protections arguably stems from former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s call to repeal child labor laws entirely, calling them “truly stupid,” in 2011. Current GOP politicians, including the current crop of presidential candidates, deeply romanticize child labor, pretending it’s all character-forming summer jobs, all-American paper routes, and light shifts after school at the local fast food place.

A five-year-old shrimp picker in Biloxi, Mississippi, 1919.

A five-year-old shrimp picker in Biloxi, Mississippi, 1919.

Child labor laws in America have always contained special exemptions for agricultural workers, who are legally allowed to work as young as 12 years old in the general season, 10 for hand-picked short-season crops. Even with exemptions, child labor laws are constantly violated in the agricultural industry, and I don’t mean kids helping out on family farms. I mean children working on commercial farms up to 60 hours a week in the blazing sun under brutal conditions. While it’s a problem industry-wide, it’s a particular problem on tobacco farms, where Human Rights Watch found children as young as 7 working, 2/3 of them suffering from symptoms of nicotine poisoning, such as vomiting, nausea, and headaches. Conservatives have fiercely protected agriculture’s right to hire children, and blocked efforts to improve their working conditions.

Child tobacco workers, Hazardville, CT, 1919

Child tobacco workers, Hazardville, CT, 1919

This Labor Day, let’s honor the spirit of the day by pledging to stand firm against conservative lawmakers fighting to destroy our hard-won child labor protections. Let’s seek further protections for children working in our fields. Let’s push back against the romanticization of unregulated, unrestricted child labor, and remember it for what it was: exploitation.

Workers at a glass factory in Alexandria, VA, 1911

Workers at a glass factory in Alexandria, VA, 1911


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