Whiteness Is a Disease

I’ve been sitting on this essay for months, because I’m a coward. I’ve been through so many attacks this year for writing about race and for writing about the Democratic primary that I was afraid to post this, despite how deeply I believe in it. And then the events of the past few days– the extrajudicial executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile– happened and I could no longer live with my cowardice. Our Black brothers and sisters are taking their lives in their hands every time they leave their houses, and I’m afraid to post *an article* because I’ll be sent more attacks and threats. I was ashamed by my desire to protect myself with privilege and silence. So here is my essay.

 

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“Whiteness” by Jessica Rath

We use the phrases “white people,” “white America,” and the like all the time. I say that I’m “white.” I experience “white” privilege routinely. But how do we define “white”? What is “whiteness”?

While the usage of the term “white” has been used for millennia as a physical descriptor (along with “black” and similar descriptors) often attached to various cultures or groups, the term “white” was first applied as a cross-ethnic racial category in the late 17th century, created specifically around the racialization of slavery. (I hate to use wikipedia as a source, but this isn’t a bad summary.) “White” was created to mean “not Black, therefore, culturally superior and not subject to slavery or racial discrimination.” This meaning has never substantially changed.

Jews, the Irish, and southern Italians were not widely considered “white” when the first large waves of immigrants came here in the late 19th century. They slowly became “white” over the 20th century, through a process of assimilation that, in some cases, involved assimilating “white” America’s anti-Black racism. It’s important to note there’s no consensus about that process. There’s a great deal of academic discussion about who was considered “white,” when it happened, and what regional differences there may have been. But just the fact that there’s room for argument, the fact that there are differences of opinion even amongst experts, proves that there is no essential “whiteness.” “Whiteness” is a constructed social category that means nothing but “accorded cultural superiority.”

Irish American. Swedish American. French American. English American. Ashkenazi Jewish American. Scottish American. Greek American. Polish American. These are legitimate ethnic identities tied to proud cultures, traditions, heritages. These are identities and heritages of which one can (and should) be proud. Being “white,” however, has no intrinsic meaning. It means nothing but “accorded cultural superiority over people of color, especially Black people,” and, as such, the only heritage, culture, and traditions of “whiteness” are slavery, lynching, racism, oppression. “Whiteness” was conceptualized as a weapon to use against Black people, and as such, it’s spawned an extraordinary amount of social ills. When you raise children to understand their proud Greek, French, or even American heritage, that means something specific about your family, its past, and its connections to a long and storied culture and history. When you raise children to understand they are “white,” that means literally nothing but which position they occupy within a deliberately created system of racial hierarchy. “Whiteness” is a disease from which an enormous amount of our social ills have sprung. It’s time to dismantle the concept of whiteness.

I’m not calling for the dismantling of the concept of “Blackness” because Blackness is completely different. Blackness is an ethnicity, a culture with many subcultures. Black culture developed in this country because we ripped people from an enormous variety of different cultures (research shows that most Black slaves came from one of 46 different ethnic groups), threw them all together, often isolating them from anyone who spoke their native language, told them they were now “Black” instead of Ibo or Temne, told them they were now Christian instead of Muslim or adherents to their traditional tribal faiths, and tortured them the second it looked like one might be considering disobedience. Faced with an unimaginably traumatic disconnection from their cultures of origin, Black people in America together created a vibrant, strong, detailed culture with multiple subcultures, and with multiple linguistic and artistic traditions, influenced by their cultures of origin but crafted into something unique that would have (and continues to have) an enormously disproportionate impact on American culture as a whole. Black people make up just 13% of this nation. Yet how much of American music, language, and art comes from Black culture? This culture, with all its subcultures, miraculously created like a fucking phoenix from the ashes of one of the worst human rights atrocities in human history, is so powerful, so rich, so potent, it has, despite being the culture of just 13% of our people, invented just about everything you love about America. A Black woman invented rock and roll, Black people invented every piece of slang you use (I’m not even going to link that because we all know), Black people invented nearly every form of music we label “American” (jazz, blues, hip hop, gospel). Black inventors have revolutionized multiple industries. A Black man invented the home video game console. Black culture is so rich and influential, it makes America American, and spreads far beyond the borders of America to influence cultures all over the world.

When all is said and done, and America has joined the ranks of Great Dead Societies, Black American culture will have been as globally influential as Greece or Rome. To say that an American is “Black” is to tie them to a very specific, robust culture that is intrinsically tied to race because “white” Americans forcibly grouped them as such. It means something culturally specific in the way that “white” does not. (BTW, this is why I capitalize “Black” but do not capitalize “white.”) I’m sure Black people would have loved to have had the luxury of coming here (or not) by choice, and identifying as Nalu American or Ewe American, or, as many modern immigrants do, Nigerian American, Ethiopian American. That choice was denied to them, and they created a unique, robust culture of their own.

“White” Americans, on the other hand, nearly all came here by choice– even the indentured servants— and had the luxury to preserve their culture, or not, as they chose. I don’t mean to denigrate the enormous pressure for late 19th/early 20th century immigrants to assimilate, or the racism some (including my own ancestors) faced. But they came here by choice, and, despite those pressures were able to retain much of their cultures of origin.

“White” people didn’t put together a “white” culture with “white” traditions that became an entirely new ethnic identity. People from varying ethnic traditions identified as “white” for the sole purpose of oppressing Black Americans, then navigated back to their specific ethnic, regional, or religious identities at will.

Each and every one of the people who fall under the category “white American” have a more potent, more meaningful, more, let’s face it, real culture than the constructed racist identity of “whiteness.”

If your family has been here so long it’s lost all connection to its culture or cultures of origin, you have multiple options to move past your “whiteness.” You can reclaim a heritage identity; you can identify as “American,” you can identify with your region or religion. You have numerous options, many of which, I would wager, you already use. There’s no reason to cling to a label that was created specifically to be deployed as a weapon of  oppression.

If we can step away from the concept of “whiteness,” we can step towards equity. I’m not naive enough to believe that people will magically lose their racism when they start identifying as “Finnish American” instead of “white.” But I do believe that language shapes thinking, and that what we call something– or someone– shapes how we think of them. If you call yourself, and people who look like you, “white,” that will have an impact on how you think about yourself and others. Restructuring how we understand “white” people into various ethnic categories that are not definitionally hierarchical is a step, one step, in the right direction towards eliminating the many structures and systems of racism that exist in American culture, American minds, American hearts. Eliminating the concept of “whiteness”– seeing ourselves and each other in terms that are not specifically defined by who is accorded cultural superiority– is a step toward eliminating that cultural superiority and building equity.

I’m not naive enough to think that whiteness is something I can unilaterally renounce for myself, and step out of the white privilege that exists as a prominent part of my intersectional identity. But I do think that all of us living as “white” people together taking responsibility for the impact of “whiteness” on people of color, renouncing that label and hierarchical concept, and claiming identities not based in deliberate cultural hierarchy as a tool for oppression, is one first necessary step towards dismantling white privilege. White privilege will always exist as long as we reinforce the racist concept of “whiteness.” This will take generations, so we better get cracking.

Refuse your whiteness. It’s a disease that feeds on Black lives. Claim identities that speak to your truth, not to a history of oppression.

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How We Stop Abuse in Theatre

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The initial response to the devastating exposé of the abuse at celebrated Chicago theatre Profiles Theatre was swift and decisive: we were all appalled. Nearly everyone in the industry decried the abuse in no uncertain terms. We were appalled that a theatre would continue to allow such actions, even from a founding member and a widely respected (and lauded) artist like Darrell Cox. “How could this happen?” we asked ourselves. “Not in our house,” we repeated, echoing the Chicago group bravely attempting to stem abuse in Chicago theatre.

And then, because we were not the ones accused, we went about our business, which includes hiring abusers and making excuses for them.

When I posted the story on social media in June, I wrote that I would stand by anyone in the Bay Area who needed someone to stand with them. A number of people contacted me privately to share their stories. Not one was willing to come forward publicly for fear of retaliation and public scorn. A few refused to name their abusers, instead providing me with leading clues like, “won X award X year” or “directed a lot of [playwright] during [years].” One mentioned that she initially wanted to file a report to AEA, but was cautioned against it by other women– fear the consequences, she was told. For good reason– our culture is unkind, to say the least, to women who publicly speak out about their abuse, especially at the hands of powerful men. Our first impulse is to call her a liar, out for personal gain. As if anything could be gained that way but scorn, trauma, pain.

I thought long and hard about what to do with these stories. I won’t make public accusations because these aren’t my stories to tell, and I will not violate the consent of these people who bravely shared their stories with me. But I will take this knowledge and create a primer for fellow Artistic Directors and others in positions of power– including board members– at theatres to give them a clear picture of where we have failed our people over the years and how we can do better in the future. I will not name names. But I can point to where we went wrong.

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1. Make sure that everyone working in your theatre understands that you have a zero tolerance policy for abuse. I never did this, trusting to our “culture of respect,” and I count it as one of my worst failures as an Artistic Director. Openly state your zero tolerance policy while clearly defining “abuse” and clearly stating consequences. Not in Our House (linked above) is developing a Code of Conduct for non-AEA theatres that they are allowing others to access online, but not to adopt unless they are a designated pilot theatre. They hope to release adoption in 2017. Until that time, it’s a great document to use as a model to create your own basic set of rules. While we cannot yet adopt their code, I feel strongly that we in the indie theatre community cannot continue to run with *zero* code of conduct. If you’re an AEA theatre, do not assume that everyone on your team knows and understands AEA rules of conduct. Make sure everyone knows what you expect, and what you will not tolerate. THEN ENFORCE IT.

2. When people come to you with stories of abuse, complaints that someone is making them uncomfortable, complaints that someone is not respecting their boundaries, LISTEN TO THEM and BELIEVE THEM. Quietly take other members of the team aside and talk to them to get a clearer picture about what’s happening if necessary, but believe me, very few take the risk to come forward without good reason. Then enforce your zero tolerance policy with its clearly stated consequences. Do not protect abusers, minimize abuse, or sweep it under the rug.

3. Pay close attention to the behavior of the people you have on staff. People will not always be brave enough to come forward about bad behavior. Sometimes people gaslight victims by claiming that the abuse is “just the way he is,” “not a big deal,” or “just because he’s a genius and passionate about his work.” Victims begin to second-guess themselves and worry about the consequences of coming forward when others are minimizing or excusing bad behavior. There could easily be problems, even abuse, in your house without anyone coming forward to tell you about them directly. We must be proactive. Think: Has any director in your theatre ever berated an actress in rehearsal until she cried? Has any director in your theatre insisted they could block a fight themselves, despite their lack of training and/or certification, putting your actors at risk? Has anyone in your company publicly derided the work of others on the project as “stupid,” “worthless,” or “idiotic”? Has a choreographer ever told an actor in rehearsal they were “talentless” or “useless”? Has anyone on your team made a racist, antisemitic, sexist, transphobic, ableist, or otherwise bigoted joke? Has a production photographer joked publicly that he was only planning to take pictures of the scantily-clad young actresses in your show? Does someone in a position of power at your company proposition young actors, start affairs with them while they’re under contract, single them out and flirt with them during rehearsal? Has someone in your company threatened to dock someone’s pay for refusing to do something that’s outside the scope of their contract? Has anyone in your company violated any contract (for example, used someone else’s writing or fight choreography without permission) and insisted that others maintain secrecy? Pay attention and nip that behavior in the bud.

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4. Stop hiring “geniuses.” As I say above, “he’s a genius and just passionate about his work” has long been used to excuse abusive behavior. We’ve created a mythology around the “auteur” whose passion is so great that he “can’t help” flying into rages, berating people who “aren’t on his level” or who don’t give him exactly what he wants (as it changes from day to day or he fails to be clear about it). Sometimes his affairs with young actors in the show are part of his “passionate” persona. He just can’t help himself! He makes unreasonable demands and insists others work around the clock to satisfy them. When his work is racist or sexist, lavish excuses are made for it. It’s “brave,” “daring,” or “honest.” Asshole “auteurs” are not cute. They are assholes. And more often than not in this collaborative art form, the work suffers for it. No one is doing their best work when their goal is to keep someone from screaming at them. Make “respectful” a more important quality in an artist than “mad genius.” And while I’m using the male pronoun here because the “auteur” mythology is largely white and male, these people come in all types. Stop hiring “geniuses.”

5. Stop perpetuating the mythology that anything should be tolerated because “the show must go on.” This is, in part, a corollary to #4 because it’s trotted out as an excuse for the behavior of the asshole “auteur.” “We just need to get the show up” is a fact, but you don’t “just need to get the show up” at the expense of the health and safety of the people working on it. Your “auteur” does not actually need to behave like a jackass, and only does so because it’s tolerated. You don’t actually need to hold people after the stated end of rehearsal. You don’t actually need to brush off the very real concerns of your actors about working without a fight director. You don’t actually need to brush off the concerns of your actresses about an actor creeping on them backstage. There is always a choice.

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I understand these conversations are difficult to have. I understand your “genius” has been a member of your company, or its AD, for years, and contributed wonderful things to it. Perhaps your “genius” is even a founding member, like Darrell Cox, or a personal friend. I understand that your “genius” makes your theatre money and wins it awards, again, like Darrell Cox. I understand that you believe the ends justify the means, because the livelihoods of others are dependent upon the success of your theatre, and that’s a real, palpable burden. I understand that your “genius” likely believes his behavior is totally justified, and will be resentful and angry if called out. I understand– believe me I understand– that even people who aren’t protected by a “genius” status are protected by the fact that you believe you will be screwed without the work they’re doing for your company.

But you do not need to tolerate this behavior. It may be as simple as laying down the law with someone and being clear about what you will not tolerate. It may be that this person refuses to address their behavior, and they need to be let go before they demolish your mission, your reputation, and your company.

You do not need to keep hiring these people. For every “genius” you hire repeatedly despite known bad behavior or even known abuse there are five overlooked artists who are wonderful to work with.There’s no reason to tolerate this behavior.

I have made errors in my career because I believed I “had no choice,” but I did. There is always a choice. And I will carry the shame of those decisions until my dying day. I remember the names of every person I failed to protect, either because I believed wrongly that I had no choice, or because I was ignorant of what was happening in my own house (which is just as much my fault, because if someone wasn’t coming to me, or if I failed to see something, that’s on me). It’s a weight I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

As long as we continue to protect, excuse, and ignore bad behavior, it will continue to happen. As long as we continue to reward bad behavior and even abuse with future employment, prestigious awards, and coveted positions, we’re plainly stating to our community that our people are worthless to us; that people (especially white men) in powerful positions are untouchable; that speaking out will be ignored or punished; that there’s nothing that can stop the abuse.

But there is. WE CAN STOP IT by refusing to continue tolerating this behavior. By refusing to continue protecting and rewarding abusers. By refusing to continue pretending that the bad behavior of “geniuses” isn’t abuse but “passion.”

WE CAN STOP IT. It’s our choice.

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Dear Senator Sanders: Please Save America

Senator Sanders:
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I have been talking and writing about income inequality (and its impact on both our country and my industry) for years. I was thrilled to see that issue move from “un-American communism” to smack in the middle of the national conversation, and for that, I have Bernie Sanders to thank. I wrote in April that you had already accomplished all you were going to accomplish this election cycle, but what you had accomplished was breathtaking. That this movement MUST continue, MUST succeed, for the good of the nation. I sit here as a Jewish woman stunned by three things I never believed would happen– a serious Jewish candidate, a woman as the presumptive Democratic nominee, and one of the most important issues facing our country suddenly on the table.
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This is a massively historic moment.
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Senator Sanders, I sincerely thank you. And I sincerely hope you don’t let your personal political aspirations destroy a movement that literal lives are depending on. Now that you have the nation’s ear, you can do so much more about economic injustice from your Senate seat than you can as POTUS. POTUS has a zillion issues to contend with, but economic justice can be your legacy. Return to the Senate. Build coalitions– work with people, compromise, win people over– push legislation that makes sense, that will actually pass. Make incremental progress every moment until you can no longer fight. THAT’S where we need you– not in the seat that signs or vetoes, but in the seat that WRITES.
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Stop refusing to stump for downticket races unless they have endorsed your presidential bid first– those people on the ground will be your left and right hands in this movement going forward. You need them. We ALL need them. Change begins at the grassroots level.
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Please, please do not sacrifice this movement– one of the most important political movements of our lifetimes– on the altar of your political ambition. WE NEED YOU WRITING BILLS IN THE SENATE and then using the political clout you’ve gained over the past year to get them passed and signed. You’re focusing on continuing to push forward in a lost primary in order to gain power to influence a platform that’s essentially just a wishlist when you could be focusing instead on the actual legislation that will make those wishes a reality.
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The issue of economic injustice and the way it has prevented our nation from achieving anything like the equality and hope we say we stand for is the point upon which turns an America that means something and an America that happily disenfranchises women, people of color, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and many more. Either we approach this issue intersectionally, tirelessly, and immediately, or we become a third world nation. That’s what’s at stake, and Senator Sanders, you are our best hope. We desperately need you in the Senate, writing bills and using your newfound clout to pass them. America has given you an immense gift– more power than 99.999999% of the people in this nation. Use it where we need you most.
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Senator Sanders, you could permanently change the nation for the better if you use your power and fame wisely. Or you could throw everything you worked for away and leave the American people who need you in the Senate– who need you drafting legislation and getting it passed– hanging because you want the big chair despite losing the election.
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I know it’s hard to lose. But we’re counting on you. You currently occupy one of the most elite, powerful seats in the nation. Go sit in it and make things happen. Change America for the better. You already have this power. Please use it for the good of the country. The primaries are all but over, but your Senate seat is empty. That’s where we need you.
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Senator Sanders, please return to the Senate and start the hard work of leading a movement to save this nation. You already have so much power. You don’t need more to get this work done.
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Sanders, Trump, and their Angry White Men

This is the Election Cycle of the Angry White Person, Mostly Men. This particular kind of Angry White Person supports either Trump or Sanders, and is defined both by their privilege and by saying they’d rather stay home than vote for anyone else. A surprising number of Sanders supporters have said they will vote for Trump if it’s HRC/Trump. This phenomenon bears examining.

This is a certain type of Angry White Person, not all angry white people everywhere, just in case you’re feeling fragile and need a #notallwhitepeople or #notallmen. Or even a #notallSanderssupporters, because it most definitely is a subset, and a minor one at that, but so vocal, so active, so, well, LOUD, they’re impacting the election cycle as a whole. I may yet vote for Sanders myself, not that it matters, as I’m in California and our primary is like five minutes before the election.

This subset of Angry White People I’m talking about are attracted to either Trump or Sanders, period. Their personal politics will push them in one direction or the other, but the basic exchange between voter and candidacy is exactly the same.

Right now, white people are starting to lose their privilege (or, more accurately, fear they might lose it) as we strive as a culture for equilibrium. White people are being asked to examine their complicity in a system that’s racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, etc. Many white people, especially men, are upset and angry that they, who believe they are good people– who ARE good people– who believe they are “not racist” and “not sexist,” are still associated with systemic oppression, still asked to examine their privilege. Unjustly accused, they believe, of being “the bad guy.”

Along come two angry white men, both of whom say “America’s problems are not your fault. YOU’RE the victim of an unjust system. You have every right to be angry! The system is rigged against you, so get angry and fight back!”

This is music to the ears of a certain type of white person. Trump lays it at the door of “political correctness” unjustly oppressing white men, and Sanders lays it at the door of an unjust economic system. I agree that economic injustice is a massive problem in the US, but that’s immaterial to the point I’m trying to make.

Many Sanders supporters are baffled when their fellow Sanders supporters say they would stay home and allow Trump to win or even vote for him themselves should the general election be Trump v HRC. Liberal and progressive politics center around championing the vulnerable, and in general, those voters recognize the danger that Trump– and the GOP in general– present to the vulnerable in the US. They understand that the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good when actual lives are at stake. They know that the luxury to pretend that Clinton is the same as Trump only comes with the kind of privilege that insulates one from the consequences of the election. They understand what Sanders’ support of feminism and anti-racism initiatives means.

But, as we’ve seen, not every Sanders supporter actually listens to Sanders, and many are so caught up in the message that they, as white people, are victims of an unjust economic system that they refuse to consider how the consequences of this election might impact people more vulnerable than they, making them “Bernie or Bust.” And while there are indeed “Bernie or Bust” people of color, the vast majority of them are white– the vast majority of Sanders’ supporters in general are white. It’s been a problem dogging the Sanders campaign from the beginning and the reason he’s not likely to win the nomination.

This particular type of Angry White Sanders Supporters are defined by their response when it’s suggested that they should “vote blue, no matter who” in the general election to protect the vulnerable against the real dangers of a Trump presidency. They reject, with angry indignation, the idea that the actual lives of the vulnerable should take precedence over what they’re mistakenly calling their “conscience,” but what is really “my anger is more important than the lives of the vulnerable.” They say, “If I’m Bernie or Bust, don’t blame me, blame Hillary Clinton,” which means exactly same thing: my feelings matter more than, to name just one example, protecting Muslims from the policies of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. They’re more than willing to sacrifice the safety of vulnerable Americans if they don’t get precisely what they want. They see compromise as a line impossible to cross, no matter the cost– especially when the cost is one they themselves will not have to pay.

This kind of Angry White Person is excited to finally be in a place where they’re back in the center, where they’re The Victim, where they’re no longer associated with The Bad Guy, The Man, The White Male Monolith, The Patriarchy. They finally have a place that tells them that they’re the true victims of injustice.

Of course they aren’t going to vote for HRC; of course they’re going to believe whatever debunked propaganda they can find about her, of course they’re going to disparage her in sexist terms; of course they’re going to demonize her. There’s a certain kind of person who needs to believe the propaganda about her, because he’s enraptured by a world wherein white people, especially men, are the victims of an unjust system, not the architects and enforcers of one. He can’t– or he won’t– entertain the notion that white people can be both simultaneously. “Bernie or bust” = “my worldview at ALL costs.”

(And here it is again, in case you tend to confuse “people who do this” with “all you people do this”: #notallSanderssupporters #notallwhitepeople #notallmen.)

While White Anger is pretty much the alpha and omega of the Trump campaign, it’s only part of the Sanders campaign. Yet it’s such a vocal part that it’s become one of the most persistent negative aspects dogging it, doing Sanders much more harm than good.

There are two kinds of anger dominating Sanders followers: The first is the righteous anger over decades of economic injustice bolstered by every aspect of the oligarchy we foolishly made of the republic we were given. It’s an anger that recognizes that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, Islamophobia, and every kind of injustice and bigotry are serious problems in and of themselves in addition to, not in opposition to, economic injustice, that recognizes the importance of intersectionality. These are people fighting for the vulnerable, whether their own intersectional identities fall into any of those categories or not. I believe these are the (somewhat silent) majority of Sanders supporters. I hope they are. I would count myself among them, no matter who I vote for in the primary. In the general, I will proudly cast my vote for either Democratic candidate, because these issues– these people– matter to me.

This brings me to the particular kind of White Anger I’m discussing– the second kind of anger dominating Sanders followers. It’s an anger that rejects any consideration of other issues, that rejects any consideration of others, period. The White Anger that revels in its own importance and cannot, even for a moment, entertain the notion of having to return to a place where their white privilege or their male privilege– their association with, and potential complicity with, systems of oppression– becomes important, instead refusing to leave the circle where they can claim that they are the ones against whom the gravest injustice has been committed, everyone else be damned. The people who would throw the vulnerable under the bus to preserve the illusion that they are the ones suffering the gravest injustice, deserving of the most urgent attention, and entitled not just to the front of the line, but to the entire line.

 

 

 

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“I’ll Never Vote for Hillary!” Yeah, OK.

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The latest installment of “The Internet Explodes with Hatred for Hillary Clinton” happened earlier this week, when HRC (whose own record on AIDS research and funding is better than any other candidate) mistakenly said that Nancy Reagan was a lowkey supporter of AIDS research, when Reagan was, in reality, a massive asshole about AIDS in every possible way. Clinton immediately apologized, then apologized again, at length. Yet we’re still seeing a wagonload of “I’ll never vote for her” from progressives, as if her words about Reagan trump (and I’m using that verb deliberately) her actual record on AIDS research and funding. Why?
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Clinton’s stellar record on AIDS is ignored while people indignantly attack her for making an inaccurate statement. I like Bernie. I really do feel the Bern. But I see Democrats brush aside things he and other male politicians have done while raining fire on Hillary for the exact same thing– or something much less. This happens all the time. Hillary is flamed for being a “career politician” and an “insider” when Sanders has been in political office for much longer than she has. (Hillary was first elected to political office in 2000; Sanders was elected to his first office in 1981 and his first national office in 1991.) People flame Hillary for speaking in favor of the omnibus crime bill in the 90s when she was First Lady– a position with no political power– but Bernie, as a member of Congress, actually had the power to enact it into law, voting in favor of it despite the fact that many of his colleagues did not.
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I’m not here to argue Hillary vs Bernie. I genuinely like them both. I’m here to say that I’m sick of seeing her reviled for the same things people forgive easily when they’re done by men, and that the stakes are too high this election cycle to indulge that or leave it unexamined. If you’re reviling Hillary for saying something racist and stupid in 1994 in favor of a crime bill that turned out to be a very bad idea, but you’re not reviling Sanders for actually using his political power to make that very bad crime bill law, I want you to take a long, long think about why that is. If you’re reviling Hillary for campaign contributions made by banks, but did not revile Obama for the same thing, I want you to take a long, long think about why that is.
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Those of us who are old enough to remember what it was like to live under Reagan and the Bushes remember how bad it was. How much better almost everything– including the economy and job growth— got under Clinton and Obama. I lived through it, and I would support half a Snapple as the Democratic nominee rather than go back to the policies of Reagan or (any) Bush.I see people swear up and down their hatred of Hillary isn’t because she’s a woman, or doesn’t stem directly from decades of vicious, lying conservative propaganda— they will swear it!– and then immediately turn around and eviscerate her for something Bernie did (or is) himself, or call her a “crook,” or say nonsense like, “She doesn’t have an honest bone in her body.” Conservative copywriters, whoever you are, I applaud you for your success in taking a complete and total fabrication and successfully integrating it so far into the American consciousness that there are people who agree with nearly every policy position HRC has today, yet will still claim she’s “dishonest.” That’s some impressive chicanery, and I mean that.
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We should be closely examining all candidates for office, and balanced, honest criticism of a candidate’s record and policies is crucial. Respectful debate about the candidates is necessary and healthy. But supporting Sanders should not be the same as hating Hillary. Too many people are not debating the candidates and their various records or platforms logically, instead viciously reviling Clinton– often in misogynistic terms– for things they routinely excuse in male politicians. And I have to say, the level of unfocused, irrational vitriol feels an awful lot like what conservatives have been doing to Obama for years.

There’s not a thing wrong with choosing Bernie over Hillary, or disliking Hillary’s current policy proposals. However, the out-and-out hatred we’re seeing from some Sanders supporters (and about which I am hardly the first person to write), bears some serious scrutiny. While the Sanders campaign has made real efforts to deal with the worst of it– the “Bernie Bros” acting as a misogynistic mob, attacking Clinton and her supporters Gamergate style; the “Bern the Witch” controversy– there’s still far too much active hatred, and far too much of it is misogynistic or coded misogyny. Far too much of it stems from willing belief in conservative propaganda about HRC that has been debunked over and over.

I think we all expected it, but I did not expect it from our side.

It’s one thing to prefer one candidate over another. That’s healthy. That’s admirable. It’s another to actively HATE a candidate for doing EXACTLY the same things as the last three men you voted for, despite her liberal record.
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Let’s think practically about the election in November.
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If Trump gets elected, how many vulnerable people will be hurt, how many programs cut, how bad will the the economy get under conservative policies? How much damage will be done if Trump, an open racist and misogynist, is empowered to command our military, veto bills, and nominate people to the Supreme Court, impacting life in the US for decades to come? Trump exhorts his followers to attack Black protestors at his rallies (“The next time we see him, we might have to kill him,” a follower said  after punching a Black protestor at a rally earlier this week), excuses his followers who attack Mexicans on the street, claims Mexican immigrants are rapists, refused to distance himself from the KKK, supports banning Muslims from even entering the US, advocates killing the families of terrorists, and is openly sexist. Trump is the worst America has to offer.
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How privileged do you need to be to imagine that it’s a good idea to risk the actual lives of vulnerable Americans because you “hate” Hillary so much you vow to stay home if Sanders doesn’t get the nomination? How protected from the consequences of a Trump presidency do you need to be to think your hatred of Hillary constitutes, as I saw someone say earlier this week, an “inviolable principle,” meaning, more important than the actual lives of vulnerable Americans? That all applies equally to anyone saying the same about Sanders. (We have yet to see the full weight of American antisemitism aimed at Sanders, and if he wins the nomination, we most certainly will.)
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Vote for whoever you like in the primary. But let’s step away from vicious attacks and hatred. Let’s step away from buying into debunked conservative propaganda about Clinton’s trustworthiness. Let’s look at the candidates’ actual proposals and weigh those proposals’ actual strengths and weaknesses. Let’s respect each other’s choices in the primaries.

And whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, the stakes are far, far too high for us to selfishly stay home because we didn’t get our first choice. I will happily, proudly vote for either Clinton or Sanders, and I hope you will do the right thing and join me.

NOTE: The comments for the post are now closed. Thanks for reading Bitter Gertrude!
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White People: Shut Up About Beyoncé

After the release of her game-changing, brilliant video, Formation, and the stir her Superbowl halftime show caused with dancers dressed like Black Panthers, Beyoncé is blowing up everyone’s feeds everywhere. And one thing I am shocked/notshocked to see is white outrage about both.

Let me begin by saying that I’m not a Beyoncé fan. I’m not a fan of any of the pop divas. I don’t have anything against them; it’s just not music that interests me. So Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Madonna, Mariah, Adele, I apologize, but I’m sure you and your massive success could not possibly care less that I would rather be listening to punk or classical. The only reason I’m pointing this out is to make sure you know I’m not a Beyoncé fan. This is not about defending a beloved star.

Let me tell you what it IS about.

The vast majority of Black people in the US are descended from people who were dragged here against their will and forced to live in a culture that shut them out completely from mainstream artistic production for 400 years. For 400 years, Black people were living in a culture where their pain, their culture, and their art were appropriated and sanitized for white consumption, or, more often, shut out of the narrative entirely, replaced by racist caricatures or rendered invisible. For 400 years, the stories of Black people on this continent were untold, belittled, or made the tools of white narrative and white profit.

Now we’re in a cultural moment where there are powerful, mainstream Black artists telling Black stories that may or may not include white people, may tell uncomfortable truths about white people in Black lives, or may use white people as metaphors. For 400 years Black people were used as metaphors in white art, so my sympathy for “not all white people” and “that’s not fair” is somewhere at the bottom of a pile of Magical Negroes, Gone with the Wind, and token Black friends.

In this cultural moment where powerful, mainstream Black artists like Beyoncé are telling their stories on their own terms, the white people who controlled the narrative– including how and when Black stories have been told– for the past 400 years need to sit back, shut up, and listen, listen, listen. You don’t like how white people are being portrayed? Spend some time thinking about why Black artists are portraying white people that way instead of demanding they adjust their stories to conform to your self-image as “the good guy.” We are not the heroes in these stories. We are not the intended audience. We are irrelevant, and there’s nothing people in power hate more than to be made irrelevant, but the fact remains that these are Black stories, by, for, and about Black people. You don’t like it? Don’t watch. But I recommend that you do, and give it some real thought. This is their truth. You do not get to dictate how Black artists see or portray their own lives.

And if the image of the tiny child dancing in front of a line of police officers, who then surrender to him, does not move you after little Tamir Rice (and so many others), you have no soul.

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The line of riot police surrendering to the power of a beautiful dancing child is not “anti-white” or “anti-police.” It is pro-hope, pro-life, pro-art, and pro-Black. If you don’t like the metaphor of the line of white police officers here, I suggest you spend some time thinking about why Beyoncé chose it.

The Formation video and the Superbowl show are examples of a powerful Black woman at the top of her game brilliantly telling Black stories for Black people, brilliantly seizing the narrative and asserting the beauty, power, and truth of a people who have been stringently and deliberately silenced for centuries in this country.

The call for Black women to get in formation, get information, and celebrate their power gave me chills. You hear a lot about “Black excellence,” and Formation is a potent reminder that Black excellence isn’t something created by white people congratulating themselves for bending down to hand out opportunities. Too many of us define “white ally” as “someone who is desperately needed by Black people to help them, and therefore deserves all the cookies.” Black excellence is already there, has always been there. It doesn’t need white validation, and the lack of fucks Beyoncé has for white validation from the center of her Black power is giving some white people fits.

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Beyoncé, I hope you’re bathing in a marble tub full of white tears this morning.

My fellow white people: Listen. Listen. Listen. This is a Black moment, rarer than rare in this culture. If you don’t like the way Black artists portray white people, work on changing the impact of white people in Black lives, not on telling Black people they’re wrong about their own lives.

SIGNAL BOOST: “We Slay, Part I” by New South Negress is an excellent analysis of Formation.

IN ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTIONS:

  1. No, the title is not meant literally.
  2. No, I am not an angry Black lady, but thank you for the compliment.
  3. No, capitalizing “Black” does not reveal a secret plot for racial superiority. Capitalizing the word “Black” in reference to people is a linguistic thing. “White people” has a squidgy definition and refers to a hodgepodge of people from varied ethnic groups, all of which are capitalized, such as “Celtic people” or “Swedish people.” “Black” as shorthand for “The people of the African Diaspora living in the United States” is rightly capitalized as “Black people” in the same way we say “French people.” “African American” is linguistically and historically troubled because “Africa” is a continent with thousands of disparate cultures, and the people we label as such were forcibly separated from most aspects of their cultures of origin when they got to the US, creating an entirely new, coherent culture best described as “Black.” Of course, the word as an ethnic descriptor has other applications (“Black people in Germany,” for example), but this is the one I’m using in the article. Not all linguists agree, but that’s my position.

 

 

 

 

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The Oscars: As Silly and Useless as Ever, and Yet Crucially Important

The Oscars are nonsense. They’re Hollywood’s Homecoming Queen elections, as insular, as clique-ish, and as disconnected from any actual merit as any Homecoming election in any rich white high school. Rich white people congratulating each other for the kinds of achievements attainable only by people sitting atop an obscene amount of money– their own or someone else’s. They ask you to believe that the actual best acting, best directing, best editing, and best design of the year just always happen to be located in the one narrow strip of filmmaking that (entirely coincidentally!) has the most funding.

So the Oscars are more or less the Tonys of the filmworld– limited to a very narrow strip of exceptionally well-funded work while we all pretend the awards somehow represent the best of the nation’s work as a whole.

Most of the artists who receive Oscars or Tonys did a fine, in many cases excellent, job. I begrudge them nothing and honestly wish them nothing but the best. But it’s important to remember that we don’t give awards for the “best” work in theatre or film because we don’t even consider most work, and, most importantly, there’s no objective way to measure whose artistry is “the best” once you’ve eliminated some of the obvious worst– and, let’s face it, when it comes to Oscars for acting, even that’s seldom done.

We give these kinds of awards based on how an artist makes us feel; generally, how an artist makes us feel about ourselves. There’s an old saying: “When the audience cries, it’s not about you; it’s about them.” The people who vote for these awards are no different.

Despite the fact that these awards are meaningless as measures of artistic merit, they contain an immense cultural value. A great deal of that stems from the narrative of artistic supremacy created by Broadway and Hollywood. There are an entrenched group of extremely wealthy and powerful people whose fortunes depend on you continuing to believe that Broadway and/or Hollywood represent the pinnacle of American performative art. They’ve built and expertly marketed a superstructure of dreams and wishes that will make people who’ve never worked in either Broadway or Hollywood defend their artistic supremacy as if they’re defending their own children. I actually admire the way Broadway and Hollywood have controlled that narrative. There’s a terrible beauty to that level of cultural manipulation.

An immense part of that narrative of supremacy is rooted in the cultural supremacy that comes from cultural saturation, something only money can buy. A film like Fifty Shades of Grey–a film of questionable merit on many fronts— had the financial backing to play in theatres all across the country (and the world, but our cultural exports are a story for another blog), saturate the market with advertising, and command enormous press attention, garnering $166 million at the box office ($570.5 globally) and a basket of award nominations for The Weeknd for Best Original Song (Oscars and Golden Globes among them), while literally hundreds of much better films lacked the financial backing to receive such culturally potent– and lucrative– attention. Fifty Shades of Grey becomes, therefore, a permanent part of our culture, attaining a position of influence unrelated to merit, created by the wealth of its backers. People in the BDSM community were largely aghast at the misconceptions about themselves and their lives now lodged like a tick into the national consciousness. Now people who have never met anyone in the BDSM community “know” what “those people” are like, will make decisions about “those people” based on that. The power of cultural saturation coupled with the myth of artistic supremacy is immense. Everyone sees X + X comes from an “important” source = X is truth, even when X is demonstrable bullshit.

This is why, despite the fact that I will laugh in your face if you tell me the Oscars have artistic meaning, I think it’s crucial that we look closely at the messages we’re sending when we shut people of color out of those awards, because those messages have immense power in the real world.

First of all, do not bother to comment that a number of people of color were nominated for the Oscars this year, including Best Director and Best Original Song, mentioned above. I know many people who work behind the camera, and I am keenly aware that the current discourse is limited to the actor awards. It irritates me that tech people, directors, designers, and writers are so easily disregarded, and that the work of actors is regarded as so much more important in a medium where the work of the actor is actually of far less import than the underscoring, cinematography, and editing. The cultural primacy of the film actor exists, whether I like it or not. There’s a culturally important mythology around film actors that just doesn’t exist for most of us behind the camera. They are our mythological figures– our Achilles, our Ajax, our Helen, even our Artemis, Athena, Hermes, Apollo. We create unending mythology about them and their lives. The mythological Jennifer Lawrence is a combination of Artemis and Dionysus in our culture right now. Yet the real Jennifer Lawrence is just a young woman, no different than any other. We have raised her (more accurately, a mythologized version of her) to a mythological height that makes what she eats, what she wears, what she says, what she does, and who she sleeps with a matter of national interest, just as humans once created stories about what their gods ate, wore, said, did, and nailed. Film actors are seen, in essence, as metaphors for Human.

Because the Academy members are nearly uniformly white men over 60, the awards are almost always given to other white people– human metaphors that are emotionally potent for the person voting on the award. When an award is given to an actor of color, these older white men are still voting based on how the artist makes them feel about themselves– in this case, self-congratulatedly “not racist.” Then, satisfied that they got the Good White Person cookie, they go right back to nominating and awarding reflections of themselves.

So when we choose a thin, able-bodied, all-white pantheon to honor for film acting, it says that the people who are the best metaphors for Human are thin, white, and physically “perfect.” Our culture is filled to the brim with negative portrayals of people of color. When children grow up, they look to the culture at large to determine what’s expected of them. Are we really OK with a culture that tells children of color– on the cusp of becoming the largest population of children in this country— that they’re not as worthy as white children? For that matter, are we really OK with telling our girls that their worth is indelibly attached to their attractiveness to men? Because we do both, all the time, and they’ve resulted in a million different kinds of cultural and personal problems.

So I applaud the Academy’s response to the current controversy. I think increasing the amount of women and people of color on the panel is the best thing the Academy can do, since that diversity will result in more diverse choices. What needs to happen concurrently, of course, is better representation of women and people of color across the board in Hollywood, just as there should be on Broadway and across the professional theatre community as a whole.

But let me be clear here: (coughs, turns on mic) NOTHING CHANGES IF ALL THE GATEKEEPERS CONTINUE TO BE WHITE MEN.

The Academy is making the best possible decision. I hope it happens in time to make swift changes, not glacially slow ones, as is too often the case. And our own best possible decision is to increase the number of women and people of color who are in gatekeeping positions of power in the rest of the film industry and in theatre.

It’s a massive problem if the solution to a lack of diversity becomes asking white men to please hire more women and people of color, thank you. We need more women and people of color in these decision-making, content-creating positions of power or all we’re doing is preserving the cultural primacy and power of white men.

 

I’m not saying that we should fire all white men and give their jobs to women and people of color. I AM saying that when these jobs become available– when it’s time to hire artistic directors, producers, and the like– let’s consider hiring someone other than the white guy every single time. I’ve been watching this for a couple of decades now, and almost every time a position of power opens up, it’s filled by a man, usually white, always able-bodied, usually straight. Out of 70 LORT member theatres, 50 (71.4%) have white male Artistic Directors, 16 (22.8%) are led by white women, 4 (5.7%) by men of color, and zero by women of color. When you consider that white men are just 31% of the population, that’s significant favoritism at play.

It’s nonsense to say that there are just fewer women qualified to produce either theatre or film. The indie world is dominated by women. We just don’t promote them to the high-paid gigs as often as we do the straight white guys because our hiring practices are exactly the same as our awarding practices– the white guys in power are looking for reflections of themselves.

We’re asking the existing people in power who created the lack of diversity in the first place to create the diversity we want. And they will, to a point, if we push hard enough. But as soon as the cultural attention moves elsewhere, those people– straight white able-bodied male people in power– will go right back to making decisions that reflect their own experiences of the world– will go on making decisions that mythologize people like themselves– because they are human, and that’s what humans tend to do. And yes, there are many white men who are committed to diversity in their theatre or film companies, but they are, obviously, the exception or we wouldn’t be here, sitting in the middle of dismal diversity stats.

All I’m asking is that we, who work in these industries, make conscious decisions to include women and people of color when we’re hiring for these gatekeeping positions. We understand the immense cultural power of the actor, but we who work in these industries– most of us behind the scenes– also understand the even more potent gatekeeping power of the people who choose the actors– and everyone else on staff.

There’s nothing wrong with telling stories from a straight white male perspective. They are humans who deserve to have their stories told. But we need to make room for the other 69% of our population as well. The way to do that is to ensure that the people making the decisions about what stories get told, how they’re told, and who tells them are representative of the population as a whole.

In case you’re interested:

Over the course of its history, 66 Black actors have been nominated for an Oscar and 15 have won; 28 Latino actors have been nominated and 9 have won; 17 Asian actors have been nominated and 4 have won. This is the 88th Oscars, meaning 352 awards to actors have been given overall out of 1760 nominees.

Black actors nominated = 3.75% of total nominations; Black actors awarded = 4% of total awarded

Latino actors = 1.6% of total nominations; 2.5% of total awarded

Asian actors = 1% of total nominations; 1.1% of total awarded

For comparison, Black people are 13.2% of the US population; Latinos are 17%, and Asians are 5.6%.

 

 

 

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Goodbye, Old Friend

 

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Marissa Keltie and Reggie D. White in the world premiere production of Lauren Yee’s Crevice, 2012, directed by Desdemona Chiang. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The news has dropped that this, our 20th season, will be my company’s last as a producing organization. It’s been overwhelming and emotional to say the least. I’ve been away from the blog, social media, and, you know, REALITY for awhile while we were working toward this decision. I have a lot of things to say and some memories to share.

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Alyssa Bostwick in a PR shot for Scab, 2003, the production that introduced the work of Sheila Callaghan to the Bay Area. Directed by me. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

 

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One of our earliest flyers. This was 1997. Pictured are the people who wrote and directed the short plays, since that’s who we had on hand. L to R: Charlie Marenghi, Alex Pearlstein, Tonia Sutherland, and Christopher Morrison.

I’m deeply grateful for all the love and support given us over the years by our artists and audiences, local critics, and theatremakers and writers nationwide. Impact’s mission was always one of service. Our mission was to provide early-career actors, writers, directors, designers, and tech professional opportunities while producing work that spoke to a younger generation of theatregoers– early-career audience, if you will. We felt that mission was underrepresented in the theatre community, so we set out to change that. Watching our artists grow– both in-house and as they moved on to bigger things– has been one of the most satisfying aspects of my life. Right this moment, there are artists who came through Impact working Off Broadway and at OSF, and, of course, in TV and film, whose voracious appetites for playwrights support emerging writers with regular salaries, a development I never could have predicted when we began this company in 1996. I know one day someone who came through Impact will be accepting that Tony, Oscar, or Pulitzer.

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Andrea Snow and Marissa Keltie in Disassembly, one of the six Steve Yockey plays (5 of which were world premieres) Impact produced, including the short play he wrote for Bread and Circuses, which he also curated. The first, Cartoon!, introduced his work to the Bay Area. Steve Yockey is the one who came up with the name “Bitter Gertrude” for this blog. I will always be grateful for his trust in us and his friendship. Plus he introduced me to Bitch Pudding. Steve’s plays are now done all over the country, and he writes for HBO’s The Brink. (Photo by Cheshire Isaacs, production directed by Desdemona Chiang)

 

If I had a coat of arms, it would be a pair of hands giving someone a boost-up. My only regret is that I couldn’t help more artists. Thank you for trusting us with your talent, your time, your attention, and your work. I love you all, you magnificent bastards.

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Reggie D. White and Anna Ishida in Titus Andronicus, 2012, directed by me. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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Jonathon Brooks as the character Jason portraying Kester the Younger, his D&D character, in Cameron McNary’s Of Dice and Men, 2011. When Of Dice and Men premiered at PAX, I was immediately contacted by a bunch of people asking me, excitedly, “Did you know there’s a D&D play?!” Evidently I was the leading nerd AD in the US at the time. I found Cameron, asked for the script, and knew within twenty minutes I had to produce and direct it. Cameron is yet another good friend I made working with this company.

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One of our PR shots for Macbeth, 2003, directed by me. Second from the left is Skyler Cooper (as Lenox), who would go on to play Othello in our lesbian Othello (picture below). Next to Skyler is Pete Caslavka (as Macbeth), a key member of my company for many years, now living in LA. I still miss him so much. Next to Pete is Casey Jackson (as Banquo), who would go on to play Iago in that same Othello. Photo by Kevin Berne in the alley behind our theatre. Skyler brought with her to this shoot the most beautiful woman any of us had ever seen in person. This was our introduction to Skyler’s power over women. They would show up at the theatre, dropping off gifts (like hand-dipped chocolate-covered strawberries for the cast) and cards, seeing if Skyler was there yet. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. She’s also an amazing actor and a wonderful, big-hearted human. You may have seen her on RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2011.

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Marissa Keltie as Desdemona and Skyler Cooper as Othello. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs, 2005.

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Prince Gomolvilas and Brandon Patton in one of the three incarnations we produced of their amazing show, Jukebox Stories. I adored all three of these shows. One day I’ll have to find a way to produce another one.

WHAT COMES NEXT

Impact 2.0 will exist online. Impact’s mission has always been one of service, so we’re discussing ways we can continue to be of service to the theatre community. We’re looking at providing profiles of artists and writers whose work we recommend, articles with advice for emerging artists, articles from varied and diverse perspectives in theatre, reviews of local indie shows, resources for teachers, and more. Nothing’s set in stone, but the new Impact will likely cover at least some of that. Our annual season planning retreat is MLK weekend, so we’ll be planning a new Impact for you then. Stay tuned. And again: THANK YOU.

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Pete Caslavka in The How-To Show, a collection of shorts directed by Alyssa Bostwick, 2006.

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Cheshire Isaacs created so many incredible posters for us. I’m partial to this one, because the actor on it is the Spawn of Gertrude– my youngest, Jonah, as Antenor, 2013. Jonah had tech instead of a 15th birthday party. We had cake and then got back to work. “Now you’re a real theatre professional. We don’t have birthdays– we have tech.”

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One of several poster images Cheshire designed for Impact that became the cover of the published version. (We did the west coast premiere of Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman, directed by Desdemona Chiang, in 2008.) Cheshire’s graphic design and production photography are the best in the nation. You can hire him for freelance work for your company by checking out Cheshiredave Creative at cheshiredave.com.

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Hamlet, 2006. The only Impact show I was ever in. L to R, Patrick Alparone as Hamlet, Cole Alexander Smith as Claudius, and yours truly as Gertrude. I was usually very ahem “hands on” in PR shots for our shows, but I obviously couldn’t be for this one. I couldn’t see what was going on, and my back hurt like fire trying to hold that position. Desdemona Chiang was my Assistant Director, and she kept stepping in to push my shoulder back to maintain that twist. Cheshire Isaacs was the photographer, and he later said that I complained more during this than anyone he’d ever shot apart from Olympia Dukakis. GOALS.

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Stacz Sadowski as Charles the wrestler and Miyaka Cochrane as Orlando in As You Like It, 2013. Directed by me, photo by Cheshire Isaacs, fights by Dave Maier. Dave and I tend to exacerbate each other when we work together. Our stage combat work has been so, so much fun. Miyaka became a core member of Impact during this show. It was only three years ago, but it seems like he’s always been with us. You can see him in the upcoming Comedy of Errors.

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Mike Delaney as Adam in the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s Toil and Trouble, 2012, directed by Josh Costello. Mike has been a key member of Impact for years, as well as (with Sarah Coykendall) half of the mad genius behind the half-filmed, half-staged cult classics The Sadist, Eegah!, and the upcoming Plan 9 from Outer Space, the last show of our 20th season, and our last show as a regularly producing company. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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Maria Giere Marquis as Zombie Marlene Dietrich in JC Lee’s “The Reanimation of Marlene Dietrich,” one of the short plays in Bread and Circuses, directed by Desdemona Chiang. Maria has been a core company member for years whose rock-solid brilliance in both comedy and drama has been recognized by critics all over the Bay Area. Maria will be in our upcoming Looney Tunes Comedy of Errors. JC Lee is now co-producing How to Get Away with Murder. Des Chiang is currently directing Nick Payne’s Constellations at Seattle Rep, then going on to direct Impact alum Cindy Im in The Winter’s Tale at OSF. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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Cindy Im as Feste in Twelfth Night, directed by me in 2010. Maria Giere Marquis as Viola and Seth Thygesen as Orsino in the background. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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George Sellner and Sarah Coykendall in a PR shot for The Dragon Play, 2015, that introduced the work of Jenny Connell Davis to the Bay Area. Sarah has been a core company member for years. I can’t imagine what we would have done without her immense talents as a stage manager, designer, and actor.

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Carlye Pollack and Marilet Martinez in the world premiere of Learn to be Latina by Enrique Urueta, 2010. Marilet is a company member whose excellent work in comedy, drama, and stage combat is highly sought after all over the Bay Area. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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One of my favorite Impact production shots. Chris Quintos in The Chalk Boy by Joshua Conkel, photo by Cheshire Isaacs, 2011.

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One of my favorite Impact poster images. My husband painted the mini to look like the actor playing our paladin, Jonathon Brooks. He painted minis for each member of the cast. Photo and design by Cheshire Isaacs.

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This was a picture Cheshire took to be used as a framed photo on the set of Richard III. Jon Nagel (my husband, an Impact actor and tech since 2003) as King Edward IV and Tamaaron Ishida-White as the little prince. Tamaaron is a reborn doll we bought to be used as the baby prop in Titus Andronicus. The actor playing Aaron, Reggie D. White, named the prop after its in-show parents (Tamora and Aaron) and the actors playing those roles (Anna Ishida and himself). The name stuck. Tamaaron has been one of the hardest-working babies in show business, going on to appear as the baby in the world premiere of Lauren Yee’s Crevice, as the infant Astyanax in Troilus and Cressida and as pretty much every baby we’ve ever needed.

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This is a quick snapshot my husband, Jon Nagel, took of himself and Ariel Irula during an early rehearsal for Bekah Brunstetter’s The Oregon Trail, (directed by Ariel Craft) the play that introduced Bekah’s work to the Bay Area, 2015. For some reason, he’s wearing his show hat and she’s wearing her normal hijab. Ariel played my husband’s younger daughter. She’s more than a foot shorter than he is, so he’s either scrooching down or she’s on a box. Because she’s so tiny, we called her “pocket daughter” through the whole thing. I still do, tbh. Ariel is a young actor I believe in with all my heart. I would have loved to have made her a company member. Cast her in everything, you guys.

 

 

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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.

Ahem.

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.

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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.

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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-boys_sm

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.

jewishrefugees

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.

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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)

 

 

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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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