The “Playwright’s Intent” and the Dangers of the “Purist”

It’s always exasperating to see people scolding directors for “desecrating” a canonical play or a canonical playwright’s “intent” because they cast actors of color, cast a disabled actor, or removed something racist (or sexist, antisemitic, ableist, etc) from the work. It’s exasperating because it’s the smallest and least artistically viable point of view to have about modern stagings of canonical work.*
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Our “canon” has deliberately shut out women and people of color for a great many generations. Until fairly recently in western history, it was very difficult for women and people of color to become playwrights (lack of access to education being a significant bar), and for those who were playwrights, it was very difficult to get produced outside of certain theatres. Even if produced, the work of women and people of color was rarely considered “important” or “universal” enough to be included in the kinds of awards, articles, books, and university courses that created what we consider to be the “canon.” Plays that were considered “universal” reflected specifically white and male points of view; plays that differed from that were considered specific to a cultural subgroup rather than “universal” in the vast majority of cases. Even today, most works in a traditional survey course are written by white men while “Black theatre” is its own category, often represented by a single play. In my undergrad education, that play was the short piece “Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka– we didn’t even read a full-length play. “Asian Theatre,” “Chicano Theatre,” and “Feminist Theatre” are still often brief mentions as classes move directly to more important, “mainstream” writers such as Sam Shepard and David Mamet, with Caryl Churchill the lone female voice in an otherwise very male reading list.

Scholars and theatremakers have begun the process of interrogating the formation of the canon, as well as reframing the works we consider “canonical” within their specific sociohistorical context rather than continuing to pretend these works are “universal.” This is vital work.

You only get answers to the questions you ask. Scholars and theatremakers are asking new questions about “canonical” works and the formation of the “canon.”

When we stage canonical work, we have two choices. The first is what is mistakenly referred to as the “purist” approach. This approach holds that works should be preserved untouched, performed precisely as they were first performed. There’s some educational value in performing work in historically accurate ways– at least as far as we can reconstruct that level of accuracy. Those who advocate for this approach believe they are defending the “playwright’s intent,” which means they somehow believe that their interpretation of the “playwright’s intent” is the only accurate one. These people are, in my experience, overwhelmingly white and male, and, as such, have been taught from birth that their experience of the world is universal, and their interpretation of the world and its processes and symbols is “correct,” so it’s not entirely surprising that they believe they are the only ones who understand the “playwright’s intent” and can therefore separate what is a reasonable interpretation of a work from page to stage from what is a “desecration.”

There are many problems with the purist approach. First of all, no one knows the playwright’s intent if the playwright, as is the case with most canonical plays, is dead. Even if the playwright wrote a 47-paragraph screed entitled “Here Is My Intent: Waver Not Lest Ye Be Tormented By My Restless Spirit,” no one knows what the playwright’s intent would be if he had knowledge of the cultural changes that occurred after he died. The audience for whom he wrote the play– the culture that understood the references, the jokes, the unspoken inferences; the culture that understood the underlying messages and themes; the culture to whom the playwright wished to speak– is gone, and modern audiences will interpret the play according to their own cultural context. Slang terms change meaning in months; using a 400-year old punchline that uses a slang term 90% of the audience has never heard seems closer to vandalizing the playwright’s intent than preserving it. Would Tennessee Williams or William Shakespeare, masters of dialogue, insist that a line using a racial slur now considered horrific still works the way he intended? Still builds the character the way he intended? It seems dubious at best, yet this is the purist’s logic. The playwright’s intent on the day the play was written, the logic goes, could not ever possibly change.

It’s important to continue to study these works unchanged. We must not forget or attempt to rehabilitate our past. But to claim that lines written decades or even centuries in the past can still work the way the playwright originally intended is absurd.

We have begun to understand that the “canon” and its almost exclusively white male point of view is not “universal,” but is a depiction of the cultural dominance of a certain type of person and a certain way of thought. We have begun to re-evaluate those works and the “canon” as a whole as part of a larger historical narrative. This is why it is of great artistic interest to stage “canonical” work in conversation with the current cultural context.

When staging, for example, The Glass Menagerie in 2017, one must consider the current moment, the current audience. We can choose to present the work precisely as it was presented in 1944 as a way to experience a bygone era, or we can present the work in conversation with its canonical status, in conversation with our own time, in conversation with the distance between its era and our own, in conversation with the distance between the playwright’s intent and the impossibility of achieving that intent with a modern audience, simply due to the fact that too much time has passed for the original symbols, context, and themes to work the same way they once did.

What does The Glass Menagerie— or any canonical work– mean to an audience in 2017? What can it mean? What secrets can be unlocked in the work by allowing it to be interpreted and viewed from diverse perspectives? What can we learn about the work? About the canon? About the writer? About ourselves?

The meaning of any piece of art is not static. Whether the piece of art is a sculpture created in 423 BCE or a play written yesterday, the meaning of any piece of art is created in the mind of the person beholding it in the moment of beholding. The meaning of each piece changes with each viewing, just as the meaning of what we say is created in large part by the person to whom we’re saying it, which is why we can say “Meet me by the thing where we went that time” to your best friend but need to say “Meet me at the statue across from the red building on the 800 block of Dunstan” to an acquaintance. To insist that there is one “correct” meaning– always as determined by a white male– is to deny the entire purpose and function of art. You cannot create a “purist” interpretation without the play’s original audience in attendance. The closest you can come is a historical staging a modern audience views as if through a window, wondering how historical audiences might have reacted, or marveling at the words and situations historical audiences found shocking– or did not. How many audiences in 2017 understand Taming of the Shrew as a parodic response to the popularity of shrew-taming pieces? Shakespeare’s audience is gone and the cultural moment to which he was responding is gone, so the possibility of a “purist” staging is also gone.

This is 2017. Our audiences live in 2017. It’s insulting to them to present a play written generations in the past as if nothing about our culture has changed since then, as if a work of genius gave up every secret it had to give with the original staging, as if art has nothing whatsoever to do with the audience viewing it. 

We know better. Art lives in our hearts and minds, whether those hearts and minds are white and male or not.

*Of course I am only referring to interpretations that have received permission from the writer or estate, or stagings of work in the public domain. This is not– at all– an argument in favor of running roughshod over someone else’s IP.
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Disability, Expectations, and Disruption in The Glass Menagerie

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Phoebe Fico as Laura and Karen Aldridge as Amanda in Cal Shakes’ The Glass Menagerie. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

It was an honor to be invited to view a rehearsal of California Shakespeare Theater’s upcoming production of The Glass Menagerie and write a piece for their blog. An excerpt:

“Lisa Portes’ tight, muscular staging of Glass Menagerie at Cal Shakes creates yet another layer of disruption…by using all actors of color. The actor playing Laura (Phoebe Fico) is a young woman of color with a visible mobility disability. The physical presence of the actor’s disabled body onstage as Laura disrupts the other characters’ strenuous and relentless efforts to create a ‘Laura’ that is acceptable, both to themselves and to others, paralleling our culture’s relentless efforts to contain and define women, people with disabilities, and people of color.”

Read more here.

Tickets for The Glass Menagerie, playing July 5 – 30, available here.

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Do Black Lives Matter at Your Theatre? In Your Films?

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Philando Castile in a yearbook photo. He worked as a nutrition services assistant for the Saint Paul Public School District.

I had intended to write about the Philando Castile verdict. Philando Castile was murdered because an officer claims he believed Castile was reaching for his gun when he was reaching for his ID as instructed. That officer walked free. Had Castile been white, I believe that officer would have heard and believed him when he said he was reaching for his ID, and my plan was to write about the narratives we put into the culture that created the officer’s belief that Castile was dangerous.

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Charleena Lyles, in a photo released by her family.

Before I could even sit down to write the piece, Charleena Lyles was killed, and Seattle police responded by issuing a statement bragging about their “deescalation training,” as if to say, “We tried deescalating, but it didn’t work! We simply had to shoot and kill a tiny pregnant woman holding a knife. We were scared for our lives!” Yet somehow, when it’s a white woman with a knife– or a GUN– officers aren’t scared at all. Billings, Montana. Chattanooga, Tennessee. What creates that difference?

Radicalized white men are one of the most violent groups in the US, yet violent white men are routinely deescalated. Take a look at this photo AP released, taken at a white supremacist rally in 2015:

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A protester confronted a man– a man at a white supremacist rally celebrating the Confederate flag, so basically a hotbed of radicalized white men– and the white supremacist reaches for his gun. The officer’s reaction? Look at his face. He seems to be saying, “Whoa there, buddy. Calm down, sir.” The officer clearly believes the white supremacist poses no immediate danger. A white man literally reaching for a gun does not alarm an officer, but a Black man reaching for a wallet does. What creates that difference?

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Tamir Rice in a family photo taken shortly before his death.

Tamir Rice— a child with a toy gun in a park near a youth rec center– was gunned down by an officer within two seconds of police rolling up. Two seconds. The officers did not take any time whatsoever to find out what was going on, let alone deescalate. It’s pretty hard to be an active shooter when your gun is a toy, and Ohio is an open carry state, so he had every right to hold a gun in public. Then those officers let this child bleed out on the ground while they chit-chatted and waited for the ambulance instead of providing the medical assistance that could have saved his life. Those officers walked free without even so much as a trial, even though the entire incident was videotaped. The person who called 911 told the dispatcher that the gun was likely a toy and that Tamir was likely a juvenile, but as soon as the dispatcher heard “Black male,” she categorized it as an “active shooter” and gave it the highest priority code. Why did the dispatcher automatically assumed “Black male” meant “DANGER,” and why did the officer gun down a child in cold blood before even taking a second to assess the situation? The answer is of course “racism,” but where does that racism come from?

Every time a Black person is shot by police, even when the Black person is unarmed, complying, has their hands in the air, or is just going about their business, the officers say they “feared for their lives.” Look again at the officer in the photo above apparently saying, “Whoa there, calm down, buddy” to the white supremacist. Why isn’t he fearing for his life? Why do officers routinely fear for their lives when faced with a Black person but so seldom fear for their lives when faced with a white person?

 

Our culture is saturated with the narrative “Black = DANGER.” As content creators and gatekeepers, white people used that narrative to justify slavery (stating that if slavery ended, former slaves would erupt in bloody uprisings and chaos), and after the passing of the 13th Amendment, which limited slavery to convicted criminals, we use it to justify the mass incarceration of Black people. We flood our culture with these narratives, either through the content we create or through the content we choose to produce. It is one thing when a Black person writes a song that speaks the truth of the violence in their own lives. It is entirely another when a white gatekeeper gets wealthy by producing only songs that depict Black men as dangerous. White people have profited both culturally and financially from the brutalization and murder of Black bodies for centuries, and we have created and carefully maintained a narrative superstructure to justify it.

It takes one generation growing up with a narrative trope to see that narrative trope as “natural.” Spinning out from the narrative trope “Black = DANGER” are the racist cultural notions that Black people are tougher and do not feel pain like we do; Black people commit more crimes; Black people ruin property values; Black fathers abandon their children. Our culture is saturated with these slanders, and they are quite literally killing people.

When a police officer makes a split second decision whether to fire his weapon or to say, “Whoa, there buddy,” he has to deal with a lifetime of inundation with the trope “Black = DANGER,” as well as a lifetime of inundation with the trope “white people are basically OK,” which not only dictates how Caucasian-appearing people are treated but also fuels white resistance to our complicity– all our complicity– in the systems of oppression that maintain white supremacy.

My fellow purveyors of narrative, we can either work intentionally to disrupt these tropes or we can work to reinforce white supremacy. There is no in between.

When Tim Burton cast his film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, he cast all the roles with white people except the villain, who was Black. There was an outcry, and the predictable fragile white reaction– “It’s just a movie,” “He should have artistic freedom.” Of course he has artistic freedom. We all do. But don’t we also have a responsibility to understand and control the messaging we put out in the culture? We vet our work in every other way, so what makes race different?

We can actively fight white supremacy with the narratives we put into the culture, or we can continue to be complicit in creating the culture that leads to the deaths of people like Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Tamir Rice, and so, so, so many others. It’s not enough to just cast Black artists and produce Black work (although that is an excellent start). White supremacy itself needs to be pulled up from the roots because we are hurting all people of color.

Native American people are murdered by police at an even higher rate than Black people (as a whole; Black men 15-34 are killed at the highest rate), a direct result of the centuries of dehumanizing stereotypes we put out specifically to ease our consciences about treating Native American people like vermin to be exterminated or expelled, like savages to be civilized, like magic spiritual conduits that exist for the benefit of white people. From Moby Dick to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the trope “I exist to take white people on a journey TO THEMSELVES,” centering white people in Native lives, has permeated our culture. And in the case of TNG, it pains me to relate, the Native character below (from the 1994 episode “Journey’s End”) was a white guy in disguise all along! The white actor playing The Traveler (Eric Menyuk) soon replaces the First Nations actor, Tom Jackson. This example is the ultimate in cultural appropriation– a white dude appropriates a Native body and Native culture to bring another white dude spiritual enlightenment, then they both abandon the Native village in peril, because it’s “not their fight.” I love you, TNG, but this was egregious, even for 1994.

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Shut up, Wesley

The dehumanizing tropes we create and disseminate through our plays, films, TV shows, video games, books, web series, music videos, fiction, and nonfiction are quite literally getting people killed. I wrote this earlier, for my article about Tim Burton, and it still applies:

When we talk about police “retraining,” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives – which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before Black people with their guns drawn.

As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better.

Narrative is the most effective way to create cultural shifts, which is why it’s the favorite tool of politicians. Our narrative-based industries are the biggest bats and loudest loudspeakers in our culture. We are numerous and powerful. All we have to do is agree to approach our work with intentionality.

Examine what messages your work puts out into the culture, both in its processes and its product. Who are you hiring? Who are you casting? What stories are you telling, and how? Whose work are you choosing to support?

We examine our products and our processes in every other way. We always create with intentionality, so adding “examine messaging about race (and gender, ability, etc)” isn’t burdensome. We have the power to change the culture; in fact, nothing else has ever done it. Every cultural movement, for good or for ill, had a master narrative at the back of it, created by artists and writers. Examine the master narratives behind the work you produce, because they’re there, whether you examine them or not.

 

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Julius Caesar: Suddenly Controversial

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A marble bust of Julius Caesar dating from the 1st century CE

The Public Theatre is staging Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as part of its annual Shakespeare in the Park, and hauling out that most overdone of concepts: Julius Caesar is POTUS! They’re all in suits! It’s AMERICA! This is exactly why I never directed Julius Caesar— it’s just about the only approach that makes sense in modern America, and it’s been done approximately infinity times. The Public’s approach is about as controversial, given every past production of the last half century, as your niece’s school production of “Transportation and You” where she plays a Happy School Bus.

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You were great, McKayyLyee! (Source: Toddlerapproved.com)

I’m not saying the Public’s production won’t be great theatre. I’m saying that concept is not exactly unique or controversial. And yet, because this is Trump’s America, this old-as-the-hills concept is suddenly Not Acceptable, and both Delta and Bank of America pulled their funding from the Public, joined shortly afterwards by American Express.

THAT. IS. INSANE.

Has no one read Julius Caesar? I mean, obviously Trump hasn’t since he can’t make it through an intelligence briefing unless “TRUMP <3” is inserted into every other sentence. I mean– has anyone complaining about this concept ever read (or seen) the play? Anyone at Delta, BofA, or AmEx? The play does not condone the murder of Caesar. While Caesar’s desire to be king, his arrogance, and his deafness to criticism all threaten democracy, murdering Caesar results in disaster. The Public released an excellent statement, which says, in part

Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.

In  2012, the Guthrie, another high-profile theatre, staged Julius Caesar with (unsurprisingly) the same concept, but of course POTUS at the time was Obama. Delta funded that production without a peep of complaint.

So what is this hypocrisy about? Why is Delta pretending to be offended about the Public production? Why is anyone pretending to be offended by this production, considering they’ve never been offended by that oft-used concept before?

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William Sturdivant and Sid Solomon in the Guthrie’s 2012 Julius Caesar. (Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp)

Here’s the paradox: Trump’s arrogance, desire to rule like a king, deafness to criticism, and complete lack of tolerance for anything other than adulation mirror Shakespeare’s Caesar, yet to say so openly is dangerous exactly because it is true– Trump will act like a king and use the power of his office and fame to retaliate. 

Trump relentlessly abuses his power. He has no qualms about using the power of his fame and, more importantly, using the power of government to quash those who criticize him or disagree with him. You’d think that was unconstitutional, and that Okieriete Onaodowan placed checks and balances in the Constitution specifically to correct for that, and you’d be right, except the GOP-controlled Congress shows no signs of reining in Trump’s dictatorial behavior, and are clearly willing to sell out our entire democracy for something as tawdry as a tax cut for the wealthy.

Congress won’t move to stop Trump’s democracy-destroying behavior unless doing so retains or increases their popularity. Trump’s approval rating is quite low, but never dips below 35%, and that is a substantial percentage of voters who seem quite content to believe that the media, people of color, feminists, Democrats, Mexicans, LGBTQ people, Muslims, and the “coastal elite” are quite literally their enemies instead of their neighbors. Fed a constant diet of fear and hatred by the right-wing media for the past 20 years, they’re happy to allow the GOP to decimate every legal protection we have in the mistaken belief that it hurts their “enemies,” and the GOP Congress in turn is happy to allow Trump to abuse his power all he likes as long as he signs whatever they put in front of him.  Our Rome applauds our Caesar’s abuses of power while our Senate winks.

Meanwhile, those of us who can see the damage being done to our democracy by these abuses of power are left wondering what to do about it since no one who is tasked with protecting us is actually interested in protecting us (apart from the courts, and Trump is trying hard to change that). Whatever the answer is, just as Julius Caesar says, it’s not violence. Having a bunch of Senators murdering Trump on the Senate floor (although arguably a real ratings getter) would eliminate a threat to democracy while actually threatening democracy itself. The cure is the same as the disease. It’s sociopolitical homeopathy, and just like real homeopathy, it’s costly and it doesn’t work.

“Violence is not the answer” is an important message to get out to a culture that is experiencing a dramatic upsurge in politically-motivated violence and violent rhetoric. Yet this is the message that’s considered “too offensive” because it depicts the violence it then goes on to condemn.

The damage Trump is doing to our democracy has already been done if companies are pulling funding from the Public’s Julius Caesar out of fear of Trump and his followers retaliating against them for speaking the truth about Trump’s similarities to Shakespeare’s Caesar and stating “Even though he threatens our democracy, violence is not the answer.”

Can we recover from the damage Trump has done when so many Americans are content to allow it as long as they can continue to believe it hurts a group of people they have been taught to hate? Can we recover from the damage Trump has done if our elected officials evacuate their constitutional duty to oppose that damage?

I have no idea if we can recover as a nation. I have to hope that we will, and that midterm elections will turn the tide. Until then, all I know is that I’m sending a donation to the Public Theater. If Delta, BofA, and AmEx won’t help to pay those actors and techs, WE WILL.

UPDATE: Classical theatres across the country are receiving threats from conservatives angry about this one production. Please support your local classical theatre! If you can’t donate, even a note of support would be helpful.

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The Albee Controversy: Throwing the Baby Out With the Racist Bathwater

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A young Edward Albee (1928 – 2016). Source: University of Houston Digital Library.

For the, oh, seven of you out there who haven’t yet heard, the Albee estate denied the rights to a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because the company (Complete Works Project in Oregon) cast a Black man as Nick. 
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First, congratulations, Complete Works Project, for being the center of a national controversy, and with such a banal play choice! I did multiple new plays that drew angry conservative picketers in other cities, and I never got so much as a pissy letter. That’s Berkeley for you. Enjoy the publicity, and I hope you take the ensuing donations and do a new play by a writer of color starring that Black actor.
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The racism of the Albee estate decision is undeniable, and it’s absolutely our responsibility as a theatre community to decry it and to pressure the estate to reverse its decision.
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 HOWEVER. Playwrights need to have the right to protect their work, even when they make stupid, racist decisions that contribute to their swiftly approaching irrelevance.
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Albee’s legacy isn’t the argument here. I don’t care if Nick is described in the text as literal Hitler, the estate could have given permission to an undergrad theatre club to stage the entire Albee catalogue with mac-and-cheese-filled sock puppets singing the lines as screamo in a university housing common area filled with cats, pot, and bike parts and Albee’s legacy would have been fine. Yanking the rights over a Black actor is far more damaging to the legacy than perhaps any other possible choice the estate could have made apart from allowing Disney to make an animated Three Tall Princesses. It’s stunningly poor management.
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Racism isn’t the argument here. The estate’s decision was absolutely racist, period, the end. That’s not up for debate. It’s the kind of racism that demeans the entire industry and requires resistance.
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Neither the preservation of the legacy nor the racism are the debate here, since both are settled matters as far as I’m concerned. The debate, for me, is about the people answering “What do we do about this” by hauling out the tired old chestnut “PLAYWRIGHTS SHOULD LET ME DO WHATEVER I WANT TO THEIR WORK.”
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I believe Albee’s estate made a shortsighted, racist decision that mismanages his work and misunderstands the basics of art. I believe the estates of canonical playwrights should bestow a certain measure of freedom to companies who wish to stage these older, canonical works in ways that engage them in healthy dialogue with the current culture and with various modern points of view. Virginia Woolf is 55 years old, and the culture with which it was originally designed to engage is gone. While there is certainly artistic merit in historically accurate works as windows into bygone eras, I believe that allowing older canonical works to acquire new relevance within a modern artistic dialogue nearly always results in more interesting work.* I believe there is real value in creating places for people of color in (almost invariably white male) canonical works, just as there is real value in queering cishet work, doing all-female productions of Shakespeare, and all of the other ways people have sought to make room in canonical works for marginalized voices. I believe Albee’s estate is working studiously to make Albee, as quickly as possible, one of those unknown writers who was wildly popular in his day that grad students encounter while researching something else. He’ll be another Arthur Wing Pinero if they keep this up, and they probably will.
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Who?

I also believe that 99% of playwrights under Albee’s stature, especially women and PoC, have traditionally and historically seen their work stolen from them, been paid a pittance (or less) for the rights to their work and told they should be grateful for “the exposure,” struggle to make ends meet with their writing or struggle to write around the demands of a day job– or both (looking at you, San Francisco writers, paying the most expensive rents in the country).
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I’m worried about those playwrights– the rank and file. The 99%. Albee and his estate and every play he wrote can sink into Oblivion, but I will stand between playwrights and people who want to rob them of their ability to protect their work, especially since so often this discussion seems to be centered around white voices convinced of their primary artistic entitlement over the living playwrights they see as a hindrance. Playwrights are currently allowed legal protections over their work, and we should, as an industry, be working to preserve that. The price for that is the occasional destructive, bigoted decision by a writer or estate. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing about those destructive, bigoted decisions. Quite the opposite. My point is: Fight the bigotry head-on, not the principle of playwright IP rights. Don’t throw the baby out with the racist bathwater.
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1. We must call out bigotry when we see it. Playwrights should have the right to protect their work (either during their lifetimes or when leaving directives to an estate executor) even in objectively terrible ways, but they do not have the right to do that free from criticism. Whether we change anything regarding the way the Albee estate is handled is immaterial. We’re changing the entire culture by demonstrating that these types of decisions are not acceptable.
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2. I state above that there’s real value in creating space within white male canonical works for marginalized voices. This is because canonical works occupy a dominant cultural position that must be interrogated from multiple angles. However, we must also be staging new works by new voices. My company staged three or four new plays for every classic we did. I like that percentage; maybe a different one will work for you. But stage new work, especially work by writers whose voices have been marginalized– women, people of color, trans* people, people with disabilities, etc.
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3. Support the work you want to see with your attendance, buzz, and donations. It is wickedly hard to sell a new play, which is part of what drives companies to choose canonical work. Put your money where your mouth is. Reward companies when they program the way you like by buying tickets, spreading the word, and choosing them when/if you donate.
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We’re nothing without playwrights. Stage living playwrights and defend their right to protect their work. And Albee’s executors, if you’re reading this, you have some serious damage control to do if you want that money to keep rolling in. Just a thought.
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*With the single exception of Beckett’s stage directions. Beckett’s works are little, exquisite machines. Take out a cog and replace it with a dancer — why is it always dancers?– and the wheels fall off. But on principle I support your right to try staging Not I in full light with projections of Trump rallies and even dancers, if you must. (But that proscription against cross gender casting remains bunk.)
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Why Women Are So Angry with Sanders

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Heath Mello. Source: Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald. 

You’ve seen it; I’ve seen it; we’ve all seen it. It goes something like this: Woman posts something irritated about Sanders’ support of (supposedly formerly) aggressively anti-choice Heath Mello, whom Sanders called “part of the Democratic party of the future.” Woman is inundated with men huffily explaining to her why she should not worry her pretty head about Mello, for reasons, and also HILLARY CLINTON!11!! and hey, what more do you women even want? Mello SAID he would stop writing terrifying anti-choice legislation! Reproductive rights are just one pet issue. We can’t let one issue dictate support for candidates!

I’ve seen this in my various feeds maybe a dozen times now.

If you want to stop reading now, have this as my parting gift: The basic entrance fee to being a good person is to listen and believe people who lack a privilege you have.

For those of you still with me, let’s look under the hood of this issue for a moment.

Sanders has set himself up as the national face of progressivism, openly stating that his “movement” is the future of a party to which he does not belong, and withholding his endorsement from Democratic candidates he believes are not adequately progressive. Yet Sanders has, multiple times, endorsed anti-choice candidates because they otherwise support his agenda of economic justice.

Here’s why this is problematic:

Women cannot access economic justice without full reproductive rights. Economic justice is impossible for women without being able to decide when, or whether, to have children. Lack of access to reproductive health care can put women into poverty and keep them there. Someone claiming they are in favor of economic justice while actively voting against reproductive rights is saying that economic justice only matters for men

Reproductive rights are not a pet issue we can set aside if we are fighting for economic justice; they are central to accessing economic justice for the majority of the population.

Heath Mello himself is not the issue here; the issue is that the face of the “new progressive movement” seems content to confine “economic justice” to “economic justice for men.” It said something important when he endorsed anti-choice candidate Marcy Kaptur in 2016, it said something important when he endorsed anti-choice Tom Perriello for governor of Virginia earlier this year (Perriello has since apologized for his anti-choice votes in the House) and it says something important now as he endorses Heath Mello.

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Marcy Kaptur. Source: Mark Duncan/Associated Press

I am, of course, irritated at the DNC for supporting anti-choice candidates. But I am enraged at anyone who says they support economic justice as their primary goal, yet refuses to understand that reproductive rights are an essential component to economic justice. Anyone who supports economic justice for all must also support full reproductive rights. Otherwise, all you’re supporting is economic justice for men.

You cannot create economic justice for all without addressing systemic racism; you cannot create economic justice for all without addressing systemic discrimination against LGBTQ people; you cannot create economic justice for all without addressing systemic ableism. And you cannot create economic justice for all without addressing reproductive rights.

When Sanders repeatedly declared that “identity politics” were a problem, he exposed a dangerous weakness in progressive political thought that remains unaddressed. We live intersectional lives, and these issues must be addressed intersectionally. To separate class from gender, race, sexuality, and ability in fighting for economic justice is to create a fiction that economic injustice is only driven by one kind of social injustice– the kind that able-bodied cishet white men experience. It’s a dangerous fiction that at its heart reinforces patriarchal white supremacy, and it’s becoming all the more dangerous as we fight against an administration and its attendant political movement that wants nothing more than to roll back as many social justice gains as possible.

The current zeitgeist in the US is one of angry straight white people pushing back against social justice gains with open bigotry, reveling in causing others pain, and delighting in boorishness and even violence. The fact that opposition to “identity politics” became so popular, even on the left, is unsurprising. We need to step away from that deception and move forward, together, rather than telling women their concerns about reproductive rights just aren’t important enough to count.

You may also read this piece at the Huffington Post.

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Eleven Tropes I No Longer Have Time For

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photo by Tom Hilton

1. The adults keep brushing it off, but a group of boys (plus one underdeveloped female character who has 14 lines total) know better! It’s up to Our Young Heroes Who Are Mostly White to make the adults realize something’s really going on, and save the day while they’re at it! LOL, stupid adults.
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2. Because we’re SO NOT RACIST, the judge, the doctor, and the president are all Black men, but every other character is white, and those three guys have a combined total of 9 lines. But look! THE JUDGE IS BLACK. See? That’s good, right? Right?
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3. The only Black woman is Sassy Store Clerk With Two Lines who unknowingly imparts wisdom even though she is framed as uneducated and basically worthless compared to Our White Hero, yet because Our White Hero listens to her advice (despite its wacky Black vernacular! LOL!) we’re so not racist! She could be a maid, a prostitute, or maybe, if she’s lucky, an office underling! (Repeat as necessary for every other version of the Magical Person of Color, LGBTQ person, and Person With Disabilities.)
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4. Sure, she’s tough (and also sexy-deadly), but under that tough, sexy-deadly exterior is a REAL WOMAN just ACHING to mother a child. IT SECRETLY DRIVES HER. “She is human after all,” thinks Our Hero, as he watches her display the one emotion she will ever display in the entirety of the piece. “She may be a highly trained, sexy-deadly killing machine who dedicated her life to her career, but all she REALLY wants is a baby.”
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5. Black people yearn to be accepted by white people. IT IS THEIR EVERYTHING. Thanks to Our White Hero, it can happen!
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6. It’s a caper! The characters are Our Hero (white male), Crazypants (white male), The Handsome Scoundrel (white male), Toughest Guy (token Black dude), and Nerd Expert (white male). Introduced later in the film: The Girl, whose character is “boobs.” But we’re TOTALLY NOT SEXIST, because she has a skill! It’s MASTER OF DISGUISE! So she can put on revealing outfits and sneak the guys into the building by distracting the guards with boners!
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7. People with diseases are HUMAN PEOPLE who have love and maybe even sex, but die at the end so Our Hero can learn something about Life.
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8. “Just give him a chance!” This is the entire film until she relinquishes access to her vagina.
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9. He’s such a COOL DUDE that he has TWO WOMEN who are attached to his arms as decorative objects. He has SO MUCH PENIS it merits TWO saucy lady persons whose tragic brain injuries have resulted in a lack of all communication but giggling. Masculinity is measured by how many saucy lady persons attach themselves to you like jewelry for your strolls and party posing behaviors.
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10. The White Guys Plus One Black Dude are on a caper or Important Mission™! But one dude’s girlfriend keeps calling, wanting to know where he is and what’s going on! LOL! Stupid lady person! Better lie to her and say “Nothing, honey! Don’t you worry about it!” “But I hear gunfire in the back—” “EVERYTHING’S FINE!” Then his cool awesome guy friends throw that cellphone out the window! That’ll show her for not staying in her place!
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11. LOL! Fat people want love and sex! Haha, Our Hero has one ACTUALLY TALKING TO HIM right now! LOOK, SHE THINKS SHE’S PEOPLE!
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The Bechdel Test and White Feminism

I keep running across white women saying things like, “I’m never seeing any film or play that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test ever again!”

This statement epitomizes the problem with white feminism.

First, a quick definition of the Bechdel test, invented by amazing writer and comic artist Alison Bechdel, known for the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her memoir Fun Home, which she turned into a Tony Award-winning musical. Just in case you weren’t already convinced she’s a genius (and I have been since the old DTWOF days), she was a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant.

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Alison Bechdel. Source: Out Magazine.

The “Bechdel test” is a metric she created in 1985 in a DTWOF strip to evaluate female representation in films. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must have two female characters who have at least one conversation that is not about men. It sounds surprisingly basic, yet the vast preponderance of films cannot pass the Bechdel test.

The Bechdel test becomes tricky when applied to theatre. For example, it immediately eliminates all solo performance and all male/male and male/female two-handers, regardless of content.

And this is exactly my issue with the Bechdel test being used as a basic metric of acceptability in theatre– it ignores both content and context. It ignores intersectionality.

Let’s take two examples. The first play, written by a middle-aged white man, is about four wealthy white women discussing their problems and lives while at various brunches in upscale New York eateries. The main topics of conversation are their wealth and whether the sacrifices they made to obtain that wealth were worth it. The central narrative is one character revealing she has lost most of her money and must now live outside Manhattan. This play neatly passes the Bechdel test.

The second play, written and performed by four young Black men, is about their experiences growing up in Oakland. The main topics of conversation are police violence and racism. The central narrative is the loss of their friend, murdered by police while unarmed, driving home from work at a local elementary school, the same school where all five friends met. This play does not pass the Bechdel test.

If the goal of metrics like the Bechdel test are to hold artists accountable for the work we create, insisting on work that resists cultural marginalization and works for inclusion, the Bechdel test is not enough. It is not enough to fight for the inclusion of women and ONLY the inclusion of women. Insisting that a play about privileged white women is so deeply, intrinsically superior to a play about Black men that we can issue a test to “prove” it is counterproductive to every diversity goal we have. We’re issuing a test that by design marginalizes men of color.

We need work that passes the Bechdel test, and we need it badly. But we cannot use that test as a metric for the acceptability of all work.

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Kamal Angelo Bolden as Chad Deity in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity in the Victory Gardens/Teatro Vista co-pro in Chicago, 2009. Photo: Chicago Theater Beat

We live in an intersectional world, and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be addressed intersectionally. Yes,we must fight for the inclusion of women in our narratives, but we must also fight for the inclusion of other marginalized groups. When we refuse to do so– when we announce that all plays must pass the Bechdel test in order to be acceptable, as I have seen so many white women do– we fail. We become “white feminists,” content with centering ourselves while ignoring other marginalized groups.

To state that you will never see a play that does not pass the Bechdel test is to state that Crimes of the Heart, In the Boom Boom Room, and Five Women Wearing the Same Dress are intrinsically important and worthwhile, while Topdog/Underdog, The Mountaintop, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad DeityThe Year Zero, Mambo Mouth, and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 are not worth seeing.

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Mason Lee in the Off Broadway production of The Year Zero, 2010. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Bechdel test even fails at what it was purportedly designed to do. Many films steeped in misogyny pass. “Lesbian” pornography made for male consumption passes. Most Disney princess films pass. The Bechdel test, I have to believe, was never meant to be an iron-clad metric.

I don’t know Alison Bechdel, but I consider the Bechdel test excellent social commentary, not a call to action. It’s meant as criticism, to make a point about how few films have female characters with objectives of their own. It’s meant to point out how few films present women as human beings rather than as events in the lives of men.

We cannot use the Bechdel test as the sole metric for acceptability. The examination of our work and its resistance to, and participation in, systems of oppression is a complex process, not a three-point test.

Even issuing a test is a classic white gatekeeping maneuver. White liberals are always looking for clear-cut guidelines to make us instantly “not racist” or “not sexist,” and we excel at creating oversimplified litmus tests that prove we are the Most Woke and everyone else is Doing It Wrong.

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not how it works

You can’t fill out a form with your credentials (“voted for Obama,” “watched Jessica Jones,” “smiled hard at Black guy on the street”), mail it in with a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Women’s Studies department at Howard and then just wait for your NOT RACIST OR SEXIST certificate to roll in. There’s no “Woke White Person” checklist.

There’s no test.

Fighting for diversity and equity in theatre is a complex, multifaceted process that involves the stories we tell and how we tell them, including who tells those stories and who’s in our audiences, who are the decision-makers and gatekeepers, where the funding comes from, and so much more. As tempting as it is to get a definitive ruling on what is “resistance theatre” and what is “collaboration theatre,” that fact remains that each piece of theatre we make will have facets of resistance and facets of collaboration, and all we can do is commit to the process of examining our decisions in both the work we make and the work we consume as thoroughly and realistically as possible. It’s never going to be as simple as only going to shows with The Gold Star of Bechdel next to their titles. Fighting systems of oppression requires more of us, much more.

Commit to the process. Continue to love the Bechdel test for what it is– an eye-opening way to examine narrative that sometimes works and sometimes does not, but can be an effective tool when used correctly. It was one moment of genius in a long career of genius moments for Alison Bechdel, but cannot be– and was never meant to be– the sole, definitive arbiter of acceptable work.

 

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Hairdemort Drinking Game

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(Source: Getty Images)

Hairdemort* Drinking Game
 
1. “Fake news”– one shot
2. “Loser” or “Winner”– one shot
3. Discredits a federal judge– half a beer
4. Discredits a federal judge appointed by a Republican– whole beer
5. “Weak”– one shot
6. “Sad!” — one sip
7. “Bad!” — one sip
8. “Tremendous,” “Terrific,” or “YUGE”– one sip
9. Denies saying something he said on camera– one sip
10. Forces Kellyanne to deny it– half a beer
11. Forces Kellyanne AND Sean Spicer to deny it– whole beer
12. “Make America Great Again” or “MAGA”– sip
13. Insults leader of staunch American ally nation– whole beer
14. Brags about himself in a speech that was supposed to be serious– one shot
15. Whines about “the media” in a speech that was supposed to be serious– one shot
16. “Failing” — one sip
17. “Paid protesters” — half a beer
18. Lies about his popularity and/or claims negative polls are “fake”– whole beer
19. Violates the constitution– one shot
20. Violates the constitution without reading what he’s signed– two shots
21. Cancels 2020 elections and declares martial law because “terrorists”– entire bottle of bourbon while hunched behind a boxcar in the cramped, dark hold of a ship bound for anywhere else while tearing up your passport and weeping
 
* “Hairdemort” courtesy of the ever-brilliant Mollena Williams-Haas
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Stop Using the Word “Distraction”

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Connie Lim, composer of the song that became the unofficial anthem of the Women’s March, “I Can’t Keep Quiet,” photographed by Rachael Lee Stroud.

I see a lot of confusion from white people about why “white liberal” and “white feminism” are derogatory terms and then I see a truckload of white people calling the Muslim ban a “distraction.”

“I don’t mean to imply it’s OK to ban Muslims, just that it’s a distraction from other things we should be paying attention to.” — every white person who has written an article about the “distraction” of the Muslim ban

A. I’m not understanding why these writers don’t understand the belittling implications of the word “distraction,” as if they were just hatched and flash-trained last week and are still working the kinks out in language acquisition, and B through Z. Calling the Muslim ban a “distraction” is racist. The Muslim ban is the problem itself. Whatever else Trumplethinskin and Bannon Wormtongue did during the Muslim ban chaos (and they did plenty), it was to make it easier to do more horrific things like the Muslim ban.

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The protest at JFK against the Muslim ban, photographed by Stephanie Keith/Getty

Every action this administration or its leaders take cannot possibly be a “distraction” from every other action. It’s also nonsense to call any resistance action a “distraction” or, appallingly, “playing the shock event game”– as if fighting for Muslim lives is a “game” we’ve been baited into playing as a waste of time.

It’s ridiculous to label any resistance action as “playing into their hands,” and it’s even more ridiculous to state that a “shock event” like the Muslim ban was designed to “distract” us from the appointment of Steve Bannon to the NSC– an event that was on the front page of nearly every major English-language news outlet on the globe within seconds, an event that generated a trending hashtag on twitter, an event that launched thousands of thinkpieces. I googled “steve bannon nsc” to grab a link as an example, and I got 852,000 results.

It’s not escaping notice that massive protests to protect brown people were quickly characterized as a “distraction” that “plays into their hands” by white writers stating Steve Bannon’s appointment to the NSC is “far more consequential.” What is he doing on the NSC but furthering his very public anti-Islam agenda? How can anyone possibly conclude that a firm demonstration of our unwillingness to tolerate that agenda be a “distraction” from actions designed to implement that agenda?

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RESISTANCE WORKS. Black causes, now more than ever, need support. Trump has already vowed to target “urban areas” for voter purges using “illegal voters” as his excuse. Unarmed Black people are still being killed by police. Black people are unfairly treated by every aspect of the criminal justice system. There is much to do, and resistance actions WORK. (Photo source: Arkansas Times)

You know what’s an actual “distraction”? Thinkpieces from white people that claim– without evidence– that resistance actions are useless and “playing into the hands of Trump and Bannon.” The resistance is having an enormous impact. Two GOP senators have now vowed to vote against Betsy DeVos due to public pressure from their constituents. Nordstrom announced it will stop carrying Ivanka Trump merchandise after they were targeted by a resistance boycott. The CEO of Uber resigned from Trump’s advisory committee after almost a quarter of a million people deleted the Uber app in protest of Uber’s actions during the JFK protest against the Muslim ban. Lyft has pulled advertising from the white nationalist site Breitbart, formerly headed by Steve Bannon, bringing the total number of companies to pull ads from the “alt right” sight due to public pressure up to 820. And that’s just in the past few days.

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LGBTQ activists threw a dance party in front of Mike Pence’s house to protest his anti-LGBTQ stances on January 19, the most public resistance action on behalf of LGBTQ rights, but far from the only one. On January 31, Trump announced he would continue Obama’s protections for LGBTQ government workers. (Photo source: metro.co.uk)

This administration is losing support, and quickly, from both the left and the right.

Do not let anyone make you believe your resistance is “wrong,” “a distraction,” or “playing into their hands.” YOUR RESISTANCE IS MAKING A DIFFERENCE. Your work is important. PERSIST. RESIST. 

 

 

 

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