Monthly Archives: October 2014

Words and Symbols: Not Just Decorative

Theatre is storytelling. A large part of that job is understanding how various aspects of your story, visual, aural, linguistic, etc– will affect your audience. You’ll never be 100% accurate, of course, but it’s your job to have a basic working knowledge and understanding of the way words and symbols are interpreted by the culture in which you’re staging your work. Unless you’ve contracted to tour an existing show in another area and are using a word you didn’t know was local slang for “extremely large penis,” it’s your job to understand those things well enough to manipulate them effectively.

So it always comes as a surprise to me when theatre people screw this up. Let me break down my past few days for you:

swastikaring

redskins

michonne-cosplay

1. Sears listed this ring on its website, then immediately took it down, saying a third party vendor had posted it in violation of their terms. Whether Sears knew about this or not, in the online discussions I saw of this, people were LEAPING to defend it. Whenever you get into a discussion of swastikas, the first apologists you see are the people charging in with “it’s a religious and/or cultural symbol that was used in art all over Europe and Asia for centuries.” To which I say: LOL. WE KNOW. But the historical usage of an image doesn’t change the way that image is perceived NOW, in this time and place. Its usage in traditional art cannot evacuate its current semiotic– and what’s more, YOU KNOW THIS. You KNOW that most people in the Western world associate that image with the Third Reich. The next apologists say things like, “I don’t think most people even know what that means anymore; kids are ignorant.” To which I say: LOL. They’re kids, not hamsters. They know.

If you’re a theatre professional, you should understand what that symbol means and the impact it has on a western audience– whether it’s the one in your theatre or the one walking down the street checking out your cool not-Nazi-I-swear ring. Whatever background information you have about that symbol is worthless in that process. The swastika is one of the most recognized symbols in western culture, and its semiotic is as clear as any semiotic gets.

2. The same thing can be said about the Washington Redskins logo. Although the association of the word “redskin” with racism isn’t as widely discussed in our culture, about fourteen seconds of thought should be enough to straighten you out. How difficult is it to ascertain that the word “redskin” is racist? Let’s ask the “ignorant kids” of Urban Dictionary:

“An offensive and derogatory term refering to native americans.”
This is the third definition; the first two are along the lines of “greatest team in the NFL.” In addition to every legit dictionary definition designating the term “offensive” or “racist,” even a crowd-sourced dictionary used almost exclusively by the under-30 population knows what’s up. EVERYONE KNOWS.
The apologists are exhausting: “It honors Native Americans,” “I grew up with it; it’s not meant to be racist,” “I totally know a Native American who thinks it’s fine,” “It’s tradition.”
So what is anyone– let alone theatre people– doing defending this name? Why would anyone try to pass off a word widely accepted as a racial slur as “honoring” that group? Why would anyone defend the use of a racial slur as “tradition”? We have plenty of racist traditions we no longer employ because they’re racist. So what makes this word different? Because . . . you like it? You’ve always been allowed to get away with it, so having the power to use a racial slur without consequence is your right? You get to determine what’s racist or culturally insensitive to marginalized people?
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3. The third image comes from a debate that broke very recently. A German cosplayer posted a picture of herself  in dark makeup as part of her cosplay of Michonne from The Walking Dead, pictured next to her. The internet went (predictably) apeshit.  Whether or not blackface occupies the same cultural position in Germany as it does here, the fact remains that plenty of people in the US are defending this, and this is hardly the first time I’ve seen this in cosplay. The defense goes something like this: “She’s honoring the character,” “It’s OK when black people do whiteface, so what’s the big deal,”  “no one even knows what a minstrel show is anymore,” and the ever-popular, but completely perplexing, “anyone who says this is racist is a racist.”  Several threads about this issue have contained comments from Black people saying things like, “You don’t understand how hurtful this is because of its cultural and historical context; whiteface is entirely different; please believe me” only to be shouted down with a barrage of “So white people don’t get an opinion?”
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A few days ago, I was in an online discussion with a young white guy who took extreme umbrage at the fact that I said it’s a pile of nonsense-flavored nonsense for white people to tell people of color they’re wrong when they discuss their lived experiences of racism, using as my example my frustration with seeing white people jump on an Asian American who was calling out yellowface. This young white guy– a theatre person, btw– insisted that the opinions of white people need to be welcomed and honored in those discussions, or they would never “be convinced” that diversity is good and bigotry is bad.  That white people need to be “allowed” to argue (read: allowed to argue without consequence) with people of color when people of color point out racism, or white people will refuse to care about racism.
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Setting aside the  fact that no one should have to “be convinced” to have basic human decency and care about racism, both the blackface apologists telling Black people they need to “calm down” (literally) because cosplay blackface isn’t a problem, and the young white guy above are saying the same thing: The opinions of white people are ALWAYS important, no matter what the context, no matter how uninformed or misguided. In short: white people should be respected when they whitesplain racism to people of color. To which I say: LOL.
privilege
When theatremakers who should know better defend racist and/or culturally insensitive symbols, there are several things operating at once: White privilege, wishful thinking, and their combined ability to override the basic theatre skillset of understanding cultural context and semiotics. It’s one thing to understand a racist symbol and then use it with that understanding; it’s entirely another to try to argue that a symbol with a well-known racist semiotic is actually just fine if you squint (and stop listening to people of color).
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Only someone consumed by their own white privilege could possibly imagine that social justice demands respecting white people shutting down people of color as people of color recount their lived experiences of racism. That’s not a discussion– it’s a deployment of privilege and power– or an attempted one. It’s whitesplaining.
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It’s not that white people don’t get an opinion because they’re white. Have all the opinions you like. I HAVE A WHOLE BLOG OF THEM. It’s just that white people should stop expecting people of color to STAND ASIDE while in discussions of racism so that white people can seize control of definitional authority. No one believes that white people aren’t “allowed” an opinion– we all understand free speech– but like so many people who misunderstand free speech, whitesplainers are upset because they’re not allowed an opinion without consequence. What they’re upset about is that they’re the ones being shut down instead of being accorded the authority to shut others down. When the discussion goes “PoC: That’s racist; Whitesplainer: Actually, it’s not; PoC: You don’t get to decide what’s hurtful to people of color” the whitesplainer gets upset because the person of color didn’t step aside and allow him to define the terms of the discussion. The whitesplainer derailed the discussion away from the racist act itself and into an argument about whether or not the person of color is correct and/or respects him. It’s exactly the same as this:
“What should we do for lunch?”
“This isn’t lunch, you’re wrong.”
“Dude, I’m the one facing the clock and I’m telling you it’s noon.”
“Why aren’t you respecting my opinion?”
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White theatremakers, please think before you start jumping to defend symbols of racism, bigotry, and cultural insensitivity. If you find yourself in a discussion where you’re disagreeing with targeted people and passionately defending someone’s right to wear a swastika ring, or use the term “redskin,” or wear blackface, stop and think about what the actual fuck you’re fighting for. Seriously. You’re fighting for the right to be, at the very least, culturally insensitive without consequence. You’re fighting for the right to sieze definitional authority over terms and symbols that target marginalized people away from the people targeted. Why do you believe you deserve the authority to tell marginalized people what they are and are not allowed to find hurtful?
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If you want to be a theatre professional, you MUST come to terms with the fact that, no matter how hard you wish it, the semiotic of a symbol IS WHAT IT IS. Manipulate it how you will after that, but don’t go on facebook trying to convince people that swastikas are OK in America because of the way they were used in India.
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There are privileged people out there who are fighting HARD for their cultural privilege. I’m not saying they’re deliberate bigots– they’re by and large not– but they are so used to occupying a certain positionality within our culture that they freak directly out when that positionality is challenged– when their authority isn’t automatically respected in a discussion, or when they’re asked to believe people of color when they talk about their lived experiences, no matter how hard those stories are to hear. Take a step back, listen, and think.
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Protecting Racism in Theatre

Yes, I am still talking about this, despite some truly delightful comments and emails requesting that I stop draining all the fun out of life. (One woman, who said, and I quote, that she would like to punch me in the face, was relieved that I didn’t cast her local production of The King and I, as I would have unfairly deprived her of her favorite role, Lady Thiang, due to my ridiculous stance against yellowface.) The title of Mike Lew’s brilliant HowlRound article, “I’ll Disband My Roving Gang of Thirty Asian Playwrights When You Stop Doing Asian Plays in Yellow Face,” says it all. Privilege goes down hard, and it goes down swinging, and it goes down all the while claiming the right to do, ahem, whatever the fuck it wants.

One of the things privilege wants, and wants badly, is the continued ability to protect racism in performance. Mike Lew’s article above discusses some particular and extremely important issues regarding racism in performance, and while this was written for a special HowlRound series, he and I and a bunch of other theatre bloggers (and writers and critics and academics and your mom) have been discussing racism in narrative performance for quite awhile. And it’s disheartening to see, despite ongoing national discussion for DECADES, so little impact. Yes, things are changing, but with glacial slowness.

Change is maddeningly slow in an art form otherwise known for its cultural progressiveness because privilege is constantly defending and protecting racism in performance by calling it names like “artistic freedom” or “intellectual complexity” or “having faith in audiences.” See through the verbiage to what’s underneath: protecting racism.

Philip Kennicott’s article in the Washington Post, “A challenge for the arts: Stop sanitizing and show the great works as they were created,” is an overt apologia for racist characters and tropes in classic plays and operas. Kennicott asserts that the only people who care about what he terms “giving offense” (ugh) in American theatre are people who see art as merely “entertainment” rather than “an independent and volatile space governed by its own rules (or no rules at all).”

To preserve their independence, the arts need to stand resolutely aside from the increasingly complex rituals of giving and taking offense in American society. The demanding and delivering of apologies, the strange habit of being offended on behalf of other people even when you’re not personally offended, the futile but aggressive attempt to quantify offensiveness and demand parity in mudslinging — this is the stuff of degraded political discourse, fit only for politicians, partisans and people who enjoy this kind of sport.

Art has more important things to do: preserving its autonomy, preserving the danger of the experience, preserving the history embodied in the canon, and helping us understand our own ugliness, weakness and cruelty.

I’d like to start by immediately euthanizing his phrase, “the strange habit of being offended on behalf of other people even when you’re not personally offended” for two reasons. First, people who are resisting bigotry are often dismissed with the belittling idea that they’re “offended,” as if fighting cultural oppression and the tools with which it creates, disseminates, and preserves that oppression are equivalent to an imaginary schoolmarm shocked at finding the word “fuck” carved into a desk. No, we are not “offended.” We’re fighting bigotry, and belittling that by pretending it’s about offending our delicate sensibilities with your culturally superior artistic achievements is nonsense. Secondly, the idea that only people of a certain group should resist bigotry against that group is, in 2014, laughable, and Kennicott should be ashamed of himself. Tell it to Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Tell it to Judy Shepard. Tell it to Kiichiro Higuchi. A culture wherein bigotry is protected by privilege is a culture of inequality, and that inequality affects us all. We all have areas of privilege and areas wherein we lack privilege. Resisting race-based bigotry is to resist all bigotry, as a concept, benefitting us all. But even setting personal benefit aside, in this statement Kennicott BELITTLES EMPATHY, and he should be ashamed.

Let’s look at his central idea: that preserving the bigotry in classic works is aligning oneself with a higher good– the “autonomy” of art and its history. The basic conceptual problem here is that “art” does not spring full-formed from the head of Zeus, perfect and complete. Art is created– and interpreted– by humans, using the tools we have at our disposal. Art does not have “autonomy,” because art does not have a separate existence from its creators, interpreters, producers, or performers, particularly performance-based art that is largely created using the bodies of living people.

Two of the specific examples he gives are Monostatos from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. He gives many examples, but I’ll focus on these two and allow you to extrapolate from there rather than bloviate about them all.

Kennicott seems to believe that performance is the only window through which contemporary people can access classic performance. No one is arguing that classic works, along with their historical bigotry, should no longer be studied by scholars, discussed, or written about, so the hysteria around protecting the “autonomy” of art and “the history of the canon” through performance is curious. Scholarship studies what is there, on its own terms. In performance outside of an academic pursuit, however, there is a duty to the audience to be, at the very least, clear, and Kennicott shows a truly shocking lack of understanding of the basic dramaturgy of classic works in performance.

Monostatos is a character originally conceptualized as a Black monster of a man who threatens rape and violence. He has a single aria in which he laments that he’ll never know love because it’s denied him due to his ugly Blackness. Die Zauberflöte premiered in 1791 in Vienna, in a time and place wherein the opera’s audience would take Blackness as a nearly universal sign for “ugly and repellant.” Mozart chose that semiotic purposely. However, that semiotic no longer functions as he intended. The entire cultural context of Blackness has shifted, and performing the semiotic as written actually vandalizes the original intent. If you want to preserve the intent– that the character is self-evidently read as physically repellant– you must search for a contemporary semiotic that gets you as close as possible to the original intent if your purpose is to preserve the original intent. When you pause to consider that Kennicott is arguing for performing Monostatos as written solely due to a stubborn insistence on being allowed to be publicly racist “because art,” you begin to see what’s underneath the argument.

Shylock is a complex character, and Merchant is a complex piece of work. Many people think it’s no longer recuperable due to the fact that antisemitism is woven into the fabric of the narrative. I’ve seen a number of attempts to work around that, none successful. It’s the reason I haven’t directed it myself. It’s truly a tragedy, as some of the play is heart-stoppingly beautiful. But whether I think the attempts are successful or not, the fact remains that, in 1605, there had been no (openly living) Jews in England since the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, and there would be none until Cromwell permitted their return in 1657. It’s almost certain that Shakespeare had never seen a Jew, and was using the semiotic of “the Jew” as a marker for avarice, lack of honor, blasphemy– all the things English people of the time associated with “Jews” as a concept. If you choose to stage Merchant today, you’re confronted with the unhappy reality that Shakespeare used a member of a marginalized group as a semiotic for a set of ideas in a way we now consider unvarnished bigotry, and contemporary audiences will not react in the same way to that semiotic as the author intended. And while the solution is not as simple as ones generally found for Monostatos, contemporary directors recognize that a solution must be found, and not because people are going to be “offended,” but because the 400-year-old symbol no longer works as intended.

Of course I understand that there are some people who still take Blackness to mean “ugly,” and that there are plenty of people who believe Jew = avaricious (as a Jew, I’ve been treated to that sterotype numerous times), but the culture as a whole no longer accepts those symbols as read. A director cannot rely on them to function as they once did, and clarity of storytelling is one of the most basic aspects of our jobs.

If Kennicott and his ilk believe it is so important to perform these works as written in order to preserve them as a window into our past (“the history embodied in our canon”), where are the castrati? Why do we no longer perform Shakespeare with adult men in the male roles and underage boys in the women’s roles? Because Kennicott, and people like him, are not ACTUALLY arguing for historical preservation or artistic “autonomy.” Instead, they’re arguing for the right to be able to decide what is acceptable and what is not, and an issue they find acceptable– bigotry in performance– is being challenged. Kennicott and those who concur with him, like the woman who wanted to punch me in the face, are protesting the challenge to their power, to their cultural authority. They want the right to be able to continue to perform works in yellowface, or to perform roles that equate Blackness with monstrosity, or to perform antisemitism, simply because they have had that power long enough to consider it a right, and are, and I use this word deliberately, offended at the suggestion that they do not.

It all sounds so pretty, and fine, and noble: “autonomy of art,” “preserving the history embodied in the canon,” “helping us understand our own ugliness, weakness and cruelty.” But under those phrases lie the simple idea: “I am uncomfortable that I am losing my cultural supremacy and its concomitant definitional authority over what is acceptable and what is not.” How ironic that these fine words, used in the service of protecting racism, shine an undeniably clear light on our “ugliness, weakness and cruelty.”

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