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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9 thoughts on “Protecting Racism in Theatre

  1. Ashkon Davaran says:

    Great points. Keep fightin the good fight.

    Warmly, Ashkon

    Sent from my IPhone

  2. lisamccolgan says:

    The woman who threatened to punch you in the face must have brought great sensitivity to the role of Lady Thiang. #headdesk

  3. pgabridge says:

    Well put. I’m always glad when I see that you’ve posted something new. Thanks for trying to talk some sense into the world.

  4. Dara says:

    This is a great post. More people in theatre need to talk about racism, because it’s really an issue and a disturbingly small number of people seem to share this viewpoint or care enough to do anything about it. Thank you for writing this. 🙂

  5. chasbelov says:

    Oh, yes, we Jews are so avaricious that we love to do theatre work, which as everyone knows makes lots and lots of money.

  6. gwangung says:

    If the works are to be performed as they once were as a window into the past, perhaps the theatre should make it clear that this IS the past. Too many people don’t know enough and would accept the offending portrayals as perfectly acceptable. (Yellowface, cough cough).

  7. “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.”

    That says it all – great article will be reposting you might find my article of interest to you.
    http://lucylaituenchausheen.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/multicultural-shakespeare/
    So glad I came across your blog.
    Keep writing, I know from experience when people start threatening you with physical damage you’ve won the argument (as scary and as unlikely that prospect might be)

  8. Hey Melissa. Great post/critique on an article that I couldn’t believe was getting shared across social media so positively. But (always a but) I want to take pause (with love and encouragement, promise) with your opening sentence (or text line and a half)… which while creating a humorous also reads apologetically. Please don’t apologize for continuing to talk about racism in theatre. It’s vital we hear your voice, these thoughts, again and again and again.

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