Monthly Archives: June 2017

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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