Category Archives: Theatre

Juanito Bandito: Wholesome Family Racism

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TJ Davis as Juanito Bandito in a PR shot from Who Shot Juanito Bandito? (Source: The Pickleville Playhouse)

I’m old enough to remember Frito Bandito. I was a preschooler but I remember it well. He was a racist stereotype– a Mexican “bandito” character always trying to steal Fritos. When the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee complained about the racism, the Frito-Lay Company (then, as now, owned by PepsiCo) first tried (obviously unsuccesfully) to tone down the racism, then, when complaints continued, retired the character completely. The entire lifespan of the character was just four years, ending in 1971. When told by Latinxs that the character was racist, Frito-Lay responded by retiring the character.

That was 47 years ago. Today, in 2018, a young white man named TJ Davis is performing a character he has named “Juanito Bandito,” and his response to being told by Latinx people that the character is racist? Telling them they’re wrong.

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TJ Davis. (Source: teejdavis.com)

The blond-haired, blue-eyed Davis writes and performs the Juanito Bandito musical comedies, in which he wears a black wig and a big, stereotypical black mustache, puts on an exaggerated Latinx accent, and performs as a character whose name is so close to “Frito Bandito” it’s impossible not to call it– and the longstanding racist faux-Mexican “bandito” character for which both are named– to mind. The word “bandito” is Spanglish, an Anglicization of the Spanish word “bandido.” “Bandito” specifically refers to a Mexican bandit, a racist stereotype popularized by generations of western films and television shows.

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A PR shot from Who Shot Juanito Bandito? (Source: The Utah Standard-Examiner)

A Latinx theatre artist, Jazmyn Arroyo, privately contacted Davis to express concerns about the racism inherent in such a performance. Instead of responding to her privately, Davis published her email without consent on his blog and made an embarrassing attempt to excuse his character with every timeworn argument you’ve all seen a million times from white people called out for racism. When that post received exactly the reception you would imagine, Davis took it down and replaced it with the huffy insistence that “Juanito Bandito” is “Spanish (from Spain)” and adds the contradictory claim that “JB is not a stereotype of any race or culture.”

Davis’s entire 940-word original response, as well as the shorter replacement, all boil down to “You’re wrong. It’s not racist,” which is an incredibly common response from white people confronted with their own racism. In his initial blog post, Davis hits every common trope of white fragility, from the old classic, “You’re just taking this wrong way” to new favorites like “Racism exists and is terrible, but this is totally not racism.” He works in some whitesplaining, claiming that the accent isn’t racist (“There’s something about hearing familiar words or phrases spoken in a different, not grammatically correct manner that really tickles our funny bone”) and trying to show the difference– to a theatre professional, mind you– between “stereotype” and “character”:

The Bandito productions have nothing to do with race or nationalities.  An intelligent person who has attended any of the shows would agree that Bandito does not “get laughs by perpetuating negative stereotypes.”  Bandito is not a stereotype.  He’s a character.  One that I identify with quite deeply.  He’s serious, he’s silly, he’s mean, he’s kind, he’s arrogant, he’s self-conscious, he sings, he dances, … he even raps!  He’s not a stereotype of ANY race or nationality.

……… “he even raps!”

Of course, he also includes the familiar “I have Latinx friends and they’ve never complained.”

The point here is that he’s exhibiting racism while trying to prove he’s not racist. A Latinx person tells him that his portrayal of Latinx people is hurtful to Latinx people, and his response is, “You’re wrong.” Davis is claiming he knows better than Latinxs do what does and does not hurt them. That level of paternalism is only possible if you truly believe you are in some way superior– smarter, more insightful, more knowledgeable. When a child fears a haircut will hurt, as adults we feel comfortable telling them it will not. When a Latinx adult tells you something hurts, what makes you feel comfortable telling them it does not?

Despite his protestations, it’s hard to imagine that Davis, in the ten years he’s been playing this character, has been so far removed from his own American culture that he has no idea what “bandito” refers to, particularly considering that he often bills Juanito Bandito as an “outlaw” and an “infamous villain.” It’s hard to imagine anyone living to adulthood in the United States without being aware of the racism inherent in the “bandito” stereotype. It’s hard to imagine any adult believing that just saying “Spanish (from Spain)” can eliminate the meaning of the word “bandito” or the generations of racist mockery of Latinx people through exaggerated accents and fake mustaches.

It’s hard to imagine because the racism in Davis’ shows does not stop at the Juanito Bandito character.

Take a look at this poster for Davis’ 2015 show, Juanito Bandito in the One with the Monkey. Look carefully at the “monkey” character on the right. Look at the wig the white actor playing “Chester the Monkey” is wearing.

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If you would like to see more of this character and the very human Black braids he’s wearing, he’s featured in this promo video for the show. Here’s a synopsis of the show from a review by the Utah Theatre Bloggers Association:

The story focuses on Juanito’s desire to transition from a Western gunslinger to a high-profile rapper. Unfortunately, he realizes that most rappers have already made the change from criminal to musical artist, so instead of falling into the ever-growing sea of non-originality, Juanito decides he needs a shtick. So, naturally, he finds a dancing monkey.

A dancing monkey played by a white man in Black braids, meant to provide credibility to a “bandito” rapper played by a white man, in a show that states that most rappers were once criminals IS AS RACIST AS RACIST GETS.

Davis defends the obvious racism of Juanito Bandito as “wholesome family fun.” In inimitable American fashion, you can be shockingly racist, but you still qualify as “wholesome family fun” if you don’t say “fuck” or acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people. If you want to see some of this “wholesome family fun” for yourself, there are plenty of videos on YouTube.

I don’t doubt that TJ Davis considers himself a good guy, and thinks he’s not racist. He did his LDS mission in Guatemala and no doubt met people there he still considers friends. But nothing changes the fact that these shows are racist.

TJ Davis, you have every right to write and perform racist shows. Racist speech is still protected by the First Amendment. But own the racism. Don’t tell Latinx people they’re wrong about what Latinx people find hurtful. Tell them the truth: You’re making money so you don’t care if the cash cow is racist.

But if you do care– if you don’t want to perform racism– then don’t perform racism.  You could retire Juanito Bandito and let him rest in obscurity with his near-namesake, Frito Bandito. You already have a following and a venue; you could write a new show without any racist characters in it and a new starring role for yourself. But whatever you do, please start listening to people of color. It is difficult and frightening to speak out about racism because the response is so often like yours– rejecting, arrogant, condescending, oblivious. White supremacy is fighting hard against diversity and equity in America right now. People are suffering and dying over these issues. The very least you can do is listen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Robert Brustein Doesn’t Understand Consent: The Dangers of the White Male “Genius”

As a very young woman, I haunted thrift stores, which, in those days, were chock full of amazing finds. Thrift store book sections filled my library, and I would buy anything related to theatre and devour it to supplement the reading I was doing in my theatre classes. Eventually, a slow, sinking realization started creeping in at the edges as I read book after book by theatrical “geniuses,” all white men. I remember paging through Robert Brustein’s Theatre of Revolt thinking, He does not consider women people. 

Many woman in theatre will recognize this feeling. It’s the same feeling we get reading Jan Kott, Harold Bloom, and a host of other “geniuses.” These 20th century white male “geniuses” write about theatre as if women are invisible, decorative, or existing in service to men. They interpret female characters through the lens of white male dominance, and see female characters as essentially about the men in the play. Jan Kott, for example, writes that Desdemona must have “something of a slut about her” because so many men are attracted to her, a complete misreading of the text.  Bloom’s sexism, racism, and classism (“capital is necessary for the cultivation of aesthetic values”) are well documented; he believes that “isms” (examples he gives include feminism, African American studies, and “transgenderism”) are ruining literature. Brustein dismisses Nora in A Doll’s House in Theatre of Revolt because he believes her “conversion” from a “protected, almost infantile dependent” to an “articulate and determined spokesman for individual freedom” is unbelievable, missing entirely that the “infantile dependent” was a character Nora played for Torvald. He was unable to see past that character because he was as taken in by it as Torvald is. When she finally drops the act, both Torvald and Brustein are surprised and disbelieving. White male genius under white male supremacy is all too often hobbled by its inability to see past its privilege and understand that its reasoning is faulty.

Theatre education is still dominated by old white men of a single generation. Bloom is 87. Brustein is 90. Kott would be 103 if he were still alive. Grotowski would be 84. Brockett would be 94. Johnstone is 84. Brook is 92. I could go on and on. It’s not that old white men have nothing of value to contribute. These men have had valuable, positive impacts on our field. Yet we must also admit that several of these men have also, simultaneously, had problematic impacts on our field. Decades of theatre students have been taught dramatic theory and criticism that has been narrowed and hobbled by its belief in white male supremacy. We were taught theatre criticism that took it as read that theatre was by, for, and about white men, and that everything else required an adjective– “feminist theatre,” “Black theatre”– and was relegated to the margins, often literally, pushed to a sidebar in a book while the main body of the work got on examining “real theatre”– theatre by, for, and about white men. We were told to “look past” the sexism and racism, that it was just “the time,” as if the sexism and racism are croutons we can pick out of work that is otherwise genius, as if the sexism and racism don’t dramatically limit the scope and understanding of parts of the work.

We have formed the very basis of theatre criticism on white male supremacy, teaching decades of students that white male-centered criticism is the backbone of the field and that anything else is a specialization, an extra. We teach this to the students who grow up to run our industry, and then we wonder why they hire so few women and people of color to positions of power, then we wonder why granting orgs give most of their money to theatres headed by white men, then we wonder why major publications hire mostly white male theatre writers and editors, then we wonder why universities hire more men than women and more white people than people of color for tenure-track positions.

Then we wonder why Robert Brustein, one of the most powerful and influential members of our field, goes on Facebook and posts garbage like this:

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We wonder why someone whom we consider a “genius” has so little understanding of the basics of consent. We wonder why someone whom we consider a “genius” has so little understanding or respect for women as people.

Every word he’s ever written was framed within the idea that white men were the pinnacle of creation, standing at the center of all narrative and all analysis. Do we really wonder, then, why he doesn’t understand the difference between sexual harassment and an extramarital affair? And do we really wonder why there are people in our industry actually defending this nonsense?

The statement itself is a mess. He begins by whining about the way evil women are ruining the legacies of the men who harassed and raped them, imagining that women are unfairly “proscribing the achievements” of these great men.

Then he brings up the witch hunts. This analogy, usually coming from men accused of sexual harassment (or about to be), has become the most tiresome cliché of the moment, deeply sexist and utterly inaccurate. Brustein, however, takes this misunderstanding even further. He begins with the fact that women burned at the stake for witchcraft were innocent victims, but then goes on to claim that, in the sexual assault allegations of today, “the witches are doing the hunting,” clearly stating that innocent men are being accused and destroyed, and that evil women are to blame.

I don’t believe he actually meant what he wrote when he wrote it initially. I’ve read Brustein, and I believe he lit upon what he thought was a clever turn of phrase and used it without thinking too deeply about what it might actually mean. When he was rightly called out for it, he deleted it. Ah, we all thought, he’s showing glimmers of understanding. Then he quickly added it back in.

The painful “witches” comment almost overshadows the faulty reasoning of the rest. He rails against imaginary people who are demanding we stop reading Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Plato. He rails against imaginary people who would raze the Presidential libraries of Clinton and Kennedy and replace them with placards stating, “These men had extramarital affairs.”

The fact that he cannot distinguish between sexual assault and consensual extramarital affairs is the heart of the post. It encapsulates Brustein and his sociohistorical context perfectly. Though he pays lip service to the need for sexual predators to be punished, he worries primarily about the experience of the man. Female consent is immaterial, as he hysterically imagines men ruined for consensual affairs as a logical outcome of exposing sexual predators. The distance between a consensual affair and a rape are not material to him, and in all cases, the legacy of the man is more important. Sexual predators “should be punished,” but “let’s not forget the difference between private behavior and public achievement.”

You cannot decouple “private behavior” from “public achievement” because both come from the same world view. Despite Brustein’s hysteria, no one is suggesting we destroy all existing work by men. We must, however, provide appropriate context for that work.

Brustein’s silly Facebook statement represents something much larger– a limited understanding of the world that informs a great deal of the critical writing of a number of white male “geniuses” of his generation. No one is suggesting we should stop teaching the critical writing of 20th century white men, but it needs to be decentered and contextualized. Teaching young men they are rightly centered in all narrative considerations has created a culture from which we are struggling to emerge.

White men in positions of power unconsciously apply different criteria to evaluating white men (and white male characters) than they do women and people of color. They promote young white men with little experience on their “promise” and reject women and people of color as “not ready.” They dismiss female characters as “unlikeable” and worry about whether characters of color are “ethnic enough.” Whenever I speak out about the overrepresentation of men in tenure-track positions, multiple men tell me that I’m wrong because they’ve “lost” positions to women, as if their anecdotal experience of the world is definitive despite the data. This reflects exactly what we teach when we teach critics like Brustein and Bloom without context– that the male experience of the world is the definitive experience of the world, that all narrative is understood by placing a man at the center and relating everything and everyone else back to him.

Worrying about preserving the legacy of abusive men is foolish. We already knew the work of these men is flawed by the same sexism that led them to choose sexual assault. We must stop pretending that this is “important,” “genius,” “canonical” thought and instead appropriately contextualize it within its time and place in conversation with the thought of women and people of color. I see the way this new generation of women and people of color in education are approaching the work, and I want to cry with relief. We need more, and more, and more. We must move women and people of color out of the sidebar and into the canon, and demolish the concept of the privileged white male “genius.”

 

 

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How Theatre, Film, and TV Can End Sexual Harassment

During Thanksgiving, I was having a conversation with a very liberal family member. He was adamant that he supported and believed women. Then he immediately went on to tell me that women are exaggerating about sexual harassment. We had had this conversation before. I had sent him links with hard data and links with personal stories. “Did you read the links I sent you?” I asked him. “Yes. I still don’t believe it’s as pervasive as women say.” This man says he believes women, then in the next breath says that he knows better than women do what our lives are like.

A very few, very powerful men have been openly accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. A handful have lost their jobs, all of whom were already so fabulously wealthy that they were working for the pleasure of working. After generations of women* having to endure “but is she lying? She’s probably lying” as the men who assaulted them received fabulous power and wealth, we’re just at the very beginning of believing women. 

Yet we’re already seeing the inevitable backlash– men (and a few women) whining about “witch hunts,” the irony of which is jaw-dropping.

We’re already seeing articles worrying about men being fired without “due process,” which, like the first amendment, limits governmental power, not the ability of a company to fire someone. Conservatives have worked hard enough to make every state an “at will” and/or “right to work” state, so they of all people should know that a private company can fire anyone for any reason in most places.

We’re already seeing men hysterically screeching about being “afraid to talk to women at all,” as if you could accidentally grab a woman’s breasts, shove her up against a wall, and stick your tongue down her throat, as if you could accidentally take your penis out in your office.

And we’re already seeing thousands upon thousands of men who, like my relative at Thanksgiving, believe women only in the abstract, but who actually still believe that they know better than women what women’s lives are like, who believe that their opinions about which women’s stories are “real” and which are “exaggerated” should be given more weight than the millions of women saying “this is the truth of our lives.”

How do we make sure this cultural moment doesn’t backslide into the same age-old sexism we’ve endured for centuries?

Like racism, sexism is systemic, and the response must be systemic. We are all complicit in a system that creates and maintains an environment of harassment, and we must all examine both our complicity and the way male privilege works in our lives.

The men in our culture who are not sexually aggressive had to learn that the culture was lying to them, had to learn that the sexual aggression and conquest mentality they saw glorified in every corner of our culture was harmful. They had to learn how to navigate a culture that expected it of them, and that shamed them for not participating.

Those of us who create the various forms of media that have a powerful hand in shaping our culture are uniquely positioned to change that.

In addition to our own individual work examining our own complicity with fearlessness and examining with equal fearlessness the way male privilege works in our lives, we must look at the work we create and the messages we’re sending into the world. 

In no small part, we, as content creators in theatre, film, television, books, advertising, and video games created this.

We produced Oleanna and pretended it was a “balanced view” instead of a sexist takedown. We looked the other way and hired men we knew were harassers, telling women, “Just don’t be alone with him backstage.” We gave those men positions of power and awards. We regularly produced work that showed women as collectible sex objects. We glorified work that shows men pressuring women to have sex, and then shows those women finally giving in and enjoying it, as if caving to relentless pressure is an expression of normal and healthy female sexuality. We used sexual aggression as a joke. We showed women being raped and in the end, enjoying it.

There are countless films, TV shows, plays, and ads that laugh at attempted rape– or actual rape. That show women enjoying rape. Look at old episodes of MASH, where random men literally chasing weeping, frightened women are given laugh tracks, as if it’s hilarious when a woman is fighting off a rapist. Look at Pepé le Pew. Look at Madeleine Kahn’s character in Young Frankenstein. Look at 80s comedy films. And of course it’s not just a thing of the past. Look at this, this, and this.

Look at the much-lauded Stranger Things. Of course the Duffer brothers rewarded Steve’s sexual aggression by depicting Nancy caving and loving it. In these tropes, it’s common for the girl to be shamed if she refuses (“prude”) and shamed if she caves (“slut”). The Duffer Brothers were heralded for “subverting the trope” simply by delaying Steve’s inevitable shaming of Nancy. Of course, Nancy forgives Steve for her public shaming, just as she forgives Jonathan– with a smile– for stalking her. These (now) 33-year-old male writers have a clear message for 16-year-old girls, and it’s “Male sexual aggression should always be rewarded. You secretly like it anyway, so your discomfort isn’t important.” Later, they pressured an underage actress into an unscripted kiss during shooting, then laughed publicly about her discomfort. And we are still rewarding them.

Our culture has relentlessly shown that sexual aggression is rewarded, and that women who complain about it are just humorless killjoys who should relax and enjoy it.

If we want to change the culture, we must stop trivializing sexual assault and rape in the material we create. Of course we can’t do anything about old MASH episodes or Stranger Things. No one is advocating for banning existing properties, although the male hysteria on this topic would make you believe otherwise.

We can effect change by flooding the culture with new work that doesn’t make light of sexual assault, that doesn’t use rape as a way to advance a male narrative, that doesn’t reward men for sexual aggression. We can flood the culture with work that depicts women as human beings with our own stories and motivations, whether we’re the main character or not.

Imagine a romcom that doesn’t frame stalking as romantic. Imagine a horror film that doesn’t objectify women or punish female sexuality. Imagine material that does not require women to always consider male sexual pleasure, even in the midst of a crisis, that does not require women to laugh along when our assault is the butt of the joke, that does not depict sexual aggression as “natural,” “boys being boys,” or what “real men” do.

We must think critically and fearlessly about the work we write and produce. We must refuse to continue supporting work that rewards and valorizes sexual aggression. How many times have you seen two or three young women with no lines, reduced to breasts and asses, draped across a man simply as a marker of his power? How often have you seen a man depicted as exceptionally virtuous and good simply because he didn’t immediately assault a woman he was alone with? How often have you seen rape used to advance a male plotline (NOW HE MUST GET REVENGE), or to transform an “unlikeable” character into a “good” character (HER TRAUMA HAS FOREVER CHANGED HER)? How often have you seen science fiction where all the aliens are visibly male? (And before you say, “But they’re aliens! Those could be females!” they’re all cast with male actors and discussed using male pronouns.) How often have you seen projects where women are shown only as functions of the male characters (as collectibles, prizes, sex objects, impediments)?

Part of the issue is that women directors and writers in TV and film are rare. In theatre, while the numbers are slowly improving, women writers are rarely produced in larger theatres, and women artistic directors in LORTs and producers on Broadway are exceedingly rare. (That’s so well documented, I’m not even bothering to link it.) We have sexist media in large part because you don’t let us in the room, and when you do, we’re shouted down, ignored, and minimized. (And while this particular post focuses on women, these issues are intersectional, and everything I’ve said here is even more egregious for women of color, women with disabilities, women of size, and gender nonconforming people.)

We make culture. We can change it. Let us in the room. Listen to what we have to say. Examine the work you make fearlessly. Don’t cave to nonsense; hold the line against “it’s just a joke,” “she needs to be sexier,” or “she needs to be more likable– soften her character/shorten her skirt/make her younger/give her lines to a man/make her less angry.” Refuse the conventional wisdom that women can’t be more than 2 out of the 5 main characters without losing mainstream appeal and becoming “for women.” Refuse to make sexual assault a cheap plot device or a joke. Refuse to produce work that glorifies or rewards sexual aggression.

As content creators, when we refuse to support the expectation and glorification of sexual aggression, when we create work that shows women as people who are naturally part of the world, not provisionally part of the world as functions of men, we will be changing the messaging of our entire culture. The majority of our cultural messaging is disseminated through the media– through OUR WORK. Change the media, change the culture.

 

*I am using “women” to mean “female-identified people,” not “cisgender women.”

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“Why Do You Have to Make Everything Political?”

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Quote from the artist Ai Weiwei (source: @aiweiwei_art)

“Why do you have to make everything political?” This is a common question my fellow white people like to ask when someone offers a cultural critique of a popular musical, film, video game, or TV show. “It’s not political! It’s just a cute story about a boy and his dog (or whatever)!”

All theatre is political theatre. All films are political films. All games are political games. All TV shows are political TV shows. Let’s break this down.

What does it mean for something to be “political?” Let’s start with the obvious: the dictionary definition is useless for navigating complex social issues. Dictionaries are written by people, not by Lexica, Infallible Goddess of Language, and are updated all the time as usage changes. Dictionaries are vital and have important uses, none of which include wielding a dictionary definition as a sword to demarcate the limits of a complex social issue. I love you, dictionaries, but for this, I need to set you aside and dig deeper. I need to look at context.

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Lexica has better things to do than write your dictionaries, mortals (photo: ela-e-ele.com)

When people say “Why do you have to make everything political?’ they’re using “political” to refer to the social messaging that’s inherent in any work about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, size, class, religious minorities, etc. Let’s cut to the chase: They mean, “I do not wish to examine the ways in which this work depicts and/or impacts marginalized people in our culture.”

All plays, films, games, and TV shows are political because they are about people in relationship to each other and to their social context, and because they are created within a social context, not in a vacuum where symbols and metaphors are wiped clean of all meaning. All works contain messages about privilege, about marginalized people, about who is important and who is not, about who we should take seriously and who we should laugh at, about which issues facing our culture are serious and which are easily dismissable or even comical. Social messaging is inescapable in the narrative-based work of theatre, film, video games, and television, whether you choose to examine it or ignore it.

In order to ignore the social messaging in a work, you have to be able to ignore it and willing to ignore it.

A film that people consider “universal” and “apolitical” is a film that neatly and seamlessly reinforces dominant culture and privilege. People with privilege see depictions of that privilege as “normal,” “wholesome,” and “apolitical” in ways that it’s impossible for people without that privilege to do. There is no “apolitical” work; there is only work that reflects the world view of cultural privilege back to those with cultural privilege, who see that as “normal” and unmarked by any particular political point of view. Those without that privilege hear the political messaging loud and clear.

Is the Harry Potter series “apolitical”? Why was the character Lavender Brown cast with a Black actor in every film, then recast with a white actor when the character became Ron Weasley’s girlfriend? People make all sorts of excuses for that (“They had to recast when the part had lines and they just happened to cast a white actor”), but I have 20+ years experience in casting, and I know that excuse is nonsense. More importantly, the casting of a tiny character might seem like a minor detail for white people, but you aren’t the young Black girl in the audience picking out the few Black faces in a film series that you love, only to see her replaced by a white girl when she finally becomes part of the main story.

Why do people claim that Disney films have recently “become political,” decrying the supposed “liberal messaging” in films like Zootopia, Frozen, and Mulan, but are just fine with the sexist messaging of older princess films (“Your happy ending is to marry some dude; no other plans or ambitions you have matter enough to mention”). Little Mermaid is considered “apolitical” but contains an uber-sexist narrative where a young woman must remain silent in order to “win her man,” and the “happy ending” is leaving her home, family, culture, and entire lower half of her body behind to be some douchebag’s wife. That is obvious political messaging, but messaging that supports the male cultural privilege we consider “normal,” so we don’t read it as such.

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Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher at Star Wars Celebration in 2015. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Was Star Wars truly apolitical before The Force Awakens‘ Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and Rogue One‘s Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) sparked male outrage about “feminism taking over Star Wars“? Because I seem to recall mainstream filmmaking’s first self-rescuing princess (played by the late great glorious giver of no fucks, Carrie Fisher) grabbing the blaster out of Luke’s hand, flatly stating “Somebody has to save our skins,” and ordering Han Solo “into the garbage chute, flyboy,” then killing Jabba her damn self with the chain he used to enslave her as a bikini-wearing sex doll. Yet the original trilogy centered around a straight white male, Luke, so the films still read as “normal” and “apolitical” to white men, despite many young women reading that message loud and clear. But it was the 70s and early 80s, so, despite the obvious feminism baked into the character of Leia, her strength could be read as just another part of her allure to men as she was detoured into a romance with Han Solo and stuffed into an objectifying gold bikini. (“Keep fighting against that slave outfit,” Carrie Fisher told Daisy Ridley.) Rey and Jyn are standing on the ground that Leia broke. Neither one is detoured into a romance or forced into a bikini (so far, at least), so there’s no way to silo them into the archetype “Hero’s Girl,” making the internet’s various fuckboys very angry while most men were, evidently, thrilled by both films.

“Why do you have to make everything political?” comes in various specific flavors, one of the more popular being “Why do you have to make everything about race?” The same principles hold; race is an aspect of every social encounter and every work of art is created within a specific cultural context– films are created by specific people, not found on the forest floor during JJ Abrams’ morning constitutional.

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“Holy shit, dude! Is that Episode 8?!” (source: nonabrooklyn.com)

If you are white in the US, chances are watching an all-white film does not register to you as “political,” but people of color will notice they have been completely left out. White people react with anger upon the release of a single Black-centric superhero film yet see no problem with the dozens of superhero films that leave out people of color or relegate them to minor roles. Those nearly all-white films did not register as anything but a realistic depiction of the “normal” world to those white people, yet the Black world of Black Panther– the fictional African nation of Wakanda– is “too Black” and therefore “too militant.” The trailer is typical superhero film fare, just with Black actors as the heroes. See for yourself:

It’s impossible to imagine what is “militant” about that trailer unless you believe every other superhero film is “militant.” It’s impossible to say that a film with Black leads is “too Black” unless you see the world as normally white, unless you see heroes as normally and naturally white.

“Why do you have to make everything about race?” Because WE make everything about race by creating, spreading, and aggressively protecting the racist idea that “white” is the world’s normal, default setting, and that anything else is special, distinctive, and added to a white world by white benevolence. When a box standard superhero film that runs on the same kind of ass-kicking imagery every other action film runs on is scary and “militant” because the good guys are Black, you are making it about race. People of color think about race all the time because of the shitty, racist ways we treat them, not because they had some secret meeting one day in 1953 and decided to invent identity politics to vex us.

I’m not here to snottily insist that “your fave is problematic.” I am right there with you. My faves are problematic. But instead of getting defensive, we need to be realistic about the ways in which media carries narrative and shapes our culture. No one is proposing detonating every existing copy of the original Ghostbusters or melting every copy of GTA into a gigantic plastic statue of The Spirit of Feminism. What I am proposing is that we be realistic about the impact that the works we consume and create have on marginalized people, that we listen to marginalized people when they talk about this rather than get defensive and argue, that we commit to getting better at this the way all artists are already committed to getting better at our art in every other way.

Tl;dr: “Why do you have to make everything political?” “Why do you have to make everything about race?” It already is. We’re just pointing it out. Don’t blame the person pointing at the pothole for the pothole’s existence. Instead, let’s work together on building better roads.

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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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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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