Category Archives: Theatre

I Can’t Go On. I’ll Go On.

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Photo: Associated Press

Desperate refugees are being teargassed at the border for having the audacity to take the Statue of Liberty at her word. The economy is slipping badly due to Trump’s mismanagement. The (putative) President of the United States praises the people who financed 9/11 while disparaging the Navy Seals who killed Bin Laden, praises convicted criminals while attacking law enforcement and judges, praises dictators and white supremacists while insulting US allies, disrespects the rule of law, American tradition, American values, and the Constitution, and lies, and lies, and lies again.

Meanwhile liberal lion Nancy Pelosi’s speakership is being held hostage by conservative Democrats who are insisting she hand power to House Republicans in exchange. Climate change is poised to ruin our economy on its way to ending our ability to live on this planet and somehow– insanely– this has become a partisan issue. A new study rolled out that confirmed the findings of multiple studies over the past 18 months: people support Trump due to “white anxiety”– we used to call this “racism”– a fear of people of color “dominating” the US and “displacing” white people.

And that’s just the past few weeks.

That’s a tenth of what has happened in the past few weeks.

The US is being held hostage by a minority political faction hostile to the rest of us. A Republican recently told me, “Republicans aren’t interested in democracy. We’re interested in freedom.” Freedom to oppress, freedom to discriminate, freedom to defraud.

It’s a lot.

In the theatre community, I’m seeing a lot of despair. What good is art while racism and sexism are gleefully celebrated throughout our society? What good is art when 40% of the nation supports open hatred, open ignorance, open rejection of science, knowledge, and basic facts? Why are we fiddling as Rome burns? How can it ever be enough?

Yet we MUST GO ON. Because we are more than enough. We are the most powerful tool in the resistance.

There is no way to overstate the power of art. There’s a reason this whole destructive cycle began with the establishment of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and conservative “infotainment” in the 90s. There’s a reason it ends up here, with Trump’s lying showmanship and conservative propaganda given more weight than actual journalism, science, or expertise.

The Cambridge Analytica papers showed that Steve Bannon invented the concept of the “Deep State” as propaganda, and that revelation had exactly zero impact on the people who believe in that lie. Why? Because art is more powerful than any one piece of factual evidence. The person who controls the story controls the truth.

Art matters. Representation matters. Art creates culture. Conservatives know this and are using it to promote the racist, sexist panic that preserves their political power.

When Donald Trump goes on television and insists that Mexicans are “rapists,” he knows that’s not true. When he claims white supremacists are “very fine people,” states that non-white countries are “shitholes,” says that Central American refugees are “terrorists,” “diseased,” “child grabbers,” or “Middle Eastern,” he knows that’s not true. When he insults prominent Black Americans, he invariably uses classic white supremacist language: Maxine Waters is “low IQ”; Don Lemon is “the dumbest man on television”; Andrew Gillum is “a thief”; Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis “does nothing” for his “burning and crime-infested” district, and many, many more. Of course he knows none of it is true.

Sure, it’s lying, but more importantly, it’s THEATRE. He’s performing for conservative white Americans who support him primarily due to “white anxiety” and “racial resentment.” He’s putting on a show for them that may as well be entitled You’re Right to Feel Superior to Black People. It runs in rep with You’re Right to Be Afraid of Brown People, Women Exist to Be Decorative and Obedient, and I Don’t Care What the Constitution Says and Neither Should You: Give Me Unrestrained Power to Shut Down The Black and Brown Infestation and Make America Great (and White) Again. It’s running eight shows a week on the Great White Way along with Fox News’ Everyone Who is Not White and Conservative is Bad, InfoWars’ The Sky Is Falling and It’s the Jews’ Fault and Mike Pence and Lindsey Graham’s experimental dance theatre piece, Hate Keeps the Closet Door Shut.

Very few people actually believe Trump’s lies. They’re just fans of the show.

You don’t fight theatre with facts. That’s why facts and logic aren’t working, why Trump’s base will swear they believe his lies over their own eyes and ears.

You fight theatre with better theatre. You fight narrative with better narrative. And we are much, much better at this than they are.

It’s hard, I know. It feels at times like all is lost, like every scrap of progress we’ve made against evil since Civil Rights is being encinerated, like every step forward we’ve made for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, Muslims, Jews, everyone is being dragged back to the 19th century. But they’re not winning every battle. And THEY WILL NOT WIN THE WAR.

We outnumber them. And we are better at this than they are.

You, the theatremakers, filmmakers, TV writers and producers, all of you making art: YOU ARE THE VANGUARD. Fill your stages and screens with stories that fight this evil. Celebrate difference. Hire and promote women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities. Fund that show written and directed by Black women and promote the hell out of it. Cast a trans lead. Put three nonbinary people with disabilities on your story team.

Be deliberate. Go on. Your art is your activism, and there is nothing more powerful on this earth.

Keep pushing. They will not prevail. This moment in history is temporary. They will NOT be the ones who tell the American Story. We will. We are.

Go on.

 

 

 

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Your Nonprofit is “Committed to Diversity”? How Diverse Is Your Board?

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“People ask me sometimes, when do you think it will it be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine.” — Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Few consider it odd that almost all Supreme Court justices in the court’s 229 year history have been white men, but many considered Justice Ginsberg’s statement to be highly controversial. The idea of an all-female court seemed upsetting and threatening to many people, but an all-male court has always seemed unremarkable.

In nearly every nonprofit company in the US, the board of directors is overwhelmingly white and male. One or two white women or Black men on an otherwise white male board is considered “diverse.” And when they get a seat at the table, women and people of color struggle to be heard in white male-heavy environments, their voices discounted, their points of view ignored. Endless studies and articles discuss this problem. Entire industries have developed around corporate diversity consultants.

This has enormous repercussions on every aspect of our lives in the US. Health services, education, social services, legal services, civic and environmental advocacy, the arts, and international relations all have significant nonprofit presence. White men– usually white, able-bodied, cisgender, straight men with Christian heritage– control these industries, set their priorities, and determine how resources are distributed without significant input from other points of view.

Few people outside of the nonprofit world know how much power the board of directors has. Most of us know that the board hires the head of the organization, a decision that has enormous repercussions for the institution as a whole. The head is the gatekeeper for every aspect of the organization, and it has been an ongoing, pervasive problem that the people boards choose for the big chair are almost always white and male.

Just as importantly, boards approve annual budgets, and where the money goes– and where it does not– directs everything about a company. Is your building ADA compliant? Do your staff go through regular diversity and equity training? Do you do hiring outreach to communities that are under-represented in your staff? Is budgeting for any of those a priority or considered an “extra”? What we choose to fund has far-reaching effects on every aspect of our organizations.

You cannot be “committed to diversity” unless your Board is diverse. We need to ensure that our boards have an understanding of a multiplicity of experiences, have a wider range of contacts, and can speak with authority to a wider range of people. A diverse board has innumerable benefits while a homogeneous board has just as many drawbacks and limitations.

When boards hire a new company head, they see a white man with little experience as “a fresh new voice” but a woman or person of color with the same (or even more) experience as “not ready.” They see a white man who has failed in other places as “a risk-taker” or “a maverick” but see women or people of color who have failed in other places as just failures. White boards give white men the benefit of the doubt while judging women and people of color too harshly. They see white men as being able to speak to a “universal human experience” while seeing, for example, a Black woman as having a limited, specifically Black and female, perspective.

Our culture assumes that all positions of power are rightfully white and male, and any diversion from that is a deviation from the norm– a place made specially for difference. We assume that white men are “neutral,” able to make decisions unweighted by identity-related points of view, and that everyone else is irrevocably marked by their identity, their judgment skewed by their distance from white maleness. Yet it is a certainty that whiteness and maleness are very specific points of view that clearly impact judgment.

A white person will not have the experience to always recognize and understand racism when they see it. A cisgender man will not have the experience to always recognize and understand sexism or transphobia when they see it. When confronted with racism, many– perhaps the majority– of white people reject it, defend it, or make excuses for it. When confronted with sexism, the majority of men reject it, defend it, or make excuses for it. Men insist that stories about women can’t be universal, but automatically assume that stories about men are. White people insist that Black, Latinx, or Asian stories can’t be universal, but automatically assume that stories about white people are. A film with an all-Black cast is a “Black movie,” but a film with an all white cast is just “a movie.” We label any story that’s not white, male, cis, hetero, and able-bodied as a creation for a niche audience, but the truth is, there is universality in any story, because there is far more that binds us than separates us. White men have been trained to see themselves as “neutral” and everyone else as marked by their distance from that neutrality. This is all summed up by the images below. These are male:

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And these are female:

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Even in simplistic cartoon icons, something extra is needed to denote “female,” because neutral is read as “male.” Every position of privilege is “neutral” and everything else is measured by its distance from that privilege, requiring modifying adjectives or visual markers.

Of course this point of view is a direct result of living in a culture that bombards us with this messaging relentlessly. It’s a catch-22: If we want to change our cultural messaging to embrace the universality of all human experience, not just white male human experience, we need to create that messaging in our culture– through the art, the marketing, the writing, and all the other cultural artifacts currently produced by organizations that overwhelmingly favor the work of white men, hire white men, and promote white men to positions of leadership.

While the gatekeepers are mostly white and male, gatekeeping throughout our culture will have a necessarily limited perspective. When the gatekeepers are homogeneous, outside perspectives, outside needs, and outside trends will always be imperfectly understood or even missed entirely. Having a diversity of voices in the room so dramatically improves an organization’s ability to serve its community, one would think a diverse board of directors would be a requirement for obtaining and retaining the 501c3 nonprofit status. As nonprofits, we exist as “public benefit corporations.” Who are we benefiting if the gatekeepers in our organizations are all drawn from the most privileged demographic in our culture?

It all boils down to this:

There is no “commitment to diversity” without diversity. 

We need to diversify our boards or stop claiming we have a “commitment to diversity.”

 

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“Dress Like A Normal Person”: The Weapons of Fragile Masculinity

 

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“Egyensúly” by Nándor Bárány, 1936

Krista Knight is a young playwright well-known and well-loved in the new plays community. She’s well-loved both for her work (her plays have been produced all over the country) and for her personality, which is supportive, generous, and kind. If you scroll through her Instagram (@playtrixx), you’ll see her promoting the work of other writers as often as her own. You’ll also see pictures of her unique, fabulous look– pink hair, flamboyant outfits, wide, happy grin. Everyone who knows Krista loves Krista.

So it shocked the many people who know her when she received this email from fellow playwright Tommy Smith:

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Almost simultaneously, another man– this one an attorney– publicly berated two women at a deli in midtown Manhattan for speaking Spanish during a transaction because “this is America.” In addition to his obvious racism and his less-obvious wild hypocrisy (his own legal practice advertises Spanish language services), he ends his tirade against these two women with an attack on one’s looks, telling her, “Maybe you shouldn’t eat that sandwich today. Take a break from the food.” (See the transcript here.)

What does a playwright’s wardrobe have to do with her writing? What does a woman’s weight have to do with her language? Both these attacks are illogical. Why suddenly, out of all the many Spanish-speaking people in midtown Manhattan, does a man attack two women for both their language and their appearance? Why suddenly, out of the blue, does a man attack a women for both her writing and her appearance?

Short answer: because misogyny.

Slightly longer answer: Men with fragile masculinity assert their dominance in public spaces whenever they feel their masculinity is threatened. When they feel their masculinity is threatened by a woman– the ultimate threat– they attempt to use the tools of male supremacy to put women in their place. In our male supremacist culture, women are accorded value based on their appearances alone. A man who wants to assert his dominance over a woman and make her feel small while making himself feel big and important– feel the weight of cultural male supremacy– will weaponize a woman’s appearance against her. He believes disparaging her appearance lowers her cultural value while the act of passing judgment on her appearance increases his. Weaponizing a woman’s appearance against her is one of the hallmarks of fragile masculinity.

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Krista Knight. (source: kristaknight.com)

Tommy Smith reached out to Krista Knight not because he disliked her plays or her outfits. I’m sure he dislikes both, but few adults would send such a shocking letter to an industry peer based on that alone. Here’s what I believe is going on: Knight’s industry prominence is growing. She is taking up space in what is still today a male-dominated industry, space he clearly feels belongs to him, space he feels entitled to police (“Go fuck yourself. . . . Your plays are bad”). He stresses his belief that she lives on a “trust fund,” and that her life is supported by money she doesn’t deserve, which touches on another hallmark of fragile masculinity– money. Not only is she taking up space in his industry that he feels rightfully belongs to him, but he is angered by the belief that she has more money than he does (“If you lived on the salary of a playwright”).

Under male supremacy, men are judged by other men for their success and their money. It’s an affront to fragile masculinity for a woman– a lowly woman– to have more success and more money than a man. Tommy’s email reveals the belief that he deserves success and money much more than Knight does, yet he’s faced with her rising star and (please be true) her personal fortune. She’s taking up space in his industry and therefore draining attention and resources that he evidently believes rightfully belong to him. Envying the success and wealth of a woman threatens his masculinity, which proves to be so fragile he reaches out to attack her. And like men have done for generations, Tommy reached for the closest (and laziest) misogynistic weapon at hand– her appearance.

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Aaron Schlossberg (right) at a pro-alt right rally, May 2017. (Source: hornet.com)

Attorney Aaron Schlossberg was similarly threatened by the women who were speaking Spanish. In the past few days, his support of right-wing extremism has come to light, but just the transcript of the event alone reveals that he’s bought into the right-wing racist lie that Spanish-speaking = illegal immigrant = collecting welfare = drain on US taxpayers. Even a cursory look at the facts reveals how foolish and illogical that line of thought is, especially in New York, where there are thousands of US citizens who were born in the Spanish-speaking US territory Puerto Rico. But Aaron Schlossberg is not interested in logic. (If he were, he would not be having a public meltdown over women speaking Spanish in someone else’s business when he advertises speaking Spanish in his own.) As a right-wing extremist, he’s been carefully taught to see immigrants as a threat to him in general. But what sent him over the edge and into public hysterics at that moment was the sight of two women speaking Spanish during a deli transaction. The cell phone video one of the women shot shows Aaron spluttering in indignation to a heroically calm male employee who appears to deeply frustrate Aaron by failing to side with him. Just like Tommy Smith, Aaron Schlossberg sees these women as taking space that rightfully belongs to him, space he feels entitled to police (“my next call is to ICE to have each one of them kicked out of my country”). Just like Tommy, Aaron’s fragile masculinity is triggered by the idea that these Spanish-speaking women are draining financial resources from him (“they have the balls to come here and live off of my money. I pay for their welfare. I pay for their ability to be here”). And just like Tommy, just like men have done for generations, he attempts to assert his dominance by weaponizing a woman’s appearance against her.

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Tommy Smith. (Source: playscripts.com)

This is Trump’s America. Women and people of color have taken a few small steps towards equity, and white men (and women), who have always been comfortable in their position as the cultural and societal elite, panicked. Equity– even a few steps toward equity– looks like oppression to people who have always assumed the special treatment they historically received was “normal.” They elected a racist, sexist oaf to “get back at” the “coastal elite liberals” they believed were responsible for these modest social justice gains. Now, emboldened by the open racism and sexism of the President, emboldened by even the mainstream right’s approval of racism and sexism, they are lashing out, no longer seeing a need to hide racism and sexism, and desperate to reassert their societal and cultural dominance by putting everyone else “back in their places.” The increase in right-wing terrorism has been a major national problem for years. But there are also millions upon millions of smaller events that come from the same hateful impulse, the same anger at women, people of color, and LGBTQ people “taking over America”– taking space people with cultural privilege feel rightfully belong to them, space they feel entitled to police.

Masculinity can be as fragile as an egg perched on the edge of a wine glass. The tiniest whisper of a threat– real or imagined– is enough to send men like Tommy Smith and Aaron Schlossberg into hysterics. But we are continuing to push forward despite their desperate attacks. Despite the backlash.

This backlash was inevitable. We knew it was coming. And it is horrible– lives are lost, people are ruined, families are ripped apart. The pain is immense, made even worse by the gleeful celebration of the right. But it is a backlash. This isn’t a fight we’re going to win. We have already won. The toddlers are kicking and screaming, but eventually, they will be sitting in that car seat, riding along with the rest of the family, driving toward the future.

 

 

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A Memo to Gatekeepers Regarding Whiteness

Bitter Gertrude is thrilled to host our first guest blogger ever, the brilliant Ming Peiffer! 

 

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Dear People In Positions Of Power,

When you decide to NOT produce a white artist’s work do NOT tell them it’s because they are white.

Using POC as scapegoats for why you can’t program a white artist’s work not only devalues the POC work you are (finally) giving a chance to see the light of day, BUT it also absolves you of your responsibility and complicity in creating an unfair media world that portrays the world as white and not how it actually is. You’re basically saying, “Normally this would be given to a white person but look where we are! We just can’t! Maybe the pendulum will swing back next season!” And you’re not paying attention to the fact that it “normally going to white person” is not normal at all. And is a prime example of systemic racism and systematic erasure of POC and “Other” voices. (It also signals to me that somewhere you believe this is a passing fad instead of real institutional change you are embedding.)

Moreover, it’s re-enforcing the false narrative that whites are not succeeding right now. C’mon. Look at the TV. Look at your seasons. Look at the rest of the country. Look at the president.

White people are doing fine.

It is certainly easier to blame a faceless POC than hurting the feelings of a white artist you have a relationship with but y’all need to pony up and take responsibility for the necessary and commendable changes you ARE making in your programming and explain to them that your definition of “worthy” work has expanded and that their work simply did not make the “worthy” list this year. And that your previous definition of “worthy” was racist. Was white.

DO NOT MAKE IT SEEM AS THOUGH DECISIONS WERE NOT RACE-BASED BEFORE.

They were race-based before, you just couldn’t see it.

Do the work people in power. You might have to have some hard conversations and disappoint some of your friends but it’s better than creating more animosity towards POC and spreading an abhorrently false narrative that their whiteness is what’s keeping them from success.

It’s hard to be honest but it will be worth it and everyone will make better work because of it.

 

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Ming Peiffer is a playwright, screenwriter, and activist from Columbus, Ohio. Her play USUAL GIRLS will be produced at the Roundabout Underground as part of their 2018/19 Season. Her work has been developed and/or presented by New York Theatre Workshop, Roundabout Theatre Company, The Kennedy Center, Ensemble Studio Theater, HERE Arts Center, The Flea, The Wild Project, New Ohio, Soho Playhouse, The Gene Frankel Theater, C.O.W., Theater for the New City, FringeNYC, Horsetrade Theater, Yangtze Repertory, among others. Awards/Fellowships include: NYTW 2050 Fellowship, The Kennedy Center’s Paul Stephen Lim Playwriting Award Recipient (i wrote on ur wall and now i regret it), The Relentless Award Honorable Mention (USUAL GIRLS), The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center NPC Finalist (USUAL GIRLS), Playwright’s Realm Fellowship Semi-Finalist, Princess Grace Award Semi-Finalist (i wrote on ur wall and now i regret it), Doric Wilson Independent Playwright Award Finalist. In TV/Film, Ming has been a staff writer at Netflix and Hulu, and is currently developing her own series with Color Force and F/X. Additionally, she is adapting Weike Wang’s “CHEMISTRY” into a film for Amazon and a comic book into a series for AMC.

More about Ming Peiffer here

(Top image courtesy of Creative Commons license CC.BY.3.0; bottom image provided by author)
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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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