Tag Archives: dramaturgy

I Wrote a Thing for TCG

The wonderful Edgardo de la Cruz, my undergrad directing teacher/cult leader

The wonderful Edgardo de la Cruz, my undergrad directing teacher/cult leader

I was asked by the wonderful Jacqueline E. Lawton to participate in the latest TCG blog salon, “Artistic Leadership: How Do We Change the Game?” She sent me a series of questions wickedly difficult to answer:

What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?

What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?

My answers reference the late Edgardo de la Cruz, African American Shakespeare Company, Lauren Gunderson, Howard Sherman, Annoyance Theatre, and Lawton herself, along with issues of representation, money, and empathy.

Please check it out! You can find it here.

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Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, and “Freedom of Expression”

America has been exploding with issues surrounding the concept of “freedom of expression.” Like many freedoms, “freedom of expression” sounds great in the abstract. In the abstract, pretty much everyone outside of political and religious extremists are for “freedom of expression,” and the very fact that political and religious extremists are most decidedly not in favor of freedom of expression makes a certain kind of person even MORE in favor of it.

In the concrete, the issue of “freedom of expression,” like everything else in the world, is much more complex and nuanced, and if there’s one thing political and religious extremists– and the people who love to piss off political and religious extremists– hate, it’s complexity and nuance.

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Adam Sandler on the set of The Ridiculous Six. Photo courtesy of actor Loren Anthony’s Instagram, which you can follow at @lorenanthony

 

When Native American actors walked off the set in protest over the racism in Adam Sandler’s latest film, the ensuing controversy was unsurprising. The internet exploded with the coverage, and the backlash was instantaneous and fierce. Those who supported the actors were accused of suppressing freedom of expression, and misunderstanding the boundary-crossing nature of comedy. When PEN announced that Charlie Hebdo would be receiving its Toni and James C Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, the ensuing controversy was also unsurprising. When 145 PEN members formally protested (that number has now grown to over 200), they were met with another predictable backlash that included a wealth of BUT FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION scolding. A lesser-known, but equally important, controversy happened earlier this year when stand-up comic Ari Shaffir viciously attacked fellow, lesser-known stand-up Damienne Merlina both for her disability (Merlina lost an arm in a car accident) and her weight, in his Comedy Central special. When Merlina posted a YouTube video calling Shaffir out for the attack, she was met with a barrage of criticism– and even mockery– for daring to speak out against her own attacker. A major part of the backlash Merlina received was centered around the fact that comedy was meant to cross boundaries, and that those attacked should understand that, shut up, and take it.

Damienne Merlina, photographed by Jeff Forney.

Damienne Merlina, photographed by Jeff Forney.

“Freedom of expression” is an emotional issue. It’s difficult to have productive conversations about its complexities. People have knee-jerk emotional reactions around protecting it in the abstract that prevent them from considering its complexities in the concrete. But it’s well worth the effort to at least try.

You may have heard the expression “punching up” and/or “punching down.” It’s fairly easy to understand. “Punching up” means comedy that makes fun of people or groups in power. This is the kind of humor most often used throughout history by progressive political and social movements. Imagine a cartoon making fun of a political figure, or Christianity’s active oppression of LGBT rights. “Punching down” means comedy that makes fun of people or groups who are marginalized, oppressed, and targeted by bigotry. Imagine a film mocking Native Americans. Imagine a cartoon mocking the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram just to make an unrelated political point. Imagine a comedian with a national spotlight attacking a young woman by name– a woman who wasn’t even there and had nothing to do with the event– for her disability and weight.

Comedy that “punches up” has long been a tool for political and social change. Punching holes in the cultural and political power of dominant groups is what people do when they want to call that power and dominance into question, when they want the culture to begin considering how that power and dominance is wielded, and whether such consolidation of power and dominance is, actually, a good idea. “Punching up” requires extreme bravery. “Punching up” is more than speaking truth to power– it’s speaking truth to power while telling power its fly is open. Punching up is dangerous because it challenges power, and power retaliates brutally. Thousands of people have been jailed and executed for punching up. There are people sitting in jail right this moment in many areas of the world for punching up, and they will not be the last.

Bassem Yussef, an Egyptian satirist often compared to Jon Stewart, was arrested in March, 2013 for allegedly insulting President Mohammed Morsi and Islam. He was released on bail. In April 2013, he was named one of Time's 100 most influential people.

Bassem Yussef, an Egyptian satirist often compared to Jon Stewart, was arrested in March, 2013 for allegedly insulting President Mohammed Morsi and Islam. He was released on bail. In April 2013, he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people.

Comedy that “punches down” has long been a tool for political and social oppression. Mocking groups that suffer bigotry and oppression is what people do when they want to solidify that bigotry and oppression, when they want to solidify their own cultural and political power and dominance over that marginalized group. Punching down requires no bravery whatsoever, because it’s done from a place of cultural primacy. Occasionally extremist members of a marginalized group will retaliate in reprehensible ways. Murder is never an acceptable response to comedy, period. But that kind of retaliation is rare. No one in their right mind believes that murdering people who work at Charlie Hebdo is an acceptable response to the content they publish, no matter what it may be. But no one in their right mind believes– or should believe– that Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Islam in a nation where Muslims are common targets of bigotry puts it in the same position as a North Korean drawing cartoons mocking Kim Jung Un.

Many people are quick to point out that Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, and Ari Shaffir punch both up and down. Charlie Hebdo, apologists are quick to point out, mocks Christianity as often as it mocks Judaism or Islam, and mocks right-wing politics even more. But that argument is the height of intellectual laziness. Punching up does not inoculate you from the effects of punching down. Mocking the powerful is one thing; mocking people who are daily victims of bigotry is entirely another. Despite France’s humanist bent, Christianity still holds enormous cultural power there, while Jews and Muslims suffer routine bigotry and discrimination. (Attacks against Muslims since the Charlie Hebdo attacks have focused primarily on women.) Despite Adam Sandler’s willingness to mock himself and other people in power, Native Americans suffer routine, institutionalized, daily bigotry in America. Despite Comedy Central’s willingness to air comedy that mocks people in power, the disabled suffer enormous daily bigotry in our culture. Punching up is a completely different activity– culturally, politically, and morally– than punching down.

Graves desecrated by vandals with Nazi swastikas and anti-semitic slogans in the Jewish cemetery of Brumath close to Strasbourg, October 31, 2004. Jewish cemeteries have been, and continue to be, targeted as antisemitism rises in France. (photo: Reuters)

Graves desecrated by vandals with Nazi swastikas and anti-semitic slogans in the Jewish cemetery of Brumath close to Strasbourg, October 31, 2004. Jewish cemeteries have been, and continue to be, targeted as antisemitism rises in France. (photo: Reuters)

 

Muslim cemeteries are similarly vandalized. Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery near Arras, northern France, April 7, 2008.  Photo: Reuters/Sadouki

Muslim cemeteries are similarly vandalized. Although anti-Muslim attacks have skyrocketed in France since the Charlie Hebdo shooting, anti-Muslim bigotry and attacks were well underway beforehand. Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery near Arras, northern France, was vandalized in April, 2008. (Photo: Reuters/Sadouki)

And yet, because power rewards power, PEN granted an award for courage to Charlie Hebdo. Because power rewards power, Netflix continues to give Adam Sandler millions of dollars to make his crappy movie. Because power rewards power, entertainment corporations continue to shower Ari Shaffir with money. And so it goes.

I believe in freedom of expression, both in the abstract and in the concrete. I don’t think we should be censoring bigotry. I am adamantly opposed to censorship. But I also think– because this issue is complex– that we need to be thinking hard about the difference between tolerating the expression of bigotry and rewarding it.

We need to stop pretending that speaking out against the expression of bigotry is “anti-freedom of expression,” when in fact it is the exact opposite– it’s exercising one’s own freedom of expression. Being told your opinion is nonsense is not the same as being denied the right to express your opinion. Being told that your employer is not interested in paying you for expressions of bigotry is not the same as being denied the right to express bigotry at all. And speaking out against giving an award for courage to a magazine that routinely mocks marginalized groups is not equivalent to speaking out against that magazine’s right to print whatever the hell it wants. Supporting your right to freedom of expression need not include rewarding you for that expression, nor need it include freedom from criticism.

I think Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, Ari Shaffir, and anyone else should be allowed to punch down as often and as viciously as they like. And I think those with the power to dole out awards– whether literal awards or financial awards– should stop and think for a moment about whether they actually wish to reward punching down.

We spend millions of dollars on anti-bullying campaigns, initiatives, and education in schools. We’re fooling ourselves that kids can’t see through the hypocrisy of adults telling them bullying is always wrong and then turning right around and rewarding bullying done by adults. What’s the difference between a playground bully mocking a Muslim kid, a disabled kid, an overweight kid, or a Native American kid, and what Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, and Ari Shaffir have done? If the bully says, “But I make fun of everyone,” does that excuse the rest of his bullying? Of course not. So why is that used to excuse adult behavior?

An anti-bullying poster from National Voices for Equality, Education, and Enlightenment. Learn more about them and their anti-bullying initiatives, at nveee.org.

An anti-bullying poster from National Voices for Equality, Education, and Enlightenment. Learn more about them and their anti-bullying initiatives at nveee.org.

And before you even bother posting comments defending any or all of the three I’ve discussed, the principle remains whether I’m right in my analysis of those particular three or not. We punch down in this culture all the time. We reward that kind of bullying with accolades, money, and power. We defend it with “it’s just a joke,” “you’re too sensitive,” and a barrage of like nonsense from privilege stomping its feet and throwing tantrums because their bigoted fun is being spoiled with our dissent. “It’s just a joke” is perhaps the most intellectually lazy argument of them all, as if the presence of humor evacuates its long history of keeping marginalized people “in their place.”

And while I will be the first one to defend your right to punch down– your right to freedom of expression– I’m appalled at the fact that we reward that behavior. It’s long past the time we stopped confusing tolerance with appreciation and reward.

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The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement

TCG is holding a multiyear inquiry about audiences called “Audience (R)evolution.”

The piece I wrote for it is called “The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement.” It’s a little . . . rabblerousy. Are you surprised?

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Check it out, leave a comment, share it on twitfacetagram. I’m thrilled that I was asked to contribute!

UPDATE: Please take a look at Jonathan Mandell’s excellent response to my piece in his blog, New York Theater. He takes me to task for adding to the culture of ageism we have in the theatre industry, and he could not be more right.

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Why Is Race the Line?

Lord Capulet (Jon Nagel) and his nephew Tybalt (Reggie D. White) in Impact's production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Lord Capulet (Jon Nagel) and his nephew Tybalt (Reggie D. White) in Impact’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I had an interesting conversation with a theatremaker recently about casting. The discussion centered around multiethnic casting, particularly whether casting actors of different races as members of the same family would make the storytelling in the play unclear. The concern was that audience members would have trouble reading the actors as related and therefore have trouble following the play’s narrative.

If you’ve followed my blog for more than 12 seconds you already know what I think (diverse casting is GO), but I gave this particular aspect of diverse casting some serious thought, as this is nowhere near the first time I’ve had this discussion. Here’s where I landed:

Why is race the line?

That’s a serious question, btw, not a facetious construction meant to elicit a WOMP WOMP from my fellow SJWs. We take it for granted that we put our disbelief in suspension when we go to the theatre, but that suspension has limits. When we see something inaccurate onstage, for example, it pulls us out of the narrative. When an actor playing a medical professional pronounces the word “larynx” as “larnyx,”or says the blood type B+ as “B plus” (both of which I’ve heard), I have trouble maintaining the belief that that person is a medical professional.

In casting, however, we make enormous allowances. We take it for granted that the storytelling remains intact in a production of As You Like It although the actress playing Rosalind is married to the actress playing Celia, the actor playing Orlando is married to the costume designer, and the actor playing Charles the Wrestler has never wrestled a day in his life. We take it for granted that the storytelling remains intact in a production of Romeo and Juliet although we know Lord Capulet, Lady Capulet, Juliet, and Tybalt are not related and, in fact, look nothing alike. We lauded Peter Dinklage as Richard III although his disability is nothing like what Richard’s was, and we lauded both Sir Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey as Richard III, although neither has any disability at all.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III at the Old Vic in London. Photo by Nigel Norrington.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III at the Old Vic in London. Photo by Nigel Norrington.

It goes even further than that. People think nothing of casting a woman as Juliet’s nurse who is far too old to have plausibly given birth 13 years prior, although her entire relationship with Juliet hangs on that fact. People think nothing of casting a woman as Juliet who is visibly more than twice Juliet’s repeatedly stated age. We rarely expect an actor playing Iago to have military bearing although his years-long military experience and current military rank are central to the character and the narrative of the play. Hell, we live in a world where a major company can hire an all-white cast to do a show as vague “Native Americans” and almost no one bats an eye apart from Native American theatremakers and a few bloggers (also this).

So why is it so common for theatremakers to hesitate considering– or even refuse to consider– an actor of color to play the daughter of a white man, a Puritan farmer, the grandmother of a white woman, or a founding father (all examples taken from personal experience or discussions I’ve had with other theatremakers)? When we already are well aware that the actor isn’t the character, the characters’ relationships are (almost always) feigned, and the locations and actions are (almost always) pretend, why is that one factor– race– the line in the sand?

I don’t mean to discount the importance of race in our culture, or in the lived experience of people of color. What I mean is: Why is race so often THE most important consideration in casting, even when the production is not specifically about race? Why is race considered so much more important than other factors, such as age, suitability for the role, or skillset?

If you’re producing A Raisin in the Sun, M Butterfly, or Othello, the race of the characters is of primary importance, but most plays are not specifically about race. There’s no reason Tybalt cannot be Black in an otherwise all-Caucasian Capulet family. There’s no reason Eurydice cannot be Asian and her father cannot be white in Sarah Ruhl’s play. There’s no reason Joe Pitt cannot be Latino while Hannah Pitt is white in Angels. My own cousin is Black, and there are literally millions of other multiracial families in the US.

Julie Eccles as Gertrude and LeRoy McClain as Hamlet in California Shakespeare Theater's Hamlet. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Julie Eccles as Gertrude and LeRoy McClain as Hamlet in California Shakespeare Theater’s Hamlet. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The three main arguments I hear about this go as follows:

1. But they WERE all white in that time and place. For one thing, are you certain? Because you’re probably wrong, even when you’re talking about Puritan Massachusetts or Colonial America. And also: So? There are lots of things we’re choosing not to depict accurately (some of which I’ve listed above), either because we have made a choice to believe they aren’t important, or because we don’t have the capability to. Think about this: 130 years ago, the difference between an Italian person and a white person would have been apparent to any American. To cast an obviously Italian woman as Juliet would have appeared absurd to an American audience in 1885, even though Juliet IS Italian, due to the enormous racial prejudice against Italian immigrants at the time.

2. Well, how about white people playing Black characters? Huh? Why can’t THAT happen? HUH? REVERSE RACISM. Well, it actually DOES happen, especially in Hollywood. Google “whitewashing.” I’ve already covered why this is problematic in this very space a bunch of times. Here, read this. Don’t believe me? Check out Racebending.

3. It will make the narrative hard to follow. This is the argument that arguably has the most (any) merit. A friend of mine has a daughter who looks exactly like her in every way but skin color, and did so even as a toddler. Although they looked so much alike, she was constantly asked, “Where did you get her?” I told my friend she should reply, “Out of my uterus.” People often unthinkingly assume all familial relationships are biological, and then use racial similarity as a marker for familial relationship, even though they know, if they pause to consider, that adoption, stepchildren, and biracial people exist. Stories like these underlie that. However, we can’t necessarily apply that to theatre. We don’t know the relationships of any of the characters onstage until they are revealed to us, and we already know we’re in the world of pretend. If you tell an audience that, for example, two men of different races are brothers, almost everyone in the audience will accept that. It’s not uncommon, especially in indie theatre and in areas with diverse populations, to see diverse families onstage. Yet some theatremakers still hesitate to cast people of color for reasons of narrative clarity, yet will discount literally every other physical marker as unimportant.

Sean Mirkovich as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Kelvyn Mitchell as his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, in Impact Theatre's Richard III. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Sean Mirkovich as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Kelvyn Mitchell as his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, in Impact Theatre’s Richard III. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I think what’s going on here is simple. We see “white” as “normal,” the baseline: neutral. We see people of color as a deviation from that– particular,  different, “other.” Race has narrative, of course, and we must consider that narrative while casting. If you have an all-white cast apart from one Black actor who’s playing the bad guy, you’re saying something specific. But often diversity in a play that’s not about race doesn’t change the narrative at all. How much difference would it make to the narrative of As You Like It if cousins Rosalind and Celia were of different races?

Sarah Dandridge as Rosalind and Francesca Choy-Kee as Celia in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of As You Like It. Photo by Sandy Underwood.

Sarah Dandridge as Rosalind and Francesca Choy-Kee as Celia in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of As You Like It. Photo by Sandy Underwood.

But because we see whiteness as “neutral,” when we look at white actors, we imagine a palette of possibilities, a narrative polyvalence, that we do not afford to people of color. A white person can be anything; a person of color is primarily and foremost “of color,” and therefore is relegated in most cases to inhabiting spaces already designated as such. A white person is read as “person”; a Black person is read as “Black person.” There are casting directors who still separate their files into “ingenue,” “leading man,” “Asian,” “Black.” White people are divided into types; people of color are their race alone. Thankfully, this is becoming less and less common, but we’re still far behind full inclusion of people of color. However, even small gains by people of color in casting are seen as a threat to white actors. We have a long way to go.

Years ago I made a personal commitment to include people of color in lists of actors I was recommending for roles wherein race wasn’t specified. Whether that had any impact on the eventual casting of the role or not, it was one way I felt like I could personally challenge the idea of whiteness as neutral in my day-to-day life. I get these all the time– people ask me for recommendations for roles like “woman, 20s, good comic timing, excellent physicality” or “man, 30s, sophisticated, witty, elegant.” All too often the implication is that a role is white if not otherwise specified, and I refuse to accept that. We’re getting better at diverse casting, certainly, but we’re still struggling with it, particularly on larger stages, where some directors can be enormously resistant.

While we take it for granted that an audience can see past a 30-year-old woman playing a 13-year-old girl (“come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen”), or a 70-year old woman playing that 13-year-old girl’s wet nurse; while we take it for granted that people will accept Kevin Spacey as disabled; we all too often refuse to take it for granted that an audience will accept a diverse family or a Black Puritan.

It’s time to rethink this. We need to slow down and recognize when we’re positing whiteness as neutral and color as a deviation from that, and we need to stop imagining that the only places audiences can tolerate actors of color are in spaces clearly designated for them. We need those ethnic-specific roles (and plays), certainly, but we also need to open our minds to making our onstage families look more like our offstage families; to giving our audiences credit for being willing and able to play pretend with us wherever we take them; and to giving actors of color consideration for their types, talents, and abilities apart from– and in addition to– their ethnicities.

Bay Area Children's Theatre's production of Five Little Monkeys. Mama Monkey and her five little monkeys as one happy (and busy!) family. Photo by Joshua Posamentier.

Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s production of Five Little Monkeys. Mama Monkey and her five little monkeys as one happy (and busy!) family. Photo by Joshua Posamentier.

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The Performance of Protest vs The Performance of Excusing Apathy

Once upon a time I met an actor with mental health issues. Just . . . save that joke for later; I’m serious times right now. He told me that the Korean government was trying to kill him because of his political street theatre. When I tell this story, it never fails to get a laugh. Political street theatre? Harhar. No one cares about political street theatre that much! Harharhar.

In the wake of the failure of the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, protests have exploded all over the country. The internet has also predictably exploded with people condemning the rioting and looting that have been an unfortunate component of some of the protests. The theatre around this issue is fascinating, and enormously telling.

There have been peaceful protests in Ferguson (and elsewhere) literally every single day since Michael Brown was killed. Here are some shots:

Ferguson, August 11. Photo by Robert Cohen, AP.

Ferguson, August 11. Photo by Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP.

People march in Washington on September 6, 2014 to protest the killing of black teen Michael Brown whose killing by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited violent protests and debate on race and law enforcement in America.    AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington, DC, September 6. Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images.

Ferguson, September 29. Photo by Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Ferguson, September 29. Photo by Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

St. Louis, October 11. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

St. Louis, October 11. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images. You’ll see Scott Olson’s name on a lot of photos of Ferguson and St. Louis. You’ll also see photos of him being arrested by Ferguson police for taking pictures. Some of his fellow professional photographers caught his arrest on camera. Because evidently we’re the kind of nation that arrests journalists now.

Protestors staging a

Protestors staging a “die-in” in St. Louis, November 16. Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Protests are political street theatre. The last picture shows an example of the kind of actions we’d more normally associate with “theatre,” but a protest of any sort is a performance intended to capture attention and make a certain point. The problem is: the peaceful protests were almost completely ignored. Sure, we saw some pictures early on, and the “die-in” got a little press, but by and large, Ferguson disappeared off the cultural radar within a few weeks of Brown’s death, only resurfacing as the grand jury decision was nearing. Headlines roared impending violence: “Police in Ferguson Stock Up on Riot Gear Ahead of Grand Jury Decision.” “State of Emergency Declared in Missiouri for Grand Jury’s Decision on Ferguson.” “Officials Prepare for Ferguson Grand Jury Decision, Urge Calm.” Everyone knew the grand jury would fail to indict. Even those who still had hope knew. Everyone expected there would be riots. And, amid the many peaceful protests over the past few days, there have indeed been many incidences of property damage and looting.

This shot, seen round the world, of a looter in Ferguson. November 24. Photo: David Carson/AP.

This shot, seen round the world, of a looter in Ferguson. November 24. Photo: David Carson/AP.

Dellword, MO, November 25. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Cars burned during the riot the night before in Dellword, MO, November 25. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Despite the violence and looting, most protesters are still peaceful.

Protestors in Oakland, CA, November 24. Photo: Jim WIlson/New York Times.

Protestors in Oakland, CA, November 24. Photo: Jim WIlson/New York Times.

Times Square, New York City, November 24. Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images.

Times Square, New York City, November 24. Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images.

The peaceful protests have been nearly completely ignored while America obsesses over the images of violence. That message is loud and clear: WE WILL NOT PAY ATTENTION TO YOU UNTIL YOU DO SOMETHING DRASTIC. And when you do something drastic, well, then you lose our respect and your issue becomes secondary to our scorn.

A significant chunk of America is terrified of the future diverse America they can do nothing to stop, or don’t care about people of color, or any marginalized people, and are livid that the culture is slowly lumbering towards expecting them to care. They’re in a flat-out panic trying to stop immigration (but only from the brown countries), trying to roll back the gains of feminism either overtly (denial of birth control) or covertly, pretending it’s all about a different issue entirely (Gamergate), trying to roll back marriage equality, trying to roll back the separation of church and state, trying to roll back diversity anywhere they find it. These are the people who use “social justice warrior” as a pejorative. The terrified and the indignant.

That chunk of America is comforting itself with those images of African American looters. They make an enormous amount of theatre about the rioting and looting– little performances on TV, social media, blogs– scolding African Americans, claiming they’re demeaning their cause with riots, or that the cause itself is just a fabricated excuse for violence and looting. Thousands of little performances that accuse Black people of expressing “sadness for a death” by rioting. Performances where Martin Luther King is trotted out to posthumously scold Black people. (White people always reach for MLK when they want to scold Black people without looking racist.) Performances scolding Black people for “honoring Michael Brown with looting.” Thousands of little, belittling performances that pretend this is about the death of one man, an isolated incident. Thousands of little, belittling performances that pretend the looting and property damage are the most important aspects of this cultural moment.

These performances deliberately miss the point because they are only meant to comfort that terrified and/or indignant chunk of America. If the protests are just senseless riots and looting, then nothing is actually wrong and nothing needs to change. They were right all along. Case closed.

In truth, no one actually believes this is just about Michael Brown. I think, by this point, everyone understands that it’s about Michael Brown AND Amadou Diallo, John Crawford, Ousmane Zongo, Timothy Stansbury, Kendrec McDade, Aaron Campbell, Victor Steen, Steven Eugene Washington, Wendell Allen, Trayvon MartinTravares McGill, Ramarley Graham, Oscar Grant, Jordan Davis, Darius Simmons, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and, just the other day, little Tamir Rice. AND MORE. So, so, so many more cases of white people killing unarmed African Americans, usually young men, because we have a culture that frames Black as a symbol for IMMINENT DANGER. White people imagine guns in the hands of unarmed Black men while they would never imagine such a thing in a similar situation with a man of a different race. They imagine a Black man walking towards them is a threat, a Black man adjusting his waistband is reaching for a gun, a Black man standing on the street is a weapon just waiting to be used against them.

I know it’s hard for some of you to imagine the anger of a community whose youth are routinely seen this way, and subsequently gunned down in the street, more often than not with impunity or the lightest of sentences, whose pain goes completely ignored or even contradicted– the terrified and indignant love nothing better than a performance about how wonderful things are now for people of color, how people of color are upset over nothing, how Black-on-Black crime or Black-on-Caucasian crime is the real issue (as if those two types of crime erase the problem). I know it’s hard to focus on a Big Problem that needs Big Work to solve. But we MUST.

I’m exhausted by people who think the riots are the most important aspect of this cultural moment, who ignore everything else. I’m exhausted by those people both because they’re using the riots to comfort themselves into believing the cause itself is worthless, and because they’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: IF YOU ONLY PAY ATTENTION TO VIOLENT PROTESTS, THEN PEOPLE MUST RESORT TO VIOLENT PROTESTS TO GET YOUR ATTENTION.

African Americans are just 13% of this nation, and this issue directly involves white people. White people MUST be involved if we’re going to have justice here. Most white people completely ignored the peaceful protests. They sent their last fuck off to seek its fortune with a knapsack and a pocket full of dreams two days after Brown was shot. The ONLY thing that got their attention was violence, and the ONLY reason they suddenly decided to pay attention was that violence gave their inattention a REASON. They couldn’t post “I’m ignoring these daily peaceful protests because the idea of losing my privilege in the face of equality terrifies me,” or “I’m ignoring these daily peaceful protests because I don’t give a shit about social justice or racism and I’m pissed that you expect me to care.” They stayed silent until the violence gave them a handy reason not to care, and then they finally erupted in thousands and thousands of little performances demonstrating why they didn’t need to care.

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” wrote Martin Luther King. When no one pays attention to peaceful protests, that anger, depair, and rage will boil over into violence. But MOST of the protestors, remember, are still non-violent. Most of the protest performance is still peaceful. Not that anyone notices or cares.

Of course you can decry looting and property damage while simultaneously fighting for justice. But I don’t see that in the many little performances blowing up social media. The most common theme in these is open racism. Many of the memes created aren’t even using images from Ferguson– they’re using images from other places and times. I’m seeing little racist performances like these everywhere:

“In memory of how Michael Brown lived his life. Looting isn’t a crime! It’s a tribute!”

“Not a single pair of work boots was looted in Ferguson last night.”

“The best way to end the rioting and looting in Ferguson is to hold a job fair. They’ll scatter like cockroaches when the lights come on.”

There are more. I won’t link to any of them. You’ve already seen them.

If you want to decry riots and looting while simultaneously working for justice, then by all means, do that. In actual fact, that’s what most people who support this cause are doing. While we recognize that riots, looting, and destruction of property are the language of the unheard (see Tea Party; Boston), we’re still working in peaceful ways to bring about change. But right now, we’re forced to push against a monolith of people using the violence to comfort them in their terror and apathy, and/or using the looting and property damage as a vector through which their racism can be channeled.

I wrote an article about how our culture frames Blackness as a symbol for potential danger, and how we as artists can work to change that. I’d be thrilled if you read my own little protest performance. I’d be even more thrilled if you shared it. But I’d be THE MOST thrilled if you wrote your own.

YES. WE. FUCKING. CAN. Change the country, create justice, and end racism. It’s a Big Problem that requires Big Work, and that’s scary and intimidating. You can’t do a Big Work all on your own. But a million small works add up to the Big Work. Create your own protest performance, even if it’s as small as a single meme, a single article, a single sign. Do what you can. Together, we can create so many they can’t be ignored. Let’s do this. Drown out the apathy, the fear, the hatred, the racism.

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Words and Symbols: Not Just Decorative

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

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

swastikaring

redskins

michonne-cosplay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ferguson, Narrative, and Dungeons and Dragons

Like everyone, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ferguson, and about the epidemic of white men gunning down unarmed young African American men.  What is racism made out of? What makes someone think that such an action is acceptable in any way? As they say, no one is born racist. Sure, people talk a lot about the influence of tribal thinking (who is like me and therefore part of my group; who is unlike me and therefore a potential threat), but there’s no intrinsic reason that should be related to skin color any more than hair color or height. No, you have to create racists, and you do it by creating, disseminating, and consuming racist narrative.

When a police officer, or a man in a 7-11 parking lot, or another police officer, or the guy next door, or a Neighborhood Watch nutjob (I could go on and on, but you get my point) shoots and kills an unarmed young African American man (the ages of the five murder victims above spans 13 – 22), he does so because he believes that young man is in some way intrinsically dangerous, and less human because of that. After the fact, the stories pour out: “I saw him reach for a gun” is a favorite. “I thought my life was in danger” is another. What makes a man imagine a gun in the hand of an unarmed African American teenager? Because he sure as hell isn’t imagining that gun when it’s a white teenager in front of him.

I believe that the answer lies in the narratives we create, disseminate, and consume. The entertainment industry makes a staggering amount of money selling products that depict Black = Dangerous. There are white men whose entire fortunes are built on that trope. (Check out this article by Dr. Darron Smith on the issue of the depiction of Black men in American media.) The reality is that MOST African American men are NOT committing violent acts, but MOST of the art about African American men that gets funded, distributed, and consumed depicts that as if it’s irrefutable fact, even when the main Black character is not participating in those activities– he’s “getting out,” or “trying to rise above.” There are white gatekeepers out there refusing to fund art that doesn’t conform to that trope because they believe it doesn’t sell as well– and maybe they’re right, which is on us as consumers.

I’d never say that an African American (or anyone else, for that matter) who created art about violence out of his or her lived experience should not be doing that. No one should ever tell another person that the art they create out of their lived experience should be suppressed– consuming authentic narratives about others creates empathy. Everyone should have a voice, and we need diverse voices from diverse points of view in all our art forms.

But that’s just it– we need more diversity in our narratives. We need to take a cold, hard look at the ways in which we as creators and distributers of art contribute to making Black = Dangerous the PRIMARY narrative about African American men, because the impact of that is quite literally lethal. We don’t have other, equally potent cultural tropes about African American men tempering Black = Dangerous, which is why this racist trope is the one in the minds of armed white men facing unarmed African American teenagers– these white men have been taught from birth that Black = Dangerous, and they, for whatever combination of reasons (and we could list these all day– institutional racism, family racism, enjoyment of privilege, lack of critical thinking skills, and lack of empathy are just a few), BELIEVED IT, never questioned it, and gunned down someone’s baby in cold blood. As a mother, it stops my heart.

Solo performer and author Brian Copeland does a show called Not a Genuine Black Man. I took my students to see a performance of the world premiere run. It was an incredibly impactful experience. The most devastating story he told about growing up African American in a nearly all-white Bay Area town (San Leandro, now one of the most diverse cities in the nation) in the 70s, was when he was 9, being chased and harassed by racist white teenagers. He saw a police officer, thought “safety,” and ran up to him. The police officer took a step back and put his hand on his gun. NINE YEARS OLD.

This is what a nine year old boy looks like. From istockphoto.com.

This is what a nine year old boy looks like. From istockphoto.com

This country desperately needs to disrupt the cultural status of Black = Dangerous as the primary trope about African American men. We need to stop making money off a trope that’s literally KILLING KIDS. As artists, it’s our JOBS to understand the cultural context of the tropes and narratives we create. WE MAKE CULTURE. Let’s start making it with the deliberate goal in mind of making the primacy of Black = Dangerous a thing of the past, so that one day a story about a Black bad guy will be no more about his Blackness than narratives about The Joker, Emperor Palpatine, or Hannibal Lecter are about being white. We desperately need to decouple the concept of “dangerousness” from race.

Let’s look at a content creator who’s doing it right.

As a giant nerd, of course I got the new Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook. When I first cracked it open in the store and began paging through, I was floored. Page after page after page of women– as many women as men– all looking like legitimate heroes in functional armor, not scantily-clad pose monsters pretending to fight while twisted into impossible shapes that manage to show both cleavage and ass. I never realized how much I felt like I was a girl horning in on a “guy game” until I saw these pictures and felt welcomed.

What also immediately stood out was the diversity. The book is filled with people of color. I stood there holding the book in the game store, and I almost cried. I held the book out to my husband, a longtime player, and fought back tears as I explained to him what it meant to me just to see these women. And to think about what it would mean to young nerds of color to see themselves reflected on those pages.

I could go on and on about what this means for women. But to stay on target: There will be an entire generation of nerdkids who will learn this game in this edition, for whom Black heroes will be a natural part of the game, who will experience narratives of Blackness that aggressively disrupt Black = Dangerous. All D&D adventurers are dangerous. But they are all individual, as individual as the people playing them. A Black D&D adventurer is no more or less dangerous than anyone else. His Blackness is part of his identity, but nowhere in that universe is the color of his skin a marker for his dangerousness. His broadsword or his spellcasting, on the other hand . . .

Let me show you a few examples. These are just a few out of an incredible diversity of images. If you EVER had an interest in D&D, or thought you might someday check it out, now is the time.

This is the first example they give of the Human race. LOOK AT THAT FUNCTIONAL ARMOR!

This is the first illustration in the Human race profile!

dnd2

This is the first illustration in the Fighter class profile.

This is the first illustration on the Wizard class profile.

This is the first illustration in the Wizard class profile.

There are still plenty of white guys in there, but along with them, there are just as many women and people of color pictured as legitimate adventurers in their own right, not window dressing or tokenistic afterthoughts. Bravo, Wizards of the Coast. You fucking nailed it. I hope this new edition brings you legions of new, diverse fans. And you can BET I will be showing these pictures to my students and talking about narrative creation in our culture.

Do I actually think D&D can save the world? YOU BET I DO. But it can’t do it alone. It’s up to us as artists and entertainment industry professionals to reject the idea that the only trope worth funding or distributing about African American men is Black = Dangerous, and replace that harmful idea with a wide variety of tropes– yes, including Black = Dragon Slayer. I’m not leading some campaign against art that depicts Black men committing crimes or being violent. I am, however, one small part of a campaign against a widespread artistic and cultural practice that PRIMARILY depicts Black men as threats.

This CAN be done. We just have to pay attention to the cultural context of what we’re creating, funding, distributing, and consuming, and make a commitment to real diversity. When it’s done right, it’s glorious.

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Things Playwrights Do That I Love

Sometimes I open a play and see something that makes me feel like this:

Here’s what you do that makes my heart sing as I’m reading the plays in my stack. Are these subjective? Sure. But I made sure to only include things I’ve heard echoed by other artistic directors. Is this meant to be all-inclusive? Of course not. I’ve written a lot about playwriting already, so there’s a lot I’ve left out here. (Search for the tag “playwrights” if you want to see more.) So here we go– what makes my eyes turn into cartoon hearts when I look at you:

heartsforeyes

1. Your play is set anywhere but New York. Every time I talk about this, I get ten playwrights saying, “That NEVER HAPPENS anymore. That’s OLD SCHOOL.” And then I open the next 20 plays in my consideration folder and 14 of them are set in New York. So believe me, this is still alive and well. When I see a play is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, I immediately start rooting for it just a little bit harder. So few plays are set where my audience lives. Stories happen in every corner of the globe.

Mutt: Let's All Talk About Race! by Christopher Chen at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race! by Christopher Chen at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

2. You have a male/female professional pairing, and they do not have sex or even try to. When I see on page one a female cop and her male partner having a conversation about The Important Mission That May Be The Plot, I start tensing up, because I know that too few playwrights will write a scene wherein a penis and a vagina are anywhere near each other without being compelled to meet on page 50. They will write plays wherein two men can do a professional thing without involving their penises, but as soon as a woman enters the scene, her magical hypnotic vagina powers will compel that professional relationship to eventually be about sex. Listen, a vagina is not a rifle. You can actually put one onstage in act one without the audience expecting it to go off in act two.

chekhovgun

I get incredibly excited when there’s a male/female professional pairing and they have professional respect for each other and live the story without sex being part of the story. Which leads me to:

3. I get incredibly excited when there’s a male/female professional pairing at all. Ask yourself: Does that doctor/cop/bartender/psychologist/politician HAVE to be male to retain narrative integrity? Sure, some stories are just about men or the male experience, and that’s totally fine. Not every play has to be gender balanced. But many (probably even most) plays are about stories that aren’t gendered. When I read a play that isn’t about a gendered experience, and half the characters are women, just because women are people who live in the world? I get happy. This also leads me to:

4. You have a female/female pairing and avoid every stereotype. This can be a professional pairing (co-workers) or personal (friends, roommates, sisters). They’re not fighting over the same man. They don’t fall into the hot one/ugly one, or skinny one/fat one, or beautiful but dumb one/plain but brilliant one, or any of the ridiculous, misogynistic dichotomies we’ve invented. They’re both well-rounded characters with strengths and weaknesses like people? HOLY CRAP. I love you.

What Every Girl Should Know by Monica Byrne at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

What Every Girl Should Know by Monica Byrne at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

5. Your play has a Jewish character who isn’t from New York and isn’t whiny, a Muslim character who isn’t a mouthpiece for all religious Muslims everywhere (either a stereotypical terrorist or a gentle soul whose main function is to condemn terrorism), a Wiccan who isn’t a punchline, a Buddhist who isn’t there to provide WORDS OF WISDOM to the main character, etc. Basically, when I see diversity of religion or religious heritage in characters, and those characters are well-rounded people whose identity isn’t entirely about that religion or heritage? I’m surprised and thrilled.

6. Collaboration. You’re specific about what the design should feel like (“a rundown motel room,” “a beautiful high-rise apartment,” “an open field that stretches for miles”) and what the needs of the action are (for example, multiple levels, or specific pieces of furniture around which action takes place), but you don’t dictate every aspect of the design. I’ve seen playwrights get as specific as the color of a character’s dress or the kind of flowers on the table, when neither of those are part of the narrative or the action. A playwright who creates a world and then leaves room for others to play within that world is a gift. I also love responsive playwrights. I love sending an email or a text with a question and getting a timely response, even if the question is “Can I change this?” and the answer is “No.”

The Chalk Boy, by Joshua Conkel at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The Chalk Boy, by Joshua Conkel at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

7. And after I read and love your play? What makes my heart sing? A playwright who’s willing to go to bat for a small company. We don’t talk about this a lot, but it can sometimes be difficult for a small company to get the rights to a play when the playwright has an agent. Agencies don’t make as much money from small companies, and they’re (understandably) much more interested in scoring a LORT or Broadway production. I’ve been denied the rights to plays that afterwards sat unproduced for years waiting for a LORT production that never came. Many playwrights are willing to go to bat for small companies and direct their agents to release the rights to a company they can trust to stage the material according to the playwright’s intent. Sometimes a playwright works with their agent to help get a smaller company into a rolling world premiere (where more than one company in different markets premiere the play on or near the same date), or has the smaller company stage the play as a “workshop production,” ceding the world premiere rights to a future larger company. I LOVE THESE PLAYWRIGHTS.

I see a LOT of excellent work out there. Without your work, my work doesn’t exist. So THANK YOU, playwrights.

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Six Female Characters You Really Need to Stop Writing

Please read Kate Beaton's entire comic here: http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311   It's GLORIOUS.

Please read Kate Beaton’s entire comic. It’s GLORIOUS. http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the stereotypical “Strong Female Character,” based on the CRAZY idea that we need to start thinking of female characters as . . . characters, period. In that spirit, I offer the following six female characters we really need to stop writing.

1. “The Girl.” A big group of people in a narrative that could easily be non-gendered, and yet there’s only one girl along for the ride. It’s Our Hero, Handsome Scoundrel, Crazypants, Toughest Guy, and The Girl, who has no personality apart from BOOBS. She’s probably sleeping with Our Hero, or he wants to sleep with her, and/or she provides a reason for Our Hero and Handsome Scoundrel to have dramatic tension.

“But honey, I really need your opinion on the appetizers for the cat’s birthday party! It’s only a month away!”

2. “The Clueless Interrupter.” Doesn’t she know how IMPORTANT her man’s task is? She’s always interrupting him while he’s saving the world, fighting the powers of evil, or having a SERIOUS BROCONVO about SERIOUS BROFEELS with her frivolous calls about their upcoming wedding, or what she should fix for dinner, or hey, the house is on fire. Our bros just shake their heads in wonder, watch as he lies like a fourth grader caught in the pastor’s liquor cabinet (“I swear there’s nothing going on, now you just go back to your frivolous ladystuff, OK?” “But I hear robot ninjas in the–” “LOVE YOU HONEY, BYE”), or grab the phone away from him and just hang up or throw it out the window. THAT’LL TEACH HER.

3. “The Woman Whose Sexual Desire Is Comical.” So, and you might wanna sit down for this, people over 40 have sex. People over 60 have sex. Women who are not skinny have sex. Women who are not “beautiful” (whatever the FUCK that means) have sex. Whatever kind of woman you’re imagining as undesirable, she’s having sex. So when you write a character whose main function is to throw herself comically at Our Hero because her very desire is HILARIOUS? I want to punch a wall. Yes, I know all about Restoration comedy and Mrs. Roper, but it’s time for that trope to retire.

THE ROPERS, Norman Fell, Audra Lindley, 1977-84. © ABC / Courtesy: Everett Collection

THE ROPERS, Norman Fell, Audra Lindley, 1977-84. © ABC / Courtesy: Everett Collection

4. “Hooker with a Heart of Gold.I’ve written about this before (along with the “Magical Person of Color/Gay BFF/Disabled Person,” another trope that needs retiring, but since it’s nongendered, I’m leaving it out of this particular post). So I’m just going to be an asshole here and quote myself rather than reformulate this entire train of thought:

Sex workers are not a marker for all women everywhere. If you’re writing a play about ACTUAL SEX WORKERS, then carry on, my wayward son. But if you’re writing a play about, oh, a young man trying to find himself, or a middle-aged man who’s vaguely dissatisfied with life, or a man whose wife just doesn’t understand him and constantly asks him to do horrible things like pay attention to her or fold his own laundry, then inserting a Magical Prostitute who swans into his life and shows him The Way to Happiness, or the Broken Flower Stripper who needs the man to save her from herself and show her that college exists, then I am looking at you with crankyface. Are you writing a play with a sex worker in it? Ask yourself: WHY is she a sex worker? Are you writing about sex workers, or do you just want a naked version of the Magical Person of Color? Does she have objectives of her own that aren’t there just for the male protagonist to correct? Does she have a character, or is she just a racktacular vector for Words of Wisdom?

5. “The Girl Who Doesn’t Know She Wants It.” This is the character who spends the entire piece rejecting Our Hero until she finally “gives him a chance,” or realizes she wanted him all along. Apart from being annoying, this trope is DANGEROUS. He deserves her! What she wants is irrelevant! He’s a nice guy so her lack of interest in him is her fault! Stalking is adorable and romantic! What he wants is more important than what she wants! This character has a sister character known as “The Bitch Who’s a Bitch Because She’s Not Interested in the Main Character,” which is the same thing except she never “gives him a chance,” therefore, she’s a “bitch.”

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6. “The Fantasy Feminist.” This woman is a misogynistic caricature of a feminist. She’s very vocal about hating men, not shaving, and blaming ridiculous things (like the lack of her favorite yogurt flavor at the grocery store) on “the patriarchy.” Her function in the work is to impede the main character’s love interest from “giving him a chance” or to act as comic relief. Or both.

7. BONUS ROUND: Male character you need to stop writing: “Guy Who Has No Idea How to Do Normal Stuff.” This is the guy who ends up putting a diaper on a baby’s head, or just sitting the baby in a bucket instead of diapering it. This is the guy who sets the kitchen on fire because he’s watching the game while cooking, or uses his kid’s doll carriage as a beer cooler. Believe it or not, there are tons of men who are actually quite competent at simple, real-life things.

This is happening right now somewhere on your street.

This is happening right now somewhere on your street.

I know there are more! I invite you to comment with the sexist tropes you’d most like to see fired into the sun.

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