Tag Archives: playwrights

Worldbuilding: Your Secret Weapon

Cartoon image of Melissa in a red-orange shirtwaist dress with orange details, including a pumpkin brooch. Melissa has short red hair with bangs and wears black-framed glasses.
Art by Asia Ellington! I only own this dress in my dreams.

I’m giving a workshop in worldbuilding for playwrights! Come play with me!

Worldbuilding isn’t something we talk about often in playwriting and screenwriting. It’s more common to writers of fictional prose, especially SF/F writers.  Careful attention to worldbuilding, however, can level up your scripts significantly. Conversely, its lack can sink a piece, distancing or even confusing your audience. 

When people give examples of excellent worldbuilding, they’re always rich, deeply crafted fantasy scapes like the Lord of the Rings films, NK Jemisin’s fiction, or Game of Thrones. When you ask people about worldbuilding in playwriting, people will offer high concept musicals like Wicked or Seussical. But all well-crafted plays have richly detailed worldbuilding.

At its heart, worldbuilding is about consistency and detail

This Sunday at 4PM PST, I’ll be giving a Zoom workshop through PlayCafe on worldbuilding in playwriting. We’ll discuss the basics of intentional worldbuilding, troubleshooting common pitfalls, building inclusive worlds, and navigating authenticity.  Reserve your tickets here! The workshop is free, with a suggested donation of $10-20 to support the great work PlayCafe does for local playwrights. 

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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! 

 

Hand holding a metallic vintage key
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.

 

mingpeiffer

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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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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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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Do Black Lives Matter at Your Theatre? In Your Films?

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Philando Castile in a yearbook photo. He worked as a nutrition services assistant for the Saint Paul Public School District.

I had intended to write about the Philando Castile verdict. Philando Castile was murdered because an officer claims he believed Castile was reaching for his gun when he was reaching for his ID as instructed. That officer walked free. Had Castile been white, I believe that officer would have heard and believed him when he said he was reaching for his ID, and my plan was to write about the narratives we put into the culture that created the officer’s belief that Castile was dangerous.

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Charleena Lyles, in a photo released by her family.

Before I could even sit down to write the piece, Charleena Lyles was killed, and Seattle police responded by issuing a statement bragging about their “deescalation training,” as if to say, “We tried deescalating, but it didn’t work! We simply had to shoot and kill a tiny pregnant woman holding a knife. We were scared for our lives!” Yet somehow, when it’s a white woman with a knife– or a GUN– officers aren’t scared at all. Billings, Montana. Chattanooga, Tennessee. What creates that difference?

Radicalized white men are one of the most violent groups in the US, yet violent white men are routinely deescalated. Take a look at this photo AP released, taken at a white supremacist rally in 2015:

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A protester confronted a man– a man at a white supremacist rally celebrating the Confederate flag, so basically a hotbed of radicalized white men– and the white supremacist reaches for his gun. The officer’s reaction? Look at his face. He seems to be saying, “Whoa there, buddy. Calm down, sir.” The officer clearly believes the white supremacist poses no immediate danger. A white man literally reaching for a gun does not alarm an officer, but a Black man reaching for a wallet does. What creates that difference?

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Tamir Rice in a family photo taken shortly before his death.

Tamir Rice— a child with a toy gun in a park near a youth rec center– was gunned down by an officer within two seconds of police rolling up. Two seconds. The officers did not take any time whatsoever to find out what was going on, let alone deescalate. It’s pretty hard to be an active shooter when your gun is a toy, and Ohio is an open carry state, so he had every right to hold a gun in public. Then those officers let this child bleed out on the ground while they chit-chatted and waited for the ambulance instead of providing the medical assistance that could have saved his life. Those officers walked free without even so much as a trial, even though the entire incident was videotaped. The person who called 911 told the dispatcher that the gun was likely a toy and that Tamir was likely a juvenile, but as soon as the dispatcher heard “Black male,” she categorized it as an “active shooter” and gave it the highest priority code. Why did the dispatcher automatically assumed “Black male” meant “DANGER,” and why did the officer gun down a child in cold blood before even taking a second to assess the situation? The answer is of course “racism,” but where does that racism come from?

Every time a Black person is shot by police, even when the Black person is unarmed, complying, has their hands in the air, or is just going about their business, the officers say they “feared for their lives.” Look again at the officer in the photo above apparently saying, “Whoa there, calm down, buddy” to the white supremacist. Why isn’t he fearing for his life? Why do officers routinely fear for their lives when faced with a Black person but so seldom fear for their lives when faced with a white person?

 

Our culture is saturated with the narrative “Black = DANGER.” As content creators and gatekeepers, white people used that narrative to justify slavery (stating that if slavery ended, former slaves would erupt in bloody uprisings and chaos), and after the passing of the 13th Amendment, which limited slavery to convicted criminals, we use it to justify the mass incarceration of Black people. We flood our culture with these narratives, either through the content we create or through the content we choose to produce. It is one thing when a Black person writes a song that speaks the truth of the violence in their own lives. It is entirely another when a white gatekeeper gets wealthy by producing only songs that depict Black men as dangerous. White people have profited both culturally and financially from the brutalization and murder of Black bodies for centuries, and we have created and carefully maintained a narrative superstructure to justify it.

It takes one generation growing up with a narrative trope to see that narrative trope as “natural.” Spinning out from the narrative trope “Black = DANGER” are the racist cultural notions that Black people are tougher and do not feel pain like we do; Black people commit more crimes; Black people ruin property values; Black fathers abandon their children. Our culture is saturated with these slanders, and they are quite literally killing people.

When a police officer makes a split second decision whether to fire his weapon or to say, “Whoa, there buddy,” he has to deal with a lifetime of inundation with the trope “Black = DANGER,” as well as a lifetime of inundation with the trope “white people are basically OK,” which not only dictates how Caucasian-appearing people are treated but also fuels white resistance to our complicity– all our complicity– in the systems of oppression that maintain white supremacy.

My fellow purveyors of narrative, we can either work intentionally to disrupt these tropes or we can work to reinforce white supremacy. There is no in between.

When Tim Burton cast his film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, he cast all the roles with white people except the villain, who was Black. There was an outcry, and the predictable fragile white reaction– “It’s just a movie,” “He should have artistic freedom.” Of course he has artistic freedom. We all do. But don’t we also have a responsibility to understand and control the messaging we put out in the culture? We vet our work in every other way, so what makes race different?

We can actively fight white supremacy with the narratives we put into the culture, or we can continue to be complicit in creating the culture that leads to the deaths of people like Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Tamir Rice, and so, so, so many others. It’s not enough to just cast Black artists and produce Black work (although that is an excellent start). White supremacy itself needs to be pulled up from the roots because we are hurting all people of color.

Native American people are murdered by police at an even higher rate than Black people (as a whole; Black men 15-34 are killed at the highest rate), a direct result of the centuries of dehumanizing stereotypes we put out specifically to ease our consciences about treating Native American people like vermin to be exterminated or expelled, like savages to be civilized, like magic spiritual conduits that exist for the benefit of white people. From Moby Dick to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the trope “I exist to take white people on a journey TO THEMSELVES,” centering white people in Native lives, has permeated our culture. And in the case of TNG, it pains me to relate, the Native character below (from the 1994 episode “Journey’s End”) was a white guy in disguise all along! The white actor playing The Traveler (Eric Menyuk) soon replaces the First Nations actor, Tom Jackson. This example is the ultimate in cultural appropriation– a white dude appropriates a Native body and Native culture to bring another white dude spiritual enlightenment, then they both abandon the Native village in peril, because it’s “not their fight.” I love you, TNG, but this was egregious, even for 1994.

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Shut up, Wesley

The dehumanizing tropes we create and disseminate through our plays, films, TV shows, video games, books, web series, music videos, fiction, and nonfiction are quite literally getting people killed. I wrote this earlier, for my article about Tim Burton, and it still applies:

When we talk about police “retraining,” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives – which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before Black people with their guns drawn.

As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better.

Narrative is the most effective way to create cultural shifts, which is why it’s the favorite tool of politicians. Our narrative-based industries are the biggest bats and loudest loudspeakers in our culture. We are numerous and powerful. All we have to do is agree to approach our work with intentionality.

Examine what messages your work puts out into the culture, both in its processes and its product. Who are you hiring? Who are you casting? What stories are you telling, and how? Whose work are you choosing to support?

We examine our products and our processes in every other way. We always create with intentionality, so adding “examine messaging about race (and gender, ability, etc)” isn’t burdensome. We have the power to change the culture; in fact, nothing else has ever done it. Every cultural movement, for good or for ill, had a master narrative at the back of it, created by artists and writers. Examine the master narratives behind the work you produce, because they’re there, whether you examine them or not.

 

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The Albee Controversy: Throwing the Baby Out With the Racist Bathwater

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A young Edward Albee (1928 – 2016). Source: University of Houston Digital Library.

For the, oh, seven of you out there who haven’t yet heard, the Albee estate denied the rights to a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because the company (Complete Works Project in Oregon) cast a Black man as Nick. 
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First, congratulations, Complete Works Project, for being the center of a national controversy, and with such a banal play choice! I did multiple new plays that drew angry conservative picketers in other cities, and I never got so much as a pissy letter. That’s Berkeley for you. Enjoy the publicity, and I hope you take the ensuing donations and do a new play by a writer of color starring that Black actor.
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The racism of the Albee estate decision is undeniable, and it’s absolutely our responsibility as a theatre community to decry it and to pressure the estate to reverse its decision.
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 HOWEVER. Playwrights need to have the right to protect their work, even when they make stupid, racist decisions that contribute to their swiftly approaching irrelevance.
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Albee’s legacy isn’t the argument here. I don’t care if Nick is described in the text as literal Hitler, the estate could have given permission to an undergrad theatre club to stage the entire Albee catalogue with mac-and-cheese-filled sock puppets singing the lines as screamo in a university housing common area filled with cats, pot, and bike parts and Albee’s legacy would have been fine. Yanking the rights over a Black actor is far more damaging to the legacy than perhaps any other possible choice the estate could have made apart from allowing Disney to make an animated Three Tall Princesses. It’s stunningly poor management.
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Racism isn’t the argument here. The estate’s decision was absolutely racist, period, the end. That’s not up for debate. It’s the kind of racism that demeans the entire industry and requires resistance.
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Neither the preservation of the legacy nor the racism are the debate here, since both are settled matters as far as I’m concerned. The debate, for me, is about the people answering “What do we do about this” by hauling out the tired old chestnut “PLAYWRIGHTS SHOULD LET ME DO WHATEVER I WANT TO THEIR WORK.”
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I believe Albee’s estate made a shortsighted, racist decision that mismanages his work and misunderstands the basics of art. I believe the estates of canonical playwrights should bestow a certain measure of freedom to companies who wish to stage these older, canonical works in ways that engage them in healthy dialogue with the current culture and with various modern points of view. Virginia Woolf is 55 years old, and the culture with which it was originally designed to engage is gone. While there is certainly artistic merit in historically accurate works as windows into bygone eras, I believe that allowing older canonical works to acquire new relevance within a modern artistic dialogue nearly always results in more interesting work.* I believe there is real value in creating places for people of color in (almost invariably white male) canonical works, just as there is real value in queering cishet work, doing all-female productions of Shakespeare, and all of the other ways people have sought to make room in canonical works for marginalized voices. I believe Albee’s estate is working studiously to make Albee, as quickly as possible, one of those unknown writers who was wildly popular in his day that grad students encounter while researching something else. He’ll be another Arthur Wing Pinero if they keep this up, and they probably will.

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Who?

I also believe that 99% of playwrights under Albee’s stature, especially women and PoC, have traditionally and historically seen their work stolen from them, been paid a pittance (or less) for the rights to their work and told they should be grateful for “the exposure,” struggle to make ends meet with their writing or struggle to write around the demands of a day job– or both (looking at you, San Francisco writers, paying the most expensive rents in the country).
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I’m worried about those playwrights– the rank and file. The 99%. Albee and his estate and every play he wrote can sink into Oblivion, but I will stand between playwrights and people who want to rob them of their ability to protect their work, especially since so often this discussion seems to be centered around white voices convinced of their primary artistic entitlement over the living playwrights they see as a hindrance. Playwrights are currently allowed legal protections over their work, and we should, as an industry, be working to preserve that. The price for that is the occasional destructive, bigoted decision by a writer or estate. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing about those destructive, bigoted decisions. Quite the opposite. My point is: Fight the bigotry head-on, not the principle of playwright IP rights. Don’t throw the baby out with the racist bathwater.
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1. We must call out bigotry when we see it. Playwrights should have the right to protect their work (either during their lifetimes or when leaving directives to an estate executor) even in objectively terrible ways, but they do not have the right to do that free from criticism. Whether we change anything regarding the way the Albee estate is handled is immaterial. We’re changing the entire culture by demonstrating that these types of decisions are not acceptable.
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2. I state above that there’s real value in creating space within white male canonical works for marginalized voices. This is because canonical works occupy a dominant cultural position that must be interrogated from multiple angles. However, we must also be staging new works by new voices. My company staged three or four new plays for every classic we did. I like that percentage; maybe a different one will work for you. But stage new work, especially work by writers whose voices have been marginalized– women, people of color, trans* people, people with disabilities, etc.
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3. Support the work you want to see with your attendance, buzz, and donations. It is wickedly hard to sell a new play, which is part of what drives companies to choose canonical work. Put your money where your mouth is. Reward companies when they program the way you like by buying tickets, spreading the word, and choosing them when/if you donate.
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We’re nothing without playwrights. Stage living playwrights and defend their right to protect their work. And Albee’s executors, if you’re reading this, you have some serious damage control to do if you want that money to keep rolling in. Just a thought.
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*With the single exception of Beckett’s stage directions. Beckett’s works are little, exquisite machines. Take out a cog and replace it with a dancer — why is it always dancers?– and the wheels fall off. But on principle I support your right to try staging Not I in full light with projections of Trump rallies and even dancers, if you must. (But that proscription against cross gender casting remains bunk.)
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Eleven Tropes I No Longer Have Time For

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photo by Tom Hilton

1. The adults keep brushing it off, but a group of boys (plus one underdeveloped female character who has 14 lines total) know better! It’s up to Our Young Heroes Who Are Mostly White to make the adults realize something’s really going on, and save the day while they’re at it! LOL, stupid adults.
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2. Because we’re SO NOT RACIST, the judge, the doctor, and the president are all Black men, but every other character is white, and those three guys have a combined total of 9 lines. But look! THE JUDGE IS BLACK. See? That’s good, right? Right?
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3. The only Black woman is Sassy Store Clerk With Two Lines who unknowingly imparts wisdom even though she is framed as uneducated and basically worthless compared to Our White Hero, yet because Our White Hero listens to her advice (despite its wacky Black vernacular! LOL!) we’re so not racist! She could be a maid, a prostitute, or maybe, if she’s lucky, an office underling! (Repeat as necessary for every other version of the Magical Person of Color, LGBTQ person, and Person With Disabilities.)
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4. Sure, she’s tough (and also sexy-deadly), but under that tough, sexy-deadly exterior is a REAL WOMAN just ACHING to mother a child. IT SECRETLY DRIVES HER. “She is human after all,” thinks Our Hero, as he watches her display the one emotion she will ever display in the entirety of the piece. “She may be a highly trained, sexy-deadly killing machine who dedicated her life to her career, but all she REALLY wants is a baby.”
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5. Black people yearn to be accepted by white people. IT IS THEIR EVERYTHING. Thanks to Our White Hero, it can happen!
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6. It’s a caper! The characters are Our Hero (white male), Crazypants (white male), The Handsome Scoundrel (white male), Toughest Guy (token Black dude), and Nerd Expert (white male). Introduced later in the film: The Girl, whose character is “boobs.” But we’re TOTALLY NOT SEXIST, because she has a skill! It’s MASTER OF DISGUISE! So she can put on revealing outfits and sneak the guys into the building by distracting the guards with boners!
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7. People with diseases are HUMAN PEOPLE who have love and maybe even sex, but die at the end so Our Hero can learn something about Life.
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8. “Just give him a chance!” This is the entire film until she relinquishes access to her vagina.
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9. He’s such a COOL DUDE that he has TWO WOMEN who are attached to his arms as decorative objects. He has SO MUCH PENIS it merits TWO saucy lady persons whose tragic brain injuries have resulted in a lack of all communication but giggling. Masculinity is measured by how many saucy lady persons attach themselves to you like jewelry for your strolls and party posing behaviors.
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10. The White Guys Plus One Black Dude are on a caper or Important Mission™! But one dude’s girlfriend keeps calling, wanting to know where he is and what’s going on! LOL! Stupid lady person! Better lie to her and say “Nothing, honey! Don’t you worry about it!” “But I hear gunfire in the back—” “EVERYTHING’S FINE!” Then his cool awesome guy friends throw that cellphone out the window! That’ll show her for not staying in her place!
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11. LOL! Fat people want love and sex! Haha, Our Hero has one ACTUALLY TALKING TO HIM right now! LOOK, SHE THINKS SHE’S PEOPLE!
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The Bechdel Test and White Feminism

I keep running across white women saying things like, “I’m never seeing any film or play that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test ever again!”

This statement epitomizes the problem with white feminism.

First, a quick definition of the Bechdel test, invented by amazing writer and comic artist Alison Bechdel, known for the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her memoir Fun Home, which she turned into a Tony Award-winning musical. Just in case you weren’t already convinced she’s a genius (and I have been since the old DTWOF days), she was a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant.

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Alison Bechdel. Source: Out Magazine.

The “Bechdel test” is a metric she created in 1985 in a DTWOF strip to evaluate female representation in films. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must have two female characters who have at least one conversation that is not about men. It sounds surprisingly basic, yet the vast preponderance of films cannot pass the Bechdel test.

The Bechdel test becomes tricky when applied to theatre. For example, it immediately eliminates all solo performance and all male/male and male/female two-handers, regardless of content.

And this is exactly my issue with the Bechdel test being used as a basic metric of acceptability in theatre– it ignores both content and context. It ignores intersectionality.

Let’s take two examples. The first play, written by a middle-aged white man, is about four wealthy white women discussing their problems and lives while at various brunches in upscale New York eateries. The main topics of conversation are their wealth and whether the sacrifices they made to obtain that wealth were worth it. The central narrative is one character revealing she has lost most of her money and must now live outside Manhattan. This play neatly passes the Bechdel test.

The second play, written and performed by four young Black men, is about their experiences growing up in Oakland. The main topics of conversation are police violence and racism. The central narrative is the loss of their friend, murdered by police while unarmed, driving home from work at a local elementary school, the same school where all five friends met. This play does not pass the Bechdel test.

If the goal of metrics like the Bechdel test are to hold artists accountable for the work we create, insisting on work that resists cultural marginalization and works for inclusion, the Bechdel test is not enough. It is not enough to fight for the inclusion of women and ONLY the inclusion of women. Insisting that a play about privileged white women is so deeply, intrinsically superior to a play about Black men that we can issue a test to “prove” it is counterproductive to every diversity goal we have. We’re issuing a test that by design marginalizes men of color.

We need work that passes the Bechdel test, and we need it badly. But we cannot use that test as a metric for the acceptability of all work.

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Kamal Angelo Bolden as Chad Deity in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity in the Victory Gardens/Teatro Vista co-pro in Chicago, 2009. Photo: Chicago Theater Beat

We live in an intersectional world, and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be addressed intersectionally. Yes,we must fight for the inclusion of women in our narratives, but we must also fight for the inclusion of other marginalized groups. When we refuse to do so– when we announce that all plays must pass the Bechdel test in order to be acceptable, as I have seen so many white women do– we fail. We become “white feminists,” content with centering ourselves while ignoring other marginalized groups.

To state that you will never see a play that does not pass the Bechdel test is to state that Crimes of the Heart, In the Boom Boom Room, and Five Women Wearing the Same Dress are intrinsically important and worthwhile, while Topdog/Underdog, The Mountaintop, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad DeityThe Year Zero, Mambo Mouth, and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 are not worth seeing.

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Mason Lee in the Off Broadway production of The Year Zero, 2010. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Bechdel test even fails at what it was purportedly designed to do. Many films steeped in misogyny pass. “Lesbian” pornography made for male consumption passes. Most Disney princess films pass. The Bechdel test, I have to believe, was never meant to be an iron-clad metric.

I don’t know Alison Bechdel, but I consider the Bechdel test excellent social commentary, not a call to action. It’s meant as criticism, to make a point about how few films have female characters with objectives of their own. It’s meant to point out how few films present women as human beings rather than as events in the lives of men.

We cannot use the Bechdel test as the sole metric for acceptability. The examination of our work and its resistance to, and participation in, systems of oppression is a complex process, not a three-point test.

Even issuing a test is a classic white gatekeeping maneuver. White liberals are always looking for clear-cut guidelines to make us instantly “not racist” or “not sexist,” and we excel at creating oversimplified litmus tests that prove we are the Most Woke and everyone else is Doing It Wrong.

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not how it works

You can’t fill out a form with your credentials (“voted for Obama,” “watched Jessica Jones,” “smiled hard at Black guy on the street”), mail it in with a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Women’s Studies department at Howard and then just wait for your NOT RACIST OR SEXIST certificate to roll in. There’s no “Woke White Person” checklist.

There’s no test.

Fighting for diversity and equity in theatre is a complex, multifaceted process that involves the stories we tell and how we tell them, including who tells those stories and who’s in our audiences, who are the decision-makers and gatekeepers, where the funding comes from, and so much more. As tempting as it is to get a definitive ruling on what is “resistance theatre” and what is “collaboration theatre,” that fact remains that each piece of theatre we make will have facets of resistance and facets of collaboration, and all we can do is commit to the process of examining our decisions in both the work we make and the work we consume as thoroughly and realistically as possible. It’s never going to be as simple as only going to shows with The Gold Star of Bechdel next to their titles. Fighting systems of oppression requires more of us, much more.

Commit to the process. Continue to love the Bechdel test for what it is– an eye-opening way to examine narrative that sometimes works and sometimes does not, but can be an effective tool when used correctly. It was one moment of genius in a long career of genius moments for Alison Bechdel, but cannot be– and was never meant to be– the sole, definitive arbiter of acceptable work.

 

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