Tag Archives: social justice

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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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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Why Women Are So Angry with Sanders

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Heath Mello. Source: Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald. 

You’ve seen it; I’ve seen it; we’ve all seen it. It goes something like this: Woman posts something irritated about Sanders’ support of (supposedly formerly) aggressively anti-choice Heath Mello, whom Sanders called “part of the Democratic party of the future.” Woman is inundated with men huffily explaining to her why she should not worry her pretty head about Mello, for reasons, and also HILLARY CLINTON!11!! and hey, what more do you women even want? Mello SAID he would stop writing terrifying anti-choice legislation! Reproductive rights are just one pet issue. We can’t let one issue dictate support for candidates!

I’ve seen this in my various feeds maybe a dozen times now.

If you want to stop reading now, have this as my parting gift: The basic entrance fee to being a good person is to listen and believe people who lack a privilege you have.

For those of you still with me, let’s look under the hood of this issue for a moment.

Sanders has set himself up as the national face of progressivism, openly stating that his “movement” is the future of a party to which he does not belong, and withholding his endorsement from Democratic candidates he believes are not adequately progressive. Yet Sanders has, multiple times, endorsed anti-choice candidates because they otherwise support his agenda of economic justice.

Here’s why this is problematic:

Women cannot access economic justice without full reproductive rights. Economic justice is impossible for women without being able to decide when, or whether, to have children. Lack of access to reproductive health care can put women into poverty and keep them there. Someone claiming they are in favor of economic justice while actively voting against reproductive rights is saying that economic justice only matters for men

Reproductive rights are not a pet issue we can set aside if we are fighting for economic justice; they are central to accessing economic justice for the majority of the population.

Heath Mello himself is not the issue here; the issue is that the face of the “new progressive movement” seems content to confine “economic justice” to “economic justice for men.” It said something important when he endorsed anti-choice candidate Marcy Kaptur in 2016, it said something important when he endorsed anti-choice Tom Perriello for governor of Virginia earlier this year (Perriello has since apologized for his anti-choice votes in the House) and it says something important now as he endorses Heath Mello.

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Marcy Kaptur. Source: Mark Duncan/Associated Press

I am, of course, irritated at the DNC for supporting anti-choice candidates. But I am enraged at anyone who says they support economic justice as their primary goal, yet refuses to understand that reproductive rights are an essential component to economic justice. Anyone who supports economic justice for all must also support full reproductive rights. Otherwise, all you’re supporting is economic justice for men.

You cannot create economic justice for all without addressing systemic racism; you cannot create economic justice for all without addressing systemic discrimination against LGBTQ people; you cannot create economic justice for all without addressing systemic ableism. And you cannot create economic justice for all without addressing reproductive rights.

When Sanders repeatedly declared that “identity politics” were a problem, he exposed a dangerous weakness in progressive political thought that remains unaddressed. We live intersectional lives, and these issues must be addressed intersectionally. To separate class from gender, race, sexuality, and ability in fighting for economic justice is to create a fiction that economic injustice is only driven by one kind of social injustice– the kind that able-bodied cishet white men experience. It’s a dangerous fiction that at its heart reinforces patriarchal white supremacy, and it’s becoming all the more dangerous as we fight against an administration and its attendant political movement that wants nothing more than to roll back as many social justice gains as possible.

The current zeitgeist in the US is one of angry straight white people pushing back against social justice gains with open bigotry, reveling in causing others pain, and delighting in boorishness and even violence. The fact that opposition to “identity politics” became so popular, even on the left, is unsurprising. We need to step away from that deception and move forward, together, rather than telling women their concerns about reproductive rights just aren’t important enough to count.

You may also read this piece at the Huffington Post.

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