“Hamilton has no responsibility to hold colorblind casting. The show itself is not colorblind… it would change a fundamental part of the show’s message. But more importantly, it would show actors of color around the world that white privilege has once again manipulated the industry to feed its own needs.”
As Barack Obama enters the last year-and-a-half of his presidency, his visit to Broadway’s Hamilton reminds us of a couple of fascinating, if not encouraging, facts about the revolutionary nature of the arts and Obama’s unique relationship to it.
First off, the Obamas are a theatre-going bunch. Michelle Obama and her daughters have seen about eight shows, including last week’s Kinky Boots. Barack Obama has seen two previously: A Raisin In the Sun and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, both works by African-American playwrights. What president has seen this many Broadway shows while still serving in office? Certainly not Clinton, Bush, or Bush Dos. And I’m trying to recall if Mad Men‘s Pete Campbell ever smugly mentioned a president catching the matinee of A Funny Thing Happened… but my memory fails, and so does Google (link below if you know of any). But one presidential family seeing eleven shows in six years? And the president himself seeing three? Do most presidents ever see any theater besides whatever sanitized routine the Kennedy Center Honors team has set up?
Of course, presidents can’t just go around brushing up on this or next year’s Tony nominees, even if they really do want to see Sydney Lucas perform “Ring of Keys” live. This isn’t some comedian’s garage. This involves sitting in the middle of more than 1,000 other people, any of whom might want to re-enact John Wilkes Booth’s legacy. It also involves taking about three hours from a very busy schedule and like, I dunno, turn his cell phone off. If you thought it was hard for you, well… Besides, what to see? As a public figure, (and as someone whose name begins with ‘O’ and ends with ‘bama,’) our president’s every choice is analyzed as carrying symbolic or political significance. His prior choices were revivals of works by noted African-American playwrights. Now he’s at a new musical by a Puerto-Rican. Whether this analysis should or shouldn’t be going on, what I mean to say is that the decision by a president to see a Broadway show has to be a deliberate, important, and calculated one.
I won’t spend too much time discussing the merits and socially-charged ambitions of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (we already did that for you here). The focus of much of the discussion surrounding it has been the casting of black and Hispanic/Latino actors and the use of hip-hop, rap, R&B, and pop music to represent the life of Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father and an immigrant himself. It re-positions the American narrative into the hands and voices of the people who owned it all along: the oppressed, the refugees, the free-thinkers, the marginalized. It is also a huge move for race representation on Broadway, where it’s often difficult to find a non-white actor playing a supporting, let alone lead, role. The musical comes at a fraught time (although, to be honest, when isn’t it?) for race relations in America. It opened Off-Broadway at the Public amid the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement in retaliation against police brutality. It began Broadway previews just last week, with the Charleston massacre and the removal of the Confederate flag from the state house.
It also comes at a unique time for President Obama. With no re-election to lose, it seems like Obama has become more interesting in abandoning silent bipartisanship as an approach on issues of race and trading his normal, often frustrating, diplomatic manner for stronger stances and action. His eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney ended with the president singing “Amazing Grace,” a gesture that helps remind us that the struggle for racial equality has far-reaching history and no single speech will mend its wounds. He has spoken with unprecedented candidness on his black identity and the dissociated state of blackness in America. Just a few days ago, he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison and told drug-offenders that he might have been in their place without luck and resources. He granted 46 low-level drug offenders their freedom.
The arts have always had a unique relationship to the state. In The Republic, Plato states that in the ideal society, poets should be banished, citing them as a threat to the “well-ordered State.” About two thousand years later, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” underscoring the essential role that the arts has in developing the public consciousness. The best art, in fact, challenges the status quo and introduces a new narrative, a new perspective, or new challenge into the way we imagine society. Hamilton is challenging the status quo in style and in content, on Broadway and in American History textbooks. The repercussions of it and of stories like it that have come before and will certainly come after shall hopefully be felt on the stage, in the arts, in the public, and hopefully one day in the state. But that will take years. It may happen in our lifetime. The fact that Barack Obama is paying attention RIGHT NOW? Now as he dedicates the remainder of his presidency to mending race relations in small yet significant ways? That’s not a coincidence.
The hero of of Suzan-Lori Parks’ new trilogy of plays, Father Comes Home From the Wars, is Hero (Sterling K. Brown), a slave on a small Texas plantation at the cusp of the Civil War. He has the makings of a hero in both character and physique– a tall, strong, young man with industrious energy and an acute sense of responsibility to his community. And yet, Hero’s heroism wavers precariously throughout the trilogy, which sees Hero off to fight alongside his master in the Confederate army and make good on his promise to return to his friends, family, and almost wife Penny (Jenny Jules).
Parks’ play, the first of three planned trilogies reflecting on race and freedom in America, evokes classical tragic structures and dynamically modernizes them for contemporary audiences. There’s a chorus comprised of four “less than desirable slaves” on Hero’s plantation. There’s a character named Homer, another named Ulysses, and Penny surely fills in for the faithful Penelope. The first and third parts most closely stick to the verse style of ancient theater, the second part veering off dramatically in structure for an intense and fascinating confrontation between Hero, his drunk, maniacal master, and a captured Union soldier with outspoken feverish ideas about the worth of black men in America. The Public’s Anspacher Theater makes the perfect home for this trilogy; its grecian columns flank a marble balcony and make the stage feel like a ancient temple.
Parks’ Hero faces many of the same ideological struggles as his classical counterparts. The first part is especially valuable as a study of a man raised in the institution of slavery, who knows nothing else beside it, and who is suddenly being asked to rebel against all he has ever known with only the hope of an unsure future of freedom ahead of him. Hero turns on his friends and family in his cowardice, he is repeatedly complicit in his master’s tyrannical rule, and he proves gullible for his master’s empty promises. Hero is no hero, but he is human, and it is truly cathartic to see Hero’s fearful honesty processed. The second part is a more intellectual study of the condition of slavery and the psychologies produced in master, slave, and outsider. It’s a climactic and stimulating scene. It flashes in lightning speed and its insight comes like stormy gust of wind. The third part is by far the weakest point of the trilogy, a little contrived and too slowly paced, but it looks at freedom with new perspective, particularly for the play’s only main female character Penny.
Sterling K. Brown is a judicious and intuitive Hero. He is steadily reliable as the emotional center for the play, and his restraint is made all the more important when Hero’s pain present itself. The chorus actors, Russell G. Jones, Julian Rozzel Jr., Tonye Patano, and Jacob Ming-Trent, make for a diverse and lively group. As Hero’s master, Ken Marks is delightfully unpredictable and focused, and Louis Cancelmi is a moving portrait of hope for our disillusioned protagonist.
Devious Maids is premiering on Lifetime tonight. And I am split two ways.
The happy Puerto Rican flag-waving me is super excited to have a show that is starring a ton of Latina actresses I know and love (Ana Ortiz! Judy Reyes!) and other Latina actresses I don’t know but am looking forward to love. I’m equally excited that Longoria is executive producing the show, because it’s just as important to have brown people in charge behind the camera as well as in front of it. It’s also great to see a new prime time show that is based on a novela (and captures the novela sensibility), which I haven’t seen since Ugly Betty.
But the angry ¡Viva la Revolución! activist me isn’t completely comfortable with having the all-star Latina cast playing only maids. I’m even less comfortable that the cast of Latina maids is cleaning the homes of a cast that is only white. As Alisa Valdes points out in her blog post about the show, the original novela had Latinas working for Latinas. The American version does not. With this racial divide, Devious Maids is conflating class and race in a way that’s problematic in an already racist society. It would be interesting to see what an exchange would be between one of the Latina maids and her employer if her employer was also Hispanic. Which is something that *gasp* actually happens in the United States. It’s also disheartening to see actresses like Judy Reyes (who played a nurse in Scrubs) and Roselyn Sánchez (who played an FBI agent in Without a Trace) have to revert back to stereotypes in Devious Maids.
Do I blame any of the Latina actresses for taking the gig? No way. I’ve auditioned for and have played my share of maids on stage, and if Marc Cherry called me in for an under 5 scene with Susan Lucci, my only answer would be “Where do I sign?” And like Eva Longoria has said in the defense of the show, there is nothing wrong with showing the stories of maids, as that is a truth to Latinos in the United States and is nothing to be ashamed of.
Yet there is a sense of shame where this show is the main event for Latinos on TV. That it’s not one of many other shows debuting tonight (or any other night) with an all-star Hispanic cast. (You know, like the many shows that premiere every year with an all/mostly-white cast.) That there aren’t so many television shows and movies that show Latinos of all ages, ethnicities, and professions—with only a small number of those shows and movies featuring them as the help.
The backlash against HBO’s “Girls” has been immense. While an overall critical success, many educated, urban-centered women of my age (the show’s target audience) have been incredibly outspoken about the show’s lack of diversity and its portrayal of life for women in New York City. The discussion exploded even before the show’s premiere date, with many compared the “white-washed” cast to those of the 90’s favorite shows set in NYC, like “Friends” and “Sex and the City.” (Shoshanna has a SATC poster, but its an ironic gesture and not an homage). Now, I can’t find a single one of my friends (whom I would say fit the target audience) who watch the show, and many refuse to for moral reasons.
Now, I DO find the discussions about the show extremely important and many of them have opened my eyes to the responsibilities of releasing a cultural product to the masses. I particularly find the non-diversity of the cast troubling and I’ve had many a gchat conversation with friends far more knowledgeable on the issue than me. I will address my titular demand of “Girls,” which addresses a diversification of the cast, at the end of this post so PLEASE STAY TUNED.
But I can’t help feeling that this backlash against the show is misguided and, at worst, quite gendered. For example, let’s take the claim that “Girls” glamorizes an irresponsible, self-victimizing, and emotionally dependent way of life. I’ve seen a couple of articles where writers have argued that the girls on “Girls” are bad role models for the girls watching it. I’ve also heard people talk about how despicable the characters are, that they couldn’t find anything positive about them and thus have no reason for liking the show. My usual response is along the lines of “Well, yeah. That’s the point. No?” Is Hannah privileged? YES. Is she dependent on others for her emotional stability in infantile, immature ways? Yes. Does she flirt with self-victimhood to feel morally superior to others? Yes. I’d even go as far as to say that she exhibits all of the above tendencies and more in each and every episode. She’s a wreck and God help me if I ever turn into her. There are moments in the show where I really despise her and/or give up hope for her. Take the ending of season 1, episode 4. After seeing in the preceding episodes how Hannah’s boyfriend Adam emotionally manipulates her and obviously doesn’t care about her, Hannah finally gains the confidence to go to his apartment and break-up with him. Standing in the doorway of his apartment, she makes a stand. If not eloquent, it’s definitely empowering.
AND THEN THEY MAKE OUT AND SHE APOLOGIZES AND I’M ALL YELLING AT TV NOOOOOOOO!!!!
Hannah makes mistakes. A lot. But is Lena Dunham glorifying this behavior? NO. In fact, in the scene, we’re made to glorify in her growth and self-realization. And we really our own praise of her self-realization when it all plummets and she apologizes for her glorious self-realization. Will I be letting it all go like Hannah did? No, because when I see her make stupid choices, or elitist remarks, or ridiculous assumptions, the writing criticizes rather than glorifies these actions.
And since when has moral goodness implied likeability? Or for that matter, since when has likeability influenced whether a show is watchable? Don’t we all thrive on “Breaking Bad’s” masterfully evil ways? (We know there ain’t no redemption there) Is there a single likeable character on “Mad Men”? Is Don Draper teaching us how to be misogynist? Do the Lannisters teach us to be cruel and conniving? So why does “Girls” suddenly need to be a center of moral goodness? Continue reading “In Defense of “Girls.” And Then a Demand.”→
A visit to a a family-style fusion restaurant leaves the narrator of this one-woman show obsessed with the question of whether it is possible to have a “neutral” narrative in America? “Neutral” in this context means free from any experience filtered through the lens of race or gender. She searches for the answer to this question for an indeterminate amount of time looking for one person who can claim to have a neutral life.
I don’t think I’m quite spoiling anything by saying that she finds none. No one can be freed of their circumstances, nor do we perhaps want them to be. Anyone with a “neutral” narrative is really just an empty shell of a person with no stake in their actions, waiting to be filled by outer forces, whether it be an over-demanding job, a love interest, or hey, an obsession with whether America has a “neutral” history. By the end of the show, we realize that our narrator is completely devoid of any self. While she is represented in this production by a young, black, professional, black woman (an excellent April Matthis), she could really be anyone. There is no mention of her race or gender, no reference to where she comes from or what defines her, not even her name. The monologue could just as easily been played by a white middle aged male. Her emptiness functions as the bare stage for our discussion on race and gender.
Overall, the show brings great insight into the function of race and gender in contemporary America. Some of the writing felt a little misguided, like the few opening spewing cliches about “change” and what a fickle force of nature it is– I don’t see “change” as a dominant theme of the play, nor something marginally explored. The ending, however, is jarring, demanding the audience to assess to what extent we produce assumptions of “neutrality” in our lives.
Over the hurricane break, I caught up on my reading. And as the oncoming storm threatened to take over the city, I officially finished the entirety of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ published plays.
He is beyond awesome. Here’s why:
1) He is a master of the English language. His prose is exciting, raw, and poetic. His dialogue is a perfect blend of the beautiful and obscene. Want to see it in action? Read Boochie’s monologue in Den of Thieves.
2) The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
3) Oh, you wanted me to elaborate? Okay, this play is one of my favorites. Ever. Last Days imagines that Judas’ case of betrayal is finally put to trial, with Sigmund Freud, Mother Teresa, and many other witnesses–biblical and otherwise–testifying and appearing in flashbacks. Last Days is the ultimate dramatization of justice. Judas’ final scene with a certain savior is so poignant it hurts. Andrew Lloyd Webber, read ’em and weep.
4) Guirgis reinvigorates life into the contemporary American play. You won’t find too many overwrought scenes taking place in living rooms in his plays. Guirgis places his characters in motels, funeral homes, basements, bars, correctional facilities, hospitals, and the afterlife (and there are a few living rooms, too). He creates fully realized worlds and isn’t afraid to populate his plays with larger casts of characters. Guirgis’ delicate balance of tragicomedy makes him able to tell a story with brilliant humor and heartbreaking depth. When you’re in a Guirgis play, there is never a dull moment.
5) His New York is for the natives, a refreshing take from all the white twenty-something newcomer to the city narratives. From the displaced-by-Disney Times Square denizens of In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings to the grieving, fractured Harlem community in Our Lady of 121st Street to the Bronx hospital workers in The Little Flower of East Orange, Guirgis’ diverse cast of characters occupy a very real, very special part of New York City.
6) Speaking of diverse, Guirgis is not afraid of protecting the integrity of his plays–even when it’s controversial. When a certain theatre not far from New York City cast young white twenty-somethings to play Puerto Rican thirty-somethings in a seemingly case of cronyism in one of Guirgis’ plays, Guirgis responded on his Facebook page with “headshaking anger.” In an author’s note to the Dramatists Play Service edition of The Motherf@*ker With The Hat, Guirgis wrote,
“This play and all my plays have the best chance to come to life fully when they are cast as MULTI-ETHNICALLY as possible… please strive to cast the play overall in a manner that reflects the beautiful melting pot that is New York City and the setting of this play. And all that being said, the play is now yours, and these characters authentically belong to whoever has the heart and emotional generosity to claim them.”
Guirgis not only sheds light on a very troubling aspect of contemporary theatre, but offers hope for the future. And it’s f@*king amazing.
The internet has blown up in recent hours about my favorite British theatre company, the esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company. They decided to produce a centuries old classic Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao, which takes place in historical China–the Yuan period, to be exact. The company did so with a very diverse cast–so diverse that the leads were white, and the 3 Asian actors that were cast (out of 17 total actors) play dogs and a maid.
The Fairy Princess points out oh so brilliantly, the RSC whitewashed this classic Chinese play set in historical China, then proceeded to market on their website (to potential Chinese audience members in Chinese) with the following poster:
So we already have some well worn racist tropes here: white washing, yellowface, etc. — in spite of the fact that the artistic director, Gregory Doran, really wanted an authentic production, even going to modern-day China to be as authentic as possible, for an authentic production in every way–except to cast Asian actors in leading roles.After the backlash occurred, the RSC put a statement on their Facebook page to explain the “Twitter debate.” Since they were casting a repertory season with rotating actors, it was necessary to have a group of actors who would fit right with all the shows that season. First off, the assumption that a large number of Caucasian actors could play historically-accurate Chinese (and Caucasian of course), is there. And naturally, the talent wins out: the actors they chose were the best possible. We’ve seen that argument again and again (just put Jennifer Lawrence in a wig to play a darker skinned girl–she was an Oscar-nominated actress!). The RSC rehashes that sentiment, saying, “We cast the best people available for the range of roles required.”That may be true, as there are a huge amount of talented actors out there who could play any role with dignity and grace. But while this philosophy goes unchecked for white artists, artists of color don’t get the same distinction. In a hypothetical Western revival of Amadeus, you wouldn’t immediately think of an actor of Indian descent to play the Austrian Mozart. And as a community of artists, writers, theatergoers, and critics, we have to understand that this construct exists, that it is an artificial one rooted in racism and privilege, and we must constantly work to address it.
Such an address is not “moaning,” as one Facebook commenter wrote on the RSC page, but an honest appraisal of how we make art be as meaningful as it can be. This of course, is by no means easy. It’s hard to chuck one’s privilege out the door, and recognize one’s mistakes, no matter how well-intentioned. It’s especially upsetting since the RSC has a long history of “non-traditional” casting, with actors of Asian and African descent playing leading roles in productions of The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and many other Shakespearean plays.
They even cast a two-hearted extra-terrestrial in a West End production of Hamlet to play the eponymous tragic hero.
Even more importantly, we need to be aware of this disparity as people. The RSC said in their statement that the “multi-cultural make-up of our winter season company reflects British society.” This is how the art-reflecting-life continuum comes into play. If we have these conflicting views about race in our theatre, then it is even more crucial an issue in our lives beyond the stage.
I wrote a review for Broadway Informer for this season’s revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. Here it is!
This latest production of A Streetcar Named Desire is severely underrated. Many critics have had visions of Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando (the stars of the 1951 film) and Cate Blanchett (who played Blanche in the 2009 revival at BAM) dancing in their heads and could not appreciate the production with a fresh eye.
Yes, this Streetcar takes a departure with its multiracial cast. Produced by the same company that brought an all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Broadway in 2008, Streetcar’s ethnic ensemble includes Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche, Blair Underwood as Stanley, and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella. Parker’s Blanche was revelatory. Her strength in the role made sense, as she had lived alone for many years harboring her secrets before coming to Stanley and Stella’s home. Only now does her resolve begin to crumble, and it is a sight to behold.
The other cast members also deliver solid performances. Underwood’s Stanley (née Kowalski, as the production excises references to his Polish background) is equal parts menacing and captivating (he also looks great shirtless). And Rubin-Vega takes a capable turn as Stella, providing the balance to Blanche and Stanley’s extremes.
The very existence of this production is fabulous. A recent survey of Broadway and leading nonprofit theater companies found that in the past five theater seasons, only 13.2% and 3.5% of African Americans and Latinos were employed. This production helps to alleviate that problem. It also gives deserving actors an opportunity they would not have had otherwise. Far more than a novelty production, this revival of Streetcar is an exciting production in its own right, bringing a new and refreshing take on a classic.
Favorite scene/song: The birthday scene. The tension was high, and I got a real sense of the dynamic in Stanley’s household. What is the show about? The tragic destruction of a Southern belle when she goes to stay at her sister and brother-in-law’s home. Who is this show for? Theatergoers and Williams fans interested in a new take on Streetcar, as well as young audience members needing an introduction to a classic. What’s good/bad? Besides the acting described above, the direction by Emily Mann, and the set design by Eugene Lee is great. I also enjoyed the production’s attention to bringing out the humor of the play. The only quibble I had was Blanche and Stanley’s pivotal scene (those who are familiar with the play know what I’m talking about). Despite all the build-up, it had high shock value and not as much emotional impact. What happened at the Stage Door? We had to wait a bit longer than usual because the director was giving the cast notes. Almost everyone came out to sign playbills and take photos, and they were all very kind and gracious.