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Nick Cannon’s Whiteface is not the same as Blackface

Apparently, hosting a talent show and being Mr. Mariah Carey does not a wise man make. Nick Cannon made bad choices this week: 1) dressing up like a white, blonde boy-man whom he named “Connor Smallnut,” 2) posting more than zero photos of this stunt on Instagram to promote his new album White People Party Music, and 3) hashtagging these photos with weird stereotypes like #FarmersMarket and #DogKissing and #CreamCheeseEating. Do people of color not like cream cheese?

Why you hurt me like that?

It’s a silly publicity stunt that reflects what happens when you combine poor judgement and an over-abundance of free time. But it is nothing more.

Lots of people were quick to attack Nick Cannon’s actions as racist. I saw more than a few reactions saying that Nick Cannon should suffer as much repercussion and negative attention for his stunt as celebrities who have worn blackface. Their arguments usually make the following points:

1) How come the media isn’t attacking Nick Cannon the same way they skewered Ted Danson or Julianne Hough?

2) Whiteface is just as racist as blackface and Nick Cannon is teaching his fans to resent white people.

3) These two actions should be treated exactly the same way.

On the surface, this argument sounds rational. Ideally, we should be working towards eliminating resentment between races and Nick Cannon’s certainly irritates that a bit. But this argument ignores the politics of power behind white/blackface. Nick Cannon might be irritating, but his whiteface is not a tool of oppression. And it is not racist.

You see, racism is commonly thought to be like a formula. Prejudice + Power= Racism. In our society, which is still undoubtedly recovering from the historical oppression of people of color, white male Americans hold the reins of socio-economic power. You can point out the exceptions to the rule, but they remain just that, exceptions. Inequality is still rampant in our neighborhoods, in our corporations, in our schools, in our justice system, and in our film and music industry.  This is why there is a difference between a racially-charged comment on white people and a racially-charged comment on people of color. If a black person calls a white person a “cracker” or a “white bitch” on the street, it is insulting and hurtful. But if a white person called a black person “nigger,” not only is it insulting and hurtful, it carries the white person’s privilege as a white person (whether they admit to having privilege or not). It carries the historical use of the word as a tool of oppression. And it perpetuates an image of this black person that weighs heavily on people of color even today and continues to close the doors of opportunity to them.

When Nick Cannon wears whiteface, his action does not carry the same implications as blackface. White people might be insulted, but at the end of the day, they can walk away unscathed with the reassurance that Nick Cannon’s view of white people won’t harm their chances of getting a mortgage or scoring a job promotion. At worst, Nick Cannon’s stereotypes might be used to target certain types of white people (‘oh, those reckless suburban kids!’ ‘oh, those privileged L.A. teens!’).  Black stereotypes, on the other hand, are attributed to an entire race with few exceptions. It’s assumed that they’re ratchet/ghetto. If a black man wants to be taken seriously by his peers (or by Bill O’Reilly), he has to fight extra hard against these stereotypes, prove he’s not like that, and adopt culturally pre-approved characteristics condoned by those in power (ie. white males) such as wear smart glasses and suits, not sag his pants, and trade dialectical resonances in his vocabulary for ‘standard’ English. And when the How I Met Your Mother cast dresses in yellowface and enact Asian stereotypes (especially when they don’t have any people of color in the cast), they too are targeting an entire race with an image of Asian people, who are then held responsible to disprove the stereotype in order to be taken seriously as an employee, a leader, a romantic interest, etc. This is why representation in media is so important, so that the public sees realistic images of people of color as complex, fully-realized individuals i.e. not Rooney Mara’s imitation of them.

Just to reaffirm, by no means is Nick Cannon’s stunt amusing or tasteful. In case you need any more proof that Nick Cannon is a moron, he continues to defend his whiteface by comparing it to blackface and bragging about his yacht.

I personally don’t care if he publicly apologizes or not, but whatever he’s doing, he’s going about it the wrong way.  What I find more interesting, though, is the title of his album, White People Party Music. A subtle jab at white people’s appropriation of hip-hop even though we continue to claim that hip-hop culture is degrading to black society? Given the week Nick Cannon is having, probably not.

DEVIOUS MAIDS on Lifetime

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.

6 Reasons Why I Love Stephen Adly Guirgis

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.

Is the Royal Shakespeare Company Racist?

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.

Gallifrey finally getting represented in Western drama.
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.

A Streetcar Named Desire

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.

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