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The Word of the Day is: Postracialism

I’d like to give big props to the Philadelphia Inquirer and my editor, Becky Klock, for including two full-length theater features (one of them mine) and a theater review in today’s Magazine section of the paper. It’s not often we get so much space, but when it happens, it’s a glorious thing.

That said, I’d also like to take up a discussion of Howard Shapiro’s article on “color-blind casting,” since this is the third time this season the Arden Theatre’s production of Sleeping Beauty and its casting of Nako Adodoadji–an African American actress–in the title role, has been a matter of editorial observation (and apologies to Ms. Adodoadji in advance for using her as an unwitting example throughout this post). Also, please don’t take this as a knock on Mr. Shapiro’s article either, as I obviously found it compelling enough to devote a whole morning to its analysis.

A little history: I was sent to review the show and loved everything about the production… Everything, that is, except the level of Ms. Adodoadji’s performance, charming though she was.

[Costume designer] St. Clair’s sole miscalculation is Briar Rose’s (Nako Adodoadji) act one outfit, which is too bright and too modern–particularly unfortunate, as it directs attention to the fact that Adodoadji is the weakest of the actors. Luckily, the others are strong enough that her inexperience scarcely matters, and the Arden can deliver all the magic promised in this classic fairy tale. 

Arden\'s Sleeping Beauty

Anyway, that’s all I said about her. Nothing about her race, or the Arden’s choice to cast her with white parents in a traditionally white role (though why that’s so, I can’t say, it’s not like it’s Snow White or something–stay with me here, I’ve got a point). 

The following week, Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall, herself an African American woman, took up Adodoadji’s cause in a column devoted to the joy children of color feel when they see this particular Sleeping Beauty onstage. (Hey, she’s a columnist, not a critic, it’s her prerogative.) She also mentioned that she saw the actress’ picture in the paper, which meant she’d read the review, which led me to believe that she just might have been annoyed by it. At the time, I remember thinking, “Did I miss the boat here? Should I have at least called attention to this aspect of the production in my review?”

But I didn’t, and here’s why: I took both of my kids to see the show and neither of them seemed to notice. This was children’s theater, and “non-traditional casting” sure didn’t seem to be an issue for its direct audience–just for its parents. I even remember tentatively asking my kids if they liked the actress playing Sleeping Beauty, because, as their mom, I dread writing reviews of shows they attend with me and hope maybe they’ll say something critical, though they never do and always love everything they see (I’ve been told my job is “kind of mean”). They liked her, thought she was pretty, an important quality for a princess, but never mentioned how unusual or notable it was that the princess in question was African American. Maybe it’s because they’re so used to having friends of other races, or having friends with interracial parentage, or adopted friends who are different races from their moms and dads, or integrated Barbie collections, for goodness sakes. For whatever reason, it hadn’t even occurred to them that something momentous was occurring in their midst. However, John-Hall notes the difference for the children of color in the audience,

When teacher Ana Ozuna Donofrio asked her fifth graders from Independence Charter if they were surprised that Sleeping Beauty was black, everyone raised a hand.

“Because Sleeping Beauty is white in the storybook,” said a 10-year-old with the fairy-tale name Ariel.

Sure, they were surprised. As little Ariel pointed out, it was because they’d seen her image before in a book. Perhaps they’d be just as surprised to see a blonde Dorothy in place of Judy Garland. It’s not that I’m diminishing the importance of seeing oneself reflected regally onstage. (Though I have yet to hear of Jewish princesses showing up anywhere besides the punchlines of sex jokes, and I managed to get past it. Sort of.) Just that maybe constantly reminding kids that something like casting a black princess is unusual does more harm than good. I’m too young to have watched anyone perform in blackface, but do I know all about it? Sure. Do I find it repulsive? Of course. Do I need to be reminded about it every time I see Othello? Hell no.

Jolson in blackface

I find myself returning to this issue during the run-up to the presidential race as well. I remind my kids that they are experiencing a historical moment in American history: a white man, white woman and biracial man all running for president, all at the same time, all with equal chances of being elected. But really, if I didn’t mention it, I don’t think they’d have noticed anything unusual, and I often wonder whether calling attention to the historic nature of this election doesn’t just create the problem all over again. Sure, this all sounds very Stephen Colbert (“I don’t see race”) but honestly, things just might be changing enough that, I don’t know, maybe kids–or at least kids living in integrated neighborhoods and schools–see race, but don’t care. Maybe the ideal of postracialism is actually not just an ideal anymore.

I find it kind of depressing that “nontraditional casting” merits an entire feature in 2008. Of course, something like Broadway’s all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a different story. Its casting choice is a statement in itself and merits attention on that fact alone. But just calling out race mixing because it happens onstage? Aren’t we past that yet? Aren’t we?

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Passion Play

After my radio appearance, where I feared that I sounded completely incoherent, it turns out may be I wasn’t such a disaster after all. Ellis Henican used a bit of our conversation in his Sunday Newsday column, and it reads about right. I apologize in advance of your reading it that I sound a bit crass–after all, hasn’t there been enough political bloodletting already?–but frankly, I happily anticipated walking into a voting booth for once with my head held high, and now, it appears, I’ll be entering as usual, holding my nose.

It’s a bit distressing to be playing Candyland with this primary when we ought to be deep into Stratego. Ultimately, we will either witness the creation of a whole new government-subsidized industry that brings about some good to our economy and the world in the form of a “green collar” job corps (sorry, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin) or we will dig ourselves so deeply into debt and international disdain that I fear we may never recover–and as someone who has an awful lot invested in housing prices returning to their former effervescence, I quake to imagine 100 more years of investment in the Iraqi infrastructure.

Candyland riots

And then, of course, we have the issue of humanism vs. militarism. Please visit my Pennsylvania Primary Arts Voters Guide alongside my analysis of John McCain’s position on the arts just so you’ll know what you’re up against come November. I still can’t tell you who will get my vote tomorrow: Clinton, for her specificity or Obama, for his idealism, but I can sure tell you that once the Democratic party’s decision is made, if you care about the arts and education in this country, you’d better pull that lever for whomever gets the nomination. 

However, if you happen to be in the first congressional district, one candidate I wholeheartedly endorse is Rue Landau, who is running to be an Obama delegate. I’ve known her since we were children, and she has devoted her entire life to righting political wrongs. As an attorney for Community Legal Services, she’s well aware of Philly’s economic and social needs. She’s a supporter of the arts and a tireless worker for social justice. Nice to know that once in a while, election season offers up a candidate who is actually worthy of a democracy.

 

The Sadistic Seder

Since I’m gearing up to host a Passover seder for 13 at my house this weekend. (13 Jews at a seder? We know what happened at the last one… Someone better watch their back!) So in the interest of saving my sanity, I will suspend blogging until next week, but in the meantime, here are some suggestions for bringing drama to your seder table:

1: Bust out the  Bag of Plagues This has been a successful part of our seders for several years now, and my favorite element is the “blood” plague. Send one of the kids around to the guest wearing the fanciest outfit and have them squirt “blood” all over their silk dress or tie. It disappears, but they won’t know that! Watch them freak out and then make them feel guilty for not trusting you. 

2: When I was growing up, Maxwell House provided our spiritual guidance every Passover via their free haggadot piled up at the end of the supermarket’s Passover aisle. (The same went for everyone else I knew. Free + Jews = Tradition) But now hagaddot have gotten both more sophisticated and expensive. Want to alienate at least half of your guests? Try the Women’s Hagaddah. Want to alienate the other half? Go for the Men’s. Want to upset everyone? Explore a Messianic hagaddah. Want to start a riot? Use an Orthodox Haggadah written in Hebrew and don’t start reading until 6 p.m.

3: Get all fancy with organic kosher wine, but don’t buy any Manischewitz. I guarantee you someone at the table will be angry–no, ANGRY–about it. 

4: Start an argument about kitniot. Here’s your ammunition: Some Ashkenazi Jews follow the “no kitniot” rule, but none of it is considered chametz. And are you saying Sephardim are less Jewish than you? Do you think you’re a better Jew than me because you eat less during Passover? Once you get going, I’m sure the discussion will take off on its own. After all, you’re in a room full of Jews.

5: Add “and from the tyranny of occupation,” whenever the hagaddah mentions freedom from slavery or bondage.

I know these methods work because at one time or another (mostly during the years between mohawk hair and mom jeans) I’ve tried them all. Have a happy Passover and I hope you find the afikoman! 

Charlton Heston as Moses

A Cold Wind Blows from Europe

This morning on the BBC World Service, English National Opera artistic director John Berry discussed a work they’ll be premiering in England, and not–though they’ve been partnering with the Met in New York–here in the U.S. I missed the beginning of the piece, so unfortunately can’t say what it is (my guess is that it’s the operatic version of David Lynch’s Lost Highway that just opened at the Young Vic, but please correct me if I’m wrong). Anyway, the production isn’t really the point, although if it is the Lynch piece, it would certainly make sense as a U.S. opening.

What was striking about the conversation was Berry’s reason for a European debut: in London and around Europe there are many voices in the media weighing in on opera. In the U.S.–New York and Chicago were the examples he gave–there are one or two very opinionated voices. What this means is that a sour note from one of those few U.S. critics can pretty much sink a show, while in Europe, where the form is taken seriously by news outlets, new productions are treated as a valid subject for public debate and enthusiasm, and all those voices, while no less opinionated, are at least less concentrated.

If the decline in opera coverage in the U.S. has a chilling effect on producers, you can expect to see that cold wind blow across all artistic disciplines, as more and more papers and magazines lay off critics and staffers and cut their arts coverage in print and online. The situation at the English National Opera provides concrete proof of the public and economic good served by having a multitude of regular arts critics and journalists on staff.

Arts Journalism Not on Display at Newseum

The brand new temple of free speech, Washington’s Newseum, opened Friday to less than enthusiastic reviews, most noticeably from the New York Times, who, along with the paper’s owners, the Ochs-Sulzberger Family, were heavy contributors to the museum. Such is the nature of a free and fickle press.

Aside from journalists’ naturally contrarian tendencies, there may be more to their naysaying than simply objective reporting. Perhaps there is no surer sign of your cause being equated with cataclysm than having a national monument erected in its memory. Native Americans and Jews endured wholesale slaughter of their people to get a museum; as we witness the wholesale slaughter of American industry, its loudest voices, the media, won’t go quietly. The first amendment is inscribed on the building’s marble facade like a tombstone erected to mourn a nation’s lost, outsized ideals.

Newseum Facade

Another New York Times article notes quotes Charles L. Overby, chief executive of the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit underwriting the project, with this frightening statistic:

“Our annual survey shows that 40 percent of the American public believes the press has too much freedom,” he said, adding that the museum’s job is to educate — in an engaging way.

It’s not the idea of the Newseum that gives me chills; after all, if no one’s actually reading newspapers on their own anymore, how else will we force schoolchildren to have contact with them? It’s elements like the Newseum’s oddball collection of journalistic ephemera–Wonkette’s slippers? Really? Perez Hilton’s hoodie wasn’t available?–that make it sound like a newsroom version of the Hard Rock Cafe. Even its Wolfgang Puck-helmed restaurant is named “The Source.” Perhaps it’s too much to expect the stuffed head of Hunter S. Thompson hanging over the bar, but Puck ought to, at the very least, offer a sampling of “deadline delicacies,” you know, creative vending machine fare, whiskey served in a metal file drawer, that sort of thing (I’m also assuming here that the Newseum Residences, apartments that rent from $1,700 to $6,500 a month aren’t tricked out to look like cubicles).

So what does any of this have to do with arts journalism? Well, judging by the exhibits on display, very little. Placing the Newseum in Washington, D.C. ensures its focus will be on all things political/governmental. And while arts journalists may not be decapitated in pursuit of our stories (though I can think of a few theaters who wouldn’t at all mind that outcome for some of us), we are certainly suffering a merciless thinning of our ranks as we soldier on mightily to interpret cultural semaphores from around the globe. Arts journalists are not the bastard children of the news, we are its interpreters, often sensing a change in the winds before bureaucracy’s cogs even begin to turn. (Weimar culture, anyone?) And though we rarely make the front pages, it would have been nice if the Newseum’s curators acknowledged the importance of arts coverage in journalism as well.

Right now we’re being outsourced, but I suppose once we’ve been fully eliminated, the voids in our culture and the chronicling of our cultural history will serve as our memento mori, and it will quickly become evident how important we were after all.

G.B. Shaw John RuskinKenneth Tynan

Karen Getz vs. Spike Jonze

In case you missed today’s Philadelphia Inquirer article about choreographer Karen Getz, the idea was to complement Getz’s upcoming 1812 Productions piece Suburban Love Songs and adapt it for real suburbanites. Getz makes choreography for non-dancers and the six of us who participated definitely fit the bill.

Why did I insert myself into the article?

You try coralling six middle aged to elderly people who don’t dance to appear on video dancing for the newspaper. Not so easy. 

Who Fossified the suburbs best? Watch both videos and you be the judge.

KAren Getz
Spike Jonze

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Karen Getz vs. Spike Jonze

Drinking My Milkshake

There is much hand-wringing these days among arts journalists about the death of arts criticism and journalism. As goes print media, so go its gatekeepers, reduced from comfortable staffers to itinerants, blogging for their dinners. The Philadelphia Inquirer has one staff theater critic left–and I’m guessing that’s because he still earns his keep as Travel editor–but I remember the days when Fine Arts editor Jeff Weinstein was prohibited from using freelancers. I knocked on that door several times, only to be rebuffed (and rightly so: union rules); now the barbarians are on the inside, the door’s been locked behind him, and the union… well, perhaps that rattling in its lungs isn’t fatal, but I’d still put my money on it for the death pool.

So what’s the problem with freelancers and why should you care? Freelancers can save newspapers money during tough times and still provide regular content, right? Wrong. Freelancers aren’t just itinerant, we’re mercenaries too. If the Inquirer has a milkshake and Vogue has a milkshake, but Vogue’s is bigger and tastier, I just might reach my straw all the way into theirs, and leave the Inquirer’s arts coverage to melt until I’ve finished. I’m the monogamous type, and busy enough in my personal life that I haven’t really been moved to check out any other flavors, but hey, a few more downticks in the economy, and I might just get hungry again. It’s a setup that’s bad for the arts, bad for readers, bad for writers, and suicide for the newspaper.