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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?

Pennsylvania Primary Primer and Arts Voter’s Guide

The Theater Alliance listserv has been inundated of late with rants about race, abortion, power, a Hillary/mommy complex, impassioned debate (to put it kindly) covering just about every aspect of this political open season except its impact on the arts. So before you step into the voting booth on April 22 and help decide for the country who you’ll be electing, Digg this entry, send a link to your friends, print it out, and make sure you support a candidate who supports the arts. 

I’ll begin with Barack and Hillary, since they’re the most similar. In case you’re wondering, I’m a registered Democrat, but veer weekly from one candidate to the other. Both have their official arts platforms up on their websites, but if you’re not up for slogging through those, here’s a quick summary of where they converge and diverge.

Arts Education

  • Obama and Clinton both favor the U.S. Department of Education’s (DoE) Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination Grants. This program gives grants to school districts for teaming up with nonprofit arts organizations. Obama says he will “increase” its funding, and Clinton says she will “double the number of students served.” 
  • While Obama says he will “publicly champion arts education,” Clinton says she will end No Child Left Behind, as it diverts money from arts education, and will “provide incentives to schools to offer arts programs.” A nice thought, since currently their only federal incentives are to pass standardized tests or else.
  • For teachers, Clinton supports the DoE’s Professional Development for Arts Educators program, which offers teacher training and enrichment. Obama plans to launch an “Artist Corps” of “young artists trained to work in low-income schools and their communities.” He does not say whether this corps will be composed of volunteers or paid workers, or how they will work with the teachers already in place. 
  • In addition, Clinton wants to launch the “Putting Arts in Reach Initiative,” a program to help schools acquire equipment used in arts programs: art supplies, musical instruments, etc.

National Endowments for Arts and Humanities

  • Both candidates want to increase funding for the NEA. Hallelujah. Funding has increased under Bush, but not anywhere near Clinton-era levels.
  • In addition, Clinton vows to support increased funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Arts Professionals

  • Both candidates are banking on their universal health care plans to take care of artists, but Clinton’s goes a step farther, building in a refundable tax credit to keep premiums at a specific percentage of income, and offering a 401(k) “with a generous federal match” for the self-employed or others whose employers don’t offer a retirement plan.
  • Both candidates vow to streamline the visa process for foreign artists looking to enter the U.S. Good news for Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse, I guess, but stellar news for all those Festival performers and organizers bound annually by reams of red tape.
  • Both plan to expand public-private partnerships that promote “cultural diplomacy,” by sending American artists overseas and bring foreign artists to the U.S.
  • Both support the Artist-Museum Partnership Act, which Clinton co-sponsored. Currently, artists who donate their work to cultural institutions are only able to deduct the costs of materials; this act allows them to also deduct its fair market value. Niiiice. 
  • Again, Clinton goes one step farther, promising to support programs that create live/work spaces for artists (again, niiiice…), and initiatives that “help artists promote and sell their work.” Though these promises sound vague, she cites a few forward-thinking examples on her website that she’s actually had a hand in creating.

This week, it looks like Hillary for me. Obama’s on the right track, but Clinton’s far more specific in her plans. Shen’s got the stats, the record, and New York state, which–when it comes to the arts–is no slouch… 

Tomorrow: John McCain and arts funding.