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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?

Mopping Up

So it’s all over for us. As the eyes of the nation turn west- and south-ward, Philly can ditch the political drama and go back to plain old murder and mayhem, right? Not quite. The Theater Alliance of Greater Philadelphia‘s listserv was burning up in the weeks leading up to the primary, and now, in some sort of exquisite water torture for liberals, the vicious debate will be laid out onstage for all to see Saturday, May 3, 8 p.m. at Second Stage at the Adrienne.

A few things astonished me about this heated back-and-forth.

  • First: there are conservatives among drama professionals, like, real red ones. Though I can’t quite figure out what could possibly be in it for them other than an inherited bias, they are vehement and as convinced of McCain’s relevance to their lives as any hedge fund trader or military engineer. 
  • Second: People actually “went there” on Clinton, making pantsuit jokes and the like. Theater people. And I don’t think these posters were even the gay ones, who could get away with it. 
  • Third: No one really wanted to go there on Obama, which, I guess, is at least one positive sign. Maybe we can credit Rev. Wright for serving as the receptacle for this contest’s racial enmity and diverting it from the candidate himself. This effect even seems to have spilled over into the real world. Remember in New Hampshire when those dudes yelled, “Iron my shirts!” at Hillary? We never saw a corollary pair of douchebags running around in blackface at an Obama rally (I’m sure they were somewhere, of course, just not out in public). So thanks, Rev. Wright, at least for that.
  • Fourth: The listserv’s, er, discussion had remarkably little to do with the candidates’ relationship to the arts, which was, to me, distressing. There was even a brief flare-up about abortion, but nothing, NOTHING about the issue that most directly affects everyone on TAGP’s e-mail list. Business-owning republicans won’t shut up about taxes; shouldn’t arts professionals be slightly concerned about their candidates’ approaches to arts and education? Hello? Anyone?
  • Fifth: Show folk will find an excuse to argue about almost anything. 

I’d love to see the Second Stage event used as a means to discuss the issues surrounding our careers and the candidates’ potential effect on them, or perhaps to galvanize the theater community into advocating that the arts and arts education take, if not center stage, then at least a supporting role during this political season–something I’m hoping every listserv member can agree upon. Though rehashing the old political divides will no doubt provide the same entertainment value once offered by the Romans to their people in the form of bears and slaves, moving forward with a November game plan has far more to do with creating an actual theater alliance.

Gladiator v. tiger

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.

 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Alive and on ABC

Gibson/Stephanopoulos

One thing I did not get to discuss on Ellis Henican’s show yesterday was the way Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos were Rosencrantz-and-Guildensterned during the Philly debate. Sent on a fool’s errand, they concerned themselves with trivialities and minutiae (lapel pins), inflated with self-importance (regarding time, Gibson announced, “I’ll be lenient, but not permissive”), blind to the fact that they were mere cogs in a political machine. They’ve since been chewed up by that machine and spit back out. Yesterday the AP released a feature on the pair’s misguided role in the debate, as did seemingly every other news outlet. And mirroring the careers of R&G, they’ve gone from minor players in a larger story to the subjects of their own little drama. Congratulations fellas, you’ve been sacrificed for a greater purpose.

 

R&G coverR&G Hamlet

Clinton-Obama Drama

I know I said I wasn’t going to post, but just in case you’re looking for something to do this evening at around 6 p.m., tune into the Talk Radio Network. I’ll be interviewed by Newsday writer and frequent Hannity and Colmes visitor Ellis Henican about the dramatic elements of the Obama-Clinton debate here in Philly.

And for the record, I thought George Stephanopolous and Charlie Gibson made a smashing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.