8

Flip the Script Friday: Black Lives, Black Words – Part I

I think this has been my longest blog hiatus since I began it back in 2013. July and August really came and went fast for me. On July 31, I submitted chapter 3 of my dissertation, and on August 1, I left for my 9th ATHE, in Boston. I spent four days catching up with friends, making new ones, and participating in the activities of the conference. I stayed in Boston a few days longer to visit with my grand-big Dan, and he took me to Maine for the very first time, where we saw the beaches of Ogunquit and Kennebunkport, and had dinner in Portland – now I’ve been to every state east of the Mississippi. Only seven more states to go – anyone up for a trip to North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, or Hawaii?

I’ve spent most of August trying to figure things out for the fall. I’m going to be teaching COMM ARTS 100 – Intro to Speech and Composition. I’m (hopefully) going to finish the final 2 chapters of my dissertation in the next 2 or 3 months. I’m also going to be considering my post-graduation options, probably going on the job market, and just figuring out life and stuff in general.

I have missed y’all and the blog, so what better time to start back up than the present, with everyone’s favorite, Flip the Script Friday – with a twist. Politics have been crazier than ever, especially this summer, and with no signs of it slowing down, I thought – what kinds of thoughts can I contribute, in my own little way? A friend of mine is starting a blog about playwrights of color. Rather than copy her idea, I’m modifying FTS (what a cool new acronym!) for the near future to focus on this fantastic book of short plays I’ve found in the library. The book is entitled Black Lives, Black Words and was published in 2017 by Oberon Books, with Reginald Edmund as editor. It is part of an international project to increase black visibility in the theatre, and includes some really poignant scripts. Rather than flip the scripts, I’m going to write up short synopses of some the pieces in the book and share some of my thoughts. I’ve only read the first few, but hopefully I’ll be able to fit the rest of the book among my regular, non-research reading and write more. And now, here is the first of the plays from the book I’ll be reviewing:

#Matter by Idris Goodwin

Synopsis: A conversation on race emerges over Facebook between acquaintances Kim (black) and Cole (white). In response to Kim’s post of “a hashtag and three words,” Cole posts “a hashtag and three words.” The conversation becomes more and more explosive and acrimonious, from scientific to personal, with an unexpectedly sad ending.

My Thoughts: Goodwin really lays it all out there, and concisely summarizes both sides of an argument in a way that comes off as individual and thoughtful rather than preachy and trite. Both Kim and Cole feel victimized by prejudice AND guilty of it at the same time, for different reasons. I feel like it’s like a high-five where the hands just completely miss each other. Both characters speak valid points – sometimes they listen, but they do a lot of talking past each other. What’s really intriguing, though, is the playwright’s continual return to the phrase “perfect star,” – as if that’s a third race.

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3

The Book That’s Going To Eat My Blog

It’s been a few days since I’ve posted anything – and more than a few since I’ve posted anything substantial, mostly owing to being lazy and depressed but more the former. I’m going to go back and flesh out my previous book review after this, but be warned: the book I am about to review is going to be eating my blog over the next few days. Indeed, the work of theory which I am about to share with you is one that is substantial, inspirational, in a bizarre coincidence, completely relevant to several of this past week’s biggest news stories.

I’m talking about Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910, the master work on all things African-American and representational, by one incredible writer and researcher, Daphne A. Brooks. I’m telling you, this book is a gold standard for understanding issues of race and gender, especially that of the African-American female, from an artistic yet practical angle. If anything that I’ve described piques your fancy, read on, because this book delivers.

 

As I was saying before, this book goes there, in terms of discussing race, gender, and everywhere in between. There is so much going on in this book that this review could turn into either something completely pointless and superficial, or long enough to occupy a trip to the DMV. I’m aiming for a happy medium.

Brooks starts her first chapter, “Our Bodies Our/Selves: Racial Phantasmagoria and Cultural Struggle” with mention of the oddities of spiritualism, as seen by Reverend Hiram Mattison in 1853. He describes a “collision of cultures” where men, women, “Negroes,” Indians, and ghosts intermingle in religious zeal. In terms of spiritualism, not uncommon, but as far as a mixing of races, quite a shocker. This leads to a discussion of the character in Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, a play I admit to not being as familiar with as I should, so look out for that in a future Flip the Script, maybe. The chapter concludes with a discussion of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the “blackening” of the evil Hyde character in performance, which is interesting, because the one performance of Jekyll and Hyde that I saw had a multi-racial cast, with Lucy being black, Emma being white, and Jekyll/Hyde himself being white.

Chapter 2 jumps into the juicy details of Henry Box Brown and how, as a black slave in the South, he put himself in a box and mailed himself to freedom – twice, in fact, and the second time across the Atlantic, to Leeds – and the levels of theory which go along with this “performance,” from in/visibility to traveling to a reversal of the slave trade corollary. Of particular interest later in the chapter, on page 79, is the coining of the word “peristrephic,” meant to described something rotary or revolving, in reference to the “moving panorama” form of entertainment that had arisen in England in the 1790s, wherein a canvas moved on rollers to give the sense of a changing of scenery and of evolution, and how this medium effectively portrayed the timeline of slavery in the United States, ergo, to a timeline of African-American identity. There was even a moving panorama depicting the Henry Box Brown story.

Chapter 3 turns the focus to women, and to the very interesting and enigmatic Adah Isaacs Menken. I’m not going to go too much into her at the moment, you’ll see why later. But suffice it to say, she had a pretty interesting story in her life and work. And there’s burlesque. That too.

Chapter 4 was actually the reason I became of aware of this book in the first place; it was my topic for presentation in my Theatre History class last year. Entitled “Alien/Nation,” it discusses In Dahomey, the first musical written by blacks for blacks, and played to success of two different kinds, both on Broadway and across the pond. The content of this musical proved to be meta, with a re-imagination of Africa from an African-American, once-removed perspective. And of course, there’s the proliferation of the cakewalk, an incredibly popular dance craze. Overall, it “enacted a struggle to dream intensely, and to employ what could only be read as fantasy sequences which served as responses to a naturalizing discourse which render Africa and African Americans as dreamless subjects. As cultural documentation alone, In Dahomey reveals ‘things Negroes were not supposed to think about, or were considered incapable of thinking about'” (Brooks 268).

Chapter 5 is called “Diva and Diasporic Consciousness,” and discusses the “New Negro Womanhood.” Subjects it includes are Pauline Hopkins’ varying characterizations of the Negro Women in Peculiar Sam, or the Underground Railroad, as well as Of One’s Blood. I especially enjoyed reading about the history of the dialect. Brooks returns to Aida Overton Walker, one of the stars of In Dahomey, in her discussion of Walker’s “Salome” dance, an embracing of black sexuality through a silent, veiled performance. An interesting bit of useful theory comes on page 338, regarding Walker’s portrayal of Salome as an act of resistance. Dance theorist Susan Leigh Foster sees the historical evolution of 18th/19th century Western dance as a performance in which bodies became “no-bodies,” by which she means that they achieved a “mastery over bodily display,” which “signaled an entirely new relationship between body and self, one that dismissed the body as an intersubjective discursive field,” making the dancing body into a figure filled in (and filled out) by the story being told by the dancer.

Overall, if you’re really, really interested in this type of theory or whatnot, or you have a lot of time to kill, get this book and look it over to fill in the gaps I left in this review. Despite the subject matter, the vocabulary is not exceedingly difficult, and I feel like just about anyone who is remotely interested in this topic could glean something from this book that could inform their further research, whether it be in academia or in merely observing media or the life occurring around them.

And of course, here come the lists of theory books I need to read now as a result:

Primary Sources:

  • George L. Barclay, The Life and Career of Adah Isaacs Menken
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret
  • Carol Channing, Just Lucky I Guess (wtf? how’d this end up as a primary?)
  • Pauline Hopkins, Of One Blood
  • Pauline Hopkins, Peculiar Sam
  • Adah Isaacs Menken, Infelicia
  • Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave
  • T. A. Palmer, East Lynne

Secondary Sources:

  • Rachel Adams, Sideshow USA: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination
  • Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture
  • Russ Castronovo, Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth Century United States
  • James Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum
  • Jane C. Desmond, Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance
  • Gary D. Engle, This Grotesque Essence: Plays from the American Minstrel Stage
  • Earl Wesley Fornell, The Unhappy Medium: Spiritualism and the Life of Margaret Fox
  • Noel B. Gerson, Queen of the Plaza: A Biography of Adah Isaacs Menken
  • David Glassberg, American Historical Pageantry
  • David Krasner, A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927
  • Allen F. Lesser, Enchanting Rebel: The Secret of Adah Isaacs Menken
  • Allen F. Lesser, Weave a Wreath of Laurel: The Lives of Four Jewish Contributors to American Civilization
  • Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Nineteenth Century England
  • Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: the Politics of Performance
  • Renee M. Sentilles, Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity
  • Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas
  • Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body
  • Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism

Clearly, I have my work cut out for me. Good night, everybody!

2

On Colorblindness in the Theatre

Today, one of my friends posted this as his status on Facebook:

You know what really grinds my gears? When all white high schools put on black shows like Aida and The Wiz.

I’m not usually that person who goes there with someone’s Facebook status, but I found this to be somewhat offensive and felt the urge to say something.

So I did a little research, and responded, saying something along the lines of:

I don’t think that this is a fair statement. MTI, the company that holds the rights to Aida and is very strict about their rules, suggests that ethnic actors would be good for the show, but does not say that the director must cast actors of color; that would be discriminatory. Plus, if it’s high school, it’s for educational purposes, and some rules may not apply.

By the time I pressed the comment button, several other of his friends, black and white, commented similarly, saying that The Wiz was based on The Wizard of Oz, Quvenzhane Wallis is going to be the next Annie, Broadway had an all-black Hello, Dolly!, that not all schools have black students (or enough interested in the arts to cast the show), etc. I was not alone.

His response to me?

Jacob, when did I say MUST? You’re the only one talking about licensing; I’m just saying that they shouldn’t be putting on shows about my people. White people telling the stories of colored people is wack.

My response?

Maybe directors at these schools choose those shows because they like the beauty of the story, not to mention the music and the message. Aida and The Wiz are just as much part of the American musical theatre canon as My Fair LadySouth Pacific, et cetera. They have all the rights in the world to put on whatever show they like; you don’t have any control over that.

His response?

Seriously?

Over that?

A little background: this friend, whom I’ll call Kevin, is an African-American guy I met at the 2006 APO nationals, and again at the 2008 nationals. When I met him, I thought he was funny and nice. I haven’t seen him for a long time, but we’ve remained friends on Facebook. His posts are, one could say, inconsistent. One day, he’ll post something about how black stereotypes are wrong, and the next day, he’ll post something that is a complete stereotype (one of the hard things about Facebook: detecting sarcasm), something like “Oh honeychile’ there is some fake weaves in this here bar.” I always thought that if you’re a person who hates stereotypes, don’t go slinging them around, and then get offended when someone calls you out on it.

The topic of colorblindness in show selection and casting is something I’ve wanted to write my thoughts on for a long time, and I guess now is as good a time as ever.

Since Kevin started us off with high school, let’s rewind to the early 2000s, aka my high school days, where I was so involved in theatre that I actually got a little plaque about it. 100% of the students in my school were Jewish, and 98% of the school was, you could say, white. That didn’t stop us from putting on shows with nonwhite characters. I mean, what are we supposed to do…Fiddler on the Roof every year? Sure, we did some very white-bread shows (Hello, Dolly! and Bye Bye Birdie come to mind), but we also did West Side Story and South Pacific, despite having very few students of color in the school. We didn’t do Aida or The Wiz, but I don’t think anyone would have stopped us had we done them. The two shows Kevin chose, actually, are particularly bad examples…Dreamgirls and Hairspray would’ve been harder to pull off, owing to the racial nature of the plot, but apart from blackface, I don’t see a problem with a school that is entirely or predominantly white putting on Aida or The Wiz.

Kevin, you are a well-educated and well-spoken person, but this is not the 1990s and you’re not Lauryn Hill (who, by the way, apologized for her remarks about white people). If high school theatre went by your logic, does that mean that high schools that don’t have any Asian students shouldn’t put on Flower Drum Song or The King and I? Or that a predominantly black school shouldn’t do My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music?

Sheesh Louise.

Back to my high school days. In my freshman year, we did both West Side Story and South Pacific. Our West Side Story, in particular is a great example of exactly why casting should be talent based, and not looks-based. Two of the main characters, Maria and Anita, are quite clearly Hispanic. We only had one girl with a Hispanic background in the whole school, and even though she auditioned, she didn’t get either part. The part of Maria went to a white girl, who I think did a pretty good job of playing Maria. She was not wearing any sort of makeup other than stage makeup, and she didn’t speak with a Puerto Rican accent, but she got the job done. Anita, on the other hand, was played by one of the only other non-white girls in school; a girl of East Asian descent who happened to be a very talented dancer. Though the character of Anita does a lot of dancing, she also sings. The girl who got the part did not. In fact, she refused to sing, period. For “America,” another Shark girl took her role, and for “Tonight,” Anita sat onstage while the other Shark girls sang around her, as if she was getting ready for a party. I can’t remember what they did for “I Have A Love,” – that number might have been cut for time – but she didn’t sing a note. It was a shame; even though she is a very talented dancer and looked beautiful in the part, she was not cut out for Anita at all. Several of the other girls could have done that role even better, and would have loved to have Anita’s singing lines all to herself. For South Pacific, the girl who played Anita didn’t get Bloody Mary or Liat, roles she probably wouldn’t have liked anyway, instead, she danced in one number while other non-Asian girls played those parts. In contrast, when we did Bye Bye Birdie, the Hispanic girl I was talking about was a front-runner for the role of Kim McAfee, arguably one of the most white-bread roles in the American theatre, and when I’m talking front-runner, I mean that out of all the girls who auditioned, she got called back and was probably in the top four of the director’s choices for the role.

Moving right along, you also say that ever-so-problematic phrase “my people.” Okay, so you’re saying that these are the stories of “your ancestors,” like the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow? Let’s look at the facts. Part of the beauty of The Wiz is the inventive music, which makes it different from The Wizard of Oz but does not make it exclusively for one race. And funny you should bring up Aida, a story from Africa with music and lyrics by “your people”…Tim Rice and Elton John. The original Aida is about as black as a lightly toasted pizza crust; it was a story created in Italy. Furthermore, the story is about Ancient Egypt, and even though Aida was Ethiopian, the other characters may or may not have been dark-skinned. Traditionally, Cleopatra is thought of as “black” or “African,” but even though she was born in Africa and lived there, she had Macedonian and Greek ancestry through Ptolemy. She was most likely olive-skinned if not white, and possibly had green or blue eyes and blond hair. In all likelihood, she probably looked more like Jennifer Aniston than Cicely Tyson.

Now, I don’t know your actual ethnic background, but I do know that you were born in America, and that were you to go to Jamaica or Ghana or Kenya and proclaim them to be “your people,” they’d probably all either laugh at you, or think that you were weird without saying anything to your face about it. The Wiz is as much your story as The Wizard of Oz is my story; basically, not really. All the people in these shows are fictional characters who have been and will be portrayed by actors of many ethnicities, and even mixed ethnicities. I think that’s as far as I’m willing to go in this post about defining ethnicity/race, so let’s move on to another topic.

Before I left Houston, my friend Monica and I were having lunch and talking about musical theatre. Monica is a singer and actress, and I was working on Fiddler on the Roof in Baytown. She also happens to be African-American. When Fiddler entered the conversation, she said something along the lines of how she wouldn’t fit into that show; if you put her in villager clothes, she’d probably look like a slave, which might be true. I agreed with her, saying that even though she could sing and act Golde, it would be tough for her to pull it off. In hindsight, I think I was wrong. In fact, I think she’d make an awesome Golde, regardless of whether Tevye or anyone else in the cast was black. In fact, we did have a black girl in the chorus; granted, she was very tiny and hardly noticeable onstage, but she was there and dressed like a villager. Furthermore, when The Crucible was done at U of H, there were many black actors among the citizens of Salem, and not just Tituba; in fact, the girl who was initially cast as Elizabeth was not only black but of Caribbean descent, and race is very much an issue in that show. Had she stayed, she would have made a wonderful Elizabeth.

If an actor can do the part well, they should indeed, regardless of color. And if a mostly or all white high school wants to do The Wiz, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

Oh, and Kevin? Good job showing your true colors; defriending someone who disagrees with you on something in a very nice way without getting riled up about it is obviously a sign of maturity.

That was sarcasm.

And I probably didn’t want to be friends with you anyway.