Wednesday, October 26, 2016

To the Theater

I went to a play the other day, put on by a local amateur group, Shipwrecked!  An Entertainment.  (The play premiered in the US in 2007.)

It did some interesting things, choices the director made, and the theme of tale-telling.  But there were a couple of parts that were, well, problematic.  Or is it just me?

In short, a 19th century white European male goes off to see for adventure, ends up stranded on an island off Australia, where he eventually meets some Aboriginal people.  He saves the people, and then is basically offered his choice of brides, choosing a woman he met early on.  Later, homesick, he leaves his wife and family and returns to Europe where he writes and sells his story, to both acclaim and doubt.

The problematic, initially, for me, was the representation of the Aboriginal people.  They weren't played in blackface (thank dog) but were played in tattery looking clothes (think caveman pictures from the 50s more than not) and did more grunting than not.  Like those old caveman pictures, they were played stooped, mostly.  The crowd seemed to find the effect comic.

Now, I get that by the end the audience is supposed to question his tale, to wonder if he's ever seen Aboriginal people, or had these adventures.  But while the Aboriginal people are on stage, there was nothing to suggest that the performance was thinking about what it means to present Aboriginal people in this sort of way.

The lesser problematic part was during the choosing a wife scene, where one of the potential brides was played in broad drag.  Again, the audience laughed.

But, I wonder, how would it feel to sit with my African American or Native American students to see this play?  How would it feel to sit with a transgender student to see this play?

I don't think it would feel comfortable.  The fact is, of course, most African American or Native American students have seen far worse, experienced far worse.  But this would be like yet another paper cut in the skin of life.  I wouldn't want to participate in giving that paper cut.

To put it another way, it's not a good sign that I was grateful, ever so grateful that at least they weren't in blackface.

As tends to be the case here, the theater audience was very white.  So as the play was presenting the Aboriginal people, it felt like a bunch of white people secretly (or maybe not secretly, but imagining themselves as the only possible audience) enjoying the racism of the representation.

I haven't read the play, so maybe this performance wasn't at all what the text suggests, or not at all like the play that premiered in New York.

I did read a couple reviews (including in The New York Times), and they didn't seem to notice race issues.  But then, theater often seems like a bastion of white privilege, with white folks just not noticing racism because they imagine they're in an all white space.

Has anyone else seen the play?  Thoughts?

I saw a play last year by a Nigerian-American playwright, set in Africa, with all African characters, but played by white folks (in this Midwestern area), and it didn't feel racist in this way.  It felt like the African characters were represented with respect in a way that just didn't come across in Shipwrecked.  I think that other play was played as a sort of timeless story, a story set in a culture, but a story that they expected to speak to all humanity and represent all humanity, in the way that we imagine Shakespeare speaks to all humanity, if you know what I mean.

Is there a way this play can be performed that doesn't feel racist?

(I was thinking, if they played the European guy in shipwreck-ish clothing, and the Aboriginal characters in, say, modern business attire, could you get at the sense that the main character's storytelling is problematic?)

1 comment:

  1. I don't know this play, but I was thinking along similar lines today when talking about the game Cards against Humanity today with my students. I have played that game several times, but with each successive time it becomes more and more ugly in my mind. People are laughing about things like the Holocaust and slavery. And I said to my students, "I've never played this game with Jewish people or African Americans -- I'd be ashamed to play this game in mixed company. What that means is, I don't think I should do it. Playing this game simply acquiesces to cruelty and perpetuates white privilege and a thinly veiled supremacy." They didn't really respond much at first but I could see they thought I was uptight. Then one kid said he had the game and now that he has played enough to know all the answers, it's not funny anymore. I thought that was progress, possibly, but I could be totally wrong. Of course, what makes that game funny is the shock value. But now, I'm mainly just disappointed in the depths of human cruelty that we somehow think we've moved beyond, but really haven't.