The conversation about race and the arts continues...


Discussion: Does the American theater need a civil rights movement?

From a report posted on Arena Stage's website

FROM TC: Arena Stage's American Voices New Play Institute held three convenings in its first year. Each convening gathered artists, producers, presenters, playwrights and administrators focused on specific issues within the nationwide new play infrastructure, with the intent of advancing the ongoing dialogue.  These convenings included plenty of interesting discussion on issues related to diversity and the challenges for black playwrights in particular.  I've excerpted a couple of short sections below but I encourage you to read this newly-released report in its entirety:

From the "Defining Diversity" convening:

From the beginning, many participants were up front about their hesitation to return to the diversity conversation because that was all that it ever was - a conversation with no actual follow through. As a goal of the convening was to facilitate subsequent action, a significant portion of the conversation was geared toward possible action steps.  Although some were more easily "measurable"(diversifying staff and board, eliminating the idea of "slots" in a season, creating collaborations, re-examining the current practices of marketing and outreach), there was a general consensus that a bigger, more fundamental change needs to happen in the field.  Although the desire to infiltrate the leading, large LORT "castles" (as well as the M.F.A. programs) in order to have a more substantial impact on the field was real, there was also a recurring question about whether this was the most effective way to instigate change. One participant quoted Buckminster Fuller's belief: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." 

From the "Black Playwrights - The Stories We Tell" convening:

As playwright Daniel Beaty said, "The American theater needs a civil rights movement - and it really is about a movement - it's about us really realizing that the greatest way you control the psyche of the people is to control the way they see themselves. That is not just about us telling stories, it's about the fact that no matter ... that we have a black president or biracial president in the White House, there is still a huge segment of our society that is disenfranchised and without hope and needs to have stories told that provide some window of possibility to their lives." Stories about AIDS, homosexuality and even general dysfunction are often deemed taboo and off-limits by the black community. As Tracey Scott Wilson said, "August: Osage County - If Lynn [Nottage] or Katori [Hall] or Marcus [Gardley] or any of us had written a play with a black family that had the level of dysfunction that family had, it would not get a reading."


Commentary:  Why some white playwrights have trouble tackling race

From an interview with African-American actor Jeffrey Wright on

New York magazine's Vulture blog, December 6, 2010

Question: You've expressed some negative sentiments about This is How It Goes, Neil Labute's "race play" in which you starred. Both that and [your current project, John Guare's] A Free Man of Color are plays by white playwrights that deal explicitly with racism, which I think is a subject that a lot of white writers are afraid of tackling in depth.  Do you have a take on that?

Jeffrey Wright: Well ... [Long pause] John was exhaustive in his research of this world, and worked as well in close collaboration with [African-American director] George [C. Wolfe] throughout the process of writing this play. There was a rigorous examination on John's part of the social complexities that thread through this play, that's required for a fully developed and evolved piece to be created.  That's not always the case.  John is also not fearful of the racial sensitivities that his play evokes.  But I don't think that's necessarily true of -- I mean, that's rare among white writers, white directors that I've been involved with, that they're willing to have a vulnerable conversation about race.  I mean, that's a function of the hackles and defensiveness that all too often get in the way of a real clear and productive communication.


Commentary: On race and The Scottsboro Boys

Posted by Tom Matlack on the Good Men Project's website, December 7, 2010

(Matlack helped finance The Scottsboro Boys, "in honor of my parents who travelled to Mississippi in the Freedom Summer of 1964, and to honor the African-American inmates with whom I have spent time in ancient human cages like Sing Sing".)

The Scottsboro Boys, [a new Broadway musical] about nine young men who were falsely accused and sentenced to death for raping two white women in 1931, provides a screen upon which our unresolved racism is uncomfortably projected.  It sticks its finger into the still-open wound that is race in this country, forcing the audience to watch the boys dance and sing in a minstrel format as they struggle to find their true voice.  The show flips the traditional minstrel show on its head, using it to humanize, rather than caricaturize, the participants.  A group in New York calling itself the Freedom Party -- a bastardization of the Freedom Democratic Party, for which my parents risked their lives to help blacks get the right to vote in 1964 -- launched a much-publicized protest against The Scottsboro Boys, picketing the theater and calling upon patrons to boycott. The protests certainly contributed to its demise -- it will close on Sunday.  None of the protestors had seen the play.  It will always be easier to lie when the system reinforces myth.  While the play was being protested outside, the Theater Development Fund bought out two performances for high-school students, most of them black and who had never seen a live theater production. The kids were leaning forward in their seats, cell phones off, fully engaged in the story.  Afterward, there was a Q&A with the actors.  The kids got the play at the deepest level, even when the adults outside did not. They were prepared to ask the tough questions we all too often shy away from.


Commentary: In South Africa, race divisions continue to influence the arts

Posted by Osiame Molefe on the Christian Science Monitor's blog, December 3, 2010

Can a past of racialism ever be overcome?  And if it is possible, how long does it take to for this to happen?  In South Africa's case, it has become clear that it definitely takes longer than 16 years.  Tonight I was at a gallery in Cape Town, and [saw] Anton Kannemeyer's work, Alphabet of Democracy.  [It] immediately forced me into discomfort, especially his "N is for Nightmare" pieces where he made extensive use of blackface.  These pieces depict black people as gun, ax and spear-wielding savages drooling over platters of severed heads of white people.  I was reticent to voice my discomfort until one of my friends asked, "What makes this different from what [the novelist] Annelie Botes said?"  For the uninitiated, Botes made local and international news this week when she said she hates black people because, essentially, she associates blackness with criminality and violence.  The difference, in response to my friend's question, I believe is that one of the two knows what he was doing -- acting as an agent provocateur -- and the other is merely voicing her prejudice.  So what of moving on from this?  How much longer already?  Because there are many South Africans ready to move on while others, like Ms Botes, are ready to emigrate (and others yet, ready to forcefully help the likes of her emigrate).  I believe there to be an inherent time to things like resolving racial conflict, and no amount of sighing and urging will move us forward.  That inherent time can be shortened of course, but only by a willingness to diffuse the conflict by actively having honest, enlightened and frank conversations about what we are really thinking. 

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