Point:Jungle Book adaptor says "racism is in the eye of the beholder"

Catey Sullivan, Chicago Magazine, 5/15/13

Director and playwright Mary Zimmerman has been hard at work adapting [the Disney film version of Rudyard Kipling's] The Jungle Book. She's already shared how she went about creating the new musical, but she also took time to answer how she reconciled some of the story's more controversial aspects. [Here's an excerpt:]

The Jungle Book, and King Louie in particular, has been criticized as playing into racial stereotypes. Was that a concern when adapting the film?
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, it was a concern. But I've decided to make it not a concern. I know what the lyrics say and how squeamish you can get about that. We've done some things with casting that I'm not going to give away, but that I think will remove that element. I know what the lyrics of ["I Wanna Be Like You"] say, but look at the original -- it's sung by Louis Prima. He's the King of the Swingers. It's something I think where the racism is in the eye of the beholder, you know? If you look at that as racist, doesn't that say more about what you're projecting onto the character? There's clearly politics in the [British] accents Disney used, but I don't think we'll be using accents at all. Look, if you wanted to eliminate every masterpiece created by someone who had moronic ideas about status and race, you'd have to empty the museums. You'd have to tear down the Taj Mahal. That was built by slaves you know. People are so layered -- no one is all good or bad. There are parts of them that are better than the other parts. Sometimes I feel like righteous indignation is everybody's favorite emotion these days. Having been in India I realize most of the stuff we know about India is from books written by Westerners. But you go over there and you see that the British occupation was so short in the history of the country. No one is sitting around moping about the Raj. You have to remember the past, but you don't have to live in it.


Counterpoint: The trouble with Mary

Jamil Khoury, Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising, on SRR's website, 6/11/13
For years I have bit my tongue about director Mary Zimmerman. After all, she is much beloved in Chicago theatre and has even been declared a "Genius." I simply went ahead with my business, not wishing to risk the wrath of calling out a local star on her reckless, unexamined Orientalism. Well, not any more. Not after reading the interview she gave Chicago Magazine. An interview so shocking and breathtaking in its insensitivity and apologetics that to remain silent would only erode my conscience. So I am calling Zimmerman out, in the hopes that Chicago theatre makers and theatregoers can begin a conversation. In the interview, to her credit, she acknowledges that "Kipling's politics are pretty terrible and pretty undeniable," [but] Zimmerman then goes on to dismiss concerns about overtly racist lyrics by surmising that "racism is in the eye of the beholder." Wow! Centuries of structural, systemic, genocidal racism erased in a poof! How much unexamined white privilege and American privilege does it take to reach a conclusion like that? But wait, now comes the whammy. "...You go over [to India] and you see that the British occupation was so short in the history of the country. No one is sitting around moping about the Raj. You have to remember the past, but you don't have to live in it." Zimmerman's flippant, aloof dismissal of the brutality and cruelty of the British Raj is as astonishing as it is infuriating. Human injustice of such epic magnitude just shrugged off. Let's see: partition, a nation ripped into three pieces, the forced "transfer" of millions of people, the untold numbers who died, the wholesale destruction of property, the loss of identity and security. But who has time for details? Yes, I know, we will be told that Zimmerman's intent was not to be insensitive. She loves India! She loves Indians! 'Some of her best friends...' But intent and impact are two very different things. The impact of this interview is hurt and anger.


= = =


Commentary: 'Post-migrant theatre' is helping to confront racism in Europe

An excerpt from a keynote speech by Azadeh Sharifi at the 'Europe Now' International Theatre Festival held in Amsterdam, May 2013

I am a researcher working for a project which explores the role of independent theatre in contemporary Europe. My subject is the influence of migration. During the last two years [though,] I realised I no longer work on migration but rather on racism. The artists are racialized and stereotyped by many ascriptions. Talking about intercultural or post-migrant theatre, we also need to talk about racism. One of the main reasons of new storytelling is to overcome the stereotype images of immigrants or people of color in the mainstream society. I decided to give a brief overview on the German history of theatre work of artists with a so-called migration background because I think the German context can offer a good example and I am pretty sure there are a lot of similarities to other European countries.While in the last decades the German theatre was mainly dominated by white artists, there are [now] huge debates on racism in theatre. It is both on the lack of artists of color as well as on the use of racist theatrical devices like blackface. Like the uprising of the youth all around Europe, there is an uprising of artists of color or artists with migration background. They no longer accept the fact that are not represented or misrepresented in the national and state theatres. They are coming together to create new platforms to develop their artistic work and to exchange their experience.


Commentary: Progress on Broadway for black actors, but not Latinos & Asians

Patrick Healy, The New York Times, 6/10/13

When Cicely Tyson was asked to star in The Trip to Bountiful on Broadway this spring, she knew some people might regard it as a marketing ploy. Her role was originally conceived as a white character, after all. But at Sunday's Tony Awards, Ms. Tyson made history with her performance. Not only did she become the oldest person to win a Tony, at the age of 88, but she and another black actress -- Patina Miller in the musical Pippin -- earned Tonys for roles that were not created for black women. Such performances, like Audra McDonald's in the 1994 Broadway revival of Carousel, are very rare. "I've never seen characters as 'black' or 'white,' and I believe people who saw my casting as a gimmick -- well, that's their limitation," Ms. Tyson said. If Sunday's Tonys were a landmark night for black actors, the awards ceremony inevitably pointed up the scant Broadway roles for Hispanic, Asian and other actors who are not white or black. The theater director Tlaloc Rivas, who is Hispanic, was among those on Twitter pointing out the lack of diversity beyond black actors, who have been winning Tonys for decades. "The Tonys will never look like America until Latinos, Asians & others beyond the B/W spectrum are represented as well," Mr. Rivas tweeted.


Related: Some thoughts on race after this year's TCG Conference

Playwright Jacqueline Lawton, TCG Circle blog, 6/11/13

Following the Young Leaders of Color lunch, I headed to the Intergenerational Leaders of Color check-in. I couldn't help but smile as more and more chairs needed to be added. However, I immediately saw the room was not as diverse as it could have been. I saw very few colleagues from Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern or Native American communities. This served as a reminder to me that when we think about how to be more inclusive, we have to think beyond Black and White. There was a strong Latino contingency, but I wanted more. [Later, I attended a session entitled] "Making Change/Making Meaning" by Dr. Manuel Pastor, director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at USC. These were [some of his] major points:

  • With demographic change, there is a shift in how artists meet the needs of a new audience.
  • Demographic shifts are happening in suburbs as African Americans and Latinos are moving into close proximity of one another. The critical role of the arts will be to create programming that targets the fabric of America moving forward.
  • Only 10% of grant money supporting the arts actually benefits under-served communities of color and other disadvantaged groups. This is made even more problematic when the funding [goes] away because, without the funding, the programs are discontinued.
  • When talking about the value of the arts, especially theatre, there is a need to push the conversation beyond that of self-expression to one of community-building and democracy. More than beauty and hope, we have to show that theater is an integral part of civic action, economic growth and the sustainable vitality of a community.
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