Tag Archives: plays

Much Ado About Race, Class, Gender, and Cuba [Culturelicious]

Borachio and Margaret

On Sunday, I walked into the Shakespeare Theatre to join a bunch of academics in a three part discussion about the currently playing update of Much Ado About Nothing. I tweeted about the event that morning, and while we were in the green room, I received a link from Tony Adams of the Halcyon Theatre in Chicago pointing me towards an amazing analysis of race, stereotypes, and using culture as window dressing by Marisela Treviño Orta.

I read it eagerly, especially as it spoke to some of the questions I had viewing the play. But, there was a conundrum – I was called to specifically discuss modern gender portrayals in conversation with a gender scholar specializing in the Renaissance era. Added to that, most of what I know about Cuba I learned from Yoani Sanchez and The Lost City – which really amounts to a few glimpses and a bunch of knowledge gaps.

So we went ahead with the discussion as planned. For my part, I discussed with Holly Dugan how Claudio is essentially the crackerjack prize for Hero when compared to the other men in the play. We also framed the conversation around the death of intellectual equals in pop culture – how the banter and game of match wits that was so popular in classic films is remembered fondly but has mostly vanished. It didn’t seem as if the crowd was really into modern culture – a lot of folks came up to me afterward saying they had never seen Mad Men, much less anything else I brought up, so who knows that they actually got out of what I was saying. Makes me feel like it’s time to dust off that copy of Nobrow and do a serious write about the imagined boundaries between “high” and “low” culture. But I digress.

Towards the end of the segment, I decided to bring up Orta’s piece, noting that “setting a work on a plantation is a very loaded act,” added a couple of questions I had, and toss it to the next panel who dealt with the portrayal of Cuba and Cuban history directly.

But I couldn’t bring up all of Orta’s analysis right then, so some things (like the reason she wrote the piece in the first place) so it wasn’t addressed – some of the choices that pulled the play from homage to problematic. Orta explains:

There’s a character in Much Ado with the name Jose Frijoles. What the what?!

This required further investigation. I went to the theatre’s website to look at the “Artists Involved” (that’s where you’ll find the names of the actors and the characters they play).

Guess what, there’s also a character named Juan Arroz.

Isn’t that awesome [sarcasm], there are two characters named Rice and Beans. [...]

The choice to rename two characters Arroz and Frijoles in my mind is a flippant one. Or how ‘bout this: a gimmicky one. [...]

[W]hen I come across characters named Arroz and Frijoles I am little irked. It feels like the play is going for the easy laugh, it feels like very little real thought was put into naming these characters, like it doesn’t really respect the culture it is supposedly trying to reach or celebrate with its Latino production.

Oh, but it’s a joke. Don’t you get it? They’re the clowns, so they have clownish names. (Rib jab, rib jab).

Well, guess what. I’m not laughing. And I’m not the only one.

Orta then goes into a detailed explanation of why the naming was so off, particularly considering the dominant culture of the people attending the play and some conversation around the flippant naming in light of director Ethan Sweeny’s heavy reliance on the sexy, macho, and the exotic stereotypes to evoke certain reactions in the audience. But most damning, she writes, is “that the culture and setting, while well-researched, is nothing more than a well-designed prop, an adornment.” Continue reading

On Racism, Theater, and Trouble In Mind [Culturelicious]

Trouble in Mind

I’ve been to a great many plays on race. Some, like August Wilson’s Jitney, manage to survive through the ages and provide a stunningly timeless view on the problems of the colorline.

Others, like David Mamet’s Race or Neil Labute’s This Is How It Goes, make me realize how much of an abstract concept racism’s pervasiveness can be for white people. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream art world is controlled by white people, and therefore what is considered worthy of production is shaped by white perceptions.

Trouble in Mind has been resurrected, but there are always complications. Over at the Arena Stage website, Irene Lewis speaks to the cause of the persistent racial gap in evaluation of material:

For years, the play Trouble in Mind, by African-American playwright Alice Childress, was recommended to me as a show that, as artistic director of CENTERSTAGE, I should produce. I had read the play several times over the years and found it to be “old-fashioned/old hat,” especially concerning the depiction of the character of the white director. Finally, I decided to ask the opinion of an African-American actress whose judgment I have always valued. She read the play and told me that she liked it. When I asked if she found the role of the white director dated and unbelievable, she said, “No.” So I came around to the opinion that this was another case of – what should I call it – whites (me) being “out of touch” with the experiences of African-Americans. I decided to produce and direct the play at CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore. It subsequently transferred to Yale Repertory Theater. I am delighted that Molly is bringing this groundbreaking piece to Arena Stage.

“Out of touch” is the last term I would use to describe Childress’ noted work, considering it was originally performed in 1955. Considering the play was created more than five decades ago, it should not be so fresh and contemporary. And yet, we live in an era in which a white woman’s tale about a white woman and the black maids she liberated swept the bestseller’s list and the box office – clearly, things haven’t changed that much. So why the disconnect between black and white theater aficionados? As Childress herself has stated:

“There aren’t any black critics who can close a white play. But in black theater, black experience has been fought against by white critics. The white critic feels no obligation to prepare himself to judge a black play.”

And so, here we are. Continue reading

Review: Broken Arrow: Native Men’s Writing, Art and Culture

By Guest Contributor Jorge Antonio Vallejos, cross-posted from Black Coffee Poet

There’s a new zine out that’s kick ass: “Broken Arrow”.  Its fifty-two pages are comprised of poems, plays, short stories, photos, and artwork; all of which bring the reader to the many different lives of its twenty-eight contributors.

For the last year, Toronto writer Emily Pohl-Weary has given a weekly workshop to the men at the Sagatay Native Mens Residence in Toronto’s west-end with the final result being “Broken Arrow”.

In her introduction to “Broken Arrow” Weary writes, “Working with the writers at Sagatay for the past year has been the highlight of my life.  Each Thursday, my mind came alive with new ideas and stories.  I could be having the most difficult, busy week, but after spending a morning with them, suddenly life felt manageable again.  I only needed to take time to slow down and appreciate the power of sharing our stories.”

Everyone has a story but not everyone is willing to share his or her story.  The men at Sagatay don’t hold back.  Honesty, bravery, and humility are displayed throughout the pages of “Broken Arrow”.  Whether writing of street life, different forms of abuse, loves lost, and the ever present colonization of Turtle Island now known as Canada, these men shoot arrows at their targets with perfect aim.

Continue reading