Body slams and pile drivers

Criticism

As much as the Minnesota Theater Community claims to be energetic and risk-taking, it is lying to itself: confusing cute and fuzzy feelings for bold, imaginative, and risky. Maybe the work is risk-taking and energetic to a bunch of scrappy white suburbanites and yuppies, but the fact is that for me, an African-American male, walking down the streets is risk-taking. So when I spend a certain amount of money to sit down in the dark for an hour, hour-and-a-half, two hours-sometimes even three, I want my soul to be moved. I want to be rocked. I want a powerful message wrapped up in a powerful story, unleashed on the stage for me to witness.

I think one of the major problems with Minnesota theater is the fact that so much of it is incredibly Minnesotan—as in white as snow, vanilla, dizzyingly flat and cold, pointless and trivial, bleached and freeze dried of any heat, any passion, and any spiritual fire that could possibly wake up somebody’s soul.

When I first moved to Minneapolis, my favorite play, Marisol by Jose Rivera, was being produced by Theatre Pro Rata. They butchered Spanish pronunciations, using stereotypes of Latino accents that they might have picked up from cartoons. They disregarded the fact that the script is racially specific: instead of getting an African-American woman to play the role of the Angel, they dressed a little white girl in a costume from the S/M section of Sex World. I could go on. I went to The Happy Show, in which the most theatrical moment was letting loose a dog into the crowd to be pet, then reading children's stories like their audience were five year olds. Needless to say I was not happy as I left the theater. I watched Pangea World Theatre’s Ady, and somehow, a play that contained so much potent sensuality and heat in the beautiful, sensual, moving words of the script, lacked that same complex sensual fire in the production.

I have also seen some good theater in Minneapolis/ St. Paul. There have been a number of eye-opening productions that should be recognized: Jungle Theatre’s Seafarer, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; The Scottsboro Boys at the Guthrie, Workhaus Collective’s Music Lovers, Mixed Blood’s Ruined, and No Child. . . at Pillsbury House Theatre. All these plays shared heat and passion and spiritual fire that fueled the work on stage. And, in a state where it’s winter the majority of the year, I would hope that every theater experience would want to bring a little heat to the audiences’ collective soul.

But still, the Bad has certainly out numbered the Good.

Get up. Stand up

Theater should be a spiritual experience. It should drive me to action or, at least, leave an interesting thought imbedded in my subconscious. I think that perhaps our generation has forgotten that theater once upon a time was a religious experience, that it drove people into frenzies, that it caused riots in streets. In some countries, theater is the primary means to stir change and revolution; oftentimes the first to be exiled or assassinated would be the theater artists. The playwright Vaclav Havel led a "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia not with a gun in his hand but with his pen and the stage. Look to Nigeria where artists such as Wole Soyinka had their plays outlawed; he had a death sentence placed upon him by the government—authorities were instructed to "shoot on sight"—because his plays spoke so radically against the regime that they feared that he was capable of leading an uprising. Take a look at Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed. The man was kidnapped, beaten, tortured, and then exiled from Brazil for doing theater that actually spoke to the community— for doing theater that actually stood for something.

"The purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
pressure." –Hamlet, Act 3, scene 2

I feel like in America, and in Minnesota in general, we’ve forgotten that in some places artists die for this same thing we do called theater because it can do what no preacher, politician, or revolutionary can do—enter the soul of people and make them see themselves. Where’s the theater with fire under it?

Body Slam Theater

One of those few moments was Mixed Blood’s Production of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, by Kristoffer Diaz. (Kristoffer Diaz is a co-founding member of an emerging playwrights of color collective called the Unit Collective that I helped start, and he is a close friend. However, good theater should be recognized regardless.) Chad Deity is what excites me. At first glance, it’s about professional wrestling. About men in spandex, and pile-drivers, but I dare you to look deeper.

Directed by Thomas W. Jones II, the production had remarkable performances from the entire cast, utilized video and direct address to the audience, loads of flash and excitement. However, what excited me most about Chad Deity is that it was theater with a message. It was smart fiery critique of how American entertainment (read also: theater) treats and misuses artists of color for their own selfish means. It was beautifully hidden between the lines of what some people might only view as a play about professional wrestling.

What comes across from this play is so much previously unspoken anger at being repressed as a artist of color. Unless the Powers That Be decided to give you an opportunity, regardless of your talent—unless a white Artistic Director embraces you as the Next This or The Next That, then you’re ignored and marginalized as an artist.

This was Kristoffer Diaz striking back, saying wake up and pay attention to our voices, 'cause we’re here too. This play was dangerous. It was filled with both love and hate, humor and frustration, at how the machinations of American entertainment culture works. And what was best about it was that it was a beautiful, covert attack calling for a revolution in this industry, American Theater. It pushed me, and it pushed the audience, and that’s what I love about it.

I loved that it brought passion and fire to an otherwise snow white theater town. This play, most of all, proved to me that Minnesota theater isn’t entirely flavorless.

Comments

A Letter To Reggie

Dear Reggie,

I'm writing you a letter because this should be a one-on-one discussion and nothing else matters. I congratulate you on your article, IT WAS thought provoking (at 8:30 am by the way) and daring. I agree with many of the things you say in your article. I agree with the fact that some theaters in town DON'T do good quality shows and that they use the easy way out by doing the classics to please the majority audience members. I agree that in most times theaters will misinterpret color blind casting and continue excluding the asians, african americans, natives, and latino actors. I speak frankly because I have experienced this may times, and at this point is when I work harder to convince the director otherwise. Again, I say this because I've done it and just experience this not so long ago. I thought your article made sense and you have good point but what wasn't so helpful was using so many critical words to pin point a race for blame. You are a very passionate person Reggie, and it definitely comes across in your article I applaud you for your directness but many people will not be able to look past the "white as snow, vanilla, dizzyingly flat and cold, pointless and trivial, bleached and freeze dried of any heat" line (As you can see in some of these comments). They will miss the whole point in your article but only read into these critical adjectives. I don't agree that ALL white as snow, vanilla people don't have passion I am married to one of those people. He is the reason that I have re-found my passion for politics and religion. But that's not the point the point is that when speaking out of passion not all is to blame. But in saying that your right that there is a lack of adventure in this community. What you are doing with EWOC is the right path. I saw your Fringe Show and I enjoyed some of it. I didn't think that is was used for it's benefit. I didn't walk out wanting to riot or yell out "I'm Latina, here me roar" but I think your on the right path. I would love to get a chance to meet up for coffee and discuss this issues where we throw napkins in the air maybe get into a heated argument and say "moving to NYC is this better and will feel at least more appreciated" or say "Let's stick it out and shake the rafters" but whatever it is I'd love to talk.

Love Nora Montanez (why can't I figure out how to use the tilde in my name it's so annoying)

Read the article again please

I'm not going to apologize for what I said.

I meant every word of it. The theatre that is being done in this town is safe, and more often than not lacks fire. It's not a comment on race. I could have gone on this article and said that American Theatre is inherently as racist as this country itself, that it rests upon false sense of traditionalism, fear, and even an automatic reflex that can clearly be seen as conscious racism. But that's not the argument that I was making. I'll save that for another article.

I'm not scared of burning bridges, cause fact of the matter is that before I came along many of you were probably happy in your own little complacency, and bliss in your silent artistic segregation. If you deem me saying that the work I see feels "white as snow, vanilla, dizzyingly flat and cold, pointless and trivial, bleached and freeze dried of any heat, any passion, and any spiritual fire that could possibly wake up somebody’s soul." as a racist comment, perhaps you need to look at your self and question your own racial heritage and your self esteem about it. Instead of pointing at the person who comes from 400 some odd years of oppression as the racist.

I am simply saying that in this community and in theatre communities all across this nation, a true change needs to come about. That the theatre work, we do in an era of the Tea Party and reality television, needs to have an urgency to it. It needs to take a stand and it can do that through comedy or a well played drama, but we as theatre artists in this country are the last line of defense against elements that want us to be quiet and grow fat, and be mindless machines that follow and ask no questions and conform to the masses.

From the numerous attacks that I've received maybe that's the way some of you want people in this world to be, and maybe I'm correct in saying that the art you do is voiceless. Or perhaps the fact that I am an artist of color and I'm the person that voiced these truths the reason that it disturbs you.

So let me clarify for those who seem to simply have skimmed the article and didn't read:
----------------
At no point in time did I say "Risk taking is only present in theater pieces about race."

*Wrong!!! Maybe you didn't notice but I mention numerous works that had absolutely nothing to do with race. Jungle Theatre’s 'Seafarer', and 'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf'; Workhaus Collective's 'Music Lovers', have absolutely nothing to do about race. It was theatre that did something daring and was powerful.
---------------
Someone else made the statement,"Have you considered that perhaps part of the problem is the limited pool of racially diverse actors that small theatres have to work with in a place like Minnesota?"

* That is a racist statement in and of itself. In the first month that I moved to the state of Minnesota, I along with nine other emerging playwrights of color ranging from Black, Hmong, Latino, and everything in between established an organization called the Unit Collective. The amount of racially diverse actors, directors, and playwrights that we've made lasting relationships with is immense. If me and a few others who are relatively new to the Minneapolis theatre scene can find, cultivate, build lasting relationships with ethnically diverse talent, I have to question have you actually ever tried.
Guess what?!! Actors and audiences of color aren't going to come through your theatre door if they don't feel like they are welcome in the first place. We aren't stupid, we're not going to go somewhere that we aren't wanted at in the first place.
--------------

Now that these issues have been addressed I ask that you please feel free to read the article again, remove your prejudice, calm down, and look at what I'm trying to relay to you, and that is simply we as theatre artists are the last guards to securing us from a life of conformity and meaninglessness, we come from a wealthy background that carries with it a depth of skillsets: We are storytellers, we are preachers, we are politicians, we are even prophets and we need to recognize that fact and put more fire, more passion, and more soul in our theatre and take a stand for something, cause if we are the ones that are silent then no one else will stand.

Reginald Edmund
http://www.reginaldedmund.com
Playwrights' Center '09-'10, '10-'11 Many Voices Fellow
Co-Founder of the Unit Collective

Thanks

For the original article, the discussion and your response.

more discussion here

If folks are not already cross-pollinated on this discussion, there's more fodder at this link.

http://callboard.org/cgi-bin/yabb2/YaBB.pl?num=1285593423

I'm glad we have the opportunity to discuss these topics on MN Playlist and in our community. Thanks to Reginald for getting the discussion started and to the community for keeping it churning along.

I think we all share the desire to produce great things, and conversations like this should push us to continue to be better at reaching every person that comes in the door, knowing ahead of time that you probably won't. Be bold, be aggressive, risk to fail and risk again.

Thanks, Brian

Eloquently put - and Yeah. This is TOTALLY a great opportunity.

Cheers,
Be

Just a Thought

Before a 'reverse racism' discussion gets to heated up and going. I just want to throw out the idea that Racism is not just a social -ism, it's a systemic one. So, technically speaking, someone whose on the bottom end of a lop-sided power structure cannot be racist. There are other words you may choose to criticize Re: Reggie's 'whiteness' comments. But black people, for example, can't be racist. You could perhaps use the word 'prejudice,' perhaps. A friend of mine commented on the article saying that it's not so much the 'whiteness,' being an issue, but rather - or I'd say additionally - that timidity plays a role in the non-passionate theater we see. PERHAPS.

Though Reggie's use of the word 'white' as a not-so-good descriptor for the theater he sees, I need to remind myself that he was speaking from HIMSELF, from HIS passion as a black man - and after all, how can I argue with him Re: those points? I'm a pale white guy who can walk down any street he damn pleases without issue or prejudice.

-Ben McGinley

Thank you, Ben.

I was just coming here to say something similar. There are several conversations underway about this article. In at least 2, here and on the Callboard, people are throwing out the idea that Reggie's assertions are racist. They are incendiary, sure. But the fact that the majority of the people making those assertions are of the dominant class, dominant color and dominant gender in the state of Minnesota and certainly of the theater community in the Twin Cities is telling. Noone likes their position to be questioned.

I'd also like to point out, that Reggie applauds many fine productions that took place this past year. And not all of them had to do with race. One example: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was a fabulous production of a tough piece of theater where every actor on the stage and the director were white. Reggie doesn't say that 'in spite of' that fact it was good theater. He simply lumps it in with all the other good theater that he saw.

The other notion which seems to be mucking up this conversation is that theater doesn't need to start a revolution, sometimes it can just entertain. To me these are completely different questions. No one ever said that entertaining theater shouldn't be passionate and powerful. Tepid theater is tepid, regardless of style. I will fall back on my favorite David Mamet quote: “Acting is not a genteel profession. Actors used to be buried at a crossroads with a stake though the heart. Those people’s performances so troubled the onlookers that they feared their ghosts.” Actors. Not 'dramatic actors'. Not 'comedic actors'. Not 'musical theater actors'. Just actors. We should move the audience, or at least strive to with all our might. Reggie may want theater to start a revolution in the streets, I don't know, but a passionately performed production of Oklahoma can begin a revolution of the mind, can birth an artist out of a skeptics soul and can cause the voiceless to sing. At least I believe it could. I've never seen that production of Oklahoma, but I'd like to.

Yours in Theater,
Heidi Berg

To clarify

I don't think I was accusing you or anyone of beginning a reverse-racism discussion - I just see there being great opportunity re: your use of Racism vs. Racism. That being said, your point is fair. And I don't think that ANYBODY's comfortable with any of these issues. Including Reggie, perhaps.

I honestly think - and Reggie can correct me if I'm wrong - that he's got a lot of passion about what kind of theater he wants to see produced - and he IS (some times better than others) speaking in 'I' statements from the perspective of a black man in a very white community. Does that make his throwing of the word 'whiteness' around like it's a negative thing okay? Not necessarily, no. But I do like to give him the benny of the doubt - and to try and see it from his perspective before being so sharply reactionary (and by saying that, I don't mean to imply that you, KLROGNESS, are necessarily).

Tell me that that wouldn't be a bit intense? NOT seeing enough of yourself reflected in lots of the work that produced around you? Might that stir up some passion in you? Don't we see theatre to see ourselves reflected?

I will say, additionally, just to fairly point out that he commended the Jungle's VIRGINIA WOLF and Workhaus' MUSIC LOVERS - two plays which mostly white - minus Randy Reyes - but even in Randy's case, there was little mention or time spent on his Filipino decent.

For whatever it's worth,
- Ben

Well Said.

That's all.

Let's Embrace it for what it is

Sweet - let's meet the challenge or bury our heads in the snow.

I didn't see all of the shows he called out, so I won't support or refute his view on them, But I can say that "Risk" definitely means different things to different artists.

So, instead of feeling any need to be defensive, I will take it as a gauntlet thrown. As a producer of small theater in Minnesota, I go on record saying "let us be bold." I am always willing to fail spectacularly in the face of risk.

Pulse Please

I wholeheartedly am there with you. If I am going to pay and sit in a dark theater for a few hours, I expect artists with some balls/ovaries to rock my world, make me feel something. I want a show that feel like more than a yawny intellectual reach-around.

I just had a conversation with Charles Campbell about this - not about reach arounds - but about how there is so much more room for new work to be produced from that fire-y, inarticulate NEED to perform/write/dance something.

Do you see much dance in the TC?

Did you SEE Mad King Thomas' and Judith Howard's show this past summer? Or TU Dance?

Cheers,
Ben McGinley

...and if I am going to pay

...and if I am going to pay to sit in a dark theatre for a few hours, I expect to be ENTERTAINED. If I feel anything, I want it to be enjoyment. I don't need my world rocked. It's rocked enough BEFORE I enter the theatre. I want an ESCAPE, not more of the same.

I do not begrudge those who want their world to be rocked. I do, however, begrudge those who begrudge others feeling differently.

I believe that theatre is what you WANT it to be...and your mileage may vary. That's okay--as long as you don't tell me that MY mileage is not valid.

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