And the winner is…
Congratulations are in order for Carson Kreitzer! The Minneapolis-based playwright just pulled down a sweet pile of cash by winning a Guggenheim Fellowship. Kreitzer plans on using the $55,000 from the fellowship to complete a musical she is currently working on, a project for which she also received a Jonathan Larson Grant last year. Given how lucrative this uncompleted project appears to be, I would be tempted to keep working on it indefinitely, just to see how many more grants it can rack up. It seems like a pretty good scheme; but I suppose, being a legitimate playwright and all, she should probably go ahead and finish it.
In other major prize news, the 2017 Pulitzer Prizes were announced (just in time for Bob Dylan to finally get around to picking up his 2016 prize), and playwright Lynn Nottage took home the Drama prize for Sweat. Besides the fact that Sweat turned out to be a remarkably prescient look at what created the current ugliness of Trump's America, it also marks a historical moment, as Nottage is the first female playwright to win a second Pulitzer Prize.
Critics of critics
In other Pulitzer news, New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als won the Pulitzer for Criticsm, a win that many have considered overdue (though he was a 2016 finalist). Als specializes in not only writing eloquent and profound reviews of theater, but also in placing plays in their full socio-political context. (For example, read his examination of the works of fellow Pulitzer winners Lynn Nottage and Suzan Lori Parks and they fit into the Black Lives Matter movement.)
I would be remiss to point out that Hilton Als happens to be a writer of color working in the world of theater criticism, which is a really white world. We're talking "polar bears walking through a blizzard in January to shop at Pottery Barn" levels of whiteness here. Being a full-time, professional theater critic is a tough gig for any writer to land, considering how few job openings there are in the field; and, as we discovered with the New York Times' hiring of Jesse Green as its new theater critic despite not actually having applied for it, it's a really tough gig for a writer of color to land. So, the fact that we see a black man at the top of that field today should be celebrated.
To be fair, from all accounts, Green will probably be good at his job at the Times; but at a major moment when there is a need to diversify the pool of sanctioned critics in our culture, the NYT just couldn't see themselves making that leap. That's a shame; and I say that not out of some squishy sense of liberal guilt, but out of hard-nosed pragmatism. A functioning arts ecosystem (or, hell, a functioning democracy) needs a diverse array of viewpoints inside it, or it develops seriously myopic vision that can lead it stumbling into deadly irrelevance.
Or, to put it into RPG terms:
Dude, you're building your party with nothing but Knights and Paladins! Do you think you can just tank your way through every battle?! Get a Rogue! Get a Mage! Get a goddamn Healer! Those liches are gonna DPS the shit out of you if you don't balance your party stats! What do you mean "But I don't know any Healers"?!
Don't respect this authority
Speaking of liches wanting to DPS the shit out of you, we've talked plenty recently about conservatives gunning for the arts. Just last week I was terrifying you with dystopic future visions of an authoritarian police state where jackbooted thugs crack down on artists for defying them (a grim future otherwise known as Belarus right now).
There's a reason why authoritarians go after artists, and, in an attempt to balance out the shade that I threw at the New York Times in the last section, I will let an opinion piece in their pages explain why:
"We need the arts because they make us full human beings. But we also need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism. In saving the arts, we save ourselves from a society where creative production is permissible only insofar as it serves the instruments of power. When the canary in the coal mine goes silent, we should be very afraid — not only because its song was so beautiful, but also because it was the only sign that we still had a chance to see daylight again."
That might sound a little over the top, but, come on, politics is all about spectacle, right? However, if I have made you worried that Trump's proposal to kill the NEA is some sort of harbinger for the end of modern liberal democracy and the beginning of The Hunger Games (or, god forbid, The Maze Runner), then at least you here in Minnesota can take comfort in the fact that 7 of our 10 congress members have signed on to protect the NEA and, in fact, increase its funding.
And, *gasp*, one of them is actually a Republican! There is still some daylight yet!
Fear of a black and white planet
But, now, let us unfortunately turn our attention to the other major thing that will squash the arts. No, not liches; fear. (Though, fear of liches may be perfectly valid, depending on which campaign you're playing.) In this case, it's fear from people who are otherwise sympathetic to the cause of the arts.
Two weeks ago on News and Notes we talked about the cancellation of a play at New Prague High School over an incredibly out-of-context image of student actors in Klan robes. This week, we get to watch another play be cancelled over a single out-of-context word: "mulatto".
Local performer and playwright Duck Washington had some success last year with his original show Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales. (Broadway World Minneapolis even named him "Best Actor" for it.) Washington was all set to have another remount produced by Chameleon Theatre Circle this year at their normal home base at the Ames Center in Burnsville. Unfortunately, the Ames Center rejected the play because of that evil word "mulatto".
Generally regarded in the US as an outdated racial term with some negative connotations (it comes out of the old Spanish/Portuguese colonial system of racial castes, where other fun terms like "mestizo" and "cholo" were also born), it's a word you don't expect to see much these days, outside of some scraps of antebellum literature or maybe a Tom Waits song. (Wait… I just did a search. Nope, not even in a Tom Waits song.) I can understand why Ames might be put off by the word, since, at first blush, it might seem like they would be hanging a racial slur out on their marquee. They probably saw that word and envisioned horrifying images of protestors with signs and chants and extremely angry letters to editors. That's the fear I'm talking about: the "What will the neighbors think?!" kind.
However, if you remember from two weeks ago in New Prague, context is everything. In fact, Washington explained that context in an open letter:
"The show does not ignore the word's derogatory origins and in fact addresses them in the first few minutes of the show. In a large way discussing those origins is a lot of what the show is about. As a person who is both black and white it is a word I still hear even if it isn't quite as present in the modern vernacular. I put a lot of thought behind this word when writing this show. Could I have changed it "Mixed Race Tales"? Possibly, but it is a show specifically about my experiences of being both black and white. I felt like saying "Mixed Race Tales' included a much larger subset of people whose experiences may or may not have represented my own…"
I'm not here to argue whether or not this is censorship. Frankly, I'm having a hard time saying anything more intelligent than, "boy, this is dumb". Instead of a humorous, heartfelt exploration of the complications of being biracial in America, we're getting "Ew! Naughty word!" like we're a bunch of five-year-olds and not a collection of generally functioning adults.
(Note to self: drop idea of producing An Octoroon in Burnsville.)
In the meantime, Chameleon Theatre Circle will be ending its longstanding arrangement with the Ames Center (though the folks running Ames swear it was really more to do with scheduling conflicts, honestly!). Arts writer Howard Sherman has also picked up the controversy to write about at Arts Integrity, which means that people across the nation will now be clucking their tongues at Burnsville, which is what I suspect they were meekly trying to avoid all along.
Good job, guys.
The only thing we have to fear…
…is not clowns. Seriously, guys, this whole "fear of clowns" thing needs to stop.
Editor's note: Blogger and reviewer Hailey Colwell recently chatted with Duck Washington at the recent Artist as Citizen event. She'll be continuing in depth coverage of this story.