Following a tense split with its longtime Burnsville space, The Chameleon Theater Circle announced a new season today, which includes a show its previous venue disputed based on its title.
Derek “Duck” Washington’s Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales is one of five shows Chameleon will present in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Bloomington throughout the next year. It will also host a new play festival.
Known for bringing theater that might not normally be seen in the suburbs to the suburbs, the company will perform Pandas next June at the Bloomington Center for the Arts, promising a new suburban audience for a show that previously played in Minneapolis.
Now in its 20th season, the theater company produced from Burnsville’s Ames Center for nearly a decade. After numerous disagreements with the city-owned center about producing enough shows that meet ticket sale goals, the company is parting ways with the space. The split was partly brought on when Chameleon planned to present Pandas in its 2017 season and center management asked them to change the title, saying the the word “mulatto” was offensive.
Playwright and performer Washington said he wrote the play to talk about his experiences growing up as someone who is half black and half white. Not wanting to use the broad term “mixed-race” and keep the title specific to his experiences, he refused to change it, and Chameleon stood by his decision. The ensuring split attracted local and national media attention and a debate in the theater community about race, censorship and the role of government-led organizations in setting artistic seasons.
The word “mulatto” has derogatory origins, Washington said, but still exists in everyday language. The play addresses that, he said, and not having the opportunity to present it in Burnsville due to the center’s position on the title was a loss for the community more than anything.
“The whole idea behind Pandas is bringing people together in a non-threatening way and getting them to experience a story about race that’s much more positive and inclusive,” he said in an interview in April. “There was definitely an offer on the table to have dialogue about it and that opportunity was not taken advantage of.”
He said he did not have a chance to discuss the play directly with center staff.
Brian Luther, the Ames Center’s executive director, said the center had no intention to censor the show; the decision just came down to the word in the title.
“I definitely understand the playwright and Chameleon’s disappointment with the decision that was made, but it ultimately is a public entity,” he said. “It can be challenging balancing the rights of artistic license with the rights of the residents of the community [who] do not want to be subject to language on the marquee … and a word such as the word ‘mulatto,’ which we all know is a derogatory term.”
Luther said the center and Chameleon had an agreement that more than half of its shows had to have a promising sales outlook, but historically, the theater did not match the center’s requirements. He said the black box space will now primarily be used for dance competitions.
The theater’s decision to leave the space left its leaders unsure of its future for a shaky few weeks. Executive Producer Andrew Troth said in an interview last month that he hoped the theater could continue to serve its “south of the river” audience, where opportunities to see new and less traditional theater are fewer than in the cities — but Pandas had great potential in Burnsville that was lost.
“It shares a perspective that we thought a lot of people in Burnsville or willing to come to Burnsville would not have that direct experience with already. It’s a show that offers a needed conversation and needed insights into our country these days,” he said. “Chameleon has always wanted to present those kinds of shows; shows that get people talking; shows that are more than just entertainment.”
Information on Chameleon’s 20th season shows and venues is as follows:
Independence by Lee Blessing
October 27 – November 12, 2017 at the Bloomington Center for the Arts
Chess by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, and Tim Rice
First produced by Chameleon in 2000 as part of Season 2
December 1 - 17, 2017 at Gremlin Theatre
Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin
First produced by Chameleon in 2002 as part of Season 4
February 9 – 25, 2018 at Gremlin Theatre
Little Shop of Horrors by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
First produced by Chameleon in 2001 as part of Season 4
April 13 – 29, 2018 at the Sabes Jewish Community Center
Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales by Duck Washington (produced in association with Fearless Comedy Productions)
Directed by Jena Young
June 8 - 24, 2018 at the Bloomington Center for the Arts
In addition to these five productions, Chameleon’s 18th Annual New Play Festival will take place in the fall (date and location to be determined).