Wanna own a piece of history?
Last year, I toured a show I helped make to Winona, MN, where I got perform in this incredible old Masonic temple, and I learned that the place was home to a historic collection of hand-painted theatrical backdrops from the early 1900s. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see them, because the auditorium needed repairs and the original rigging system was in such bad shape that the drops had to be taken down. I was told that they were beautiful. I may never know now.
Fortunately for the building, there is now a renovation plan underway. Unfortunately for the drops, the limited money available for renovation means that only 10 of the 98 drops can be reinstalled. The rest will wind up homeless. Are you willing to commit the insane amount of work, care and expense required to restore a collection of old Masonic drops? Maybe some people in Winona would like to talk to you.
Sometimes I feel sorry for the Ordway. Sometimes. I sure didn't back in 2013 when that organization hosted a production of Miss Saigon and barreled their way through the inevitable protests against the musical with all the awareness, grace and panache of a disoriented rhinoceros on thorazine (or, like the current presidential administration). I really didn't feel sorry for them two years later when they finally got around to apologizing for the mess they caused (decidedly unlike the current presidential administration).
But I like to hold out hope that maybe, just maybe, organizations that face the sting of public condemnation can put aside their pride and enter into some introspection about where exactly it was they went wrong, and, through new insights, begin the uncomfortable, but necessary process of updating their beliefs and changing their ways for the better. Even if they don't really want to change, the uproar and public humiliation around certain events can force their hands. (Ain't that right, United Airlines?) However, the cynical part of me also recognizes that, for all their burning, bursting, boastful passion, Americans have pretty short attention spans. Large, entrenched organizations have the benefit of their largeness and entrenchment to help them outlast outrage and keep on keepin' on in the same old fashion when the hubbub dies down. (Ain't that right, United Airlines?)
So, I was pretty impressed last year when The Ordway announced their season for this year, which included much more diversity in its programming than I can remember seeing from them in the past. In the middle of that was a major musical with a few possible pitfalls of its own: West Side Story. For decades, in countless productions and the 1961 movie, this classic show featuring Puerto Rican characters was put up with nary a Latino performer in sight (unless Natalie Wood was originally named "Natalia Madera", and I just missed that). However, the Ordway announced that they would be partnering with the local Latino theater company Teatro del Pueblo to help ensure that they would do at least a little better than dousing white people in black hair dye and bronzer. It was as if they were consciously trying to atone for their past. Not that they could actually say that. But, hey, it seemed like it was working for them.
Then the Star Tribune ran an article called "To stage 'West Side Story' Ordway Center decided to grow local Latino talents", and some of the shine seemed to come off. I considered including this article in last week's News and Notes, but it read so much like a standard puff piece, I decided not to bother. After last week's edition went to publication, though, I started seeing that Strib article popping up in a lot of places. While the production was racking up critical acclaim in the press, out in Facebookland, that article was being shared around communities of color, and it didn't make very many people happy. There were an awful lot of comments that included the phrase "white man's burden".
The Alliance of Latinx MN Artists stepped up to be the first ones to put out some official rebuttal. In an open letter, they challenged the Strib article's contention that there aren't many Latino performers in town that can do musical theater:
"We are professional artists. We are not in need of charity, workshops or instructions on the fundamentals, but rather regular and consistent opportunities. It is a fact that our presence on stage is not as visible as in other major theater towns, though not due to the lack of talent or unwillingness, but because opportunities to play roles are infrequent and inconsistent."
Lucky thing for The Ordway that almost all the reviews were already in before this open letter went out, because it seems to have shifted at least a few people's views of the show. Writing at The Room Where it Happens, blogger Gina Musto gave up trying to do a thoughtful review and instead reprinted the open letter from ALMA.
In the interest of fairness, though, I must say that not everyone is piling on The Ordway this time, and, in fact, some people of color are defending the organization. ALMA added the hashtag #rulistening to their letter, and Teatro del Pueblo responded on Facebook:
"To our Community of Actors: Thanks for speaking up. We are listening. Yes, let's continue this conversation during the next few weeks. Much love to all. #RUlooking #rulistening #YesWeAre"
Maybe this doesn't need to descend into recrimination after recrimination. Maybe this "conversation" that everyone talks about having is actually happening in earnest for once. Maybe that Strib article was just worded really poorly and everyone actually is trying to do their best.
Don't worry everyone. Whether it's just misunderstanding, bad writing or systemic problems of race and representation, the Guthrie is going to try to tackle all of this all over again when they do their version of West Side Story next year. What fun!
In the more immediate future, The Ordway will be putting up Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights later this year, so I hope they've figured out where to find all those Latino performers. It doesn't go so well when you don't.
Speaking of Miss Saigon
*sigh* Do I have to talk about Miss Saigon again?
If you're all still in a crusading mood after that last section, you should know that Miss Saigon is back in America and ready for your protests. The Broadway production is up and running, and when that closes in January 2018, a big ol' North American tour is coming to over 50 cities. Will it be coming back to Minnesota, despite everything that happened last time? According to an announcement from the theater where the tour will start in fall 2018, the answer is "yes". I would like to think that maybe they might reconsider, since the show has been protested every single time it has come to town, but, boy, Cameron Mackintosh sure likes money.
So, prepare yourselves. To get started, here is American Theatre Magazine Associate Editor Diep Tran explaining exactly why Miss Saigon is not a proper representation of Vietnamese people.
What would you do if you weren't afraid?
Last week on News and Notes, we saw a play get rejected because someone was afraid that a single word in the title would offend. Two weeks before that, we saw a play get canceled right before opening because someone was afraid that some costumes would offend. This week, we get to see a play canceled in the middle of its opening performance because someone was offended. At least this one isn't also in Minnesota, because we might start getting a reputation.
Earlier this month, the principal of East Newton High School in Granby, MO pulled the plug on a stage adaptation of The Breakfast Club in the middle of the opening night performance. Despite the fact that the principal had supposedly already read and approved the script and all parents signed off on their kids participating, the principal shut it down after a parent complained about the language and issues presented in the show. I guess the content of a 30-year-old mega-popular John Hughes film was a complete surprise to everyone in Granby. Won't that poor town be scandalized when they finally get around to watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off?
The school did have a legitimate reason to cancel this play: it's not an authorized adaptation and therefore a massive, blatant copyright violation. However, that's not the reason that they went with, so, here we are again, with another show canceled out of fear. It's a really sad state of affairs.
However, there is another way to handle this. Let's take a trip over to New Jersey, to Cherry Hill High School East. That school's drama department decided to do Ragtime for their spring musical, which is a really heavy lift for a professional company, let alone a high school. Unfortunately, the production got mired down almost as soon as it was announced over the use of the n-word in the script. The school at first tried to get around this by asking that the word be removed from the script (in violation of the performance rights) or the show be canceled. This led to a large, heated public debate that you're probably guessing resulted in the show's demise.
But, wait! In fact, the school ultimately decided that the the show's examination of the ugliness of that word was actually something the students should know about, so they allowed the show to go on with the script intact, and put efforts into actually teaching and contextualizing the issue for their students leading up to the production. In the end the kids performed marvelously and were rewarded with a visit from a Broadway performer who originated one of the roles; and the school received praise from a civil rights organization for how they handled it. More importantly, though: the students actually learned something worthwhile from a play!
So, if you're currently in a position where you're thinking, "Aw, geez, we gotta cancel this play; it uses that bad word," just stop for a moment and think about it. You could be missing an amazing and enlightening opportunity just because you don't want the headache of dealing with it. When you consider the full context, you might see that there's more at stake than the possibility of a naughty utterance slipping through the filters.
Or, you could just let Disney pay you off to perform one of their squeaky clean musicals. Seriously, they will pay you. If you choose that option, though, do me a favor: be really honest about where your priorities are.
Anyone wanna host this thing?
The Tony Awards are coming up in a few weeks, so they ought to be announcing the host any day now. I bet they got someone really amazing for it!
Actually, no. They're having the teensiest bit of trouble finding a host. Perhaps one of you out there would like to do it. At this point, they'll probably take you up on it. Anyone?