Ask any director and she’ll tell you that 80% of getting the right performance out of an actor is finding the right actor in the first place. Get it right and you have an easy road ahead. Get it a little bit or a whole lot wrong and you’re up late taking up smoking again.
And it matters in other ways. Case in point Night of the Mime. This is an entry from Delano’s Olde Meiningens Players and it’s a parody of those old fashioned books and movies where a young person forges a deep bond with a beloved pet. Think Old Yeller or Charlotte’s Web. The young person (in this case a girl) finds a wild animal and tames it, trains it and so on. The joke here is that the “animal” is a mime. Not a bad joke.
When the gruff old farmer father first sees the mime he reacts poorly, fearing a wild beast in his house. He opens the mime’s mouth to check his teeth. He sees that the mime isn’t wearing a collar. He has no owner, belongs to no one and is therefore a threat to his family.
Eventually the girl wins her father over and she begins to train her mime. They end up at the Grand National Competition at the State Fair and though her mime wins, he is disqualified, because he is drugged by the story’s antagonist. This young boy ends up taking possession of the mime and abusing him, calling him Whitey (the face paint) and making him a silent killing machine. By the time he is restored to his rightful owners, the mime is worse than wild. He’s an irredeemable, angry killer. So he's put down, shot by the girl with a mimed machine gun.
All good and well, except that the entire cast is white and the mime is played by a young man of color.
I know there are people who think we live in a post-racial society now. I know there are people who wouldn’t ascribe any deeper meaning to the show than we would a silly joke. Still.
Seeing this actor in white face was unsettling to me in some unnameable way. Seeing him treated over and over as an animal, as property, as subhuman turned the experience into a horror show. All the more so, because nothing that was going on seemed to bother most of the audience in a way that I could discern. They laughed in the same way after the mime’s entrance as they had before he took stage. I couldn’t.
The only time I sensed a joke fall flat for the assembled was during a section when the pet/mime was allowed for the first time to sleep in the same bed as his young white female master/owner. That joke evoked a chilly (confused?) silence.
Should I give the show a pass because I assume a lack of ill intent on the part of the company? Or because I assume the young actor playing the mime was doing the show willingly, even joyfully? Or maybe because that actor was simply the best one for the role (and he did do a nice job)? Or because there’s a family of color in the White House and I'm over-reacting?
Art brings with it historical context and in America that can mean a whole mess of things. One of those things is the legacy of slavery and racial violence. I can already hear people saying we need to move past it, get over it, etc. To which I can only say that ignoring something is not the same as getting over that thing. To put a young Black man in the role of a savage possession who is civilized and tamed by white saviors deserves to at least be talked about. That’s how processing happens.
Everyone in the audience is entitled to their opinion about what they saw. My opinion: they missed the boat entirely on that one.
Discuss. Please. It matters.