Friday, December 2, 2016

On Race (three)

Alia Shawkat as Alexander Hamilton (Drunk History)
Here is the billion dollar question about Hamilton, moving forward. What happens when this “wonderful American story,” (to quote the message from the company to the Vice President-elect made two weeks ago) which was created to be performed told by “a diverse group of men [and] women of different colors, creeds, and orientations” (again from last Friday’s speech) is licensed to be produced at colleges and high schools across the nation?

My high school alma mater is part of a community which is not terribly diverse. Largely Caucasian, almost entirely Christian This did not prevent Bay High from producing Fiddler on the Roof a few years ago. No idea how it was received, that’s a good play, great song, I am sure it was fine. No doubt an educational, experience, too. Let’s face it, the cast photo of those teenagers wearing fake beards looks no more or less ridiculous than if it were of a company of teenagers from Beachwood High wearing fake beards.

What happens, however, should my hometown high school chose to produce In The Heights? That’s an important story about an American community, and if the community that tells it does not have significant Latino representation, then that, too, is an educational opportunity, correct? Or is it something else? What is the difference between performing as a person who is Jewish and a person who is Hispanic?

I mean, we're talking about representing a diverse number of Latino characters, it's not like producing Bye Bye Birdie.

Good Lord, I hate Bye, Bye Birdie.

My own personal memories of racist moments in theater are painful to recollect. We presented Anything Goes my senior year and in the final scene my character disguises himself as one of the several Chinese converts who had been shuffling around after a Western missionary, replete with straw hat and uttering brief statements in “pidgin” English.

When my brother was a child actor, I saw him perform once in yellowface and once in blackface. That was wrong. Last week, however, we saw An Octaroon at Dobama Theatre where we saw a black man in whiteface, a white man in redface, and a brown man in blackface. That was satire.

So. where are we in our cross-cultural American experiment? Can a white actor can play a role created for a Latino or Black actor inspired by an historical white person? Can a woman?

As part of the school residency program, our actor-teachers perform scenes from classic literature. They also cast students to perform roles in these scenes with them. We provide scripts and costumes, and we have a few ground rules.

For example, students are asked to use their own voice, and not to put on a false voice. Part of this is honesty. If you are acting fake, you can't come close to the true emotions and decisions. Part of this is to avoid uncomfortable circumstances.

Yes, we present scenes from Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin In The Sun in rural Ohio. Once I was asked if a white student playing Lena Younger could use a Southern accent.  I said, "No, because this is Chicago." That seemed to him to be a satisfactory answer.

Our actors also have what we call our non-specific gender policy, to wit; “Boys can play the girls roles, girls can play the boys roles.”

Recently, however, our people have reported to me the increasing number of self-identified trans and non-binary students they have been encountering, from elementary school on up. The old instruction seems no longer appropriate. It is arcane, even.

After all, this is theater. Theater is play. And anyone can play anything.

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