Stomping on Eggshells
An Honest Discussion of Race, Identity, and Intent in the American Theater
Spurred by the controversies over the new adaptation of The Jungle Book that opened this summer in Chicago, this series of articles explores who is allowed to tell whose stories onstage. This series is curated by Rebecca Stevens, the Chicago Commons Producer for HowlRound.
This past June, Jamil Khoury, Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising, railed against acclaimed adapter/director Mary Zimmerman in a piece entitled “The Trouble With Mary.” In the essay, published on Silk Road Risings’ blog, Khoury quoted Zimmerman’s recent interview in Chicago Magazine about her new adaptation of The Jungle Book, in which she appeared to show remarkable racial insensitivity, at one point declaring, “racism is in the eye of the beholder.” Media from The Chicago Reader to The New York Times quickly caught the story while debates raged on Facebook and in the blogsphere. Just days later, Zimmerman met face to face with Khoury and agreed to a written interview conducted by him. In her words, posted again on Silk Road Rising’s web site, Zimmerman unequivocally disavowed the opinions expressed in the interview, stressing that her words were continuously taken out of context and misappropriated. Khoury himself noted that Zimmerman “addressed my concerns with the utmost of integrity, honesty, and sincerity.” The first meeting was followed by dinner together later in the summer.
The Jungle Book opened, then closed and transferred to The Huntington Theatre in Boston. Administrative teams and artists and audiences felt better that these grievances had not only been aired, but addressed. Interested parties met face to face for civil discussion and demonstrated mutual respect in the face of differing opinions. After all, this is what we are supposed to be good at. This is what artists do: discourse, nuance, and courageous communication. We can listen. We can have difficult conversations.
My interest this week is not to rehash or resolve the particulars of the debate surrounding The Jungle Book. (For those interested in a more in-depth exploration of that topic, a great starting point is David Isaacson’s terrific essay “Up-ending the Tea Table: Race and Culture in Mary Zimmerman’s The Jungle Book”) Rather, I’m interested in grappling openly as a field—as a community—with who gets to tell whose stories onstage and what responsibilities come along with that privilege. To my mind, the conversation only got more interesting once it became clear that Zimmerman (who, in the interest of full disclosure, was a much admired professor of mine at Northwestern University) is not virulently racist and that her words were taken out of context in that interview. Once we lost a clear villain in the conversation, we had to navigate a much more complicated world where everyone’s intentions were good, but individual lived experience of the impact differed so widely.
This week at HowlRound is an attempt to ask ourselves thorny questions: Can a white person write, adapt, direct, or perform stories from a different culture or race? Is it a huge step forward when a high profile white artist consistently makes work that involves performers of color or is it a poor substitute for a truly diverse collaboration where primarily nonwhite artists author the work? What’s cultural voyeurism? What’s honest inquiry? What belongs to any individual to reinterpret and what is off limits? Who is wielding economic power and how do we understand those implications on our art making?
We’re also going to grapple with how we talk to each other when we feel strongly about a fundamental aspect of our practice—representation on stage—and when we strongly disagree. How do we navigate the murky, complex waters of diversity with identities, agendas, and aspirations all intact? Why is it in all of these conversations that all sides simultaneously feel that they are always playing defense?
It feels reductive to simply ask, can we only tell stories that directly reflect our own lived experience? Surely most of us recognize it would be the (final) death knell of theatre if all stories must stem from the autobiographical. It is the particular pleasure of the art form to recognize your own reflection in another’s story. To cut across historical contexts and cultural cannons for an echo of your own innermost thoughts and needs. This connecting is an act of appropriation and it is at the very core of what we do as theatremakers.
This pleasure is at the root of why we push classic literature in schools, taking pains to draw connections between fictional characters’ journeys and the lived experiences of our students. It is the reason why we have cast actors of color in a Christmas Carol and Molière and Shakespeare and point to that as an act of progress. As artists and audiences we’ve been able to say—look the contexts are particular but the human condition is universal. Shouldn’t that sentiment be the cause of celebration?
Too often, we see theatres deeming stories from the Western European cannon as having wide appeal while simultaneously designating stories from other cultures as niche
Well, maybe. But the problem is that the equation seems to only go one way. Too often, we see theatres deeming stories from the Western European cannon as having wide appeal while simultaneously designating stories from other cultures as niche. These stories only stand a chance of regular programming if they are used as foundational text for white artists who may or may not contend with their historical context. What I heard in the fallout over Zimmerman’s misquoted interview was a fury over first, who is on American stages and second, who are the cultural authority figures (directors, writers, producers) responsible for those numbers.
One of the reasons why Zimmerman’s Jungle Book felt so controversial is that the American theatre has, to put it bluntly, too few artists of color working in major theatres to feel that Zimmerman’s aesthetic choices are offset by any sort pluralistic representation on a national scale. In 2014, when it still feels like a radical act for a major regional theatre to program more than one show with a cast of primarily actors of color in a season, controversies about cultural authority and appropriation can feel infuriatingly stagnant. We still have a numbers problem. We still need to disrupt the assumed truth that shows by white people (often white men!) and performed by white actors is the only way to increase audiences and to begin to plan our seasons without this false notion as our dominant mindset. As a field, we are still struggling with this most rudimentary of challenges—giving people of color enough seats at the table. Thus, when an artist from a position of privilege renders a perspective or pulls from source material outside of their own culture, it is impossible to coolly debate the implications of this sort of work. The debate feels red hot, and the heat only illuminates the cold, dead vacuum in which it exists.
I think the genuine fury surrounding these debates can feel disorienting to artists and administrators who identify themselves as allies because we are used to agreeing on ideas of politics and even on the need for change in the American theatre. Theatre practitioners are dominantly progressives, and we believe our art can help usher in a more beautiful, more just world. It’s really uncomfortable when another artist tells us that our art making is actually undermining this commitment.
Once Khoury and Zimmerman sat down face to face, many breathed a sigh of relief. But the uncomfortable truth is that the avalanche of responses to this inciting incident all spoke to a long-simmering frustration about who gets to tell what kind of stories, especially when these tellings are met with critical and commercial acclaim. The interview didn’t cause all of those feelings—it merely made it feel safer and more appropriate to speak out about them.
I saw many instances of theatremakers asking their colleagues to explain these charges of racism—to engage with them philosophically and critically so that we might explore collectively if they are warranted, from where they originated, and how we might fix them. Many of these well intentioned folks seem startled when complaints about “burden of proof” began and allegations that artists of color shouldn’t have to defend their lived experiences proliferated across the Internet. It begs the question—do we as a field have such a poor track record of talking about and dealing with issues of racism, that we have yet to earn the right to a critical perspective or nuanced push back? Do we need to spend a little more time earning the trust of audiences and artists who have suffered decades of cultural appropriation without so much as a discussion, let alone an apology, before we can show up at the table and reasonably expect to do anything more than listen to our colleagues who we have been inadvertently silencing?
When we occupy positions of privilege, it’s important to recognize that the responsibility is on us to learn how our actions and words affect groups that are underrepresented in positions of power and influence in our society. It’s not someone’s job to teach us how to behave in the conversation—it’s our job to create the space for conversation where careful listening and thoughtful engagement helps us uncover how to interact with people with differing backgrounds who may be saying something that’s hard for us to hear.
Every theatre practitioner has had to learn to steel themselves against audience members, producers, funders, and press who take issue or simply don’t like our aesthetic choices or perspective.
While that is a sentiment with which most people agree, I think it’s much trickier in practice because of what our job entails. Every theatre practitioner has had to learn to steel themselves against audience members, producers, funders, and press who take issue or simply don’t like our aesthetic choices or perspective. It is difficult to unlearn this impulse in the context of conversations—especially critical conversations—about diversity. As artists, it’s not our job to please everyone. But as privileged individuals (let me throw down right now and just say as white people) it is our job to step back and reevaluate how our assumptions and our behavior might be railroading all kinds of people, perspectives, and potential conversations.
Although counterintuitive, I would posit that the practice of art making in a commercial context and these tough conversations about diversity and inclusivity are actually at odds with one another and create difficult moments among colleagues and across the field, despite the fact that many people on either side of the issue may feel that they occupy the same political perspectives or philosophical commitments. We all want to have a more inclusive American theatre. We just don’t want to be told we’re going about it in the wrong way.
Finally, I’d like to suggest that some of our most beloved forms of art making may reinforce the power structures that make our field less inclusive than we might wish.
Here in Chicago, we live or die by the creed of ensemble theatre and the belief that long-term collaborations across space and time create a quality of work not achieved in short-term relationships. But ensembles lend themselves to like-minded thinking—hence a rigorous commitment to collaboration—that encourages people from similar walks of life to gather together to make art. Ensembles let us off the hook to move radically out of what is known and comfortable as we author creative works. The whole “start in a church basement” ethos does not necessarily encourage the sort of regular, difficult interaction that a more diverse set of collaborations creates. Ensemble theatre provides a shield from radical inclusivity as it privileges the notion that a self-selecting set of collaborators is one of the highest ways of making art. And while I (and many others) can point to noticeable exceptions, one only has to look at the lack of Asian Americans and Latinos in Chicago’s most prominent ensembles to see examples of this origin story and its resulting difficulty to create meaningful interactions across ethnic (and aesthetic) lines.
The rest of the week you’ll hear from various theatre practitioners across a spectrum of viewpoints tackling the question of who gets to tell what stories and what responsibilities that engenders. It’s way past time to have these conversations in loud voices in the front rooms of all of our institutions. We’re all turning to Facebook because there aren’t a lot of clear alternatives. HowlRound should be that alternative. Let’s get started.