I am Wole, I am Heiner

For a Fully Realized Representation of Brown Artists on Stage

a white man pours a black man a glass of whiskey at a conference

Picture copyright by Lutz Deppe.

The discovery of the photo was both vivid and vague. It happened years ago as I was scrolling online. The photo is of Heiner Müller, an East-German playwright—the intellectual and spiritual heir of Brechtian thought—pouring whisky for Wole Soyinka, a Yoruba playwright born in Nigeria and the first African to win a Nobel Prize for literature. I don’t know much of the context for it but the photo spoke to me as though this thirty-year-old moment had been staged for my benefit: the “Black” playwright and the German aesthete occupying the same space. This gem encompassed my race, my profession, and my perceptions of the gap between the edgy German artist and the Nigerian Nobel Prize winner.

Last summer, thanks to a grant from Theatre Ontario in theatre curation training, I had the unique opportunity to document and participate in the Stratford Festival Lab’s “Beyond the Western Canon” series. These works workshops had the aim of gesturing toward a decolonial future. There were seven units, each dedicated to a culture historically underrepresented in our theatres. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that one of the units, curated by Ben-Eben Kwabena Tawiah Mfoafo-M’Carthy, would be dedicated to the works of Soyinka—in particular Death and the King’s Horseman, considered Soyinka’s masterpiece, and Madmen and Specialists.

To delve into Madmen and Specialists, a play that doesn’t engage at all with the white gaze, was akin to discovering a new world. Soyinka is seldom produced in Canada, a shocking fact considering the sophistication and depth of his work. His absence from our stages is almost unexplainable, except perhaps that Black theatre produced in Canada usually emphasizes immigrant stories and African American realism. Soyinka’s work takes us to the Continent, a place where North American mainstream culture rarely ventures—with the recent and notable exception of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. The representation of Black people in their indigenous territory confers agency, narratives, and aspirations outside of white experience. But casting a light where our society dares not look is surely part of the artists’ mandate, and artists cannot be absolved for keeping rank with collective, willful ignorance. Soyinka is by no means inaccessible, and the most disheartening part of a life in theatre is realizing how the gatekeepers are, for the most part, aligned with political and economic neoliberal power.

To delve into Madmen and Specialists, a play that doesn’t engage at all with the white gaze, was akin to discovering a new world.

In Canada, culture, race, gender, and trauma are some of the pillars of our theatre’s ordained categories. But what if a performance text and its writer don’t fit any of the categories? If “the African,” a Nobel Prize winner, does not appear on our stages, what’s the fate of the multiracial creator who doesn’t even have an immigrant story—never mind an African one—to tell? How does one brand the Black creator who is not African, not an African American, not an immigrant? Take my situation. I’m a Québecer of French, Irish, and African descent who knows nothing of my Black ancestry, and whose white family has been here since the 1600s. What is the point of me if white theatres can’t market me in a predetermined category of brown artists?

I favor a theatre of ideas, a theatre that isn’t rooted in storytelling and characterization. I make no apology for it and will continue working toward and advocating for a theatre by brown people that is formalistically adventurous. North American theatre is a largely populist form, which is part of the problem when it comes to what is put on our stages. But we can learn a thing or two from another medium, which involves audiences in a different way: visual arts. The chasm in the level of discourse between theatre and visual arts here could not be greater. For example, the phenomenal and far-reaching success of Hamilton is entirely different from the success of an Ai Weiwei show. Visual arts have managed to strike a deal with the audience that advantages them both. Art fanciers do not expect to have a perfect understanding of every aspect of every piece, which leaves room for open conversations between the audience and the art. Contemporary art is not afraid to baffle, shock, and make all kinds of demands on the viewer. I believe this should be the same with the theatre we are seeing.

As a child, in my native Quebec, school trips would take us to see theatre most North Americans would call avant-garde and which for us was... just theatre. I couldn’t grasp all of what Carbone 14’s production of Heiner Müller’s Die Hamletmaschine was throwing at me, same with Robert Lepage and Edouard Lock, and yet these interrogative productions left me fuller and fuller for longer than productions that spoon fed me a narrative grounded in unambiguity.

In English-speaking theatre in Canada, I detect a fear of leaving the audience disempowered, and this sense of caution is consistent with other forms where story is everything. As long as we are focused on theatre as story, the visual and mysterious takes a back seat. This vision excludes worlds of possibilities for theatre: theatre based on ideas, conceptual theatre, but also theatre from cultures that are not readily conversant with us. If a spectator without knowledge of Nigerian history or Yoruba culture expects context to be provided by Madmen and Specialists, they would be disappointed. Theatres can provide tools and give the audience member who feels stranded one of those luscious, curated programs that include articles providing historical and aesthetic context. They go for a nominal sum in Berlin theatres, and I’ve seen patrons study them religiously before a show.

James Joyce once said that the only thing he demands of his readers is that they dedicate their lives to his work. Without sinking into self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement, maybe it’s okay to expect that those who come to the theatre keep themselves abreast of world affairs and are aware of major world events, such as the Biafran War in the 1960s. And if they don’t know about it, they can read the program. Every brown person who interacts with the white world is expected to have PhD-level knowledge and understanding of what makes whiteness tick; it may be reasonable to expect a bit of effort in return. Yet even then, an erudite audience is not enough. The audience should be willing to be challenged and find wonder in inconclusive experience. The goal here is to heighten the exchange between artists and the public without fear that the latter will walk away with more questions than answers. The public is not equipped to set the standards of what a fully realized theatrical experience could be. We must bravely present them with these challenges.

But what if marginalized artists decide to make use of formalistic radicalism as a way of reflecting the alienation of being marginalized?

A woman of color smearing mud on her face

Performance by Sadie Berlin. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

A theatre of ideas is not completely absent from Canadian theatre, yet as a Black artist I feel excluded from it. The impetus to address contemporaneous social problems in a plain manner somehow befalls those who have traditionally been in the margins. There is no ill intent here, no active censorship. A show by a brown person relying on an adventurous approach to form is less likely to tick all the boxes than a show presenting the gritty realism of non-white lives in clear terms. The brown makers who reject this imposed mandate risk being ignored by the requirements of white liberal institutions and being ostracized by other marginal artists. And, thus, there are few theatrical versions of Basquiat, artists who are racialized and who manipulate form.

But what if marginalized artists decide to make use of formalistic radicalism as a way of reflecting the alienation of being marginalized? How about deconstructing form as a means of decolonizing theatre? An attempt to engage in a dialectic with systemic oppression while using the theatrical conventions set at the height of the British Empire feels dysphoric. Mel Hague, the associate artistic director of Toronto’s Canadian Stage, curated the last unit of the Stratford Lab, which focused on a play she had conceived inspired by Noises Off where white characters and characters of color begin to react adversely to being in a production of The Tempest. This form of critique uses convention against itself and serves as a reminder that the Shakespeare we inherited was fashioned by British Victorianism. That is, it is imperialistic. Hague’s take on Noises Off and The Tempest exposes this dysphoria. Demanding that the Black artist respect conventions to fulfill the dominant culture’s need for immediate, full understanding; for catharsis; and to confine artists of color as chroniclers of social disease are demands artistic directors, dramaturgs, and artists might consider resisting.

I won’t agree to an imposed canon. Müller’s Die Hamletmaschine makes my heart sing in a way Hamlet never has. Somehow, pairing Shakespeare and Black artists have become a time-honored tradition—I haven’t seen a Black-free Shakespeare in over a decade. But this is, by no means, a—ahem—blank check. In my personal experience, for a Black artist to revere post-World War II Central European theatre is perceived as bizarre esoterica. Heightened aesthetics are somehow the reserve of whiteness. Liberals love to indulge in the bypass-culture experience of observing a brown culture’s spirituality, especially in animist form—where spirituality and sentience are conferred upon objects and nature. When programming rooted in story, social realism, and forms of spirituality that excite audiences, such as animism, isn’t balanced with conceptual and formalistic theatre, it has the effect of reaffirming the superiority of the dominant culture.

A red book and torn paper strewn across a floor

The RSC edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Photo by Sadie Berlin. 

Soyinka is a prime example of the intellectual who writes cultural practices. The semiology of ritual is hardly worlds apart from an inquiry that unbuilds and/or (re)builds a new set of referents through form. A formalistic approach to a new project would almost necessarily involve an open text, as opposed to a closed text that leads the reader to an intended interpretation. Open texts need artistic directors and dramaturgs who are experienced in detecting the possibilities of open texts, and directors, performers, and designers who can take charge of such texts.

If race is a construct invented by “whites” a few hundred years ago, “brown” folk should be granted flexibility in their practices to manipulate racial dynamics. White makers who write about anything and everything are on the big stages; the ones who reaffirm capitalism and the ones who denounce it despite the quasi-pervasive whiff of bourgeoisie. Cisgender white plays are afforded a wider scope for the exploration of human experience on stage. But the Canadian landscape is rich in talented queer, trans, and non-binary artists of color. This should only be seen as a beginning, since putting the onus of representation on a few scores of theatre artists of color is unfair who aren’t yet on the big stages. It’s natural for business models to seek success by reproducing what has been successful in the past when, in the arts, success should be taken as license to push the agenda further and toward the margins. Whether we're talking about theatre or society as a whole, but this is especially true of the arts, it is on the edges that we find the meat of it. The margin is where live our fears, disgust, neglect, ignorance, intolerance, our deepest desires. In those hidden parts live the marginalized and we as a society cannot progress without focus on margins. Theatre remains an ideal medium for excavating the raw and the crude, and the manipulation of heightened aesthetics can form a path to exploration while circumventing the performance of trauma and giving the audience bypass-culture catharsis

Our civilization is at a crossroad, and I have a great fear that when theatres reopen their doors, they will seek to recoup losses with traditional programming. As I look at the photo of Müller pouring whisky for Soyinka, I am enchanted by all the denotations that moment telegraphs to me. It’s an intimate snapshot, combining the Continent—whose art and intellectuality we ignore—and the post-Brechtian German aesthete—which tasks us to being courageous, as those texts cannot be produced without a great sense vision and assertiveness. Please don’t think me pretentious. It is purely on aspirational terms that I say: I am Wole, I am Heiner.

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Thoughts from the curators

Canons act as both aspirational mirrors and genealogies for societies, but they also go beyond reflecting an image: they define how we make work and who is invited into the studio, on whose terms. Amid this catastrophe, we have an opportunity to rebuild: what stories will tell us who we are and how we got here, and how will we gather to tell them?This five-part series features curators and artists who participated in the Stratford Festival Lab’s “Beyond the Western Canon” workshop series in the Summer of 2019. This investigation was designed to push beyond the bounds of what is thought of as the theatre’s traditional artistic mandate: the “Western Canon.” In these articles and conversations, artists share their negotiations with dominant systems and structures, imagining holistic processes for a canon-to-come.

Beyond the Western Canon

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