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Learning to Listen

“Political Correctness” and the Question of Socially Responsible Theatre

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In online forums, on college campuses, stages, and screens, there’s been a lot of discussion recently about the concept of “political correctness,” especially as it relates to freedom of expression in the arts and entertainment. The issue of “who gets to say what,” as well as who has (or doesn’t have) the responsibility to be inclusive, has made its way to the forefront of conversations about performance art, both mainstream and on-the-fringe. Recently, a planned workshop production of a Prince of Egypt musical, based on the Dreamworks film, came under heavy fire when it was revealed that cast of the show, which takes place in biblical Africa, was overwhelmingly white. Rather than engaging in a discussion with those who were unhappy with the casting in an attempt to improve the production and do better in the future, the creative team cancelled the event.


Particularly as a white person, writing ‘raceless’ characters in works of realism can be just as harmful as writing stereotypical characters of color…there is no such thing as a ‘raceless’ person.


Still, with the popularity of productions like Hamilton, there are those who see these “white-washing” incidents, and the debates surrounding them as relative non-issues. After, all compared to the film industry, where just last year a white actress was cast as a Pacific Islander in a film called Aloha, the theatre community can seem like it’s at the cutting edge of cultural sensitivity. But despite #tonyssodiverse, the irrefutable fact is that much of the theatre produced in this country is overwhelmingly white and straight. And, as a community, we haven’t quite figured out how to have specific, productive discussions about this yet without eventually regressing into pettiness.

Fierce defensiveness, injurious as it can be, is a common and understandable result of how personal and emotional the creation of art is. Playwrights, directors, actors, and producers take great ownership over the worlds we create, and the characters that inhabit them. We tend to believe that we can imagine anything, and in many ways, we can. What we present onstage doesn’t always follow the rules, and this is often what allows exciting performances to materialize. As artists who work tirelessly to craft live stories, we don’t like being told that a character, a world, or a situation that we’ve literally helped bring to life is socially irresponsible. It’s not an easy thing to hear, especially when you’re not used to hearing it, and when you think of yourself as a progressive person.

Recently, I, a white female playwright raised in a fiercely liberal Jewish environment, discovered that—gasp—even I am not immune to stereotyping and racial coding in my writing. In the process of casting my play #Blessed, which was part of the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival, a pattern began to emerge when it came to actor submissionsa very white pattern. A few of the characters are people of color, and the casting call reflected that. However, a vast majority of the characters, particularly the leads, were not race-specific. The play is about religion and rape culture in a public high school, and I admit that it didn’t seem important to me in the three-year process of writing the play to ascribe racial identities to most of the characters. The issue was, that as a white person myself, I was ignoring the seemingly obvious reality that marginalized groups experience sexual awakenings, high school, and certainly religion very differently than cisgender, white, heterosexual folks.

students posing for a photo
The cast of #Blessed (FringeNYC 2016). Photo by Miranda Cornell.

The issue was brought to my attention by several members of the creative team. There was straightforwardness, but there was no finger pointing, no animosity. We were able to engage in a conversation about casting and racial coding that required me to do something that doesn’t always come very naturally to me: shutting up, allowing myself be talked to, to be taught, to be told I was wrong about something that had once existed only in my own imagination. I cried a lot, mostly selfishly. I called my boyfriend and my parentsthe wisest and kindest people I know. I let them tell me what they thought about the situation. And when I stopped crying, when I had processed everything, I was so clear. I revisited the script. I thought to myself, “Oh. Yeah, this is problematic. If I saw this in someone else’s play, I would take issue with it. Thank God I was brought to task.”

At this point, I was able to do some really important work on the script. As a playwright, I experienced for the first time the miraculous, cathartic clarity of approaching a script that I had been working on for three years with a genuine objectivity. With the perspective I had gained, with what I had learned, I explored nuances, character motivations, and layers of the plot that had been completely out of my realm of thinking, because they were out of my realm of experience. Furthermore, having a difficult and ultimately productive conversation during casting set an excellent standard for open communication that was particularly healthy in the rehearsal process for a play about issues that include sexual assault and religion,

Simply put: the process of mounting this complex play was a powerful reminder to me that that while good intentions are often the seed of growth, they don’t mean much unless they’re paired with action. It’s not enough to say, “I didn’t mean to.” Particularly as a white person, writing “raceless” characters in works of realism can be just as harmful as writing stereotypical characters of color. This is because, in the world we live in, there is no such thing as a “raceless” person. As a storyteller, to ignore the implications, the beauty, and the difficulty of the cultural background to which a character or story belongs is an injustice to the play, the theatre community, and on some level, the world we live in.

If white, cisgender, heterosexual theatremakers want to take significant steps toward real inclusivity on a large scale, I believe it has to begin with a deceptively simple choice: Do we want to acknowledge our responsibility as storytellers to harness the truth, even when it hurts? Is it more important to tell the story exactly as we imagined it, or to be open to the reality that there are experiences of the world that we may be ignoring or belittling? As privileged members of this community, we have got to be willing to let those whose voices have been systematically stifled or silenced share their experiences, and tell their stories. We have to be enthusiastically willing to learn from them. It is possible to be “politically correct” and still create provocative and controversial artbut it will require open ears, and a generous dose of humility.

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The only remedy for those "whose voices have been systematically stifled or silenced" is to stand up to the 'silencers', whoever they are, and get writing - and get together and produce, too, if no one else will. Getting the non-silenced to re-write their own work is a deeply dubious strategy.

Not to carry on with this, but here's an issue from my graduate program that offended me in regards to color-blind casting. I was doing dramaturgy on my favorite play "The Homecoming" by Pinter. During the research, I found some essays and interviews with Pinter analyzing these characters as being from a London working-class Jewish background. The professor dismissed my work and then cast an African American as Lenny. I felt very slighted, though I didn't put up a real stink about it, because I didn't want to offend or take away a great role from this African American actor.

Yet it still bothered me. I think colorblind casting, etc is fine in a lot of regards, but in this instance, the play was diminished and the content diminished for the audience. It confused the students.

This is what I'm talking about. It's the overreaching of the Humanist and Social Justice imperative in our theatre. It's too much and I think its killing the form.

As a Jewish East Londoner, this incident really offends me. The working class Jewishness of Pinter's characters is vital to the sense of the plays. Directors are free to depart from this for other wild interpretations, of course - but not without acknowledging this basic truth first. Your professor is an arrogant, ignorant fool.

I think some of the confusion comes from the widespread assumption that unless the playwright designates a race, we are supposed to "know" that the character is white. It's that assumption that masks a host of weird racial assumptions. As playwrights I think we have to begin to ask ourselves whether race is at the heart of the story we are telling. If it's not, the characters can be played by any actor. If it is, say it clearly and without apology. As an Aftican American writer, many of the stories I am telling require race specificity because they are deeply rooted in and reflective of American racial realities, historical and current. For that reason, I specify that the characters are African American in the character descriptions. If I write a play where a characters race doesn't have to be anything specific, any actor should be able to bring the role to life. If a playwright thinks the story is race specific, then say that in the character descriptions. That doesn't mean "its a white story," but that this specific chactacter is white and must be cast white (or Chinese or Puerto Rican or Iranian...) in order for the specific story to be told. I do believe that a playwright who fully imagines a character will know what race they are in the same way you know if they are tall or short, tall or tiny. But we've all had the experience of imagining a character one way and then having an actor come in who is nothing like what we imagined and having her blow us away. Race can be like that too...

I think inclusion can be made easily. Some theatres depend on nontraditional and color blind casting, but at the end of the season, most of the productions are cast white. Most of the stories are white stories. Now, I do think that it has to be taken a step further. I remember a couple of years ago when they cast an African American child actress to play Annie in a remake film, and everyone from Broadway down got into a huff.
I remember feeling like the only one who didn't see a problem with this, considering Annie is timeless and that a child in the foster care system can have a hard knock life. But, I wondered whether or not the film was written in respect to the actors playing Annie and Daddy Warbucks (Jamie Foxx), or just wrote with a "race" inclusion, not that I would have a problem with it if it was, but Annie could have stayed the same because Jamie Foxx could play the role, as could the actress.
I wonder if this country can talk about race positively through theatre, film, and music without people who aren't used to that inclusion getting their undies in a wad because of their racial discomfort. I like that I am seeing this in theatre. I hope it carries to everything else.

As a writer, I write in the vein of Howard Barker, Sarah Kane, and Sam Shepard or Jean Genet. I am very aware of the dialogue surrounding this. I write tragedy, which is amoral. I am unafraid of writing characters or themes that could be misinterpreted or offend, as I am writing about the pain of living. The dialogue surrounding the theatre is removing the danger. I do not think about "inclusivity" or "stereotypes." I follow my intuition and create a space for moral speculation, NOT a re-enforcement of moral codes whether it be Left or Right. I want to create a space of displacement and discomfort for the audience. I highly recommend American writers read Howard Barker's "Arguments for a Theatre" and "Death, the One, and the Art of Theatre" as a rejoinder to this increasingly suffocating political correctness, "workshop enforced" Social Realism, and the didactic blandness of the MFA playwright.

I would love to engage with this comment but I'm at a loss. Frankly, I'm not sure what you're trying to contribute to this conversation. It would appear that we have fundamentally different approaches to theatre, but I won't apologize for mine, nor will I be man-splained concerning what sort of theatre is "bland" and what isn't.

What I am saying is that I think we could be stifling ourselves by not trusting our intuition when writing, in this space, I think we can create characters with depth regardless of the "background" of the character or their ethnicity. I am thinking that these theoretetical dialogues are actually hampering us and the form. Interesting that you resorted to accusing me of "mansplaining" which seems to be the recourse when the dominant Humanist ideology of the British and American theatre is questioned. I think what we are doing is creating a very Puritanical and moral culture on our stages which is the antithesis of the stage as a place for imagination and moral speculation. I am offering a counter-point to your essay, not "affirmation." Sarah Kane, also influenced by Howard Barker, and a woman, said much of the same in interviews as I wrote in response to your posts.

I've gone through Howlround and there really isn't a space to disagree with what you are writing about. I'm sure it will be characterized as a "conservative" viewpoint and it isn't.

And, the Theatre world, Universities, etc. assume that within the context of "Theatre as Art" vs. "Theatre as Entertainment" practitioners assume that the Brechtian Humanist "Social Justice" is the ONLY approach. I am for social irresponsibility, meaning adherence to imagination and freedom, not ideology which is based in fashion. The discourses on Howlround and the theatre in the U.S. in general is about "teaching people" and I'm not sure its working. Have you read the books I mentioned? Perhaps that is the misunderstanding?

At which point does placing such importance on intuition stop being an artistic aid and become detrimental to the process? The process that Zoe went through feels as artistically honorable as I can imagine. She got everything out that she instinctively wanted to say, then looked back on it objectively and created revisions, adding nuance and shit. I can't speak for what you've written because I don't know you, but time and time again I see this point of view in my fellow young artists, this idea that it would diminish the purity of the art form to put their work in context of the world we live in today. By all means, do your Sam Shepard thing, but don't act like your original comment had entirely academic intentions when you used scare quotes (of all horrors) and editorialized the notion of political correctness to be suffocating.

My work "exists" within the world. My problem is that Academia is so riddled with Leftist Ideology (I am of the Left) that the poetic mystery of the work diminishes. I am more influenced by the British Howard Barker, actually than Sam Shepard. Political Correctness IS suffocating because it goes beyond depth in character creation to general policing of content that ISN'T sexist or racist. It is shutting down a more provocative theatre and is massaging the politics of the viewer, meaning telling the liberal audience what they already know/believe. I think the painter Francis Bacon said it the best when he said that "the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery." I just don't think art can change the world. It never has. Rioting often does...

All right, you mentioned Shepard in your initial comment so I referred to him because of that. Sorry for the confusion about which playwright is your favorite. Regardless, I personally find it a little unsettling that Zoe said she wished she could engage in conversation with you, but you insist on making declarative statements that prompt nothing but defensiveness, leading to unnecessary conflict on everyone's part. You say that you merely bring up a counterpoint, but that counterpoint seems to be that Zoe is doing theatre wrong and you are doing theatre right. Given the level of self-awareness Zoe shows in her piece, her own willingness to accept her fallibility as a playwright, you come across as pretentious and arrogant. Maybe you detected a note of combativeness in what she originally wrote, but, speaking as a person who strives for empathy first and artistry second (that could be a failure on my part, who knows?), it feels like your condescension is unnecessary. I also don't want to argue about whether art can change the world, because that's a stupid argument. The world would undoubtedly be a worse place to live were it not for the classic family blockbuster, E.T.

Well, I am not saying that people shouldn't like "nice things" or humanistic things like E.T. But what is pretentious about wanting more morally ambiguous tragedy on our stages? A theatre critic once said that if you ask for that in America you will automatically be labeled pretentious or arrogant.

Characters should be human. I do think that it is a really confusing time in our theatre.

I'm not seeing a counterpoint, I'm seeing a lot of big words and a healthy dose of pretension masking an idea that I personally find disturbing - the idea that writers needn't worry about contextualizing their characters, that we should never apologize for harm that our work might cause in the world. You've made it pretty clear that you don't care for realism and that's fine. But this essay is about a specific instance, where, in the process of mounting a realistic play, I decided that I couldn't claim to represent a contemporary reality without taking a second look at what was being excluded in my script, and whose voice was being ignored. Pain and discomfort can be powerful, sure, and the goal is not to make every audience member comfortable with everything. The goal, for me at least, is empathy and honesty. It seems to me that you fundamentally dislike the kind of work that I'm interested in discussing here, and therefore, I'm not sure that this comment thread is the right place for you to voice your opinions on what's wrong with American Theatre.

I think it is, sorry. I think that this constantly needs to be questioned as Realism has pushed out most other forms from the stages.

Being pretentious means thinking you're writing is important, which I don't.

And I can't take responsibility for the audience or cater to them. It's too much of a load for the writer to handle. And most art causes harm because, not to sound cliche, but because art is inherently against society. I personally, as an audience member wish that art was more dangerous.

I really think man-splained is an offensive term and I wish people would stop using it to weaponize feminism against men as a whole.
His explanation of his point of view is just that...not a referendum by men for men against you as a woman. He clearly would write in the same tone about any topic, to anyone.

I completely disagree with this guy, and have seen first hand art can change the world, but it is really absurd to lump his personal response to your article, which is what this place is about: back and forth and investigation/explanation/opinion...into some kind of bad man thing.

I didn't say it wasn't a real phenomenon. I didn't say men didn't do what the term implies.

You didn't address my feelings at all about the term or what I actually said about what Joshua wrote.
So, what's the term for what you just did? If I were to "call it like I see it," I doubt you would think my word for it was appropriate, nor do I think it would survive the censor here on Howlround.
But I actually care about your feelings and am interested in the discussion on this topic.
But you proved my point, and continued some false attack that doesn't need to exist here and is your own personal issue. So thank you for letting me know I am right about the abuse of this term, and its abusive nature.

Your calling it mansplaining is what is inappropriate, not his form of self expression or opinion of political correctness.
But please, continue to dismiss my explanation of my feelings as further "mansplaining" since you seem to be still be "at a loss."

Yikes. You took this comment, that wasn't even directed at you, incredibly personally. You might want to think about why that is. I know male condescension when I see it. I get frustrated about it, I'm tired of it. You're right, it is my "own personal issue," I've been a women for a pretty long time. I found Joshua's comment condescending, ranty, needlessly authoritative and most importantly, totally beside the point of the essay. I'm under no obligation to "address your feelings" on this word. You won't understand how this relates to a gender dynamic, clearly, because you don't want to. It seems like you just want to feel attacked. Well, alright. I genuinely do hope you have a good rest of your day. Thanks for your thoughts on the article itself.

I don't feel attacked. I was dismissed and in a not so nice way.

You attacked the male gender in my opinion with what I consider an abusive term. If you don't feel responsible to the feelings of the community you are writing to...I don't know what to say but it seems counter intuitive to the whole point of this commons.

Your criticism of his tone in this reply is an actual address of his post, and in my opinion, is what you should have said instead of turning it into a gender issue.

It's pretty ironic that in a comments section on your own article about political correctness your response is to dismiss feelings and then follow up by saying you have no responsibility to them.

And the assumption about my relationship to "not wanting to see it" is also profoundly ironic.

But I suppose because you are a woman and I am a man, you are allowed to do it but in your world I am not

Hi Zoe, I'm not trying to fight. I just find Social Realism, and this process that you are speaking of, slightly condescending to me as I'm an educated person from a Jewish working class background. I feel like a lot of theatre now is about getting the "dumb white working class" to vote correctly. Creating these "politically correct" characters sort of goes along with this process. I just think that you're not understanding what I'm saying. I don't think this process works for the theatre. I just don't. I'm not trying to "mansplain" and I wish people wouldn't use this sort of slang when talking about this, because it sort of lowers the level of discourse. It makes people sound like Social Justice Warriors, and it bothers me.

I just find a lot of contemporary American theatre to be too caught up in Realism and too caught up in ideology. I wish we had more writers here like Sarah Kane, Elfriede Jelinek, or Caryl Churchill, work that is more poetic I don't find these processes of workshopping and getting audience feedback on this issues particularly helpful for the styles that aren't Social Realism.

I am sorry if I came across as Authoritative, I am just an audience member who is sick of being condescended to, sick of the "whimsical" political plays coming out of Playwright's Horizons in NY and the Playwright's Center in the MN. I want a trangressive theatre that addresses the pain of existence. I don't want to learn about issues because I already am a liberal.

Why is it okay to have poetry and ambiguity in European theatre, South African Theatre (like Reza de Wet) but it America everything has to be clearly defined for the audiences with a clear message? That's all I'm asking.

As I said, American theatre practitioners really get upset when you question political theatre and Social Realism/Humanism and all of a sudden the name calling starts. If I write, for instance, a play like Sarah Kane's "Blasted" (which some of my work is like) you need this clear message. Well, its killing the theatre. Everyone I know who aren't theatre practitioners WANT TO SEE PLAYS LIKE "BLASTED." Why is this so damn controversial?

Again, I am not trying to be a condescending misogynist. I am writing this because I am concerned about these issues as American theatre is just plain fucking terrible right now. Give me my poetry, pain and sadness please!

I wasn't mansplaining. You just didn't know the books I was talking about or the angle I was coming from. That's okay. All the conflict from other people in my life comes from the theatre, which has a lot of folks who are seemingly hard to get along with. I was originally a painter back in the day so the inability to debate in the theatre still confuses me. I am still befuddled by the crazy hostility in the theatre when you offer a counterpoint.

For me, the most important aspect of all this, is actually being involved in the reality of people who are different than you are. As artists, we need to be explicitly engaged in the political issues we are addressing, and actively communicating with the different cultures we include and/or don't include in our work.

This deescalates everything because then personal connections, allyship and collaboration are genuine and real solutions to the real problems. Our art can be part of a solution, but it is not enough without the actual political work. And political work happens from engagement in the political process, whether voting, lobbying, dialoguing etc all the way to our personal friends and family relationships.

Also, this work in reality, not in our circumstantial artistic reality, is informing and educational. Without the right information and education, "political correctness" is only an idea, and then often used as a weapon or a defense at the wrong time.
Thanks for the article, and I hope that aside from engaging in this thinking in our theatre work, we start to more explicitly articulate our concern with these issues in way outside of our community discussions on our art. That is a major way that we contribute to inequity, when we become insular and keep discussions on a level where only theatre people are the audience.

"It is possible to be “politically correct” and still create provocative and controversial art"

Is it? How do we get there?

As you noted, this issue scuttled a production ("The Prince of Egypt"). When creativity and artistic expression are curbed by political correctness, surely it is time to take a second look.

For every instance of non-mixed casting ("The Prince of Egypt,") there is an example of casting that is color-blind (The Disney Hyperion "Frozen.") Anyone remember "Miss Saigon" in 1990? The production almost didn't come to America, because there was objection to the idea of a Caucasian actor (Jonathan Pryce) playing a Eurasian. How's that for color-blindness in casting? For reference: http://articles.sun-sentine...

Ms. Kamil, thank you for your excellent article. I would argue that, as a playwright, you should have the right to have any types of characters or situations in = your = plays that you wish. Of course, if this raises objections (as it clearly did), it is your business whether you make changes to make your work more congenial to your audience/collaborators. But you shouldn't have to say "I didn't mean to" do anything. All you did was write a play that reflected your experience and knowledge.

I would add this: the onus should =not= be on you, a "white female playwright" to speak for those who do not share your background (unless, of course, you feel called to do so in your work). Rather, we should find a way to continue creating an environment where other playwrights with different backgrounds can be heard in addition to yours. And, it seems to me that the racial ambiguity in your work could have been an asset, underlining that = anyone = can experience "sexual awakenings, high school, and certainly religion."

"For every instance of non-mixed casting ("The Prince of Egypt,") there is an example of casting that is color-blind (The Disney Hyperion "Frozen.") Anyone remember "Miss Saigon" in 1990? The production almost didn't come to America, because there was objection to the idea of a Caucasian actor (Jonathan Pryce) playing a Eurasian. How's that for color-blindness in casting?"

I think this is a common confusion. "Color-blind casting" has become a really problematic term because it creates the perception that you can just avoid thinking about race entirely. I personally prefer the term that I first heard from Lavina Jadhwani (who I believe has written about this on Howlround before) of "color-conscious casting". I think this means two complementary things: on one hand, when dealing with iconic stories or stories that live in our larger collective imagination (like a Disney story, or Shakespeare, or many other pieces from the Western theatrical canon), recognize that those have often been cast with only white faces and we have the opportunity to break that up, to change that perception, to diversify what those stories look like; and when you do, don't pretend that racial differences don't exist, but explore how those could inform a work in new ways. THEN on the other hand, with works that address a marginalized culture very specifically (like Miss Saigon), be conscious of how race/ethnicity really do matter in that casting process and in how an actor can embody that role and how an audience perceives it. Doing the first kind of casting is great, but it's not enough if that appears to give permission to cast "blindly".

The reason "color-blind" is a problematic term is that is a pejorative coined as an argument against the kind of casting it describes.

There really is not satisfactory language around this, which indicates that there is not clear thinking. Part of the reason is that there is so much posturing on this subject. (Notice how many comments on this article are about asserting the superiority of the commenter rather than engaging in dialog.

Race Consciousness is a good first step toward getting clarity.

I love this piece, and it articulates well what I've tried to say in discussions on this topic. But questions... 1) can you speak to some specific changes you made that exemplify what you're talking about here? That would be helpful in illuminating the argument and 2) do you believe now that you DO need to specify race in casting or, or that there are indeed ways that you can still leave it open by being more inclusive in the text. Again, examples would be great. Thank you!

Hi! These are fantastic questions. I'm going to go through and do my best to answer them one by one!
1. Without going into too much summarizing of the script itself, the biggest changes that were made for this particular production were in relation to the character of Jesus, who is non-white. Jesus is vital to the story but in pre-production drafts, the character was only showing up in a few scenes. Because we ended up casting white actors as most of the leads in this production, I wanted to delve deeper into Jesus' psyche and make sure that they weren't going to fall into the "Magical Negro" charicature, particularly because portraying Jesus Christ onstage is already running the risk of feeling gimmicky or disrespectful. Ultimately, I crafted a stronger more consistent storyline for Jesus, while staying true to what was already important in the script. Beyond that, a lot of what I learned was how I wanted to frame and approach a casting process in the future. If and when I'm getting ready to cast a play like this one in the future, where the characters have races that aren't clearly defined in my writing, I'm going to be wording my casting call a lot more carefully, AND I'm going to be sending it to more places than Backstage and Playbill, to ensure a more diverse pool of auditionees.
2. This is a tricky one. I do think this is very dependent on the play, on what story is being told. In the case of #Blessed, it takes place in an American public high school and is about sexual assault, which is a phenomenon that affects just about every demographic. There were lines in the script that I thought were coding some of my characters as white, and I wasn't happy with that, so I changed them. Beyond that, I'm including a note on casting in the script itself. These are not steps that I think every play has to take, but they were important to me with this story.