When Avenue Q Goes Local

Racism and the Production of Plays that Joke about Race

Avenue Q stands as one of the most popular brands in musical theater history. It ran six years on Broadway, received three Tony Awards (including Best Musical), made a Las Vegas run as well as several US and world tours, and has been adapted for the stage in London, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea. Musical Theater International is now selling the rights to the play encouraging local community productions, and several companies even supply sets and props for that purpose. There is even a bowdlerized high school version for purchase. Clearly, Avenue Q has a solid place in the musical theater cannon.

The musical is essentially a tongue-in-cheek Sesame Street spoof replete with fuzzy puppets and societal tropes. In catchy numbers like “What do you do with a BA in English?” and “It Sucks to be Me,” the musical uses humor to tackle themes of closeted homosexuality, racism, and the myth of the American dream—issues that still permeate the dark recesses of most of American society. Similar to Sesame Street, the neighborhood of Avenue Q is a mixture of ethnicities, colors, cultures, and monsters.

actors with puppets performing at a parade
The cast of Avenue Q performs "It Sucks to Be Me" at Broadway on Broadway, September 10th 2006. Photo by Michael Schamis. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The production has been cited as a zeitgeist of our society’s social progress, exhorting both self-acceptance and pluralistic inclusion, as we strive for a common morality. But what happens when the musical plays Main Street, when communities that have a tradition of marginalizing and suppressing the Other decide to produce the musical at the local level?

I had the opportunity to watch one such local production performed by a Greenville, South Carolina, theater company in 2014. In this production, with the exception of the actress playing Gary Coleman (the now deceased child actor from Different Strokes), the musical featured an all-white cast performing a variety of characters representing human beings and puppets of myriad races, ethnicities, and ilk of monsters.

Being late, I was fortunate to land in a seat stage left, which was positioned perpendicular to both the stage and the audience, allowing me a view of the interplay between the two. In songs like “The Internet is for Porn” and “If You Were Gay,” I witnessed intense laughter in the audience, but also quite a few uncomfortable wives who dropped their heads or grabbed for a husband’s hand at references to porn and closeted homosexuality—The New York Times recently featured the latter in “Where the Closet is Still Common,” exposing that in a typical Southern state there are 50 percent more Google searches inquiring “is my husband gay?” than in more tolerant areas in America; one might imagine that number could be much higher among the theater going set.

As the characters developed, I was taken aback by the introduction of Christmas Eve, an Asian immigrant character played by a white actress. The sight was redolent of Mickey Rooney playing the character Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but in this case the actress, in pajamas, heavy eye makeup, and with hair sticks spiking out of her hair bun talked and sang with a high choppy tonal dialect short on prepositions. During intermission, I asked my party about this casting choice and they shrugged their shoulders. “This is Greenville. Maybe they couldn’t find an Asian actress?” Perhaps. But might they have brought such an actress in from out of town? After all, would the theater have resorted to black face if an African American actor could not be found to play Gary Coleman? Of course not. So what gives the company the right to do the same with an Asian character? This is fairly basic stuff. Coincidentally, I sat ten feet away from the one woman of Asian descent in the audience, about the same age as Christmas Eve. Instead of watching Christmas Eve sing-song her parts on the stage, I found myself watching this audience member and how she reacted to “Evelyone's a rittre bit lacist!” and “I know you are no intending to be, but carring me ‘Olientarr’... offensive to me!” Yes, this audience member did smile and nod at some of the jokes, but there was also a great discomfort about her as well, and at times she looked away or failed to laugh—perhaps a realization that she was the Other in the room. The joke was on her.

The most interesting part from my post in the wings was Gary Coleman’s song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” The song was a great success. In fact, the sea of white audience members seemed more comfortable laughing at this number than any other. As I watched Gary Coleman and the white cast juxtaposed with a white audience save three—a black couple and the aforementioned woman of Asian descent—I wondered, what exactly was funny about the song?

After the play, I raised this question to my theater companions, and all tried to explain to me the obvious humor behind the song. I nodded my head…yes…I get it. Of course I get it, but in certain contexts jokes lose their humor, and from my vantage point, I again had to ask myself what exactly was funny about that song being sung in historically racist Greenville, South Carolina?

This is not the musical’s first run in South Carolina. It has played Greenville and Charleston on a 2008 off-Broadway tour. In 2009 a national off-Broadway tour began in Clemson, South Carolina, whose eponymous university sits upon the slave plantation of John C. Calhoun. Though integrated since 1963, there is still work to be done. Tillman Hall, the building that houses Clemson’s school of education is named for a racist Governor (Benjamin Tillman) who was responsible for the death of five black men in the Hamburg Massacre. That same 2009 Avenue Q tour finished its run in Huntsville, Alabama, a city just forty minutes from Scottsboro, Alabama where in 1931 a group of ten black teenagers were wrongly convicted of raping two white teenage girls and only posthumously pardoned by the state of Alabama in November of 2013. I could fill volumes with such incidents—cases where justice has not been, nor will ever be served. But that’s okay because…as the song goes…“Evlyone's a ritter bit lacist!”

The problem with Avenue Q is that it is set in New York City, a melting pot in America—a place that some would even go so far as to argue is not even really America, much in the same way that Paris is not really a representation of France. In New York City, where race is part of the discourse, the jokes work to defuse racial tension. A city like Greenville, on the other hand, is not New York where the Other is the norm. Instead, Greenville is a town whose central high school, just two blocks away from this production, was first integrated in 1970s. Geographically, the town still has elements of demarcation consistent with apartheid. Drive up Cleveirvine Street from Cleveland Park, turn right on Nicholtown Road, and pay witness to the wall that divides white Cleveland Park from black Nicholtown. Think: Belfast. Think: Jerusalem. Think: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

 

A city like Greenville, on the other hand, is not New York where the Other is the norm. Instead, Greenville is a town whose central high school, just two blocks away from this production, was first integrated in 1970s.

 

There are people in America who suffer from a general reluctance to engage in discourse about racism out of a sort of “tolerance” for other’s beliefs and being, no matter how despicable. In Greenville, this tolerance is exhibited in the often-uttered phrase “that’s just how it is in the South…” Instead of challenging ignorance, this “live and let live” complacency mitigates social justice and community progress.  

Perhaps the song is right: “everyone is a little bit racist.”  However, it is our failure to address this problem that makes us wrong.

All things considered, does a white audience like the one in Greenville really have the license to laugh at such jokes about race? Before a local company or high school decides to produce Avenue Q, it needs to ask serious questions about its own city and how it addresses issues of sexuality, race, ethnicity, and gender. These problems of power dynamics obviously extend to the largely homogeneous cast and audience at the Greenville production of Avenue Q. Inevitably, the larger context of the play being performed in Greenville and its lack of color both in terms of audience and cast begs the question: is this funny, or is this racist? 

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I think this writer's missing the point of the song that more or less, racism can come from any general group. Dave Chappelle had a television show all about anti-white racism.

While I do agree with the author that a story is affected by the place in which it is performed, which also works against the assumption of "universality" often attached to plays that were successful in NYC, I do find the anti-South rhetoric off-putting. While historically the South had more than its share of racist actions, I would remind the author that race riots in NYC often occurred as well. The 6-day Harlem Riot of 1964, sparked by a police shooting of an unarmed black teen, sounds like it could have come from Ferguson today. Another 2-day riot occurred in Harlem in 1943, again caused by a police shooting. There was another riot in NYC in 1900. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s was sparked by a real estate war over whether black tenants would be allowed to rent in new apartment buildings built in Harlem. Furthermore, New York City was the center of slavery and the slave trade, as the New York Historical Society Exhibition "Slavery in New York" made abundantly clear. "For a phenomenon that should be common knowledge, the role of New York in the Atlantic slave trade is buried deep in the underground of U.S. history and outside of the consciousness of many New Yorkers. Each year thousands of students in the nation’s largest school system study the history of New York with hardly a mention of this city’s experience with slavery. Granted, slavery in America has traditionally been identified as a Southern phenomenon. Yet there were more enslaved Africans in New York before the American Revolution than any other city except Charleston, S.C. During this period, 1 out of every 5 New Yorkers was enslaved. At one point, 40 percent of colonial New York’s households owned slaves." (http://peoplesworld.org/sla... I think it is time for Northerners, and particularly people in NYC, to get off their high horse about racism and admit that their hands are not clean, and an musical like "Avenue Q" ought to cause as much discomfort in NYC as in Greenville, SC. --Scott Walters (a Northerner living in North Carolina)

I think part of it is that while the north has had racial issues, and anyone with half a brain wouldn't contest that as north, south, east, or west, we're still talking about America at the end of the day-- there's the belief/perception that, due to the diversity of places like NYC, there's a certain level of... tolerance, we'll say, and interaction that would appear to say that growth has happened. People of varying races live, work, and interact with each other daily. Whereas, in the south, there's still a divide. There are still communities that are ostracizing-- going off of the place the author presented-- and mono as opposed to poly or multi regarding race or ethnicity, which would appear, in this day and age, as if no growth (or very little I'll say) has changed. News headlines and the like don't help either.

I think you are right about "perceptions." The mass media has a narrative that may or may not be accurate. I have lived in NYC, NC, WI, MN, and IL, and to be honest, I didn't see much difference. Yes, in NYC there is much greater diversity on the street, but when it came to daily life, people self-segregated even more than elsewhere, because there were more like-minded people available. You didn't HAVE to interact with people who are different, except to brush past them on the street or exchange money to buy something. This leads to a belief that people are "tolerant," because it is easy to say you're tolerant while not actually having diversity in your life. (Particularly true of theater people, by the way, who are extremely cliquish). Take a look at the map published by Wired magazine showing the actual distribution of races in cities (http://www.wired.com/2013/0... and you will see that NYC is still pretty segregated. In a small town, on the other hand, you have to learn to interact with everyone, no matter their political beliefs, because you see them every week in the grocery store. I think it is pretty true that one of the things that breaks down barriers -- racial or otherwise -- is contact with actual people, so that the media stereotypes are counteracted by experience. I'll be honest: I find "Avenue Q"'s apologetics for racism pretty unfunny, and think it is designed to let liberal northerners off the hook. But I don't think the South has to carry the burden for past racism single-handedly -- there is plenty of guilt to go around.

The Book Of MormonRock Of AgesAvenue QWhat Do Those 3 Broadway Musicals Have In Common? They All Make Inappropriate Jokes And Comments. Have You Ever Listened To The Book Of Mormon? Cause It's Way Worse Than Avenue Q.... But Adults Don't Focus On The Racism They Just Laugh At The Joke And Wait For The Next. Have You Ever Seen The Office? It's Has Tons Of Jokes That Are About Racism, Sexist, and Homosexuality. Look I'm In A Theatre Comapny In My City. And I'm 13. And Even the kids don't care. After a performance me and a friend sang Everyone's A Little Bit Racist. We Get that all the jokes are bad but it is funny when they are in a movie or tv show and not in real life. If it was a real conversation then I would be mad but it's just made for laughs. That's all I have to say. And Just So You Know A Child Is More Mature than you.

Wow! The author wasn't kidding about the wall. Go to 101 Nicholtown Rd, Greenville, NC, in Google Maps (or Bing! if that's your preference). Note the lack of connections between Nicholtown Rd and Trails End on the map. Then check out street view.

If a theatre is going to cast a Caucasian actor in an Asian role, they need to do it without the makeup.

I've taken to specifying in my scripts that makeup to make an actor appear as a different race is not permitted. I'm curious what the contract and script for Avenue Q have to say about this sort of thing.

And yeah, an all-white Avenue Q would be weird. Do some other musical.

I dunno. Seems to be that an all white AVENUE Q misses the point. An all white RACISM can't help but give a different message than a multicultural cast.

(And that's not touching on the yellow face.)

Couldn't agree more with the other commenters, the only one with prejudices to be explored appears to be you. It's so funny how those that have been oppressed for all these years get a taste of power with the shifts that have occurred lately in what's it's OK to feel and believe and they turn into exactly what they've feared and hated all these years, just another set of oppressors on the other side. Just like the kids that got bullied, getting big and becoming bullies themselves.

Oh please. No. Amazing how the racists always come out of the woodwork to complain about being beat up on. It's not the same at all. Your culture is not being suppressed. You're not being physically beaten or killed. People pointing out problematic things to consider to make society better is not equivilant to lynching.

When a critic, or blogger, goes looking for a story he/she usually finds one even if it's only because the writer needs to find an angle for an article.

IF the audience had reacted differently (and obviously) to more urban audiences and the writer spoke to those who acted so and asked why, then your post would mean more than you exploring how YOU feel about the play in a Southern setting.

This article is more about your feelings about race projected onto a (seemingly) normal Avenue Q audience.

I had jokes like this in one of my first plays. I've stopped doing that sort of humor entirely. I keep coming back to "what's the point"? Am I trying to point out racism is bad? The non-racists in the audience already get that, and the racists are going to laugh at the joke for all the wrong reasons. Unless I can make the piece bullet-proof where it cannot give comfort to racists, I'm going to look for another joke.

I think unfortunately, even though this is a popular work it's highlighting that it has a bunch of jokes that shouldn't have been made in the first place.

So New Yorkers can't be racist. People from Greenville are automatically racist. A joke told in New York City can't be racist, but if the same joke is told in Greenville, it's racist. Got it.

Interesting assumptions.

So a white audience in South Carolina carries the burden of past racism more than an assumedly diverse audience in New York, and cannot or more appropriately is not entitled to laugh at an ironic treatment of racism because the simple fact that they live in South Carolina means they are more culpable for past racism.

Some facts to play against those assumptions:

- 83% of Broadway audience members are white. - According to the New York Times's recent study on migration, just 58% of South Carolinans were born there. (The same study notes that just 63% of New Yorkers were born in NY.)

The interesting thing about your post is that you see appear to see yourself as the "other" when it comes to judging the audience's right to enjoy the show and the company's right to stage it. You don't specify it, but it's pretty clear you're from New York (where it's OK to laugh at Avenue Q and OK to stage it). Perhaps it's your own biases that are the most interesting things at play here.

And while we're at it, why exactly would closeted gay husbands be more likely to go to the theatre?

Thank you for calling out yellow face. That practice is still seen so often in America today, yet it is horribly, horribly offensive to Asian American communities.

And there have been QUITE a few examples of yellow face here in NYC in the last few years. On Broadway in The Mystery of Edwin Drood - or MTC's The Explorer's Club. So we're not setting any great examples here.

This article suggests that the bounds of good taste are decided by elite, urban liberals who will inform the hicks what is and is not acceptable in performance. Isn't it enough that they are doing Avenue Q? Do they have any right to interpret the work in a way that might be different from how it is interpreted in New York or San Fransisco? Are people from the South and the Midwest headed out to the coasts to tell theater producers their work offends their sensibilities? Theater outside of major metropolitan areas does not require sensitivity police.

But things DO play differently in different places. I think that point holds true. For example, I've seen Athol Fugard's plays in New York, but what does it feel like to see his work in South Africa? I'm sure it's different, and I think it's a big part of what is good and right about LIVE theater--we are in a dialogue in real time with our audience.