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.
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?