Can the Theater work for change?

October 2, 2011

"I want to ride without suspicion in national parks. I want to get seated at chain restaurants without waiting 25 minutes or longer. I want to give people the visual comfort of harmonious, racial integration without engaging in inane chit chat. Just like we see on TV. I want to have a white man by my side to back me up in academic, political and economic arguments." - from "Purchasing Power" by Ben Marshall 

The assignment was pretty simple and open-ended.

For the WBEZ Off-Air event The Art of the Political: Can the Stage Be More Than Entertainment?, we decided to hold a panel discussion on the topic and include (in the spirit of keeping the event lively AND my own personal passion for finding ways to use my gig to help support my theatrical brothers and sisters) three ten-minute plays dealing with race and class.

The All Call went out:

All plays must be limited by the following criteria:

• Playwright must self-identify as an artist of color
• Play must be ten-minutes or less in length
• Play must use no more than four actors
• Set constraints: limited to two chairs and basic general lighting

The best three (subjectively chosen by myself, WBEZ's Natalie Moore, and a few of my respected director friends) would receive $300.00 and the basic production at the event. The deadline (September 9) approached and by the weekend, I had received submissions from 48 playwrights.

The ones that were fine but didn't really hit the topic solidly (app. 40%) were all good in their own way but somehow - and here's a lesson for writers - somehow just didn't do it for me. The lesson is that choosing plays is a HIGHLY subjective thing and you may have written a great play but if it doesn't get under the reader's skin, it has less to do with your talent and more to do with the expectation of your audience. So, as hard as it may seem, it isn't so much a rejection of your work but a choice that that particular work just doesn't...work.

"After I verify my account with my birth date she asks, “do you and your husband enjoy “Chee-cago?” Here we go. Sure enough when I tell her I’m not married, there’s a deafening silence before she whispers “Oh, sorry, huh?” I do not need pity from some little desi girl in a sweatshop call-center, even if she is annoyingly polite." - from "Helpline" by Anita Chandwaney

The 20% of the plays that rocked, ROCKED. Part of my own agenda for the plays was as catalyst for discussion - after all, what's the point of politically-tinged theater if not to spark conversation? With a panel of Artistic Directors, the possibility of being stuck in a round table of artists promoting their upcoming shows is likely - not so with three ten-minute plays that ask hard questions about race and class in a predominantly racist and classist country.

To see the plays (and the discussion) you're gonna have to buy a ticket. For this post, I want to look at WHO sent me submissions and some interesting facts surrounding them.

49 Plays

26 NYC
15 Chicago
4 Washington, DC
2 Los Angeles
1 New Jersey
1 New Hampshire

17 were written for a black man and a white woman.
38 dealt with black racial issues (28 white vs black, 10 black vs. black)
7 dealt with Latino racial issues
2 dealt with Asian or Pacific Islander racial issues
5 dealt with black and/or Latino sexual preference bigotry

42 were straight forward "kitchen sink" narratives
3 were done in verse
3 were satires

1 was a piece that satirically criticized the very notion of holding a submission process reserved for "writers of color."

From what I could gather in the resumes sent (not everyone sent one) 29 had had their work produced somewhere before and, out of that 29, 13 were self produced.

So - the questions that, for me, beg to be addressed in this process are:

• Why only 'writers of color'?
• Why so few from Chicago?

"And we were reading aloud-- See, we're leading up to Civil Rights. And a book I assigned has some...it has some language. But I made sure every parent consented beforehand. Anyway, I instructed ALL of my students to use these..."replacement" words. Like "people" or "person" whenever they came to a naughty one." - from "On Principle" by Terrance T. Brown

When delving into the idea of political theater, while there are a million different angles to what makes "political" political, I believe that, in this country at this time, the most prevalent political nightmare we are witnessing is a resurgence of overt racial intolerance due primarily because our Fearless Leader is a Black Man with a Foreign Sounding Name. The constant slurs to the President that are racially tinged, the immigration debate, the open discrimination against anyone who looks Arab - in this day and age, race colors every aspect of our political life.

Further, even in Chicago, there is less produced work written by 'writers of color' than any single segment of our population by a huge margin. Especially on higher profile stages. Especially featured by a major media organization.

The plays chosen are “On Principle” by Terrance T. Brown, directed by Sydney Chatman (Tofu Chitlin' Circuit); “Helpline” by Anita Chandwaney, directed by Rinska Prestinary (Silk Road Theatre); and “Purchasing Power” by Benjamin V. Marshall, directed by Adam Webster (side project theater).

So, I hope you are intrigued and swing by the Victory Gardens Theater this Sunday (October 9) and join in the discussion.  Our host for the evening is WBEZ's Natalie Moore.  Our panel for the evening is Remy Bumppo's Artistic Director Timothy Douglas, Victory Gardens Artistic Director Chay Yew, and Teatro Luna Co-Founder Coya Paz.

When you arrive, make sure you grab one of our supercool Off-Air Event Series posters and a sticker drawn specific for the event.  The idea is that as you attend multiple Off-Air events, you "fill in" your poster with stickers and then, at the end of the season, take a picture of your (nearly) completed poster, upload it to our Facebook or Flickr page to receive prizes!  Cool, huh?  Email me at offair@wbez.org for details.