Black History Month: Chicago theaters need diversity gut check

February 1, 2011

WARNING: This article uses racial and ethnic epithets.

As we enter February, it's no coincidence that several mainstream theaters are offering plays featuring African-American actors and directors. "Mainstream," after all, refers to a theater which is white-managed and draws a mostly-white audience, except when the theater produces an ethnic-themed work. February being Black History Month, the time has arrived once again, and so we have plays about civil war in Liberia and civil war in the Sudan, and how a white boy and his adopted black brother grow up together.

To be sure, some mainstream theaters offer onstage diversity all year around and support the work of actors, directors and playwrights of various colors, but most still do not. It's a fact that the vast majority of Chicago mainstream theaters do not have anyone who is Black, Asian, Latino or Middle Eastern within their Upper Management structures. And it's no secret that several of our most celebrated ensemble companies took decades to add non-white actors. The color bar—to use an old term for the racial divide—remains only partially blurred, and it's a divide extending well beyond actors and managers, playwrights and directors: how many designers of color do you know? Or stage managers? Or theater critics for that matter?

The racial realities of Chicago theater are particularly pointed this year—at least to me—because Black History Month comes immediately after the announcement that a new edition of Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" will remove the words "nigger" and "injun." At last NewSouth (sic) Books and alleged Twain expert Alan Gribben have done what decades of completely misguided protest have failed to achieve: they have taken a great and historic work of American fiction and social attitude, and forcibly hauled it back to the early 19th Century to be gutted and Bowdlerized.

If you cannot tell my opinion from the preceding paragraph, I'll make it absolutely clear: this new version of Twain is wrong, stupid, artistically destructive, an insult to intellectual process and does absolutely nothing to further racial or social harmony or justice in the United States. It caters to thoughtless and knee-jerk concepts of Political Correctness, and perhaps yields as well to the loudest and most manipulative voices of reverse racism (and, surely, we have enough of that in Chicago electoral politics).

However, the new Twain does make me think how theater has changed over the years in its attitude toward "The N-Word." There certainly are many elderly theater-goers who remember when the second balcony of large playhouses was called "N-word Heaven" and often had a separate entrance and staircase so its patrons would not pass through the theater's main lobby. I can cite, too, uses of the N-word in the original lyrics for Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" and Oscar Hammerstein's "Show Boat," written respectively in 1885 (the very year "Huckleberry Finn" was published in the US) and 1927, and long ago changed to more innocuous word choices. Similarly, the N-word in Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie" long since was altered to the only-slightly-less-loaded "colored boy."

There is, of course, a big, big difference between the above examples and "Huck Finn." In the theater works cited, the N-word was a fleeting word choice of secondary or, really, tertiary importance. Replacing it with another word did not fundamentally damage the social context of the works, or alter the relationship between two principal characters as the current editors of "Huck Finn" have done. They seem not to understand this, or perhaps they believe their efforts serve some higher purpose.

Of course, the real problem with censorship—and that's what this is—is where does it stop? There always will be another person offended by something, and God help us all if that person achieves a position of power. For example, if "nigger" is offensive in "Huckleberry Finn," then shouldn't it be removed from the plays of August Wilson? Either a word offends or it does not, and the race of the speaker or writer shouldn't matter, especially now that NewSouth Books and Mr. Gribben have decided that context isn't important.

So, in order to be safe, we need to go through ALL works of literature  and remove not only [the n-word, but every other racial, ethnic and religious slur imaginable. AndJust we probably ought to eliminate demeaning terms for gays, women and Republicans, as well. And let's not forget William Shakespeare's "Hamlet," produced in 1601. I don't understand why scholars, directors, actors, critics and audiences have allowed his reference to "the sledded Polack" to remain unchanged for 400 years. Surely, it should be "the sledded gentleman of Polish extraction." And while we're at it, must Othello and Aaron each be a "blackamoor?" And must Shylock be a Jew? It's time to make them all Presbyterians.

Now, go see those plays about civil wars in Africa.