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May 14, 2009

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malachy walsh

It is way too broad a brush to say an institution is "racist" because it produces a play in a venue you don't approve of.

Further, the argument you make - and 99 makes - is based on things neither of you know but you make assumptions about anyway. Among them: MTC isn't producing the play (currently) in the venue where you think it belongs because it's about black people and cast with black people.

You simply don't know.

And I doubt very much those are the reasons RUINED isn't in MTC's Broadway house.

Why do I doubt it?

For the same reason Ken did in an earlier post. If the theatre was racist, why would it produce the play at all? Or cast any black actors ever? Or support a black playwright in the least? (Support by the way which, in this particular case, has helped the author win a Pulitzer.)

Please note, I am not saying that I don't want to see this play on Broadway. I am also not saying I don't think there should be more work for black actors, directors and writers. Nor am I denying that broad cultural prejudices and pre-dispositions exist. And I am definitely not saying MTC shouldn't try to take RUINED further.

I feel, by the criteria the case by has been built on, that someone could also say, "Hey, MTC hasn't made any plays by John Belluso! They must be blatantly anti-handicapped people!"

There are complex reasons plays get produced where and how they get produced. Some of them are luck. Many of them are also based on subjective opinion. And some of them require hard mathematics coupled with guess work.

And, in fact, it's entirely possible that one of the reasons this play has done so well, gotten such great attention and continues to be extended is that it was produced in a small, more intimate space where it could create a lot of impact on its audience. Which is, of course, a guess on my part.

But if there is some subconscious effort at MTC to squelch Nottage's artistry based on her skin color, well, producing her play beautifully to rave reviews and sell-out audiences in NY where Pulitzer voters could see it, well, that is a very strange way to do it.

Mike Daisey

I think people are talking about the racism of diminished expectations and pigeonholing, which is a very real societal problem.

The truth is, diminished expectation or not the die was cast when MTC chose to align itself with a star vehicle, which irrevocably tied up its Broadway space for the spring. Once that die was cast it was over--they aren't going to alienate David Hyde Pierce, not at any cost, so once he was slotted in it wouldn't matter if RUINED was sold out every night and rainbows and unicorns leaped out of its ass--it's over.

Like so many things in the American theater, it's the economy, stupid.

As Isaac said elsewhere, it's about the decision early on to not put it in the Biltmore in the first place--obviously that was the wrong call. And I suspect that call was heavily influenced, and subservient to, projects that have marquee stars in them. I bet you a box of doughnuts it was never *truly* on the table in the first place.

I'd argue it's diminished expectations, but whether the causes are racism, economics, institutional blindness, or fear is hard to parse.

I'm sure they feel none of this at MTC. They are probably still very impressed with themselves for producing RUINED at all...

...and perhaps they should be.

isaac

Mike- thanks for clarifying my own post for me!

Malachy-- what mike is referring to is a comment I left here:
http://99seats.blogspot.com/2009/05/calling-it-like-i-see-it.html
where I talk about what I think were the business reasons why RUINED ended up staying where it did... which I actually think is in some ways a logical choice, but one that reflects the diminished expectations as Mike puts it that MTC would have for a show about female africans and rape.

I do think MTC's season next year should be a scandal. Two Donald Marguiles plays? Not one play by a person of color?

acting teacher los angeles

I agree that its important to know about what we have to consider regarding the nature of institutions,If the theatre was racist, why would it produce the play at all?

by: matthew

99

Isaac really beautifully expanded on my overall point here. As I said at my place, hurling the big ol' "R" word out there was probably not the most constructive thing to do, but I do think it's a part of this conversation and not a part we in the theatre talk about nearly enough. Thanks for taking the ball and running with it.

Malachy, I'm not mind-reading or, as I've repeated, saying that anyone at MTC is saying "Ugh. I hate those Black people filling up our theatres." Far from it. I think Mike's probably right that they feel like they did right by Lynn and her play. Given some of the realities that Isaac mentioned, they might have. Moving it might have been a bad idea. I buy that, and I'm not going saying that anyone who doesn't want to move it is a racist.

BUT the racial make-up of the play does play into the decision. And I say that because of facts about the production history of Pulitzer Prize winners and their moves to Broadway. Just today, The Tempermentals announced that it's moving to a bigger space. And that play hasn't won major awards (yet) or gotten the kind of critical praise that Ruined has. This isn't tea-leaves or entrails. It's what I see on Playbill Online. Tracy Letts' next play, which I believe did well by the Chicago critics, but received a tepid review in the Times is coming to Broadway from a strong run at Steppenwolf. Isaac asks the right question: why isn't MTC doing Lynn's next play? Or an old play of hers?

And, yes, I think it's absolutely fair to ask why more theaters aren't producing John's work. Why is he pigeonholed as a "handicapped writer" so much so that his beautiful, heartbreaking play, A Nervous Smile, which doesn't even feature disabled characters, is being produced by a theatre for disabled actors? You have to call it what it is: institutional prejudice. For whatever reasons they make up, these institutions, not the individuals who work there or even patronize them, have decided that these things are "risky" and don't do them. It puts minority writers at a distinct disadvantage and it's not something we discuss. Partly because no one wants to be called a racist, especially if they're not. But even the most open-minded people can miss the ways that they're institutionally biased against certain kinds of people.

99

I also want to say that my issue isn't that the venue is wrong, or even that Ruined necessarily belongs on Broadway or would even be helped by the move. I'm simply looking at the historical record, particularly for MTC, of how Pulitzer Prize-winning plays are treated and promoted. I'm emotional about this issue, because I loved the play and I'm a black theatre artist, but I'm also looking at this from the standpoint of a producer. If you have a hit on your hands, you look for ways to maximize its success. If there aren't obvious possibilities, you lobby, you make a fuss, you test the waters. This usually happens in public. That hasn't been happening. That's where I ask why.

I actually agree with you that calling MTC "racist" wasn't particularly productive or exactly what I meant. But do I think there's a glass ceiling for artists of color and other non-white-male artists? Absolutely. That's what I'm talking about. In some way, on some level, the end result of this appears to be that Lynn's play has reached its top level, while other, similarly regarded plays by white authors rose to greater heights. And it's something that can't be talked about enough.

But, also, Malachy, feel free to swing over to my own place so we don't have to use Isaac's comments as an intermediary.

isaac

I'm find with having the extra comments traffic. I think 99 says some things i was thinking.

To expand to talk about some other examples:

I'd also say that several playwrights of color I know have pretty conflicted feelings about the "Black Slot" in a theater's season. Many theaters, as everyone knows, have one slot reserved for a play by a Black writer, which is a mixed blessing. The positive side is that black plays get done at all. The negative side is that black playwrights are competing with each other for one slot in a season instead of competing across the board for one of 4-5 slots in a season.

Another issue is, of course, casting. Unless a role is specifically designed to be of a certain race (or a play has an author's note encouraging ethnic diversity in the cast) all roles in plays these days will be played by white people. Hell, sometimes roles with specified races will be played by actors of other races who look ethnic enough.

I'm glad we're talking about this issue, frankly, and I'm happy to have people with all sorts of different perspectives talking about it.

Mike Daisey

"Just today, The Tempermentals announced that it's moving to a bigger space."

It's going from a 40 seat space to a 99 seat space down the hallway in the same building.

Just so we're clear it's not such an event.

md

99

And I don't mean to equate the two, in literal terms. Just in the idea that a successful production is given a chance to reach a wider audience. And I know that MTC has extended Ruined six times, but the Barrow Group is moving this play quickly. That's the comparison I was drawing.

To engage Isaac's points, I feel like that's another side of the frustration here: despite winning the Pulitzer and being extended, Ruined doesn't seem to be rising above the "black slot." That's what I mean about the glass ceiling. If winning the Pulitzer can't break you out that spot, what can?

Adam

"I feel like that's another side of the frustration here: despite winning the Pulitzer and being extended, Ruined doesn't seem to be rising above the "black slot." That's what I mean about the glass ceiling. If winning the Pulitzer can't break you out that spot, what can?"

> And there be da rub.

Once of the best definitions of racism I have ever heard is: "the notion that you can only serve your own."

The tragedy comes if Ruined is seen only as a "black play."

The tragedy comes if a play by a European playwright is seen a universal while a play by a Latina playwright is seen as "culturally specific"

(and can I just say as an aside that it's a shame that we don't talk enough about Latino/a actors, Asian directors, etc. in these conversations)

The question becomes will other theatre institutions who produce a play like Ruined give it the "hit show/blockbuster" treatment or will they give in to their conservative nature and try to give it the "black slot"

99

Exactly! And exactly on expanding this conversation to include ALL theatre artists of color. That a play that plays well to ALL audiences is likely to get hemmed in is the tragedy of our theatre. And how do we break that cycle.

malachy walsh

I think it's clear I've responded to the specifics of the initiating posts and some very specific phrasing within those posts.

And since those initial posts, there's also been a general re-examination of what was said, how it was said and what the focus of the conversation should be.

And, 99, I do appreciate your considerations and reconsiderations of your original take on what's going on with RUINED. And I have read your posts over at your place.... I comment here because I just didn't want to disperse my thoughts. I hope you understand.

Anyway, certainly, the conversation we're having is much more helpful than the posts that started it.

And to speak to the direction of that discussion: Fairly or unfairly, a lot of the things being said here could be said of other theatres in NY - and elsewhere - when one looks at their seasons. (The Magic in SF; the Goodman in Chicago, etc.) I wonder though if the conversation itself forces everyone to look at every season from any theatre from a perspective that brings less, not more clarity, to its subject. So, for instance, when I look at the Goodman's season and I see a Jose Rivera play, do I see it as a play they love, or as the Latin play they had to do?

While Mike might win a box of doughnuts when he says MTC may never have even seriously considered putting RUINED in the Biltmore, they also didn't have to help produce the play. And since there are plenty of great unproduced plays sitting around, it's worth remembering they didn't have to produce THIS play at all. Which is to say, it didn't occur to me that MTC produced RUINED in the "black slot" or because it was a "black play". That assessment has been made by others. My experience of MTC - as someone who was once a subscriber, who has also had experience with some of the staff and and who has also seen a lot of NY theatre - is that, whether I agree with their seasonal selections or not, they produce things they're interested in which they feel will also give them enough of a return on their money to continue producing work in the future. In part, attaining this goal means being around another year to make - perhaps - another Nottage play.

I don't how how to come up with a fair measure of whether minority voices are being heard properly and fairly at (and through) some of our larger institutions. As someone around here noted, Wilson's POV was developed in part with some thought that it was indeed impossible - and he may have been right. However, it's worth noting that a place like MTC (among others for that matter) is still trying, still producing and still encouraging. And, in the case of RUINED, to some success.

Mike Daisey

"And I know that MTC has extended Ruined six times, but the Barrow Group is moving this play quickly."

To play devil's advocate, extended six times is no chump change--it's pretty much the mark of success. It's a bigger venue and a bigger commitment than the Barrow Group, by far.

To delve into specifics for a moment: what could/should they do instead? I can't see any other paths available to them now.

The real question is: was it a good idea to tie up the Biltmore all spring with ACCENT ON YOUTH?

In all likelihood the call on that had to be made 12 or 18 months ago. That's how a star vehicle gets traction over new work--when it's very early, it's a lot easier to sell the star vehicle.

cgeye

Logistically, it *has* to be the slot play.

Think about it. If a rep company hires actors for the year, either it engages in nontraditional casting to accomodate several black women in classic/naturalistic works throughout, or it hires those women specifically for RUINED. Considering the economics we know, what's more likely to happen? Doesn't matter if it ran like OKLAHOMA, it's a play they'll sell to the black community, to subscribers, to liberals concerned about world events, and damn few others.

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