Thursday, March 13, 2014

More on Cry, Trojans!

After my first point about The Wooster Group's new show (for the record, I'm generally a fan and admiring of their work and history), I was going to post in the comments of Bitter Lemons about Cry, Trojans!, and even started typing, but since this page has been so starved for content lately, I'm moving it over here. Sorry Colin.

Colin (who didn't see the production), writes in the comments of his most recent post on this issue--
would you say the show is intentionally racist or naively racist? Is the work an measured provocation or a wrongheaded embarrassment? There are other choices of course but you get the gist…
And here's my response--

There's definite intention in featuring Native American characters but not bothering to cast Native American actors. That said, I'd suggest, if there's racism, it's both intentional and naive. But then, Wooster's been accused of racism for various shows over the course of its 30-year history. Time Out New York published a good group interview about them for their 30th anniversary that delves into some of this history (among other things). Calling them naive is generous at this point.

Wooster's also quite clearly playing with racial caricature and considering Westerners' atrocities toward Native Americans here, so there's nuance in this conversation that can get lost in the outrage. I wouldn't call the show a measured provocation or a wrongheaded embarrassment, necessarily. It's just problematic, and not very strong as theater, frankly.

There seems a level of commitment to self- and group-exploration in the group's work that at times treats the audience as secondary, so I can't say I'm surprised that they could be caught off-guard by this sort of thing (if they were caught off-guard). I hesitate to use the word solipsistic, but it does come to mind. And I do believe that there are times one must be so tirelessly committed to the ideas of a project that it's detrimental to the work to become preoccupied by its social and political ramifications or potential for success with audiences.

But it's also not hard to bring a member of a minority group into your process for feedback at some point on your work if you intend to represent that group in some way. Most culturally sensitive artists I know do this on a regular basis. I know I do it.

Director Elizabeth LeCompte expressed resistance to that suggestion in a Q&A Don Shirley wrote about in LAObserved. Her reasoning is about as problematic as the show is.
LeCompte said a close friend - a playwright - had told her, "I wouldn't do a play like this without making sure I had a Native American in it." But, LeCompte added, "that is not where I live. I wouldn't do that. I couldn't do that." Then, though her language was vague, she appeared to indicate that she thought that adding Native Americans to the company would be seen as "who's at the party?" tokenism - "and that's horrible to me....Plus it's not about that. It's about everything bigger...We love the piece, we love the stories, we love the films, we love the people...We wanted to tell the story in this way and make it so big that this [lack of direct Native American input] wouldn't be a problem."
 God, where do I start? Honestly, her suggestion that her goals are "bigger" than such middling concerns as Native American representation, or ethnicity, is out-of-touch and belittling. She's comfortable using Native American caricature merely as a symbol to get at her company's loftier ideas about territory, nationhood, imperialism, etc., as if these loftier subjects don't often hinge on things like ethnic conflict? And as for tokenism, she decides not to cast the minority she's depicting in her play because she's offended by tokenism?

The more I consider the nuance the more outrageous it all seems.

I just wish they'd do Poor Theater again. I love that show.

UPDATE: I made a slight change to the above after publishing, as I don't want to be interpreted as calling The Wooster Group or its artists racist. While I'm happy using the term to describe various destructive individuals (and our society), I  wouldn't shove artists into that category who venture into challenging territory. Taking risks may result in offense taken, biases exposed. It's impressive to me that TWG is still taking these types of risks, and I continue to admire them for that.

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