OSF 2018 Part 2: How Do You Solve A Problem Like White Men?

(part one)

None of the program notes or publicity materials for this season’s shows use the phrase ‘toxic masculinity,’ but the concept saturates the season even so. Across the plays, the rage and resentment of white male characters is the corrosive force that causes communities to crumble. And always it is aimless, baseless violence, unmoored from any sense of proportion or logic– this season takes, in short, the opposite of Hollywood’s favored anti-hero tack, asking not what pain caused this anger, but instead whether there is any remedy for the free-floating rage of men who think the world should, by rights, be theirs.

Jud Fry (Michael Sharon), Oklahoma!‘s only true villain, is also the only (apparently) straight, white man amongst the named characters: the peddler Ali Hakim (here stripped of his clownishly racist trappings, not least through being played by Barzin Akhavan, who is actually Persian) is bisexual, Ado Andy’s father is now his mother, the local Federal Marshal and Will Parker are both black. His toxicity therefore becomes linked, just as it so often is today, with thwarted privilege: not merely that he cannot bear losing to or being thought less than Curly, but that he cannot bear losing to a black woman. He cannot conceive of the idea that he has caused Laurey’s fear of him by lurking outside her window at night. He is someone who has learned no outlet for his disappointment and frustration except violence– violence that will turn, as the noose he keeps in his shed implies, either against others or against himself. But by the end of his first full scene, it is clear he has chosen others. 

Oklahoma! ends with the frankly shocking implication that once they have made that decision– once they have decided that harming other people is the only way to soothe their own hurt– men like Jud must be permanently removed from the community one way or another if that community is to peacefully survive. It’s a radical and perhaps disturbing thought. Directors often want to resist the idea that Jud is irredeemable, and to see the ending as written as an awkward oversight in the rush to a happy ending. But it clearly seems to be what Rodgers and Hammerstein intended to suggest. Laurey’s kindness only made him feel entitled to her; Aunt Eller’s praise of his work can’t undo his past resentments. Curly mocks him, but mockery doesn’t justify threats of rape and violence. Recent productions (including, apparently, the one now bound for Broadway) have tried to play up sympathy for Jud and point a more skeptical finger at Curly and the eleventh-hour mock trial that acquits him. But that’s a reading Rauch’s production undercuts in part by casting Tatiana Wechsler as Curly. Just as contemporary political discourse makes Jud’s violent threat seem all the more urgent and frightening, who today (as I discussed in the previous post) is going to argue in favor of turning a black woman over to the police?

In Othello, it’s masculinity in all races that is, perhaps, too destructive to endure, which leaves the tragedy fittingly answerless. This production, also directed by Rauch, is not really one that has any answers for the suggestion that the play is racist and sexist as much as it is about those things, but set alongside Oklahoma!, it paints an intriguing picture of the ways the corrosive anger of white men eats away at communities that might otherwise remain whole. Unlike Oklahoma!, however, Iago’s power lies not only in his own toxicity, but in spreading it to others: Cassio (Derek Garza), drunk by Iago’s engineering, spews Islamophobic mumblings at Barzin Akhavan’s Muslim Montano and readily mocks Bianca (whom he otherwise seems to like) at Iago’s urging; Othello (Chris Butler), of course, murders his wife. The question that makes Othello so uneasy today is whether Iago is merely revealing the darkness that was already present in these men– in Othello’s case, a frankly racist implication, given the stereotypical associations between black men and violence– or if his power is to explode the niggling fears and petty weaknesses we all have into something strong and uncontrollable enough to destroy these men. But whether he engenders the spark of violence or only fans it, the seething envy and obsessive hatred of Danforth Comin’s disturbingly changeable Iago is the center from which the play’s darkness springs, the force that drags Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, Bianca, and Emilia– all of them, in Rauch’s production, people of color– into a spiral of destruction, the women just collateral damage in a crusade whose true purpose he refuses, at the last, to reveal.

In one of the more intriguing cases of cross-play casting this season, Comins also plays Jakob, a 17th century Dutch fur trader in Manahatta, a new play by Mary Kathryn Nagle. It’s not hard to imagine the destructive role white men play in a play partly about the Dutch settlement of New York and the native Lenape people who encounter them. Unlike The Way The Mountain Moved, the season’s other play to touch on interactions between Native Americans and white settlers, Manahatta doesn’t believe in good intentions. Jakob, like Iago, comes to represent how the most brutal betrayals come from the people you thought you could trust– from the white men who were supposed to be different than the rest. The play’s parallel plot takes place in 21st century New York City, and Comins’ character there is altogether more open, and might provide a spark of hope for a more harmonious future: he expresses a willingness to learn to be better, and actually follows through with it. But then again, it’s 2008, and he’s an executive at Lehman Brothers. There are all kinds of ways to ruin lives.

OSF 2018 Part 1: The Promise of the West

This year, several of the shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival begin by thanking not only the subscribers and members in the audience, but the Native American tribes who once lived on this land in Southern Oregon, the Shasta and the Takelma people. It’s fitting that the Festival’s commitment to inclusion has at last brought them closer to home, to considering the role of their home state in a long history of injustice. But onstage, this season’s plays that look westward propose a different, intriguing vision of what the American West can mean: they propose a lost, brief moment of promise. There was an instant, these plays suggest, when everything might have been different– when westward expansion might have been the beginning of something new, not the repetition of something brutal and as old as the idea of America itself.

This idea finds cheerful but surprisingly nuanced expression in Bill Rauch’s production of Oklahoma!, which changes the genders of two of the leads to turn Laurey and Curly into a lesbian couple (played by Royer Bockus and Tatiana Wechsler, respectively) and cowboy Will Parker’s (Jordan Barbour) beau into Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens), a boy who just can’t say no. Lyrics and pronouns are altered accordingly throughout, but nothing else is changed, including the other Oklahomans’ cheerful acceptance of these young couples– and of Aunt Eller (played by Bobbi Charlton and is not, according to Rauch, a trans performer playing a cis character, but a trans character). Wechsler and Barbour are both black, and the ensemble is diverse as well, including Native American actor Román Zaragoza (who, delightfully, also played a gay man in the early American West last season).

This idyllic setting is described by Rauch as “an alternate utopian community that reflects progress and acceptance for our time.” It is, obviously, a fantasy– though no more a fantasy than the original Oklahoma!, a vision of Western expansion that saw the fundamental conflict over the land as one between ranchers and farmers. Rauch’s fantasy of radical acceptance, however, lends a very different tenor to the show’s probing of the odd liminal space inhabited by people who will “soon be living in a brand-new state”– but aren’t yet. That in-between status that allows for Curly’s abrupt and highly dubious trial for murdering his rival Judd, a sense that they aren’t really, fully bound by the laws of the country they’re soon to be part of. For now, they can still handle things their own way– and when the crime they’re adjudicating is a black lesbian murdering a white man in self-defense, given what we know about the country they’ll be joining, it suddenly seems for the best that Curly isn’t hauled off to answer to an official United States judge and jury.

Idris Goodwin’s The Way The Mountain Moved, a gorgeously messy new play, does not tie off its threads so neatly. Exploring the intersection of various characters in the deserts of what will someday be Utah, Goodwin’s west is diverse and chaotic: Mormons, Mexicans, scientists, and soldiers collide and cross paths and force one another to question their purposes and desires. There is violence, and death: the play begins with a Native American man (Christopher Salazar) insisting he cannot continue to help guide the military forces of westward exploration despite his initial promise to do so, and ends with a woman (Shyla Lefner) clutching a rifle and insisting that only the weapons of the enemy can save them. And yet, as director May Adrales writes in the program, it is “a moment in history where America might have changed its course.” In the railroad he has been sent to help plan, a botanist (Rex Young) sees hope for a country united, for the triumph of the scientific rationality that argues that all races are equal, all cultures nuanced and worthy of study and respect. A pair of runaway slaves (Rodney Gardiner and Christiana Clark) steadfastly maintain their Mormon faith despite their church’s tacit tolerance of slavery, and use that faith as a bridge of understanding. A mother chooses loss rather than vengeance on the Native American tribe that may or may not have kidnapped her son. A soldier is transformed by an experience with the wilderness that he cannot explain. Suppose, Goodwin seems to ask, these people had shaped the future of the West?

Both of these plays primarily focus on white and black people– the play of the season that is centered on the Native American experience is partly set (fittingly) in Oklahoma, but partly tells the history of the Lenape in New York, and focuses on a much earlier stage of violent conquest. Perhaps the potential alternate future that these plays tentatively suggest is irresponsibly naive, and only able to be imagined when the Native American perspective is erased. Perhaps it’s impossible to do better the second time, once a country’s hands are stained with slavery and blood. I find myself thinking of the common liberal refrain these days, that this– (insert absurd and cruel action by our government)– isn’t who we are. Which can seem laughable: hasn’t xenophobic cruelty long been exactly who America is, exactly what it’s done? But maybe that statement is really a way of saying, this isn’t who we want to be. We can be better. And by that token, can it be a good thing to look backwards and say, we could have been better?

And yet, tellingly, both of these plays are set in a moment before the land they take place on was American land. It is, as Adrales and the characters of Oklahoma express, a mere instant of in-between– just a flash before, in becoming the United States, they become the worst of the United States, too. But first, maybe, there was a moment when it could have been otherwise.

Caroline, or Change & Nice White People

I’ve been wondering for a few months now why Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s amazing musical Caroline, or Change hasn’t been a go-to for theatre companies this season given its intense relevance to some of our most urgent social issues (the recently-discussed subplot involving the defacing of a Confederate statue not least among them).

Because Kushner and Tesori are amazing, the piece resonates on so many levels. One that I think is particularly urgent, and a bit subtler than the Confederate statue subplot, is its treatment of the role of well-intentioned white people in questions of racial equality. In Caroline, or Change, the family the titular Caroline works for are not your average middle-class white Southerners: they’re also Jewish, raising the still-timely question of how white people who have their own claims to oppression can still be complicit in white supremacy.

The achingly awkward Rose, Northern transplant to New Orleans, unhappily married stepmother to a resentful ten-year-old, and Caroline’s boss, clings to an all-too-recognizable attempt at friendliness in order to overcome her discomfort with the power relationship between herself and Caroline. Rose insists that her scheme to give Caroline the unofficial raise they otherwise can’t afford– letting her keep any change her stepson Noah leaves in his pockets when Caroline does the laundry– is her “trying to be friendly… just trying to be a friend.” But she doesn’t see any contradiction between her protestations of friendship and her frantic asides wondering why Caroline isn’t as nice as other people’s maids.

Rose is not one of the virulently racist housewives of something like The Help: after Caroline quits unannounced, her bewilderment seems sincere when she says that, “It’s just no way to treat a friend.”

The recurring word friend becomes a mask behind which white characters hide their discomfort and insincerity. While eulogizing President Kennedy, Rose’s mother and father-in-law describe him as “friend to the colored, friend to the Jew”– while the two black characters who comment are far less sure of that.

“JFK/Swore to help black folks someday/sure he was a little slow/getting round to doing so/but he swore it and I know/he was set to help our cause,” Caroline’s friend Dotty says. But the best she can conclude is: “Our almost-friend has gone away.”

Caroline’s daughter Emmie is blunter: “I ain’t got no tears to shed/for no dead white guy.”

Dotty and Emmie recognize that friendship is an action, not a title; something that is earned through behavior that demonstrates one’s commitment, not just something one can decide to say they are. Rose may claim to be Caroline’s friend, but as long as she’s Caroline’s boss (not to mention so painfully uncomfortable around her), she can’t be.

In a gesture that feels particularly radical these days, Kushner gives no extra credit for good intentions. Rose is held responsible for her ignorant bumbling, even though it’s well-meant, even though she’s far from home and sad and sincerely wishes she could help Caroline more. He holds Noah, her ten-year-old stepson, responsible for his racism, too. The show’s emotional climax is triggered when Caroline decides to keep a $20 bill Noah accidentally leaves in his pocket and Noah, enraged at the ‘theft,’ responds by furiously parroting racist threats he’s obviously overheard, or at least made up based on things he’s heard.

When Caroline does decide to return to work anyway, Noah hides from her. But in one of the play’s dreamy nighttime dialogues that take place between physically distant characters, Caroline reassures him that the rupture is not permanent. Noah asks, “Will we be friends then?”

Caroline’s melody is gentle and her words blunt: “Weren’t never friends.”

It’s the culmination of a recurring thread of her denying their friendship while Noah insists upon it, but it’s also clearer than ever in that moment that it’s true. But it leaves open the possibility that it could become true, if Noah ceases to hide behind that meaningless word and grows up to confront the deep cultural and systemic issues that keep him and Caroline apart.

Caroline’s friend Dotty says near the end of the play, “I know it hurt to change./It actually hurts, learning something new.” Dotty reminds Caroline of what Rose and Noah’s contrasting examples prove: not just that change can hurt, but that it must hurt. That’s the only way it can take place. Caroline has personal change to work through over the course of the play, but the weight of the painful personal changes that can lead to broader social transformation is placed firmly on the backs of the white characters. Politeness and protestations of friendship are meaningless without the courage to confront the prejudices, personal and social, that they’re attempting to paper over.

 

 

Casting Isn’t Blind

Carousel is coming back to Broadway! There are plenty of reasons to be troubled by this– its blithe defense of main character Billy Bigelow’s physical abuse of his wife being the glaring one– but this production has managed to add another. Billy– a wife-slapping petty criminal with a heart of gold who dies in an impulsive, horribly-planned robbery that he undertakes so that his future child “won’t be brought up in slums/with a lotta bums/like me”– is to be played by African American actor Joshua Henry, while his wife Julie will be played by Jessie Mueller, who is white.

Let’s make it clear right off the bat that Joshua Henry is exceedingly talented, and speaking purely in terms of musical and acting skill, I would love to see him play Billy. But can casting ever really be taken purely in those terms? Can we ever actually be blind to the physical bodies being used onstage the way the terms “colorblind” and “genderblnd” casting suggest?

As the title of this post makes pretty obvious, I think the answer is no.

One of Carousel’s textual cruxes of conflict is class. Julie and her friend Carrie both find beaux who are out of place in their working class community: Carrie’s wealthy fisherman husband is an ambitious prig, and Billy is seen as a shiftless criminal. While making him black in the bargain adds another layer to the New Englanders’ suspicion– is it racism as well as classism?– that additional complexity is one the show doesn’t actually have the text to explicitly deal with. And even if letting the play’s discussions of class become oblique references to race is effective, it comes at the price of forcing a black actor to play out a set of persistent negative stereotypes about black men: that they’re violent (especially towards white women), that they’re impulsive, that they can’t hold down a real job, that they are prone– through prison or death or disinterest– to abandoning their families. Billy is ultimately redeemed, sort of… but first he does a lot of things that require redemption. And it still only comes after he’s dead.

Even if director Jack O’Brien decides to create a theatrical world wherein the characters are “blind” to race– where it is not highlighted at all in production and is treated as irrelevant, the audience will still see it. A director can decide that race doesn’t matter, but they’re naive if they think the bodies of the actors onstage won’t still carry meaning for the viewer. The actors can ignore Billy’s race, but the audience will still see a black man slap his white wife.

I’m always interested in revivals that want to complicate the racial or gender dynamics of the original. But so often, it’s a case of introducing an idea that the text simply doesn’t leave room to fully explore.

On the other hand: Joshua Henry is really talented, and will probably be a great Billy. Doesn’t he have the right to play the role if he wants to? Isn’t there power in having a black man stand alone on a Broadway stage and sing one of the most famous solos in musical theatre history? Yes, definitely. But I think this case is more clear-cut than many (ask me about my conflicted feelings about a woman playing Aaron Burr) in that the things Billy has to do are already so troubling, and have such strong resonance with powerful negative stereotypes, that it’s hard to feel like the chance to hear Joshua Henry sing “Soliloquy” is worth it.