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Monday, January 9, 2012

Some Notes on the Recent Unpleasantness

The controversy over Tom Laughlin's blog post regarding racial disparities in theater has provided a good window into the ways in which both theater and broader discourse in our culture have gone badly off track.  Increasingly we are living in what can only be described as a society of outrage. Ideas with which people disagree are no longer, discussed, dissected and counterbalanced, instead they are delegitimized as inherently immoral, or bigoted.  Loughlin's interpretation of the data concerning race and theater attendance are flawed in ways I will discuss below, but there is nothing to be outraged at in his post.  A few days after Loughlin's post surprisingly blew up on Facebook, a reply from Ron Russell popped up on feeds, and his mean-spiritedness as well as his unwillingness to address the actual issues in Laughlin’s piece are quite telling, as is the outpouring of support for his attacks. 

The basic argument Mr. Loughlin makes is that statistics show that white people in our country are more engaged in theater than other groups, and that this is the case because theater as we think of it today is a product of European culture.  Mr. Russell's reply argues that these disparities exist because of limited access to theater, and that the moment minorities are granted equal access they will "wrest that form from the grips of lowly thinkers like you and me, and make it remember and fulfill it’s true purpose as a potent tool in our nation’s endless quest for equity and justice".  Both writers miss the point, and interestingly, they miss it for very similar reasons. 

Loughlin's biggest error is in drawing a distinction between African American and Western Culture.  African American culture is a part of Western Culture.  Just as Irish culture is a part of Western Culture, even though that island was the last spec of land to be integrated with the rest of Europe.  However, it is difficult to blame Loughlin for this error, as our society, and especially the more left leaning parts of our society, including theater, constantly hold African American or Black culture apart from the rest of the culture.  This is a trend dating back at least to the 60s (even further in the case of Marcus Garvey, for example), that  desires to maintain the purity of black culture, while at the same time integrating it into the broader "dominant" culture.  In the US black culture is vastly more vital to our society than Greek culture is, even though Greece is the cradle of our culture, so we can see that tenure is not the key to value in our so called "dominant" culture.

Mr. Russell is equally guilty of this mistake.  His belief that minority theater creators will wrest the form from lowly white thinkers is exactly the leftist, paternalistic racial ideology that leads to the character of the Noble Savage or the Magical Negro.  The notion that either in spite of, or as a result of oppression, the oppressed possess special powers to teach us good lessons, is as common in American storytelling as it is repugnant.  It places all of us, as theater artists, in boxes.

Perhaps though, the biggest irony of this whole kafuffle is that the basic premise of Mr. Loughlin's post is flat out wrong.  Black people go to the theater in droves.  According a 2007 New York Times article on the Urban Theater Circuit, which those of us who are old enough might remember as the Chittlin Circuit, attendance at these inspirational black plays is astounding.  One producer of such plays David Talbert estimates that he grossed $75,000,000 over a decade with 12 plays.  At around 30 bucks a ticket, that a lot of black theater goers who neither Mr. Loughlin, nor Mr. Russell seem to take into account.  Nobody takes Urban Theater Circuit plays very seriously (though 75 million dollars and lines around the corner probably take the sting out that disrespect), and that's a shame, because there is much to learn from this production model, even if it is not the re imagining of European theater that Mssrs Loughlin and Russell seem to think would represent a true embrace of the form from minorities.

There are important discussions to have here, but we can only have them with good will and calm heads, we must not invite, nor accept invitation to a discourse which divides us as creators of theater.  Rather, we must work together to solve the bigger problem, ensuring that theater is an important part of the lives of all Americans.  


At January 9, 2012 at 8:36 AM , Blogger Jody Christopherson said...

Nice writing Dave, discourse is much easier for me to listen to and process than outrage. thanks


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