Wednesday, January 14, 2009


From the Chicago Sun-Times courtesy of the Huffington Post news wire:

Drama, race collide at Goodman Theatre

Late Wednesday afternoon, hours before the opening of The Wooster Group production of Eugene O'Neill's play, "The Emperor Jones," at the Goodman, Third World Press sent out e-mails asking for a boycott of the show. It also had asked for a boycott of a panel discussion scheduled earlier in the day at the Chicago Cultural Center titled "Performing Other: Constructing Race and Gender Onstage and Off."

O'Neill's play, the story of a black Pullman car porter who flees the United States after committing two murders and sets himself up as the dictator of a West Indian island, has generated controversy ever since its initial New York production in 1920.

But it is the use of minstrelsy by Kate Valk -- the gender-crossing white actress of the Wooster Group who is playing the title role -- that has upset Bennett Jones Johnson, vice president of Third World Press. Third World Press is a Chicago-based publishing company that focuses on African-American issues.

Minstrelsy was the 19th century American form of entertainment in which white performers applied blackface, and promulgated some of the most disturbing of racial stereotypes.

More here.

Okay, this is quite interesting.

I saw an earlier version of this show in New York back in '97 or '98, same company, same concept--Willem Dafoe played Smithers in the one I saw; it was pretty cool being only a few yards away from a movie star. I really liked it; I was absolutely riveted for every single second. But I didn't get it. I mean, okay, I followed the story pretty well because the Wooster Group stuck to the text's dialogue, which is straightforward. But the production concept is very much about deconstructing the play in a sort of postmodern sense, more of a commentary on the play, and its place in American culture, both back in the 20s when it was written as well as today, than an execution of the play itself. Cool, in an absurdist way, but impenetrable as far as actual ideas and artist's intent are concerned.

Sure, there were a few notes in the program about race and gender, but nothing telling viewers how they were supposed to interpret a white woman in blackface playing a black man, nothing explaining the fancy Japanese dances the actors spontaneously jumped into, nothing explaining the use of video monitors on stage as part of the production. And I had an advantage over most viewers: at that point I had two degrees that are ideal for understanding this kind of longhair shit, a BFA in theater and a BS in radio, television, and film. When it was over, I was like, "cool, but I'm not sure what they were trying to do."

And that's generally okay. It's okay if I can't articulate my reaction to a given work of art. It's usually okay, good even, for a work of art to emotionally move me, to intellectually force me to think about the issues it raises, even though I'm totally clueless about what's actually going on with it.

But this show is different. It uses the extraordinarily powerful, and extraordinarily negative, image of a white person in blackface. And, lemma tell ya, artists must always be careful that the individual images they choose to work with don't overpower the work itself. My best example of this is lowbrow, but it gets the idea across: the suspense thriller Basic Instinct ruins it's own main plotline, an interesting murder mystery, by periodically descending into softcore lesbian porn--nothing wrong with softcore lesbian porn by itself, but the sexual imagery was stronger than the murder story, and a shitty mismatched jigsaw of a movie resulted. Now, Basic Instinct was clearly about pandering, while this production of The Emperor Jones is a legitimate work of art. But the same principle applies, especially when you factor in the confusing nature of Wooster Group's postmodern artistic choices. That is, assuming most audiences, like me, don't quite get what the production is trying to do, the offensive image of a white person in blackface used as an artistic statement comes dangerously close to being simply an offensive image.

Don't get me wrong. The artist's freedom of expression must be absolute. But artists must also bear responsibility for what they create. The Wooster Group should have seen this coming; without better explanation of their production concept, the blackface image takes on its traditional offensive nature. It moves from commentary on blackface and the social construction of race towards confusion and racism, even though that is clearly not the creators' intent. This is clearly a flawed show.

Really, most of the problem can be solved by simply including an explanatory essay in the program, which would cost about five cents or so. So why not? Personally, I hate artistic ambiguity, especially when you've got something important to say.

Kate Valk -- a gender-crossing white actress -- is playing a black man in
The Wooster Group production of Eugene O'Neill's play, "The Emperor Jones,"
at the Goodman Theater.