Final Shows and Some Final Thoughts

26 Jun
Kiss

Eddie Shields as Benji and Gideon Bautista as Kenny. Photo courtesy of Company One.

First things first: Kenny and Benji can get married now!

And before I get into this next thing (because I am going to get into it — some of you probably already know the “it” to which I refer), LOOK AT THIS RAVE FOR COMPANY ONE‘S EDITH CAN SHOOT THINGS AND HIT THEM!

Company One Hits Bull’s-Eye with EDITH CAN SHOOT THINGS (Broadway World, June 24, 2015)

Bostonians, you have three more chances to see it, so get tickets now and go!

I am grateful beyond words to Shawn, Ilana, Summer, Alexandra, Josh, Gideon, Maria, Eddie, and every other damn person from artistic/production staff to street team organizers/members for such an energetic, tender, and hilarious production of the play. Seriously, don’t miss it. They are having so much fun, and trust me: you want to be in a room with those people when they’re having that much fun.

Maria Jan Carreon as Edith.

Maria Jan Carreon as Edith. Photo by Paul Fox.

And now…

This post is going to get more personal than I usually am in this space. So if you’re here just to see what I’m up to, this is your chance to jump ship with my deepest thanks for supporting my work. I’ll see you the next time I’m at the theatre. For those who want more of a glimpse inside my world than even my plays allow, hold on to your hats. Not really, but maybe just put two fingers on the rim so it stays in place on a day somewhere between breezy and blustery.

Rodney To as Kenny and Amielynn Abellera as Edith.

Rodney To as Kenny and Amielynn Abellera as Edith. Photo by Michael C. Palma.

If you’ve been following or are caught up in the swirl of events that surrounded Company One’s production of Edith and a subsequent racially-biased review, then you can understand why I want to sit and chat for a bit. If you don’t know what went on, there’s a wonderful article on Howlround by Spencer Shannon that looks at the situation from a micro/personal point of view to a macro/socio-cultural one. It includes links to some questionable reviews and plenty of my thoughts from other articles and an interview Shannon conducted of me before any of this even happened.

Isabella Dawis as Edith, Matthew Cerar as Benji and Alex Galick as Kenny. Photo by Michael Daniel.

Isabella Dawis as Edith, Matthew Cerar as Benji and Alex Galick as Kenny. Photo by Michael Daniel.

Being Real: A. Rey Pamatmat and The New American Identity (Howlround, June 23, 2015)

Before you ask, I’m not going to respond to the review directly. I just want to talk more generally about the circumstances around which the brew ha ha brewed and ha-ed.

Last summer when I was up at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference for A Power Play; Or, What’s-its-name I was prompted by the Critics Conference attendees to discuss what bothered me the most about criticism of my work. I answered, without hesitation, “When critics don’t like my plays, they will often say something racist in the review.” I went on to explain that I didn’t mind if they didn’t like the play; I just didn’t understand why they felt the need to not like it AND say something racist/biased to make sure their dislike hit home. I also explained that it upset me even more, because the review at some point passed over at least one editor’s desk and is now published, which means the racism was not only practiced but approved.

Chicago

Luke Michael Grimes as Benji, Kevin Matthew Reyes as Kenny, and Aurora Adachi-Winter as Edith. Photo by Julia Dratel.

In the weeks before the review came out, almost every journalist in Boston that spoke with me asked some version of the question, “Why are your characters Filipino(-American)?” Nearly all of these questions were asked by friendly, intelligent people completely unaware of the inherently biased view in this line of inquiry: that unless there is an explicit dramaturgical justification for a character of color to appear onstage, they expect that all characters will be white. I was told that I wasn’t really writing Asian-American (or gay) plays, I was asked to point out why it was necessary for x character to be non-white, I was asked if ethnicity was essential to the story, I was even asked why I want to write about Filipinos/Filipino-Americans as though I should just be writing about white people. Members of the Company One and Huntington staffs would see me after these events and interviews with increasingly stunned faces (especially the white staffers) as they realized the extent of unexamined, casual — often even friendly or “complimentary” — bias that artists of color face.

Wes Gabrillo as Kenny, Nicole Javier as Edith, and Maro Guevara as Benji

Wes Gabrillo as Kenny, Nicole Javier as Edith, and Maro Guevara as Benji. Photo by Pak Han.

This is the context in which the review was received by us.

Once the overwhelming discontent for the review was expressed a piece came out in a different paper (an alternative news weekly, no less), that was literally a white critic asking a lot of other white critics how white critics should handle such “problems.” (I’m trying really hard not to make a connection to the phrase “The Negro Problem.”) Of course the conclusion of this article was that everyone was over-sensitive, nothing wrong happened, the critic’s intentions were more important than the system of oppression they “inadvertantly” supported, and that (white) critics are ultimately doing a good thing when they cause conversation (even if the cause of conversation is that they’ve done a bad thing). Notably, though, the article only included one half of the quote considered offensive, purposefully leaving out the part that affirmed the critic preferred (and found to be more believable) narratives for people of color in which they confront racism (e.g. narratives that are in relation to whiteness).

Well, after white supremacy has circled it’s wagons and has determined that it and only it can discuss race properly and people of color cannot, what’s an artist of color to do? Who knows?

But this is what I’m going to do.

Cory Michael Smith as Benji and Jon Norman Schneider as Kenny. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Cory Michael Smith as Benji and Jon Norman Schneider as Kenny. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

I know that there are people of color in Theatre and Theatre Studies programs all over this country. I know there are people of color in English Departments who like plays. I know there are people of color out there who just go to lots of plays as audience members. I have a request to make of all of you:

START WRITING REVIEWS.

Tim Smith-Stewart as Benji, Sara L. Porkalob as Edith and Jose Abaoag as Kenny. Photos by Paul Bestock.

Tim Smith-Stewart as Benji, Sara L. Porkalob as Edith and Jose Abaoag as Kenny. Photos by Paul Bestock.

Review every play you see. Blog your reviews. Post them. Link them. And don’t just review the work of artists of color. Review the plays of older, heteronormative, white artists (they’ll actually love it, because playwrights, generally, are awesome). Offer analysis for why white artists write characters that are white. Push for dramaturgical justification of plays new and old with white characters and all-white casts (because in today’s America, one usually does need to offer such justifications). If a white playwright’s parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents are immigrants, speculate why they aren’t writing about the culture that they’re REALLY from. Hell, most Americans had immigrant ancestors, so just always do that no matter how many centuries the playwright’s family has been in this country.

Not only will it be useful, it will probably be a hell of a lot of fun. More than anything, it will keep theatre criticism in its rightfully elevated position of shaping American theatrical culture and will slow it’s decline into being a marketing tool with no ambitions greater than taste-/king-making.

Teresa Avia Lim as Edith. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Teresa Avia Lim as Edith. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Thank you so much for reading. Now go see Edith before it closes!

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5 Responses to “Final Shows and Some Final Thoughts”

  1. John June 26, 2015 at 6:27 pm #

    Great post, Seeing it tonight here in Boston. Looking forward to it.

  2. John June 26, 2015 at 6:37 pm #

    A couple of days after the Edith review in the Globe came out, this review came out on a play that a theater company I co-founded (Boston Public Works Theater Company;www.bostonpublicworks.org) produced.

    http://artsfuse.org/129305/fuse-theater-review-three-equals-zero/

    I’ll pull the offensive quote out for you, regarding a character played by a non-white actress:

    “Jones is trapped because Sam is a blank slate, a nondescript norm against whom her friends are measured. In Act II, when it is suggested that her nerdy fiancé isn’t her type, it is puzzling. We have been given no sense of what kind of “type’ she likes, aside from a male with a penis. (Lazzaro believes that it is still transgressive for women to chat about ‘dicks’ on stage.) The character is so amorphous it is difficult to figure out if Jones was cast “non-traditionally” — that is, a black person playing a character who could just as well be white. Or is it that Sam is a black person who only has white friends? If so, why is it that she never once hints at any of the experiences of race that even affluent, educated, African-Americans might share when speaking frankly with their closest friends?”

    In other words, non-white actors can’t just be people, they have to talk about being black, race, etc.

    If you want to have fun and have some time on your hands, read the comments section and watch him defend himself. (Though you can probably imagine how it goes.)

    Sigh.

    I like your suggestions for non-white reviewers, but as a playwright and artistic director, all I can do is continue writing parts for racially diverse (or race neutral) casts, and casting and hiring diverse casts and crew, including race, gender, ethnicity, gender id, age (the one category always overlooked).

    Yours in solidarity.

    • Rey June 28, 2015 at 4:35 pm #

      John, I did see the review after someone posted a link of Spencer Shannon’s Howlround article. I hope that your show has been finding its audience, and I’m hopeful that the kerfuffle will make room for more intelligent, informed, and varied points of view in arts criticism. It’s time for theatre to catch up!

      And as for the work you continue doing, I completely agree. I don’t think you should characterize it as “all you can do” with such resignation. It’s exactly what we should be doing, so that the work continues to bump up against the boundaries and limitations that need crossing and questioning. It’s a great thing to do.

  3. The Memetrix July 19, 2015 at 4:16 am #

    Reblogged this on The Memetrix.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Do Not Stop the Press | A. Rey Pamatmat - September 23, 2015

    […] The review kerfuffle surrounding that same production got ANOTHER mention in American Theatre. This time in an enlightening and oh, so necessary article on unconscious bias by colleague-in-arms Joy Mead. Please give this one a read! Not only does it collect fascinating facts, but it gives you plenty to chew on when experiencing new work or selecting it for production. […]

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