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Tonys Prompt Questions Of Race In American Theater
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. The Tony Awards are this Sunday. They recognize excellence in American theatre and you might be interested to know that a number of African-American performers and plays that deal with race are nominated for honors, plays such as "Clybourne Park," an edgy take on integration and gentrification in a fictional Chicago neighborhood; and a new interpretation of a classic, the Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."
And, even those not on the awards short list are making waves on Broadway, including a majority black production of Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire" and there's also "The Mountaintop," a fictional take on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last day.
We wanted to speak with two people who are inside the world of American theatre to find out how the African-American experience is being envisioned onstage now. Joining me is Kyle Bass. He is the dramaturge for Syracuse Stage. That's in central New York. Also joining us, Chris Jones. He's the chief theatre critic for the Chicago Tribune.
Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.
CHRIS JONES: Thank you.
KYLE BASS: Thank you. Good to be here.
MARTIN: Kyle, I'll start with you. We've spoken with a lot of African-American playwrights and performers over the years on this program and a lot of them have talked to us about the difficulty of finding meaty roles that interest or challenge them. And I just wanted to ask if you think this is, in some ways, a high water mark of opportunity for performers.
BASS: Well, you know, I think, when August Wilson was writing plays, one of the things that was talked about a lot was that his work created opportunities for African-American actors to inhabit realistic, meaningful, meaty, non-stereotypical roles. I think what we're seeing now is writing that does allow that. Whether or not we have writers who are writing from an African-American perspective or if we have European-American writers who are writing African-American characters, that discussion and what that allows the actors to do and the opportunities it creates - well, that's - I think that's a question.
MARTIN: So is this a glass half full, glass half empty evaluation for you? How do you think about the theatre scene right now?
BASS: You know, I think it's evolving. It's evolving like American culture and American society is evolving. We all thought, oh, you know, we have our black president - our first black president and so we are post-racial and that is not the case, actually. In some ways, I've never felt that I've lived in a country that was more racialized, at least in my lifetime, my adult lifetime, so...
MARTIN: And you feel that way about theatre, as well, or just about the society? Not just, but about the country, in general, or are you speaking specifically about theatre when you say that?
BASS: Well, you know, if we're talking about theatre, hopefully, we are talking about society, as well, in America, so I think, in both cases, that is true. Like with "Clybourne Park," we have a white American writing a play about race in America and that has to come from a white point of view and, to some degree, to my thinking, even the black characters are perhaps speaking from or acting within a white way of thinking about race.
MARTIN: Interesting. Let's talk a little bit about "Clybourne Park," which has been much discussed, even for people who haven't had a chance to see it. Chris, do you want to set it up for us?
JONES: Sure. Well, "Clybourne Park" is basically a riff on Lorraine Hansberry's great play, "A Raisin in the Sun." It has two very distinct acts. In the first act of Bruce Norris's play, you meet - it's set simultaneous with Hansberry's play and a lot of people who will be listening to this who know the basic plot of Hansberry's play, which is an African-American family on the south side of Chicago wants to move to an all white neighborhood that Hansberry called Clybourne Park; but those of us who live in Chicago, is pretty clearly a stand-in for Lincoln Park, which is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city.
And, in the play, one of the most famous scenes - a resident of the white residents' association, a representative of that association comes to the Youngers' house and basically says, you know, what will it take for you not to move?
In Norris' play, you sort of see the family that is selling the house to the Youngers, which Hansberry never really dealt with.
MARTIN: Interesting. So it's like a...
JONES: So that's the first act.
MARTIN: ...prequel. So it's like a prequel...
JONES: You might call it a simulquel or...
MARTIN: Simulquel? And then there's a sequel and then, if I could just sort of - and then there's a sequel where you fast-forward and...
MARTIN: ...a white family - a young white family - is drastically renovating a house in a neighborhood that has now become predominantly African-American.
MARTIN: And let me just play a short clip, in fact. It's up for a Tony Award on Sunday and, Chris, you are actually on the committee that awarded that script with a Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama...
JONES: That's right.
MARTIN: ...last year. Let me just play a short clip and let me just play - the clip that I'm going to play is one of the very few that I can play because it's a very - how can I put it?
MARTIN: There are a lot of - it's raw. So let me just play that and then, Chris, I'll get your take on it. Here.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CLYBOURNE PARK")
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (As character) Look, humans are territorial. OK?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (As character) Who are you?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (as character) This is why we have wars.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (as character) One group, one tribe tries to assert some territory and now you guys have this territory, right? And you don't like having it stolen away from you the way white people stole everything else from black America. We get it, OK? We apologize. But what good does that do if we perpetually fall into the same predictable little euphemistic tap dance around the topic?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2: (as character) You know how to tap dance?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You see? You see?
MARTIN: So each of you has a very different perspective on this. So Chris, I'll start with you. As we said, you are on the committee that awarded the script with a Pulitzer Prize. So tell me why you felt he deserved it?
JONES: Well, I thought this was by far Bruce Norris' best play. For starters, he's always been known in Chicago where a lot of his plays premiered as a sort of a satirist, you know, a kind of a guy who is very good at lampooning urban liberals with, you know, kids and SUVs and trips to Whole Foods and that kind of thing. But this play sort of for me went further than that in that it sort of understands, I think implicitly, that a lot of the roots of racial discord are rooted in fear, you might say. And he also links the way that race in America has long been linked with real estate, that the idea of neighborhoods in a city like Chicago where I've lived for 20 years, those two things are inextricably linked.
You know, you'll sometimes you'll walk through the streets of Chicago and you'll come to a dead end in the street and you'll think to yourself, why does that street not go through? You know, why can't I cross - why is there a barrier there? And, you know, you come to realize that racial divide was behind a lot of those barriers. So I felt that this, here was a piece that really sort of articulated the way in which, you know, for all this, you know, what Kyle was getting at early on, the smug assumption that we're in a post-racial moment is sort of nonsense because we still live in largely, at least in my city, in largely segregated neighborhoods.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The Tony Awards are coming up this Sunday. We want to wanted to take a look at the role of African-Americans in theater right now, the roles that they're getting on stage, the plays that are being written and produced about race or where race is a theme.
I'm joined by Chris Jones. He's the chief theater critic for The Chicago Tribune, that's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Kyle Bass, a dramaturg at Syracuse Stage, that's in central New York.
Kyle, I understand that you have very different feelings about "Clybourn Park."
BASS: I do. I read the play maybe a year ago or so. It came into my office and my original thought was hmm, you know, this doesn't feel like it goes actually far enough and it feels like the tap dance. It's still on the surface. That the situation that it sets up in and of itself has potential to begin to really delve the issue of race, but I felt in reading it that it didn't go there.
On the Tuesday before the play opened in a preview performance, I went to see the play and partly because I wanted in some ways optimistically to be proven wrong - that it plays, you know, much better than it reads. And I came away actually more disappointed because now vivified on the stage I felt that it just didn't go deep enough. It seems to me a play that's for jokes. And if the question seems to be we'd all be all right if we could just tell racial jokes in front of each other. And I...
MARTIN: Hmm. You feel it's still African-Americans or black people viewed through a white lens. It just kind of gives people, you know, let's just say it - white people permission to tell - to say racist raw things because the black people on stage are saying it back and that makes it OK.
BASS: That seems to me to be - that's the device being used and that's fine but it doesn't go further than that. It doesn't go far enough. It doesn't, and maybe I went looking for or hoping for some sort of opinion coming from the playwright about this and I don't think that it's there. I think the jokes don't begin to delve deeply this vast morass this issue of race, you know, in the country. And no one play can do it all, but I think the fact that it's, you know, it's popular, that it's receiving for the most part, you know, glowing reviews, I think that's interesting. That I think perhaps, says something about its approachability in that there's something rather kind of comfortable in this. But at the same time I think it keeps it from going as deep as it might go.
MARTIN: You know, it's interesting...
BASS: So that's where I was disappointed.
MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because that kind of leads to the other play I wanted to talk about, which was the - I don't know if reinterpretation is quite right, of "Porgy and Bess," which is also up for a Tony. You know, since its inception that play, opera, if you prefer, has had an ick factor, particularly for African-Americans but not exclusively. And in fact, we actually spoke with the star, one of the stars, Audra McDonald back in September and this is what she told us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
AUDRA MCDONALD: I know these are beautiful songs and there's a beautiful love story here, but I'm being told, by seeing these stereotypes up here, that I'm not being given the full picture. It's just - it's very difficult as an African-American to be able to come to it.
MARTIN: And this goes back, you know, you know, decades. I mean decades there were performers who would not, even when roles were very scarce, participate in this. And I just wanted to ask though, each of you, maybe Chris, I'll start with you on this...
MARTIN: ...if inevitably if you do deal with race in a serious way there's going to be an ick factor on one side or the other? What do you think?
JONES: Well, I think, you know, it's indisputable that this show contains, you know, one of the most gorgeous scores ever written for the theater. I think everybody can agree on that. And I think we could also agree that, you know, when it was first seen in 1935, to a large extent it really did rely on racial stereotypes. There's no question about that it, it's suffused with them, you know, and I think that's why it's always been very, very difficult in so many ways. And it's sort of historically been performed in a very non-naturalistic way, often by opera houses and so on, where perhaps by stylizing what went on that lack of comfort was made was ameliorated in some way. But in this production I think, you know, what they tried to do was offer a more naturalistic milieu and also to deepen these characters.
I think what, you know, Ms. McDonald was talking about a little bit there was that you don't have full enough picture of these characters. They sort of sit there like stereotypes in some way and I think they achieved that to some degree with this production but not entirely.
I, you know, it's interesting. I've been influenced by other productions of "Porgy" I've seen where the characters have felt more in control of their own story. I think the way to make this show work and to, you know, make it less of an ick factor - to use your phrase a little bit - is to really make these characters empower these characters in the actual telling of their story, if you know what I mean. I didn't feel that the ick factor was completely ameliorated in this production.
MARTIN: Kyle, what do you think? I mean are punches being pulled all over the place even now even when they seem not to be?
BASS: I think in theater that's meant for deep kind of commercial thirst and diet. I think theater makers feel like they can really only go so far with marketability of topic and intent of a piece. So yes, I do think that some punches are being pulled. And it's difficult because when you come to, you know, when you come to the theater and you hope to have an experience that is artistic and meaningful and entertaining well, you know, those three things, to do those things well all in one play is a high bar.
MARTIN: Well, before we let each of you go, I still want to push on the glass half full, glass half empty question. And I hope that's not too reductionist, but I'll embrace it.
MARTIN: There's "A Streetcar Named Desire," which is a majority black production.
MARTIN: I mean that's something. You know, we've seen theater companies flip the switch on "Othello," for example, right, flip the script on that and make "Othello" white and the rest of the cast black to kind of highlight interesting things. And we've seen different casting and or what we call colorblind casting in a lot of Shakespearean productions. That's something that we've seen in recent years.
Kyle, I'll give you the first words. I'm going to ask you first on this and I'll give Chris the last word. When you look at the totality of experiences that are available now, you feel encouraged, discouraged?
BASS: I'm encouraged, of course, I'm encouraged. There's some really exciting work being written. Particularly, there seems to be an emergence of African-American, young African-American playwrights coming up, more men coming up as well, African-American men bringing their voices into the theater. And so I'm, you know, I'm deeply encouraged.
And one of the things that I hope will happen is that the theaters find a way to be able to bring people to the theater who want to experience otherness onstage openly, to less coming to look for value, this better be good, I better like this, this cost me $40, but to come and take it in and experience it and be with it.
MARTIN: Chris Jones, I'm going to give you the final word.
JONES: Well, in the case of "A Streetcar Named Desire" on Broadway which, you know, set Tennessee Williams' play in New Orleans with a cast entirely of color, you can have a variety of views about that show, and I liked it a little more I think than most. But I do think this, it completely set to rest the notion that Tennessee Williams' writing belongs to, you know, white folks. I mean it absolutely worked perfectly I thought to have a cast of color doing that play. Williams is really, you know, kind of like Shakespeare these days. He's a poet who I think as time has gone on is more and more transcending race. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to me to have Stella and Stanley and Blanche to be, you know, played by actors of color, and indeed to be characters of color.
And the other thing about it was it was kind of a populist show. The night I was there the audience kind of cheered when I think it was Blair Underwood took off his shirt at one point, everybody went crazy around me. It was like that play had been sort of reclaimed by a different audience, a more of a broader audience who wanted to see stars on Broadway and wanted to be entertained. For me, that was a very positive moment, you know, a moment when you said OK, a play does not belong to anyone group on Broadway anymore.
MARTIN: That was Chris Jones. He is the chief theater critic for The Chicago Tribune. He was kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Also with us Kyle Bass, dramaturg for Syracuse Stage. He was with us from WAER, in Syracuse, New York.
Thank you both so much for speaking with us. We'll be watching on Sunday.
JONES: Thank you.
BASS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.