Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Lost treasures

There’s something tremendously exciting about discovering a ‘lost’ play. I was at The Shaw Festival last week and got a chance to see their excellent production of Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother.

Hearing the voice of a woman playwright from 1924 writing about her own time was like finding a jewel from an forgotten civilization: it was both a signifier from the past and something of inestimable value today.

The reason I was in Niagara-on-the-Lake was very much connected to the idea of finding buried treasures. Last November, Cahoots was at The Shaw for a two week Playwriting Retreat. It was back then that Cahoots first pitched the idea of working together with The Shaw to expand their canon to include works from Asia, Africa, and South America that were written during Shaw’s lifetime.

Jackie Maxwell, the festival’s artistic director, responded very enthusiastically to the proposal. It’s clear from works like The Stepmother that she is very much committed to expanding people’s idea of what is the festival is all about.

Esther Jun and I sourced a number of fascinating plays for Jackie and company dramaturg Joanna Falck to consider for a modern adaptation. It was a treat to read through some unknown gems like Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office, Lao She’s Teahouse, and the major works of Chinese dramatist Cao Yu. (His 1937 play Wilderness is reminiscent of the epic vision of some of O’Neill’s masterpieces.) Translations tend to age poorly so some of these works are ripe for a talented playwright to re-adapt.

Last week, Joanna, Jackie and I discussed some of these works and we’re continuing to move ahead with a very exciting collaboration – one that will introduce new voices and new faces into a much-beloved institution.

I’m excited not only by the possible opportunities for diverse artists but also by the way this collaboration will bring new vitality to an important era in theatre history. So many of the themes of early twentieth century drama still resonate with us now in this new century: the rise and fall of empires, the role of the individual in society, the insatiable appetite of commerce.

And yet, virtually all of the voices we’ve heard from this era have been male and Eurocentric. What has been missing in this discussion are the perspectives from “the rest of the world”. Not surprisingly, in rediscovering some of these voices from the past we can draw remarkable parallels to the present. Then, as now, the story of the emerging world is incomplete without hearing all its voices.

Monday, August 11, 2008

More on the Race Card

Anna Quindlen in Newsweek has some interesting insights on how people use race and the allegations of racism as a wedge. An excerpt:
Using the term "race card" as a pejorative is almost always meant to promulgate the big lie that takes hold everywhere from the workplace to the classroom: that black men and women commonly use race as a bludgeon and an excuse, and that they will always blame failures or disagreements on racism.

No Middle Ground (or, A Corollary to Godwin’s Law)

In a previous post, I alluded to two major barriers to having meaningful, constructive dialogues about race. I wrote about one: the failure to distinguish between individual and collective acts of racism.

The other barrier is the absence of useful language to describe gradated acts of racism. We tend to describe racism as an either/or proposition when, in reality, racist behaviour acts upon a continuum.

The American journalist Julian Sanchez recently wrote a wonderful post titled Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist (which, coincidentally, is my favourite song from the musical Avenue Q) on his blog. Here, he describes what I’m talking about far better than I can.
Is it possible to be so opposed to racism that it becomes more difficult to root out racism?

Just follow me for a second here: What image springs to mind when you think of “racism”? A Klansman burning a cross? Adolf Hitler? George Wallace barring the schoolhouse door? Images like these are iconic, easy to invoke, and extreme. They remain current because they are potent illustrations of where racism leads; their ugliness, their repugnance, is manifest.

There are still, of course, sectors of American society where the crude racism of the epithet and the noose is casually accepted. But, happily, this sort of thing is largely beyond the pale in polite company now. And this makes it beguilingly easy to conclude: “Well, I don’t go around slinging racial epithets or fuming with hatred at this or that group. Therefore I can’t be one of those awful people. Why, some of my best friends…”

But the variety of racism more common today is more subtle than that, and in a way more pernicious for it, since the overt bigot is unlikely to wield much social power. It’s the subliminal reaction of the manager looking for a new cashier who, for some reason he can’t articulate, just doesn’t think the minority candidate seems quite trustworthy enough. It’s this person who we most want examining his own attitudes. But to do that means being prepared to start from the difficult premise that even he—educated, urbane, kind, and so on—may indeed harbor racial biases. Like Hitler! Like a Klansman!

Now, there’s an obvious way around this, though it should make us uncomfortable for different reasons. We could make a point of talking about race bias and stereotyping in a more gradated way. At one pole is the Klansman. At another, there’s that “typical white person” who is more guarded and alert walking past a black guy at 1am on 7th and V than he would be walking past a similarly-dressed white person.

The discomfort here comes from the thought that allowing these gradations entails licensing some forms of racism—regarding them as understandable, even acceptable. And for very good reasons, this is not the kind of conversation we want to have: “So, is this particular instance bad racism or sorta-understandable racism?” There are whole modes of thought we just want to be entirely beyond the pale.

Sanchez makes a number of excellent points. We don’t have the words to describe the vast middle ground that exists between the actions of a Klansman and the minor racist transgressions that almost everyone commits.

Consider for a moment that the term racist can be (and has been) used to describe all of the following situations:

While on the sidewalk, a person of colour comes towards you and you automatically steel yourself because you think he’s a panhandler.

An illegal immigrant working as a domestic is systematically abused and exploited by her employers who threaten her with deportation.

Although you’re a fourth-generation Chinese-Canadian, an elderly white woman prefaces asking you for directions by saying in a loud, slow voice: “Excuse me … do … you … speak … English?

A black teenager is dragged to death from a pickup truck by a group of whites.

A light-skinned Indo-Canadian actor auditioning for a role is told by the director (who is also Indo-Canadian) that the production is looking for “a darker-skin South Asian”.


There is clearly no moral equivalence between these acts and yet we apply the same generic term to descibe them. And though we have tried to use somewhat nebulous terms such as ‘culturally insensitive’ to describe less serious offenses, most discussions tend to escalate to the terms ‘racism’ or ‘racist’ all too easily.

In the process, we rob these words of their power. If we keep throwing around the term ‘racist’ injudiciously, it will cease to have meaning. Which really sucks because it’s a highly useful word to describe, you know, actual racists.

The classic example of devaluing words, of course, is the Hitler Card. Here’s an individual who was responsible for six million deaths and yet, any act of aggression invites a comparison to Der F├╝hrer. (Here’s the latest.) Godwin’s Law states: As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

I think we need to create a First Corollary to Godwin’s Law which goes: As a discussion about cultural diversity grow longer, the probability of an allegation of racism approaches one.

The ways things are going, it’s not hard to imagine future conversations sounding like this:

A:
Such-And-Such is a real racist, you know.

B:
He is?

A:
Totally, dude.

B:
Now, do you mean a real real racist? Or racist like a that last time you called that guy a racist and we all stuck up for you but then it turned out you’d never even met the guy and we all looked like douche bags racist?

A:
No dude, I mean a real real racist. A TOTAL racist …

B:
TOTAL? Wow, that’s serious, dude …


To avoid ridiculous situations like this, we need to hold each other accountable when one of us starts taking complex issues and stripping them of nuance. So let me start by pointing out a recent, egregious example of public Godwinning.

I call out … me.

In the fourth last paragraph of this recent post I stated that racism could be proven by evidence such as:

a letter to the country club chairman asking to kick out all the Jews, an “I [heart] Rush Limbaugh” bumper sticker, a KKK discount card (10 per cent off lawn crosses!)

See what I did there? In my zeal to make the standard for calling someone a racist high, I set the bar impossibly high (and got in a few cheap laughs in the process). Shame on me. Of course, it’s not that simple to define a racist. We’d all be lucky if it were that simple. Please call me on my bullshit when I do stuff like that. We can win this war through truth and reason and we don’t need to resort to specious arguments.

Despite the error of my ways, I still maintain that calling someone a racist, like the Hitler Card, is a nuclear option that we should reserve for those times when it truly deserved.

Conversely, to anyone who is reproached for cultural insensitivity, please try not to respond as if you are being branded a racist. Even if a charge of racism is ultimately easier to defend, no one is served by overreaction. A sense of proportion will prevent situations like this.

Let’s find ways of discussing the vast middle ground and prove Godwin wrong.

Beyond the Pale

Dear friends,

This is the first official entry in a continuing series of essays called Beyond the Pale (a title I freely admit I stole from Yvette Nolan’s excellent drama anthology – pick up a copy, if you don’t have one). I suppose technically, it’s the third entry since the impetus for these essays was an unfortunate incident which I’ve commented on twice previously.

And yet, I’ve chosen to start afresh because I’ve said just about all I’ve wanted to say about the aforementioned incident. I may occasionally refer to it in future posts for the purpose of illustration but I also intend to refer to other correspondences as well as to past productions, arguments, controversies – basically, a variety of things that have enraged and enlightened, discouraged and inspired me in my sixteen years as a professional theatre artist.

Let me start by explaining what I’d like to explore and discuss in Beyond the Pale. First, the underlying belief that informs every single essay is:

Canadian Theatre systemically discriminates against many worthy artists from diverse backgrounds and it is the duty of all artists to correct this historical imbalance. Theatre is bigger than any one of us and no one has the right to stifle its fundamentally inclusive nature. Making our Theatre more inclusive is not only morally correct, it is vital to the survival of the art form we love.

That’s my version of the Prime Directive. I’ll be coming back to it time and time again.

I imagine that the vast majority of you reading this agree with the Prime Directive (my version not Starfleet’s). If that’s the case, I’m delighted because it means that we’ve already discovered some common ground. And one of the central themes of Beyond the Pale will be that we can make lasting change if we start by finding common ground. Conversely, I will passionately argue that the petty invective and personal attacks that sadly seem endemic to most discussions of diversity work in direct opposition to the Prime Directive.

Now, of course, the Prime Directive calls for us to correct a historical imbalance and here’s where many of us will diverge in opinion. What are the best ways of achieving this? Why has change come so slowly? What are constructive and destructive ways to discuss discrimination? Why is it so damn hard to get people to agree on what discrimination is?

Beyond the Pale will be my attempt to answer some of these thorny questions. I don’t claim to have all the answers. Change will come collectively which means we need to share our thoughts and state our grievances in order to move forward. I encourage you to join the discussion through the comments link at the end of each blog. (Please keep it civil!)

In this series, I’ll try to refer back to art and theatre as much as possible because it’s far too easy to get bogged down in politics and forget why we’re doing this in the first place: because we all love telling stories on stage.

I’ll also do my best to fight my more pedantic impulses and keep the tone light and quasi-entertaining. Hey, it’s gonna be a long journey so we might as well have some fun along the way. Onward!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Racism vs. Institutional Racism

Hi all,

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had a lot more to say on the topic of race in the arts. Turns out in writing this, I have even more to say. (I believe I promised three follow-up blog entries after this one.) Stay tuned...

Jovanni


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Why make a distinction between the actions of an organization and the culpability of its members or, indeed, its leader? Because it is essential that we not confuse racism with institutional racism. They are not the same thing! Our tendency to conflate these concepts is one of of the two biggest barriers in having any constructive dialogue about race and the performing arts. (I’ll discuss the other barrier in a separate post.)

So what is institutional racism? The term was introduced by black nationalist Stokely Carmichael in the late 1960’s. Though it was initially coined to describe the systemic exclusionary policies of government agencies and universities, it is equally applicable to the performing arts. Carmichael defines institutional racism as "the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin".

Note the most important word in that definiton: collective. I’ll come back to this in a moment. First, I like to provide a concrete example of institutional racism in the theatre – one that clearly illustrates the difference between individual and collective racism.


In 2003, there was a global initiative called the Lysistrata Project. To protest the Bush Administration’s illegal invasion of Iraq, theatre artists around the world were encouraged to stage local readings of the classic Aristophanes anti-war comedy. There were several readings that took place in Toronto, one of them was a rental at Factory Theatre where I worked at the time. I remember going to see a rehearsal and being quite shocked to see sixteen Caucasian performers on stage.

What’s so shocking about this, you might wonder? Well, there was nothing in the artistic vision of this particular rendering that situated it in a culturally specific time or place. In other words, there was no reason to justify casting (or excluding) performers from a specific background. Given this, it’s not just strange to see an all-white cast, it’s a near-statistical impossibility. On this note, I’m going to put on my math geek hat. (It’s an embarrassing little beanie hat with a propeller on top. I rarely don it publicly for obvious reasons.)

Let’s create an idealized model where we’re casting our version of Lysistrata and we bring in an equal number of Caucasian and non-Caucasian performers. In our Platonic model, there is no talent gap so, statistically, there is a 50-50 chance that any Caucasian performer will be cast in our play.

But wait, you say. Even though the number of non-white citizens in Toronto is approaching fifty percent, there are way more Caucasian performers. Fair enough. Or, rather, unfair but undeniably true.

Also, is it right to assume there is no talent gap? Whoa. Talk about a powderkeg issue. Let’s leave that one alone for now; I’m going to dedicate yet another post to address it.

So, given the one undeniably true fact and the one contentious yet-to-be-debated supposition, we’ll readjust our odds so that a Caucasian perfomer has an 80% chance of being cast over a performer of colour. What do you suppose the odds are of having an all-white cast of sixteen? Even with the odds overwhelmingly tilted in the white actor’s favour, the probablity of having sixteen out of sixteen performers being Caucasian is just 2.8%.

Now let’s bring the Caucasian’s likelihood of being cast down to just 70% (still pretty good odds). The chance of casting sixteen Caucasians drops down to a tiny 0.33%.

Finally, let’s go back to our crazy, bong-induced Utopia where Caucasians and non-Caucasians both get cast exactly 50% of the time. The probability of seeing an all-white cast of sixteen are now a miniscule 0.0015%. That’s one time in 65,536. Even the Harlem Globetrotters’ opponents won more often than that. Hell, if you offered me 65,535-to-1 odds, I’d even bet on the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup.

So how did this happen? There must have been some nefarious agenda to shut out performers of colour to buck such incredibly low odds. And yet, there definitely wasn’t. I personally knew most of the sixteen performers. Some were (and are) very good friends. To call any of them racists would have been preposterous – certainly as preposterous as labelling Jackie Maxwell a racist.

So if the individuals in the collective were not racist how did this blatant act of exclusion occur? Here’s where we see the difference between racism and institutional racism – remember our Black Panther friend Stokely Carmichael?

In the case of this particular Lysistrata production, it was fairly obvious how the collective was formed. The links between artists were clearly delineated: X went to theatre school with Y who was at a summer festival with A, B, and C who was going out with D and so on and so on.

Two points can be gleaned. The first: Like tends to like. Nothing surprising here – we have a natural tendency to surround ourselves with the familiar. If we as artists always work within our tribes or divide ourselves according to race, there is no logical reason to assume that we will easily break out of our comfort zones and collaborate with one another. (A little corollary which I’ll expand in yet another post: it’s for this reason above that I’m slightly troubled by the way many mainstream theatre companies are choosing to “add diversity” to their programming. At Warehouse Theatre or Cardamom Theatre, the season typically looks like: White Show, White Show, Brown People, White Show, White Show. This cultural apartheid just perpetuates the Like tends to like cycle. More on this another time.)

The second point is much more important: A group of people who are individually virtuous and full of good will can sometimes do collective harm. This does not necessarily make them bad people.

This concept simultaneously liberates and implicates. It says that while no one person is to blame for institutional racism we all bear a collective responsibility to (if I may borrow Yankee-speak) make our unions more perfect.

For example, I’d like to assume that no one reading this is a proponent of torture or illegal detention. And yet, there’s a growing amount of evidence that the Canadian government – in the name of its citizens – has been guilty of extraordinary rendition and the suspension of habeas corpus. So as citizens, that sort of does make every single one of us torturers. Does that make us all evil? I can’t answer that. I’m not even sure it’s helpful to answer that. I only know that collective wrongs get amended by collective good will. Branding individuals as being good or evil can actually get in the way of creating collective good will.

This is why I am so adamant about not confusing the institution with the individual. If you think that the Shaw Festival is a racist institution, fine, make your arguments to support your claim.

But calling its artistic director a racist is an entirely different matter that you’d best not put in print unless you have real evidence. This is evidence: a letter to the country club chairman asking to kick out all the Jews, an “I [heart] Rush Limbaugh” bumper sticker, a KKK discount card (10 per cent off lawn crosses!). Merely running the Shaw Festival – whatever you may think of it – does not constitute evidence that an individual is a racist. If that’s all you’ve got, it’s a shameful and harmful claim to make in public.

More importantly, these kinds of careless individual attacks work at cross-purposes with the ultimate goal: making the arts more just and representative. A less temperate individual than Jackie might have used Bobby’s letter as a rallying cry to justify the perpetuation of an antiquated artistic vision. (Just think back to the Refugee Hotel incident or the Kimberly Glassco lawsuit.) A lot of exclusionary practices can be shielded under the rubric of artistic prerogative. If anything, we should be thankful that she has chosen to take the high road in responding to these charges.

I’ll finish by reiterating my point in the previous post: we don’t need these counter-productive distractions. Let’s find our common ground. To culturally diverse artists, I’d like to reassure you that many of the artistic directors of our larger institutions are aware that they do a poor job of representing minorities. We not only have a right, we have an obligation to question their programming decisions. But let’s stop giving them hateful labels – especially the ones who are trying to make a difference.

To the artistic directors I ask, what are you doing to override systemic discrimination in your organizations? Have you consulted with anyone in the diverse sector? Is the composition of your staff and your board diverse? Making change is tough. It’s a lot tougher if we don’t treat each other with respect.

An open letter to the membership of INCLUDE

Here's my response to a open letter that Bobby Del Rio wrote to the Shaw Festival's artistic director Jackie Maxwell on August 5, 2008.

You'll notice that I'm not providing a link to the original note. The reason I'm not doing this is that I believe it contains slanderous accusations which I've no desire to perpetuate. I sent my response out yesterday after a considerable amount of editing. In this post, I've included hyperlinks that reference the additional material I trimmed.

*************************

I was very disappointed by Bobby Del Rio’s open letter to Jackie Maxwell. I believe that it contained unfounded accusations that are damaging to individual reputations and to our collective desire to make the performing arts more inclusive.

I reject the notion that Jackie Maxwell is a racist. I have known her for more than ten years and nothing in my experience has led me to suspect any racist leanings on her part. Frankly, it depresses me to even have to put this down in print.

Branding someone a racist is no small matter. It is an extremely serious accusation that has led to lawsuits and job dismissals. The taint of racism can tarnish reputations for years. Thus, an accusation of racism must be held to a high standard of proof.

On what basis does Bobby call Jackie a racist? If it is based on personal history, I believe we are entitled to specific examples – otherwise, the charge is merely scurrilous. Is it based on third-party testimony? If so, I think that fails the standard of proof and more care should be exercised before applying harmful labels.

If, as I suspect, Bobby claims Jackie is a racist based not on her personal actions but on how he perceives her leadership of the Shaw Festival, I would like to offer examples that contradict his assessment.

In November 2007, the Shaw Festival opened its door to Cahoots Theatre Projects for a two-week playwriting retreat. They very generously housed almost twenty artists over a two week period. They provided the use of their rehearsal facilities and green room. They came to our readings and went out of their way to make us welcome. I came away with a strong feeling that the Shaw recognizes it can and should do more to open its doors to artists of all backgrounds. I sensed tremendous good will on their part to embrace diversity.

And even if one disagrees with my assessment, it is unfair and irresponsible to extrapolate the actions of the institution and ascribe any sort of personal bias or bigotry on Jackie’s part. What exactly has she done to deserve this sort of treatment?

I’m also saddened by the letter’s tone of confrontation because I feel it undermines some valid discussion points. For example, Bobby talks about the urgent need to seek new audiences. While I feel his pronouncement “ … YOUR COMPANY WILL GO BANKRUPT” is an oversimplification, I agree with its basic premise: theatre audiences are aging and must be replaced with younger patrons. Many young Canadians are first- or second-generation immigrants so it’s imperative that theatre make itself relevant to people from diverse cultures or it will languish. The ad hominem attacks also distract us from the many excellent questions that Andrew Moodie raised in his original Facebook posting.

I’m slightly puzzled why Bobby elected to take such a hostile stance in his letter. I’ve known him to be a pretty thoughtful person and his passion for inclusivity is unquestioned. So why assume a posture guaranteed to alienate? I’d like to give Bobby the benefit of the doubt and assume that he intentionally wanted to play agent provocateur or that he was willing to be a lighting rod for criticism in order to foster spirited discussion. Because if these were not his intentions, the accusations in his letter are flat-out ignorant. And since he speaks as the representative of an anti-racism movement, we appear ignorant by association.

Personally, I’m not interested in being part of a movement that uses character assassination as a means to an end. Bobby, I hope you do the right thing and either clarify your statements or offer Jackie an apology for the undeserved slight.

To those of you who know Jackie, I urge you to drop her a note of encouragement. I can’t think of a worse nightmare than having a thousand people told I’m some sort of bigot. If you disagree with Bobby’s actions, let him know. If you think I’m full of it, let me know.

But please, above all, let’s keep the discourse civil and be sparing with the R-word. There’s enough anger and divisiveness in the air and it’s not helping us achieve our ultimate goal: to transform our cultural institutions into a reflection of modern Canada.

Sincerely,
Jovanni