The Business of Show Biz: Playing Politics
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
By Velina Brown
Q: I guess with all the political campaigns going on right now I’m feeling pretty tired of it all. Even in theatre some people make everything political. Since I’m not really a political person, I prefer to keep art separate from all that. Don’t you think some shows are just for fun and entertainment? Have you ever chosen not to work on a project because you felt it somehow clashed with your political views? Do you think that’s a valid reason to pass?
|Actor and career consultant Velina Brown.
A: Yes, I have chosen to do or not to do projects because of what they were saying or the feeling I thought they would leave with the audience. Anything that leaves the audience feeling apathetic or crassly reinforces negative stereotypes, I’m not down with.
First, an example of a show I did do because of what the show was saying: I did a Shirlene Holmes piece called A Lady and A Woman at Theatre Rhinoceros a couple of years ago, about two African American women in the late 1800’s who fall in love. This was a story I’d never seen before. We’ve all seen stories with LGBT characters who, in the end, are killed or kill themselves. These stories perpetuate the idea that if you are queer you will not have a happy ending like in the hetero love stories, where boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, the music swells, they kiss, roll credits—the implication being they lived happily ever after.
Often an LGBT character may get to have a nice, and even thrilling moment in the sun, but in the end it all comes crashing down, music swells, they die, roll credits. What was fresh about A Lady and A Woman is that the two women got to have the happy ending. If one them had hanged themselves or was dragged out into the street and beaten up or died from some botched “treatment” for their “problem”—as an LGBT ally, I would not have wanted to do it because I wouldn’t have wanted to be part of perpetuating that tragic image. I think it’s been done enough. Though, frankly, it may have been good for A Lady and A Woman ticket sales that people have been so exposed to the tragic LGBT ending; many audience members came up to me after performances and said the first time they saw the show they were so scared something bad was going to happen to the couple that they just couldn’t relax and watch the show, so, they had to come back, see it again and bring a friend.
I was especially touched when a brave African American eighth-grade girl who had founded an LGBT club at her middle school came to see the show with her mother. They both expressed how meaningful the show was for them. The mom said how much she appreciated that her 13-year-old daughter got to see a show with women who looked like her, leading a loving, happy life together. I felt proud to be a part of a show that was not only entertaining but important.
One could be oblivious to such things. But whether you feel like you are a “political person” or not, whether you think the shows you are doing are political or not, in my opinion they are. Stories and depictions of characters have an effect on the audiences that see them. Being unaware of that truth does not change the truth. Just like a person may have never heard of the law of gravity, and may walk around completely oblivious of the fact that what goes up must come down, it is still impacting them every moment, whether they consider themselves a “gravity person” or not.
So, in my view, if someone doesn’t feel comfortable with what a show is conveying I think that is a valid reason to pass. Whether one chooses to share with the director or producer explicitly why you are passing is up to you. In general, I don’t think it’s necessary. However, it may depend on your relationship with the director, whether they pointedly ask you for more detail in your reason for passing, or how egregious you feel the problems are with the piece. Sometimes a piece is just not your cup of tea. Other times you may feel a piece is so deeply offensive that you feel compelled to say something not only to the director but to open up a conversation with the theatre community.
And now about a show I didn’t do: The director did press me about what I thought of the script and why I was passing. I decided to tell her I felt that the script was conservative and racist, and that I felt the black woman character was simply a device created to spout racist ideology in the hopes that the writer would appear not to be racist. The director was surprised. But I just did not want to be the mouthpiece for the disparaging attitudes about black people—or women, for that matter—that the character was spouting unchallenged by any other character or the play. And the character didn’t change or grow beyond those attitudes. Theatre is a very labor-intensive, blood-sweat-and-tears endeavor. I had no interest in investing that labor into a piece that was basically saying, “See, this black woman doesn’t even like black people. So why should you?” Some years later that director said, “You know, you were right about that script. I just didn’t see it at the time. Thanks for being honest with me.”
So friend, do what makes sense to you. But I do think every choice matters.
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.