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TBA Online: News & Features: January 2013

Editor’s Note January/February 2013: Watching Little Brother

Monday, January 7, 2013  
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By Sam Hurwitt



I didn't really know what to expect when I went to see Little Brother last January. I was familiar with Cory Doctorow through Boing Boing, the blog he coedits, and through his online presence in general, but I hadn't read his best-selling young-adult novel on which the play was based. Nor had I made it to one of Custom Made Theatre Company's shows before, though I'd long intended to. On the other hand, I'd been following adaptor/director Josh Costello's theatrical endeavors off and on for quite some time, since I'd met him back when he was doing theatre in high school.



Image: "Spies” by Emory Allen on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Nothing could have prepared me for how much power the play packed. There was an obvious timeliness to the story of a government crackdown on civil liberties after a terrorist attack and the teenage hackers who get caught up in its net and devote themselves to subverting it. But that was combined in the play with wonderfully appealing characters and a briskly kinetic staging with some marvelously inventive touches. The young cast of three populated the stage with many characters, with everyone except the central protagonist Marcus playing multiple roles. And Costello managed to find a way to make texting look dynamic, with people typing on video in the background while the actors interacted and carried on the conversation as if they were speaking face to face. More than that, the story of ordinary citizens—minors, even—coming together to stand up for their rights and affect social change made the play not just entertaining but an active force for good in a democratic society.

Theatre Bay Area magazine has been publishing plays in its pages since 2005, specifically the winner of the annual Glickman Award for best play to premiere in the Bay Area, which we still print every summer. But a couple years ago we started publishing two plays a year. Every January we pick an outstanding new play by a Bay Area playwright to share with our readers. First was Chinaka Hodge's Mirrors in Every Corner in 2011, then Marcus Gardley's ...and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi a year ago, and now we're thrilled to bring you the full text of Little Brother in this issue, preceded by an interview with Costello about the project.

In other news, the last year or two has brought one casting controversy after another into the theatre blogosphere and Twittersphere, from white actors cast as Puerto Rican characters in Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherfucker with the Hat at TheaterWorks in Connecticut (not to be confused with our own TheatreWorks in Silicon Valley) to a play set in Imperial China, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's The Nightingale, with hardly any Asian actors.

The controversy is hardly new; David Henry Hwang has written not one, but two plays based on his own experience getting caught up in the flap about Jonathan Pryce playing a Eurasian character in Miss Saigon on Broadway. But the fact that people are speaking out more and more about yellowface casting and whitewashing of minority characters is encouraging, and it raises questions about any number of beloved theatrical traditions.

The Mikado, for example, is one of Gilbert and Sullivan's best-loved and most performed comic operas, and yet despite being purportedly set in Japan—albeit a fanciful version that's more a satirical swipe at British officialdom than anything else—it's never performed with Asian actors. (What, never? No, never. What, never? Well, hardly ever.) And don't get me started on opera. Blackface Otellos and yellowface Cio-Cio Sans in Madama Butterfly are still common; the most recent production of Otello at San Francisco Opera starred a white South African tenor who's played the role many times before. How is it that this is still okay?

Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman gets into some of these questions in a feature in this issue about the notion (or rather, the myth) of "color-blind casting." Not so much the opera thing, but I'm not going to let that stop me from harping on it here. Interestingly, Little Brother playwright Costello was Hillman's predecessor as artistic director of that same company, so there's a whole lot of Impact in this here magazine. All this and a profile of playwright Christopher Chen, a Q&A with composer Marcus Shelby, and more.

Coming up next in March/April is our Spring Preview issue. Season listings for that one are due January 9, so any company members who haven’t sent us their seasons yet had better get cracking.

Sam Hurwitt is editor-in-chief for Theatre Bay Area. He is also the author of The Idiolect, a blog about theatre, movies, comics, media and the decline and fall of Western civilization. E-mail