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TBA Online: News & Features: July 2017

Heat Wave

Thursday, July 6, 2017   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Brad Erickson 

Coast to coast, theatre this summer is hitting a nerve. From Julius Caesar in New York City’s Central Park, to Pass Over at Chicago’s Steppenwolf, to the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s new show Walls, the American stage is provoking a season of furious discontent. 

The Public Theater's Julius Caesar. Photo courtesy of the Public Theater.

By now, the hullaballoo over the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar is well-known: the modern-dress production features a Trump look-alike in the featured role, and the Trump-like Roman is murdered midway through the play (as all Shakespeare’s Julius Caesars have been for the past 400 years). Some in the conservative press (Fox News, Breitbart) cried a very loud “Foul!” and thousands petitioned two of the production’s corporate sponsors, Bank of America and Delta Airlines, to pull their support. Which the companies did even before the show opened. 

Theatre people will know that modern-dress productions of Shakespeare are about as common as ants on a picnic blanket. And many American versions of Julius Caesar feature stand-ins for whatever President is in the White House (the Bay Area’s own Rob Melrose directed the play featuring an Obama twin in a 2012 co-production of The Acting Company and the Guthrie Theater—a production which many have observed hardly raised a peep in protest). But for a good number on the political right, this summer’s Public Theater interpretation is beyond the pale. Why?

San Francisco Mime Troupe's Walls. Photo by

It’s difficult to say, but the rightwing press has also just slammed the San Francisco Mime Troupe for their new musical Walls which features a lesbian romance between an ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agent and an undocumented immigrant. Breitbart, weighing in, as with Caesar, before the show had even opened, was particularly incensed that the company had received $20,000 in support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Pass Over at Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

And in Chicago, a theatre critic with conservative views, the Sun-Times’ Hedy Weiss (one of the most prominent women critics in the country), is under fire from the theatre community itself for what many see as racist and biased comments. It’s an issue which her critics say has been brewing for years and has now come to a head in Weiss’s recent review of Antoinette Nwandu’s new play Pass Over. An ad hoc group of artists known as the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition (ChiTAC) launched a petition asking theatres to withhold comp tickets from Weiss (the petition would permit the critic to enter the theatre, just not for free). Thousands of artists have signed along with more than 60 theatre companies. 

Surrounding all three of the controversies are First Amendment worries and arguments around the role of the artist, and in Chicago, the role of the critic. Present to is a debate about funding: private philanthropy, corporate sponsorship, and public sector support. 

In Chicago, the artists behind the petition emphasize the right of their opponent to speak her mind. “The First Amendment protects everyone’s free speech from government,” said playwright Ike Holter, a founder of ChiTac, according to American Theatre. “This woman loves to have her opinion out there. We think that’s great… Literally the only thing is: We’re not going to subsidize it, we’re not going to become complicit in it. We’re going to ask for her to pay for her own ticket.”

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, publicly stated before the opening night performance of Julius Caesar, “We try to hold a mirror up to nature. It’s what Shakespeare was doing, it’s what we’re doing. When we hold the mirror up to nature, often what we reveal are disturbing, upsetting, provoking things. Thank God. That’s our job.” 

And it is the job of philanthropists—individuals, corporations, and governments, anyone aspiring to the role of arts supporter—to participate with the artist in the exercise of First Amendment freedoms. Bank of America and Delta Airlines stepped away from those freedoms. Even the NEA felt compelled to announce that none of its funds had gone to underwrite the Public’s Central Park production. 

“Philanthropy is a risk, because art is a risky endeavor,” Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s artistic director Tony Taccone observed in a written statement. “But when philanthropists withdraw their support of any project without a deeper recognition of both artistic intent and our fundamental rights, they abdicate their role as leaders in the community. They become reduced to frightened players in the marketplace, as opposed to enlightened guardians of culture.” 

New York City mayor Bill De Blasio was unapologetic about his city’s funding of the Public. “I think we have to remember in the city, we have a history on these issues of the public sector being asked to weigh in on the choices of artists. And I think it’s a very slippery slope and a very dangerous situation in democracy and the cultural process.” 

Regarding the role of the National Endowment for the Arts, Velina Brown of the Mime Troupe responded to the Breitbart coverage by noting that the NEA is not “the property of a given president…  The National Endowment for the Arts belongs to the people, all of the people. To the NEA’s credit a variety of artistic voices are given grants.” The writer of Walls and Mime Troupe member Michael Gene Sullivan points out that, “in looking back over our history of funding from the NEA our largest grants were during the Reagan administration! So… are these ‘patriots’ calling Ronald Reagan a traitor or unpatriotic for funding the Troupe through the ‘Reagan NEA?’”

The three controversies flaring up right now are part of a heat wave of fiery debate around the role of theatre in our nation’s public square. The temperature of the discourse is rising, but so is the attention being paid to the work on our stage. This summer, no one’s complaining about the chill wind of irrelevance. For that, let’s hope the warming trend has yet to peak.

Brad Erickson is the Executive Director of Theatre Bay Area.


Paul R. Hughes says...
Posted Thursday, July 6, 2017
Thanks for this. The arts are one place where we must not allow any abridgment of our right to deliver a political message, no matter what its content. Trump supporters and Fox "News" have gone ballistic about the "Julius Caesar" performance. But the insane irony that they don't grasp (or care to grasp) is that Caesar is ultimately treated in the play as a martyr and the victim of an unjust conspiracy, while the assassins all come to bad ends, having espoused democracy but used undemocratic means to remove Caesar.