On Motherfuckers, Hats, and Race

Posted: December 8, 2011 in Braak, crotchety ranting, poetics, reviews
Tags: , , , ,

So, Stephen Adly Guirgis wrote a play called The Motherfucker with the Hat (I can write the whole title out, because this is a blog and not a newspaper), and a company in Hartford called TheaterWorks recently did a production, and cast two twenty-something white actors in roles written for two thirty-something Latinos.

There was, as you can imagine, a bit of a fuss.

Stephen Adly Guirgis has a statement about it up on his face book, here is a link.  So, I think this is interesting, and I want to talk about it.  And I want to talk about it for a lot of reasons, the foremost among them is that, while I feel like I agree with Guirgis, mostly, and the many incensed actors, directors, and theater artists who are speaking out on his behalf, I feel like my reasons are very different.  And, pursuant to the subject of reasons, I think it’s important to sort out the right reasons here, since the wrong reasons actually only exacerbate the problem.

The Wrong Reasons

“Respect for the work.”  This is a pretty big deal in theater circles; there’s code of artistic integrity, about how you have to adhere to an author’s intention for his script, and you can’t make changes without his approval, and et cetera.  But there are a lot of supporters on Guirgis’ behalf who shout about this one, and they say things like, “You should do the play the way Guirgis wrote it,” (or, peculiarly, they occasionally say that as long as the actors were acting like Puerto Ricans, then they were doing it the way Guirgis had written it, so there’s no problem; I think this is not only no problem, but TWO problems, as will be made plain).

So, here’s where I stand on this score:  I basically just care about plays being good.  Art is about as close as I get to religion, and so I guess if you believe in an ephemeral, transcendental, immortal truth, imagine someone telling you that the expression of that truth should be subordinate to the will of whatever priest happens to be sermonizing this weekend.  We don’t expect the priest to achieve transcendence, of course, but we’re hardly going to step back from transcendence because that’s not how the priest meant it.

Point being, I don’t care about things like laws or feelings or money (all of which is why I don’t get very much work), and I haven’t yet heard an argument about “respecting a playwright” or “respecting the integrity of the work” that wasn’t designed more thoroughly to protect money, laws, or feelings than it was to actually produce good plays.  So, I don’t think, “That’s not how Guirgis wrote it” is a good argument, because who cares how he wrote it?  What if my idea was better?

Worse than that, though, is that I think generally and IN PARTICULAR this specific case, the notion of the indelibility of authorial intent actually shields us from having to address the actual problem here, which is, practically speaking, kind of a much bigger deal than my own theories about primacy in artistry.

What Is the Real Problem?

Race.  Americans are terrible at talking about race.  We’re bad at noticing it, bad at understanding it, bad at articulating it.  And look how badly I just described the issue, huh?  Because actually NOT ALL Americans are terrible at this — our society is pretty bad at it, and why is that?  Because our society is mostly run by white people, and white people are really shitty about race.  White people are the SHITTIEST when it comes to talking about race, because we hardly ever have to notice it for anything, and so we’ve just got no basic frame of reference to talk about it.  And you know who runs the theater industry in America?  White people.

White people are crap at talking about race, and the problem with this is that race, and the issue that surround race, are real issues that are important.  Race, however much white people like to deny it, matters.  It’s a real thing, and it matters.  And every time we avoid talking about:  how theater is overwhelmingly run by white people, how white people — due to this dominance and probably subconsciously — have crowded out roles for actors of other ethnicities, how white people literally don’t get how the race of an actor might be relevant in terms of portraying a character… every time we avoid talking about those things, we fail at upholding the artist’s part of the social contract:  that our own lives, minds, souls, &c. will be subject to a clear and rigorous examination, which will not shirk clarity for contentment.

And the thing is, when we talk about how Stephen Adly Guirgis wrote the play for two Latinos, and that’s why we should do it that way, it lets us use this kind of arbitrary artistic rule as a way of excusing the fact that we don’t want to talk about the real issue, which is how fucking stupid can you be to not recognize that race is a serious and significant cultural issue that you can’t just ignore because you don’t like it.

Is It Such a Dumb Idea?

It’s a terrible idea, and it’s not terrible because that’s not how Stephen Adly Guirgis wanted the play cast, it’s because it doesn’t make any sense.  Well, I assume — and here I’m at a bit of a loss, because I haven’t seen the play.  Guirgis seems to acknowledge this notion, though, I want to quote him here:

This was not an “artistic choice” to go white and younger with these roles — and if it was, it was a terrible, exclusionary choice that goes directly against the logic of the script. It would have been nice if they had respected me and my play, but this is not about that.

So, right.  But there’s a difference between “respecting the work” and “respecting the author”, and especially there’s a difference between “making an idiotic artistic choice” and “disrespecting a play.”  You can’t blame idiots for making a fuck up of your play, man.  They don’t know any better, due to their being idiots.  I don’t know what happened here, because I don’t know the play or the people who worked on it, so I’m going to have to digress, in order to illustrate my point.  So, let me use this other point that Guirgis raises, and see if it leads us somewhere:

I believe in casting the best actor for the role regardless of anything — including race.

Well, I sure fucking don’t.


All right, now let’s talk about something I know a little more about:  Neil LaBute.  Just to be clear, I’m not talking about Neil LaBute in a non-biased way.  I’m basically incapable of not being biased about things, but at least I have the good sense to recognize my bias against LaBute:  I hate him.  I hate his writing, I hate his directing, I hate every comment he’s ever made in public, I hate his stupid face.  So, obviously, take everything I say here with a grain of salt, but before you start shaking, read this article the whole way through.

Now, let’s consider Neil LaBute’s notion of a “colorblind” version of Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, and let me return to my argument about how I do NOT believe in casting “the best actor” in the role regardless of race.  Or rather, let me clarify it:  I believe in casting the actor “best-suited” to the role, regardless of race, and see if that opens things up.

Let’s pretend you’re doing Raisin in the Sun, and you tell me:  if you had to cast the lead role (a working-class black man), and your choices were Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and Aaron Eckhart, who would you choose?  Well, Aaron Eckhart is definitely a better actor, so if you didn’t say Aaron Eckhart you’re a racist, right?

No, of course not, don’t be stupid.

Because the fact of the matter is are you seriously going to tell me that a black man portraying his emotional connection to a mythical African homeland is the same fucking thing as a white man doing that?

Now, obviously, you can make an argument: “what about blackface”?  And you’d have to predicate this argument on some kind of mythical blackface that doesn’t actually look like makeup, because blackface mostly just looks like an asshole pretending to be black because he thinks it’s funny, and even then I’d be hesitant — race, after all, is a lot more than just skin color, isn’t it?  It’s a lifetime of experience that informs everything about you.

But, of course, we expect actors to take on roles in which their personal lived experience differs widely from the characters they’re expected to play, so I’ll agree that,  as a thought-experiment:  maybe if you had a perfect system of makeup, maybe if no one knew who the actual actor was who was playing the role, maybe if you had a really consummate actor who was willing to question every privileged position he’d ever enjoyed in terms of race — sure, maybe.  But that’s impractical under even ideal circumstances, so I’m leaving it aside for now.

Race Matters — Mostly

Race, of course, DOESN’T always matter.  And, to complicate things, race also sometimes matters in a way that casting against race is actually a positive.  The issue is this:  for people who notice these sorts of things (re: not white people) there are a lot of implicit relationships between people of different races.  Those relationships, when applied correctly and thoughtfully, can map onto relationships in the play, and inform the ideas behind it in a way that also informs our understanding of our own society.

Sometimes, of course, they don’t.  So, okay:  Patrick Stewart did a production of Othello with “photo-negative casting” — that is, Stewart played Othello, and everyone else in the play was black.  This wasn’t a question of LaBute’s bonehead desire to not have to think about race ever:  “I like Patrick Stewart, I just wanted to have him be the main guy.”  There’s actually a valid point to be made in this circumstance:  that the notions that we have about racism are not actually race-specific, so much as they are a consequence of the natural human tendency to…I’m not sure if there’s a word for what I want.  I hope it’s not “Otherize” because that sounds stupid.  Let’s say “Alienate”, I guess.  The natural human tendency to alienate people who are different from social norms, so that’s a fairly interesting point, and one worth making.

Of course, it’s not always a point worth making — like, if someone had just said to you, “The systematic oppression and disenfranchisement of African Americans in America has had catastrophic consequences both on a social and individual level,” and a dude responded with, “Yeah, but you can be racist against white people, too” — well, that is not a valid point.  That is an asshole.

Anyway, the thing is that what you’ve got is a pre-existing relationship regarding race — a sort of basic cultural discrimination — that’s mapped onto an experience on the part of the audience that is, presumably a sense of social discrimination.  There’s merit to be mined from that, but only as long as you did it on purpose.  You can’t just say, “I don’t want to think about race, I’m hiring Patrick Stewart to be Othello,” and have that count as an artistic choice because, duh, it WASN’T an artistic choice, you just said you weren’t even thinking about it.

And Sometimes It Doesn’t

Mercutio was black in Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet, and I don’t think it made much of a difference.  I think it’s because there’s no pre-existing racial relationship that effectively maps onto the relationship between Mercutio and Romeo.  Juliet’s Hispanic nurse was a bit of a different story, but there are a number of ways to look at it — reflective of a reality that a lot of women who work as domestics (especially in Florida) are Hispanic; reflective of a stereotype that domestic service workers are Hispanic; a comment on the stereotype that domestic service workers are Hispanic.  All of this is why you can’t necessarily puzzle out an artistic choice based just on a casting decision, you’ve got to look at the whole production, and the cultural context in which it’s seated.

Which brings us back to Neil LaBute’s imaginary production of Raisin in the Sun, which he casts colorblind, with all white actors (obviously, this is not actually colorblind, is it?).  If he did this, then he would be a bad director, and the reason for that is that he is purposefully ignoring the artistic choice that the races of the characters present him with.  It’s not just that he’s trying to make a statement about the play, or about race (I once knew a guy who wanted to do an all-white male production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, and I thought that was kind of an interesting idea).  He just doesn’t want to have to think about race, so he’s pretending he lives in a world in which race doesn’t matter.

This is just crappy.  It’s just a crappy thing to do, because you can’t ever pretend something doesn’t matter if you’re acting or directing or writing or what.  It’s being disingenuous, in the first place — pretending you don’t know about something just because you don’t want to HAVE to know about something.  But worse, it shirks the responsibility of the artist which, as I suggested earlier: clarity, rigor, fearlessness.  The very fact that you think you shouldn’t have to think about it ought to be impetus enough to want to investigate it more deeply.

And THAT brings us back to The Motherfucker with the Hat.  You can do anything you want to, when you do a play.  You can set it on the moon or cast the whole thing with a flock of fucking geese.  ANYTHING.  Anything counts, everything counts.  But everything also MATTERS.  Everything that you do is a choice, and so:  it COUNTS.  If the play is about two Nuyorican guys in their thirties, and you cast two white guys in their twenties?  Well, you meant something by that.  And you didn’t mean, “two white guys in their twenties are all I could find,” because obviously that’s bullshit.

And if you don’t know what you meant by it?  Then you’re bullshit.

So, long story short: casting two twenty-something white guys as two thirty-something Nuyoricans isn’t bad because Stephen Adly Guirgis doesn’t like it, and he wrote the play; it’s bad because it’s an actual bad decision.  It’s not supported by the rest of the play, it challenges the race of the characters to no effective purpose (creating confusion where it needs clarity), it supports a system that already offers very few opportunities to Latino actors, and it confirms exactly the privileged perspective on race that the arts have an obligation to challenge.

  1. John Jackson says:

    Yay. Normally I dislike tyrades on racebending, but this one is pretty solid. (Spellcheck is telling me it’s ‘tirade’, but that’s just boring.) I like the concept of an unwritten BBC code to ‘colourblind casting’ but I’ve yet to fully understand how it is evident. Gwenevere is black in Merlin, and she is also a servant in the castle. It’s a bit more than odd that those two are concurrent. See, I’ve never really understood how one writes a ‘raceless’ character. Isn’t a character’s actions and personalities determined by his/her personal, cultural and socio-economic history? I find that my goal while writing is to make deep and complex characters who are informed by culture and race, but not a stereotype. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for a film-going audience to notice all the depth that defines said characters. Especially, when others write Crash and it’s praised for being so embracing of different cultures, instead of different stereotypes. Apparently, deep and complex means arbitrarily contradictory.

  2. “Alienate” — I don’t have my copy of Said handy, but this is basically just Orientalizing, isn’t it? Casting folks from outside cultural norms as inhuman or somehow basically “NOT US” is pretty well his main thrust (I think – my memories of grad school are a hazy, low-resolution blur of weighty tomes and babies).

  3. braak says:

    @Dale: Yes, though he was discussing it in the specific context of mid and far-Eastern cultures, and so I think “Orientalizing” also has some specific connotations, I don’t know if it’s best applied as a general term. But yeah, that’s exactly what he was talking about.

    @John: It is interesting; I just wrote a screenplay that is in the future, and is on Mars, and I realized that anytime I want to do a future story, all the people have racially-complex backgrounds: African-Chinese-Hungarian; Russian-Indian-Brazilian, &c. In this particular one there are kung-fu warrior monks, and so I wanted everyone in the movie to have some east Asian backgrounds except for those guys, who were straight Anglo.

    Which, anyway, the point is that the circumstances you can kind of not worry about race I think have to do with cultural distance: reinterpreting Shakespeare (in many cases), or, you know, the Future or something. Otherwise, yeah, how do you write a character without a racial background?

    (Well, you have to be a white guy, and therefore have spent your life mostly not noticing race, and therefore not aware of its profound influence on everything. See also: gender, sexual orientation, class.)

  4. Again, I’m not 100%, but I think Orientalising started out as a fairly specific term but came to basically blanket what you’re calling Alienization. Iirc, Said’s big break in theory circles came from a lengthy critique of Heart of Darkness where he first sort of described what would eventually become Orientalism, but in reference to a fairly specific example set in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is neither Far, Near, nor Middle East.

    Also, holy hell my theory wheels are rusty.

  5. braak says:

    That is possibly true; certainly, it’s a product of the same thing. I’m still hesitant to commit to it, just because of the baggage that surrounds it. So, I’ll concede the argument, but renew my position that we need a more accurate word for it, if that’s the case.

  6. I wasn’t aware we were having an argument. Dammit, I need to go back and get all petulant now!

  7. braak says:

    Well, I mean “argument” in the classical sense, in that it is a logically-constructed counter-assertion that I didn’t immediately agree with.

  8. Bah. I had a good petulant worked up and everything. Stupid internet making me think everybody wants to see everything as a damn fight.

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