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January 31, 2012 11:28 AM   Subscribe

At Plano Children's Theatre, They've Shampooed All the Black Kids out of Hairspray
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! (125 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
The funny thing is, that part of Plano (near the old downtown and east) is more racially diverse than much of the rest. It's also poorer though, so few parents who can pony up that kind of cash to enroll their kids.
posted by emjaybee at 11:32 AM on January 31, 2012


My brain is exploding.
posted by hermitosis at 11:32 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Robinson said when he went into rehearsals for PCT's Hairspray, there were several black kids in the ensemble, but after a few days, they all dropped out for various reasons.

So, these reasons don't seem to be mentioned. It sounds more like a case of "the show must go on" than any overt whitewashing as the post title here would suggest. The story kind of hinges on integration, and the theater refuses to put black makeup on white kids (for good reason), so it seems like a rather silly situation all around.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:33 AM on January 31, 2012 [14 favorites]


"So why do a show with black characters in it if you know going in that you won't have any black kids to play them?"

I don't even know what to say to this. I'm sure the author had the best of intentions, but is it really a requirement that actors must match the character's physical description? I know it's problematic in this case, but the author seems to have an ax to grind or issues of their own:

"The girl playing Tracy is wearing padding to puff up. (This isn't a role like Cyrano where you can slap a big nose on a pretty face and get away with it. Tracy is supposed to be chubbo to start with.)"
posted by yerfatma at 11:36 AM on January 31, 2012


How can you put on a musical when you are this tone deaf?
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:37 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


yerfatma, the play is about the civil rights movement in the 1960s. This goes way deeper than matching an actor to an arbitrary description.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 11:38 AM on January 31, 2012 [11 favorites]


It's not so much that the author had an ax to grind as it is that she went into the situation fully expecting to be outraged, and dammit she was going to be outraged.
posted by Curious Artificer at 11:38 AM on January 31, 2012 [21 favorites]


My Canadian friends often ask me why I gave up my U.S. citizenship and left Dallas and have no plans to ever move back. Thanks for making the answer easy. Now all I have to do, is send them this link.

Sigh.
posted by Fizz at 11:39 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's not so much that the author had an ax to grind as it is that she went into the situation fully expecting to be outraged, and dammit she was going to be outraged.

How convenient for her, then, that the situation is outrageous!
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:40 AM on January 31, 2012 [27 favorites]


My high school play was Finian's Rainbow. We also had no black kids in town (nor even within 35 miles) to play the black characters.
posted by Ardiril at 11:41 AM on January 31, 2012


I think the casting -- and yes, the padding -- is totally beyond ludicrous and offensive, to the point where I actually would love to watch this production just to say I was there. And I bet John Waters thinks it's HILARIOUS.
posted by hermitosis at 11:42 AM on January 31, 2012 [15 favorites]


I'm sure the author had the best of intentions, but is it really a requirement that actors must match the character's physical description?

Well, it seems to be a requirement every time a person of color auditions for a traditionally white role, since that's usually when the producers flip out about AUTHORIAL INTENT ZOMG!! and also BUT THERE WEREN'T THAT MANY BLACK PEOPLE IN CAMELOT/FRANCE/THE AGE OF SAIL!!!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:44 AM on January 31, 2012 [17 favorites]


This seems like a case of making a mountain out of a molehill.
posted by gyc at 11:45 AM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


I support color blind casting, but it has to go both ways.
posted by andoatnp at 11:46 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


this writer's head would have exploded to see "west side story" in 1995 northwest arkansas as done by white 15 year olds. is there really so little going on in plano (where i went to high school) that she has to trawl the independent teen theaters looking for a story? it makes sense to get fucking pissed about whitewashing in hollywood - but in this case it seems weirdly petty - like they were turned down for a job or the theater didn't buy their script or something.

it seems like this is just a chance for everyone to get their hate on about whitewashing in professional productions (which is absolutely worthy of that hate), but this isn't broadway, this isn't hollywood, this is a bunch of kids.
posted by nadawi at 11:46 AM on January 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


My Canadian friends often ask me why I gave up my U.S. citizenship and left Dallas and have no plans to ever move back. Thanks for making the answer easy. Now all I have to do, is send them this link.

Sigh.


Leaving the country seems like a bit of an overreaction to disagreeable casting at a children's theater.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:48 AM on January 31, 2012 [47 favorites]


nadawi, does it concern you at all that this is an educational experience for young people in which they have learned that black people can be erased?
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 11:48 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


For White Girls (And Boys) Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf, brought to you by Halliburton, and Skittles.
posted by hermitosis at 11:49 AM on January 31, 2012 [8 favorites]


Leaving the country seems like a bit of an overreaction to disagreeable casting at a children's theater.

You weren't there for last year's production of Annie. You would have left too. :)
posted by Fizz at 11:49 AM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


Part of the movie is about whitewashing back music and dance, marketing them to white teens via the Corny Collins Show. The Corny Collins Show has the barest nod to the roots of the music and dance it is selling, in a way more offensive by having "Negro Day". A confirmation that blacks had been marginalized.This production has it's own nod towads the intention of the show, with the disclaimer at the beginning. Confirmation that the intent of the movie had been tossed aside. Ironic.

It is so strange, that you would whitewash a movie that is itself partially about whitewashing, that I think this is one of those times where you just have to shake your head and walk away.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:49 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Someone get ahold of the NAACP... or not. Call me when it comes out that they did not allow young black actors in the play, rather than none chose to participate. Otherwise, I find it hard to be outraged over such a facile article.
posted by P.o.B. at 11:50 AM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


PCT's season sponsors are the City of Plano, City of McKinney, Texas Commission on the Arts and UPS and that if each kid had to front $250 to be in this thing,

Wait, tax money goes to this but kids still have to pay? Institutionalized classism at its finest.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:50 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'd be offended if they'd removed the black characters from the show; I'd be offended if they'd denied black actors the parts; I'm vaguely disgusted with the notion of pay-to-play acting; but I don't see any erasure of black people going on here, just a lot of clumsy mismanagement. Which is not to say that the show as-staged doesn't have unfortunate implications, but rather that the appropriate reaction is to point and laugh, not get indignant.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:51 AM on January 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


For White Girls (And Boys) Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf

That has been done with all white cast before with Shange's blessing and appreciation.
posted by P.o.B. at 11:52 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think it's easier to be outraged if you start off with just a feeling that this is an awful travesty, rather than just a weird and awkward misstep, and then try really hard to justify that feeling. I tried it the other way around, and it didn't work.
posted by Edgewise at 11:54 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


According to the president of the board, they paid for the rights (which isn't cheap, and it's a small children's theatre so this is no small thing) and no black kids auditioned. Well, what would you have them do?

Wait, tax money goes to this but kids still have to pay? Institutionalized classism at its finest.

Almost all arts and most ed non-profits operate this way. State and federal money is never enough to cover your costs, so you have to balance it with earned revenue. I mean, universities still charge tuition, etc.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:54 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


And here I thought John Travolta was the worst thing you could do to Hairspray.
posted by argonauta at 11:54 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


> Wait, tax money goes to this but kids still have to pay? Institutionalized classism at its finest.

It probably is more so they can pay for more elaborate productions rather than any kind of imposed classism. I mean, it would seem to be there in a de facto sense but I think it's mainly just because schools everywhere in the US think they have to spend lots of money to put on shows.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:54 AM on January 31, 2012


That has been done with all white cast before with Shange's blessing and appreciation.

Really. Cite?
posted by hermitosis at 11:54 AM on January 31, 2012


C'mon, this is like a self-parody of hand-wringing liberal outrage.

They didn't have a chubby kid to play the lead, so they put her in a fat suit. How about we get our outrage on that the author casually tosses around the hate-word "chubbo" to refer to a Person of Weight?

They didn't have any black kids to play the black kids, so they should have … put them in blackface?
posted by kcds at 11:55 AM on January 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


"So why do a show with black characters in it if you know going in that you won't have any black kids to play them?"

Ok, but. Does the writer realize that the flip side of this sentiment means that black teens in school theatre could be made to feel as though they're not "allowed" to play white characters? Which, uh. They most certainly already feel?


So, these reasons don't seem to be mentioned. It sounds more like a case of "the show must go on" than any overt whitewashing as the post title here would suggest.

Yeah, I mean. This is so far from the whitewashing situation with the film version of Avatar: The Last Airbender as to be ludicrous in comparison. Once the theatre department of a high school has paid for the rights to something, I don't imagine they can get that money back or put it towards another play without PoC characters. And if no PoC students are interested in performing, or there are actually no PoC students in the entire school, then... idek. Then no one gets to have a school play that year? And then what? Do we forbid all-white or primarily white schools from performing works that have PoC characters? And now these white kids in poorly integrated communities will have even fewer points of reference for non-stereotypical portrayals of PoC individuals? I just. argh i hate everything.

I do absolutely agree that it is extremely unfortunate that this apparently wholly unintentional mishap happened with a show like Hairspray, which in of itself deals with institutionalized racism, though. And obviously blackface would be fucking grotendous.


every time i write PoC a part of me is thinking about pirates of the caribbean
posted by elizardbits at 11:56 AM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


I was all set to get mad about this, but then I recalled a couple of uneasy theater moments from my own past:

* My high school did Hair my senior year. We had to do a lot of editing in order to satisfy the school board (no, we did NOT do the nude scene), but one edit we took on on our own: my drama club was quite, shall we say, racially homogenous, and we had to severely edit Hud's solo number, because having a white guy sing about being a "jungle bunny" would have been really, really, really, really oogy.

* A couple years earlier, my community theater had done a production of Finian's Rainbow, which also featured a particularly white version of Missitucky. We did have a couple African-American cast members, but the ensemble needed to have more than four people in it, so they fleshed Missitucky out with some very non-traditional looking sharecroppers. I honestly thought, at age 15, that I was just playing a poor farmer.

In both these cases, the directors were including everyone who walked in the door when it came to the ensemble. Casting was done on the basis of merit, as opposed to any kind of racial exclusion (there's a small role for a young man in FINIAN'S RAINBOW who's supposed to be a graduate of Tuskegee University, but the only African-American cast members were a woman who didn't want a speaking part and her three little kids, so THEY couldn't do it and we had to go non-traditional).

I'm still a little dubious at the claims that "we started out with black kids in the cast, but shucks, they all dropped out," but on the other hand I also can imagine the director quietly panicking after he looks at the crowd of kids who've turned up to audition, and asked himself, "now what?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:56 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


As the immortal Bobcat Goldthwait once said to me: "Plano? More like plain ol' nothing!"
posted by item at 11:57 AM on January 31, 2012


seriously, Plano sucks.
posted by item at 11:57 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm impressed at the contractual stuff from the rights holder prohibiting blackface. that's *awesome*, seriously. And I like their note - suspend your disbelief and go with it.

I mean, there is a problem putting on a show when the cast is less racially diverse than the characters. Culturally, white folks playing people of color is much more heavily loaded than people of color playing white folks, but then there's a question of whether you're going to allow those constraints to limit what shows you can do.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:58 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hey, they make all manner of plastic shelving and coolers in Plano. Mainly because it's so bulky that it's still cheaper to make it here than ship it over from Asia.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:59 AM on January 31, 2012


It's funny she mention "Once on This Island" in passing. My high school did "Once on This Island" without changing any of the language and with color-blind casting (our Daniel was black, a good majority of the ensemble was white). A few of us white kids cast as Grand Hommes felt pretty dumb singing, "They despise us...for our blackness!" but, eh, what can you do. This production sounds pretty ridiculous, but I'm more likely to give leeway to an educational program with a cast comprised entirely of children. It's not like there are that many shows written for children to begin with, and "Hairspray" is a fantastic show. Something about the energy of it makes it seem particularly appropriate for children.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:59 AM on January 31, 2012


Help, I can't stop talking! - there's a lot to be concerned about as it relates to the kids in plano and seeing the world past their nose, but i don't think a single kids theater production is teaching them lasting lessons about whitewashing, no.

what do you think the solution should be? only ever put on productions with all white original casts? what sort of lesson is that sending? they didn't bar black people from the show. they didn't give the leads to white kids instead of black kids. a local teen theater that sounds like a vanity project in the first place put on one of the most used plays. i'm sure their "our town" was riveting.
posted by nadawi at 11:59 AM on January 31, 2012


Ugh, Plano. Plano (and the rest of Collin County, for that matter) is pretty much the epitome of every bad stereotype about affluent suburbia.

Robinson said when he went into rehearsals for PCT's Hairspray, there were several black kids in the ensemble, but after a few days, they all dropped out for various reasons.

Maybe it's just me but alarm bells were definitely ringing in my head at this sentence.
posted by kmz at 12:00 PM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think that if you're in a situation where it's tricky to ensure that you have a diverse enough cast, then you really should avoid plays where racial issues are THE MAIN POINT of the script. There are soooo many shows out there that would allow for essentially colorblind casting, and this ain't one of them. It was dopey and shortsighted for them to even try.
posted by hermitosis at 12:03 PM on January 31, 2012 [21 favorites]


It probably is more so they can pay for more elaborate productions rather than any kind of imposed classism. I mean, it would seem to be there in a de facto sense but I think it's mainly just because schools everywhere in the US think they have to spend lots of money to put on shows.

The classism is in the fact that kids have to pay a significant amount of money in order to access a publicly funded resource. This denies public money and educational opportunities to poor children. If you can't fund something well enough for everyone to access it, fund something else.

I would bet a million dollars that the people who run this school are pals with the people who decide where that tax money goes.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:04 PM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


nadawi, I think this single theater production is certainly part of their education, and certainly teaching them lasting lessons. I think that there are plenty of musicals they could do that aren't specifically about racial struggle that would have been more appropriate. This isn't just about white people portraying minorities: this is about white people depicting minorities who are trying to overcome oppression by white people. It's so ironic and tone deaf that I can barely even begin to unpack it.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 12:05 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm more willing to believe that there weren't enough black kids interested in theater (I went to a very diverse high school and our theater program was pretty white despite no particular barriers to entry that I could see) for a very small production to cast them. I'm somehow less likely to believe that there was a shortage of less-slim people.

But I'm not terribly bothered either way. Despite that general trend, our production of Fiddler produced a fair number of Black Russian jokes. And none of us were Jewish. (In those early days of being sociable on the internet, I was the only one who even had Jewish friends plural.)

Theater, when you're younger, is a very big time commitment and it's really easy, if you aren't playing a major character, to feel like you're not getting a lot out of it. I think it was really rewarding for me and would love to see a lot more outreach to get minorities involved, but all this says to me is that groups in areas that might not have a lot of minority students should never do theater productions that call for racially diverse casting, which includes a lot of things that involve very pro-diversity messages, and what kind of sense does that make?
posted by gracedissolved at 12:06 PM on January 31, 2012


My Canadian friends often ask me why I gave up my U.S. citizenship and left Dallas and have no plans to ever move back. Thanks for making the answer easy. Now all I have to do, is send them this link.
posted by Fizz

Believe me when I say that Dallas is not Plano and if you can'd differentiate the two then Dallas doesn't want you.

You weren't there for last year's production of Annie. You would have left too. :)
posted by Fizz


Ahh, I see. Annie is not equivalent to Dallas.
posted by item at 12:06 PM on January 31, 2012


People, people! Please!

Can someone calm down and explain to me why I should be outraged? Doesn't anyone know how hard it is to find a racially correct person to play Zwarte Piet every year? Or Balthazar? Some times you just have to go with who's available.
posted by jsavimbi at 12:07 PM on January 31, 2012


pay to play activities to shuttle your kids between is pretty much standard fair for plano. for people not familiar with the area, per wiki, "the median income for a household in the city is $84,492, and the median income for a family is $101,616." if you can afford to live in plano, chances are good you can afford the activities. there is certainly rampant classism there, but again, i don't think the kid's theater is the biggest evil to find within the city limits.
posted by nadawi at 12:09 PM on January 31, 2012


I think that there are plenty of musicals they could do that aren't specifically about racial struggle that would have been more appropriate.

Surely that's true. MTI has a great collection of Broadway musicals adopted for students. So much better than the schlock I had to do in middle school- 7th grade was "The Adventures of Lewis & Clark" and 8th grade was an ultra-cheesy adaptation of "A Christmas Carol", both with original, forgettable scores.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:09 PM on January 31, 2012


I don't know. I think there's an argument to be made for doing a show about the divide between two types of people based solely on a physical distinction with actors who don't display any distinction at all. If the characters are really all the same, and you can only tell who's supposed to be advantaged and who isn't by the actions and attitudes of other characters, I think there's kind of a point there.

Mind you, I don't for a moment think they were consciously going for that, but I think it would have been a good argument to make if you found yourself doing Hairspray and you had no black actors.
posted by Naberius at 12:09 PM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


Hey, they make all manner of plastic shelving and coolers in Plano.

That's Plano, Illinois. The article is about Plano, Texas.

/Transplanted Illinois Yankee who grew up in the Texas one and pulled minnows out of the Plano live bait container for Dad.
posted by romakimmy at 12:10 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, shit! I always thought that was Plano, TX.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:11 PM on January 31, 2012


They prepaid for the rights.

They casted from the population of youth/customers they had.

It's primarily for the parents and grandparents of those involved yes? I mean, it's amateur children's theater. Sure it's a little dissonant, but it's not as if they were turning black kids away. I see zero cause for outrage.
posted by pseudonick at 12:12 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


And there's about $8.40 worth of scenery, costumes and lighting going on. They use recorded music. Some of the kids sing and dance OK. Most don't. One stood upstage and picked her nose a lot.

Christ, what an asshole. These are children. White, Black, whatever. They're kids. This is not the writing of an adult and this is certainly not the best of the web. It's the chortling of a bully.

It's not even a coherent argument if the kids aren't involved -- theater has an incredibly long history of making do with whatever.
posted by effugas at 12:14 PM on January 31, 2012 [14 favorites]


Help, I can't stop talking! - i agree that it's weird. but i don't understand why it's news beyond the neighborhood it's going on at - to me, this looks like a writer going down to pick on a bunch of kids because either she has an axe to grind or she's looking for link bait.
posted by nadawi at 12:14 PM on January 31, 2012


I think it was a poor choice of musical. I don't believe that the people who run the theater had no idea of the demographics of the kids who typically audition. I think they could have picked a musical where the race of the characters wasn't such a central part of the show. Having said that, I agree that this shouldn't be a national story and that it feels weird to pick on kids.
posted by craichead at 12:17 PM on January 31, 2012


The African-American choreographer of the show was the one who said they had African-American kids, but that they all dropped out. He also said:

"At that point, I said we gotta figure out something else. I did say we needed to try to do something. Maybe do another show," said Robinson. "But the more we tried to figure out stuff, the worse situation it put us in. I do believe that this is not a show you do without (African-American) kids in it."

They got permission from the rights holders and had to put a statement in the program:

"... if the production of Hairspray you are about to see tonight features folks whose skin color doesn't match the characters (not unlike how Edna has been traditionally played by a man), we ask that you use the timeless theatrical concept of `suspension of disbelief' and allow yourself to witness the story and not the racial background (or gender) of the actors. Our show is, after all, about not judging books by their covers! If the direction and the actors are good (and they had better be!) you will still get the message loud and clear. And hopefully have a great time receiving it!" -- Signed Marc Shaiman (composer), Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan (book writers) and Scott Wittman (lyricist).

It sounds to me like they were making the best of a bad situation. The directer certainly made it worse by spouting garbage about not bowing to political correctness, though.
posted by Huck500 at 12:17 PM on January 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


I think that if you're in a situation where it's tricky to ensure that you have a diverse enough cast, then you really should avoid plays where racial issues are THE MAIN POINT of the script.

I think that people in racially homogenous environments can really benefit from exposure to racial issues.
posted by Sauce Trough at 12:18 PM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


I don't necessarily see her as "picking on kids" so much as "pointing out a flaw in the way a theater company is run." By highlighting what she sees as a glaring problem, she's probably hoping that we won't repeat it. Seems reasonable to me.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 12:18 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think that people in racially homogenous environments can really benefit from exposure to racial issues.
Luckily, children's theater productions are not the only way to accomplish that.
posted by craichead at 12:19 PM on January 31, 2012


When I was in high school, my English class went to see a play (a professional production) of Death of A Salesman, and a great deal was proudly made that the play would feature "non-traditional casting," as they called it. The Loman family consisted of all manner of races.

Now, granted, I'm not sure it's adviseable to do "non-traditional casting" in a play about race, but yeah, count me among the non-outraged.

For those of you suspicious about the black ensemble players who dropped out for "various reasons." Yeah. I'm sure the REAL reason they weren't cast in the black roles is because the director/producers were secretly racist. Racists that really wanted to do Hairspray.

And in case there are people chiming in who didn't RTFA, this quandary was not lost on theater management. They contacted the rights holders, who gave their blessing as long as the following was included in the program:

""... if the production of Hairspray you are about to see tonight features folks whose skin color doesn't match the characters (not unlike how Edna has been traditionally played by a man), we ask that you use the timeless theatrical concept of `suspension of disbelief' and allow yourself to witness the story and not the racial background (or gender) of the actors. Our show is, after all, about not judging books by their covers! If the direction and the actors are good (and they had better be!) you will still get the message loud and clear. And hopefully have a great time receiving it!""

If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me. And yes, the title of this post is editorial and GROSSLY misleading. I'm surprised it's been allowed to stand.
posted by mreleganza at 12:19 PM on January 31, 2012 [8 favorites]


but is it really a requirement that actors must match the character's physical description

I'm not sure about the musical, but in the movie there are a few places where it is important.

1) there is a scene where Tracy and that hunk guy are making out in the alley. The camera pans past the same race couple and then pans past Penny and Seaweed, a mixed race couple, making out next to them. I always thought this scene did two things, make a direct comparison between a same race couple and a mixed race couple as well as force the audience to really face their feelings about an interracial couple.

2) We see viewers Corny Collins show tested in the same way we are when they show interracial couples on the Corny Collins show. We make an unconcious comparison between what we were shown and how we react and how the racist viewers of the Corny Collins show react.

I think these two scenes are not as effective with an all white case.

I'm not outraged or anything, it is just in facepalm territory.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:19 PM on January 31, 2012


people in racially homogenous environments can really benefit from exposure to racial issues.

Is that what we're calling this?
posted by hermitosis at 12:19 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Luckily, children's theater productions are not the only way to accomplish that.

But it's a pretty damn good way IYAM. Kids (often) connect with dramatic renditions of important issues in a way that they don't with staid speeches in history class.
posted by mreleganza at 12:22 PM on January 31, 2012


Really. Cite?

Shenge talks extensively about her poetry, dance, and how the production was formed and the subsequent productions that sprang from it in a couple of interviews. This is the book I checked out from the library and includes a ton of info for a small and easy read. Tyler Perry's movie also has a bunch of interviews about the production.
posted by P.o.B. at 12:22 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not outraged or anything, it is just in facepalm territory.

I think that's where a lot of us are at. No one is like, personally offended, or writing letters to the education board or anything, we're just exclaiming bemusedly over an incredibly unfortunate (from many angles) incident.
posted by hermitosis at 12:23 PM on January 31, 2012


They prepaid for the rights.

Did Plano somehow become lily-white between when they mailed the envelope and when the rights check cleared? No. The world of theatre is not without one or two plays that don't require a large African-American cast and deal with the topic of segregation.

Back when I used to do theatre, we knew that our auditioners were primarily younger women, and took that into account when considering what scripts to perform. It's not exactly rocket science.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:25 PM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]



I don't necessarily see her as "picking on kids" so much as "pointing out a flaw in the way a theater company is run."


tell that to the nose picker and the off key singers who have just been lambasted by a professional critic for daring to not be perfect actors as children. maybe next she can judge how well the kindergarteners play the recorder.
posted by nadawi at 12:25 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Me, I'd like to see a children's theatre group do a production of "Gypsy". With the strippers and everything. Someone make that happen and I'll find my time machine, go back to being 12 and be Mama Rose. Or Mazeppa.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:25 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


The matinee I attended was full of proud parents, grandparents and others who didn't seem to notice or mind

Yeah, how dare they not be outraged at their own children.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:26 PM on January 31, 2012


> Is that what we're calling this?

It would seem to be so. I mean, what if they had the requisite amount of African-American kids to do the show, and everything went according to schedule. Would that have made the kids think as much about the problematic issues involved or would it just have been another production that passed by like any other with just faint recollections?

Mind you, I'm just playing devil's advocate. But, often learning can happen when things go askew. So, maybe the white children involved will get a better lesson about segregation and integration this way than they might have if everything went according to plan. Maybe not, but still, this is far to charged to be a particularly useful conversation.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:26 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Note the phrasing though: "Robinson said when he went into rehearsals for PCT's Hairspray, there were several black kids in the ensemble, but after a few days, they all dropped out for various reasons."

Bets that the black kids weren't cast in the lead roles but were relegated to the chorus?

I've been pseudo-involved with children's theater "academies" and the simple fact is that parents buy roles for their kids. Not openly, but that's the essence of what happens. Either the director's kid, or the kid with the richest parents will be cast in the lead(s). Usually that means white kids.

I'd say they chose a bad play to put on given that they didn't have any black kids they were willing to cast in the leads.

As for casting with non-traditional race/sex, it can certainly be done effectively. But simply ignoring race in a play about race is not a good way to do it and is lazy at absolute best.

hermitosis Exactly.
posted by sotonohito at 12:26 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


The directer certainly made it worse by spouting garbage about not bowing to political correctness, though.

But if he had bowed to political correctness, he wouldn't have had to suffer a nasty write up from the Dallas Observer.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:27 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


People upthread have related stories about how, back in the day, in their small towns or what have you, they had to work with the people available and cast whites in various roles intended for people of color. In my opinion, that' s perfectly fine.

But this is Plano, an affluent, modern major American metropolitan area. I think it's incredibly lame to throw your hands up and say,"We can't find any black people!" in this context.

If I'm extremely generous, I can shake my head sadly and say that they missed an opportunity to reach out to the black community, such as it may be in Plano. They could have sent out flyers, emails and other forms of communication to see about introducing some black kids to theater. Seriously: none of the supposedly affluent and technologically competent adults associated with the production has even one connection to a black person? They couldn't send a liaison to any local black churches and historical black colleges to see if they could get anyone interested?

And let me preemptively reject disingenuous comments about "assuming all black people know each other" -- no, obviously we don't all know each other. But if someone in Austin approached me about finding black people interested in an acting opportunity, I think it's safe to say I know far more black people in and around the area than the typical non-black person.

To be clear, I'm not calling for anyone to be fired, jailed, fined, or branded with a hot iron that says "RACIST MEMBER OF THE KKK SHUN HIM KTHXBYE", but I think the adults associated with this production are quite deserving of anger and scorn for being so weak and than patting themselves on the back for "defying political correctness" or whatever.
posted by lord_wolf at 12:27 PM on January 31, 2012 [10 favorites]


The argument about the character of Tracy wearing padding is valid only if a small girl beat out several other larger girls for the role.

Tracy Turnblad is a role made for actresses, and there are many out there, who constantly hear shit like "You've got a great singing voice and brilliant comic timing, can you lose 25 pounds?" (Or, worse, they don't hear it when it was obviously meant.) It's their opportunity to play the female lead. The romantic lead, no less.

The skinny girl gets to play Penny.
posted by Spatch at 12:28 PM on January 31, 2012 [8 favorites]


Look, if they can get black kids for the Shanghai production, it should be no problem in Plano!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:28 PM on January 31, 2012


Hey, it's not like there isn't precedent- the remake of the movie took a role normally played by a drag queen and cast a really ugly woman.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:28 PM on January 31, 2012


The classism is in the fact that kids have to pay a significant amount of money in order to access a publicly funded resource. This denies public money and educational opportunities to poor children. If you can't fund something well enough for everyone to access it, fund something else.

I would bet a million dollars that the people who run this school are pals with the people who decide where that tax money goes.


They might be, but probably not. All of the funding from the state and the city would come from grant funding - and the decisions about grants like that are pretty transparent these days. I don't know about the specific laws in Texas, but in Oregon all the hearings on state grant funding for arts organizations are open meetings that anyone can attend, all grants are graded through a scoring process, and the decisions are made based on the final scores aggregated from all members of the committee - it's pretty judicious. It isn't like you can just call up your pal and get a check. Funding organizations have to disclose their processes, have to ensure that the organizations they are funding have evaluation rubrics in place in order to report how the money was used, etc. That's not to say that knowing someone at the city or state level who is involved in making these decisions isn't a helpful thing, but this stuff has become pretty devoid of the old boys club stuff in the past ten or fifteen years.

The Plano Children's Theater is a $460,000 organization. That's pretty small. In 2010, only $131,000 of that came from grant funding (it is worth noting that the bulk of that, $88,000, was from the City of Plano - which is, I'll give you, no small grant). They simply couldn't operate on that. Their staff costs alone are $260,000 - and the founder is only making $60,000, so it isn't like they are raking in the dough for the employees. So they make up for it through fees from kids in the show and from ticket sales.

Museums, orchestras, the ballet, higher ed, etc. all receive state and federal funding. You still have to pay to go, though. Very few arts and education institutions are actually "publicly funded" - they "publicly supported."
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:29 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bets that the black kids weren't cast in the lead roles but were relegated to the chorus?

I'd take that bet. It's very easy to assume bad faith on the internet against people you don't know from Adam, when doing so satisfies your indignation.
posted by mreleganza at 12:32 PM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


Is that what we're calling this?

I'm not sure what you're getting at -- and please believe me that I'm not being passive-aggressive or intentionally oblivious here.

All I'm saying is that this can be viewed as a consciousness-raising opportunity for a population that could probably use it. Role-playing as the Other is powerful stuff.
posted by Sauce Trough at 12:33 PM on January 31, 2012


mreleganza, that's what "ensemble" means: the chorus. If the company had formerly consisted of a white chorus and black leads, I bet the director would have been sure to mention it.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 12:34 PM on January 31, 2012


(Found it, hermitosis. Pg 13: A white theatre company in Lexington, Kentucky...)
posted by P.o.B. at 12:35 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Count me as the non-outraged. I can't even muster a face palm. But I think it would have gone from clumsy to John Waters level awesome if they had thrown caution to the wind, ignored contractual obligations, and done blackface.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:36 PM on January 31, 2012


Auditions/casting come at a point in the production process where you're long-since locked in to whatever production you're doing, and you've just got to plow forward. Which is how, years ago, my theatre group ended up with an all-white production of The Wiz. But anyway...

The author here is an asshole, but pay-to-play is horribly pernicious and if there's any real outrage to be had here, it's about that. And Plano is the prototypical suburban hell. Don't want to forget that.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:41 PM on January 31, 2012


I was a young engineer living in Plano when it was a small "bedroom community". As it grew, the more affluent moved or built homes west of I75, leaving the poor folk, read Black and Hispanic, on the east side, so this article, though poorly conceived, is no surprise.
posted by crushedhope at 12:45 PM on January 31, 2012


I've worked in children's theatre, in two senses. First, as a kid getting his first experience to theatre. Much later, as an adult performer/director/teacher in a traveling company. We did one-week stints in each town, with four hours of rehearsals a day and a performance on Friday and/or Saturday. The plays are simple: adults in the two lead roles, older kids in supporting roles, and as many flower and butterfly costumes as you need to cover the kindergarteners. It's a model that was more-or-less designed in the 60s by Missoula Children's Theatre and borrowed and tweaked by regional companies all over the world.

How is it paid for? It's complicated. In some of the little towns we worked in, our cheap little song and dance was the entirety of the school districts arts budget for the year. No music classes, no school plays. Just us, for one week a year.

And in some towns, schools came up with clever ways to make parents share the cost. Maybe it was a bake sale or somesuch; more often, it was charging $5-20 at the door. In one town, a few kids were very upset about the ticket cost, worried that their parents wouldn't come. I made a joke, saying that if they work at McDonald's their parents still have to pay for a hamburger. I've always regretted that. I should have said, "You're right. And remember how you feel now when you're voting in a few years for your town's city council and schoolboard."

It should go without saying: the show is never the point of children's theatre. It's more children and less theatre. The point is education. And often, the main thing they learn has nothing to do with acting. What they learn is, people exist who devote their lives to music and art and theatre and poetry. Those people are not necessarily more talented than, or even very different from, you.

As for Plano, this sounds like poor planning. If you look at the quotes carefully and try to imagine what the interviewer left out or didn't ask, it becomes obvious that this was a casualty of selection-by-committee. They wanted to reach out to minorities. They wanted to be important. It didn't work. Same with the Ragtime recommendation.

And if you really don't get why you wouldn't cast a chubby girl who's never been onstage before as Tracy -- or why you'd put her in the fatsuit even if she didn't need it -- then I'm not sure what to say to you.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:46 PM on January 31, 2012 [8 favorites]


The theater is sketchy, and symptomatic of many of Plano's social ills, but I'll be damned if that author isn't one axe-grinding outrage monger. I was raised in Plano, and despite the yawning hellmouthishness of it all, there are some rather lovely people there, and I have fond memories of my toxic philistine childhood.
posted by reverend cuttle at 12:47 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


item,

I went to MacArthur High School and Plano as mentioned above, is the epitome of entitled suburbia, at least it was at the time I left '99.

Maybe this article is a bit reductive and not seeing that the situation is just a case of bad timing (kids dropping out, not enough black kids wanting to be in drama, etc.) but my own experience as a minority (asian-india) is that this is not surprising.

Even if we accept that there were not enough minorities who expressed interest in performing this play, why put on such a production when you're aware of the history that comes with it. The civil rights movement, issues of gender, appearance, etc. Why purchase the rights to that kind of play when you look at your student body, the city, the local people and see that it is likely to offend.

I miss the food and the friends I left behind in Dallas,TX but the overall attitude towards people of different cultures/backgrounds. That's not something I miss. Living in a city like TO where people not only recognize that people from diverse backgrounds exist, but celebrate such culture is not something I want to ever leave.
posted by Fizz at 12:49 PM on January 31, 2012


Ms. Crown, if you set out to push the bile to the tip of my throat, mission accomplished!

It's not so much that the author had an ax to grind as it is that she went into the situation fully expecting to be outraged, and dammit she was going to be outraged.

"My emotional/ethical elevator had already pushed the button for the floor marked 'High Dudgeon.'"
posted by kirkaracha at 12:54 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


My high school play was Finian's Rainbow. We also had no black kids in town (nor even within 35 miles) to play the black characters.

We also did "Finian's Rainbow" at my high school, which, at the time, had exactly 1 black kid, who was not involved. We *did* use blackface for the explicitly black roles in the show, and I myself played Senator Rawkins, the racist politician who wakes up one morning to discover that the leprechaun has turned him black, which included wearing blackface makeup.
posted by briank at 12:55 PM on January 31, 2012


As long as we're piling on Liner's article, one other thing:
Rodenbaugh said they might do To Kill a Mockingbird with an all-white cast or Othello or The Wiz (three shows I mentioned to him that feature African-Americans either in prominent roles or as a majority of the cast).
To Kill a Mockingbird highlights racial issues, and, therefore, the race of the actors should be matched to the race of the characters when possible.

Othello highlights racial issues, and, therefore, the race of the actors should be matched to the race of the characters when possible.

The Wiz.... um, what?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:56 PM on January 31, 2012


Was that how the original production staged it? In the recent Broadway revival, they used two different actors for the Senator, one white and one black.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:56 PM on January 31, 2012


I think that if you're in a situation where it's tricky to ensure that you have a diverse enough cast, then you really should avoid plays where racial issues are THE MAIN POINT of the script.
Is that actually better? It may make the audience less uncomfortable; however, it reinforces a long history of race as a topic which is only ever discussed by those who are marginalized.

We can't have it both ways: if the normalization of whiteness and the fact that white people are oblivious to race is a problem (which it clearly is), then we can't get upset when a bunch of white people get together and talk about race. (Though, we can obviously argue with exactly how they do it.)

Now, it's one thing if a professional production fails to recruit diverse actors for appropriate roles, not only because it hurts individual actors and generally weakens the production, but because of a long and ugly history of exactly that sort of thing happening throughout the entertainment industry. But, if a bunch of white school kids in Plano want to put on a production that discusses race? That's awesome. That's exactly the sort of thing I *want* to see a bunch of white high-school kids in Texas spend their time doing.

And if it makes the audience and the Internet feel weird? All the better. We *should* feel weird. The problem isn't that a bunch of white kids playing black roles feels awkward. The problem is that a theater troupe composed entirely of white kids not discussing race at all *doesn't* make us feel awkward.

There may be more effective ways this could have been addressed. There may well be a genuine lack of diversity within the theater school. There are definitely better plays that could have been chosen. But, on the whole, I'd much rather see this than watch the exact same group of kids perform Grease or one of the countless high-school plays which have been whitewashed from the day they were written.

And, if nothing else, it's nowhere near as offensive as a hundred high-school productions of West Side Story that happen every year throughout the US without comment.
posted by eotvos at 12:58 PM on January 31, 2012 [9 favorites]


I think that if you're in a situation where it's tricky to ensure that you have a diverse enough cast, then you really should avoid plays where racial issues are THE MAIN POINT of the script.

Would outragefilter kick in if we were discussing a performance of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet was played by a male? Doesn't Juliet's gender play a pretty big part in the the play? But hey, that's how it was played in Elizabethan times.
posted by Runes at 1:09 PM on January 31, 2012


Can someone explain to me why having a male play a female role is ok, padding a thin girl to play a fat girl is relatively ok, but having white kids play black kids is not ok, and having white people wear blackface, not to mock black people but to portray a character in a play, so incredibly not ok? Some of the quotes from this article, when juxtaposed, make my head hurt. "To PCT's credit, they did cast a boy as Edna Turnblad." . . . "Any instance of blackface makeup incurs a $13,000 fine from MTI." . . . "PCT's Tracy isn't fat and she is padded. But compared to the other stuff, it seems a minor misstep."
posted by parrot_person at 1:10 PM on January 31, 2012


Can someone explain to me why having a male play a female role is ok

Because the part thery're referring to is written that way- Edna Turnblad is always played by a man.

padding a thin girl to play a fat girl is relatively ok

Because weight fluctuates anyway, particularly among children.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:12 PM on January 31, 2012


The blackface thing is more an unpleasant reminder of minstrel shows than anything, sort of like having a Hindu character decorated in swastikas.
posted by LogicalDash at 1:12 PM on January 31, 2012


Like a swastika-bearing Hindu in what way, exactly?
posted by Grangousier at 1:14 PM on January 31, 2012


> sort of like having a Hindu character decorated in swastikas.

Have you ever been to a Hindu or Buddhist temple? Be warned: there be (clockwise) swastikas!
posted by Burhanistan at 1:18 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


This reminded me of a very special episode of a special back-to-school special.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:18 PM on January 31, 2012


I don't think the swastika is quite the same as blackface; the Third Reich's adoption of the symbol has not only hugely replaced the Hindu use in the public consciousness, but it also adopted to a much more markedly different purpose than its original use.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:21 PM on January 31, 2012


Because the part thery're referring to is written that way- Edna Turnblad is always played by a man.

"Because it's always been done that way" doesn't seem like a very satisfying reason to me. Somehow I don't imagine it would go over well if a play were written so that black characters were always played by white people.
posted by parrot_person at 1:22 PM on January 31, 2012


Damn metafilter, making me re-evaluate my thoughts on this, maybe my gut reaction at this is based more on my own personal experiences (situations where I've been a target as a visible minority) in Dallas and maybe I should take a step back and not just post out of sheer emotion/rage.

Stupid metafilter. Making me learn and think.
posted by Fizz at 1:24 PM on January 31, 2012


the remake of the movie took a role normally played by a drag queen and cast a really ugly woman.

Omg, a hideous woman at that!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:24 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Because it's always been done that way" doesn't seem like a very satisfying reason to me. Somehow I don't imagine it would go over well if a play were written so that black characters were always played by white people.

A, please confirm to me you have never seen "Hairspray", because you sound like you know nothing about it. B, I don't think you're necessarily right about the play with white people playing black characters. It might be avant garde, but such things happen and can work (like a man playing the mother of a teenag girl in "Hairspray", the movie/musical you have never seen).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:27 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Because the part thery're referring to is written that way- Edna Turnblad is always played by a man.

"Because it's always been done that way" doesn't seem like a very satisfying reason to me. Somehow I don't imagine it would go over well if a play were written so that black characters were always played by white people.


For lack of a better way of putting it: the reason why the character of Edna Turnblad is "always done as a man" is different from the "reason" why Romeo and Juliet are "always the same race".

*pauses to adjust pedant's hat*

The movie which the musical is based on featured a man in drag as the lead's mother. This was an intentional move by John Waters, in order to be deliberately outrageous. The part of Edna being played by a man in drag is a nod to Waters' original movie.

I mean, yes, technically you're right that Edna could be played by a woman, and technically there is no reason to regard that as sacrosanct. But artistically, that's kind of not the point.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:28 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Getting outraged at the accuracy of children's theater is like kicking a dog for being a dog. We can come back to the outrage when this is a broadway production or is not sanctioned by the playwrights.

That being said, it is always good to strive for as much accuracy in a production as possible. But remember, these people have a budget and a finite pool of talent.
posted by graxe at 1:49 PM on January 31, 2012


I don't think that Tracy's mother has to be played by a man. I don't know that Waters had any grand plan when he originally cast Divine to play that role, other than that he wanted to cast Divine to play that role. But I think it's a little disingenuous to ask why drag is ok but blackface isn't. Drag and blackface have totally different histories and totally different relationships to the power dynamics that they address. Blackface has, it seems to me, typically been a tool of oppression, and that's not true of drag. Blackface has been used to reaffirm oppressive ideas about race, and drag has often been used to contest oppressive ideas about gender. I don't think you can just pretend that those histories don't exist.

Having said that, eotvos's comment is making me reassess my take on this.
posted by craichead at 1:49 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Par for the course in North Dallas. I still live in the area and the people here really make it atrocious.
posted by narcoleptic at 1:58 PM on January 31, 2012


And, if nothing else, it's nowhere near as offensive as a hundred high-school productions of West Side Story that happen every year throughout the US without comment.

I really started shaking my head at this, but want to try to untangle why I think the situations are different. Maybe it's all a flimsy justification, because I have been involved in a somewhat racially-skewed high school production of West Side Story, but have never done Hairsprary, but these two situations really don't strike me the same way. An all white WSS, especially with brownface, doesn't sit well with me (more generally, an all white cast of any production isn't the most encouraging side), but an all white Hairspray is a much bigger problem.

WSS is a fantasy retelling of a timeless tragedy. Hairspray depicts many of the same elements,––love conquering the differences between two artificially separated groups––, but there's also a real difference: Hairspray is also explicitly a show about the role of minorities and non-stereotypically "beautiful" people in media and the arts. It's a show that is directly about black people and a chubby white girl who want to dance on TV and the upper-middle-class moral guardians who won't let them.

WSS is deliberately rooted in a fantasy land. Rival gangs fight it out through dance, a ballet dream sequence takes over at one point, and the actual racial/ethnic identifications of the groups are pretty irrelevant. That's why Laurents originally conceived of the project as a fued between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish one, and Bernstein had visions of rechristening it "East Side Story" and setting it in LA. With Romeo and Juliet, it doesn't matter why the Montagues and the Capulets are different, the point is that they are star-cross'd lovers for whatever reason. Tony might as well be a Sneetch with a star on his belly and Maria a starless Sneetch. WSS ends in tragedy, but as with several of Bernstein's works, ends with a prayer (we'll ignore the egregious cockup that is the film ending): a dream that someday, somehow, somewhere, there really will be a place for all of us. It's a flawed, deeply screwed up world in which the adults are all left mute, shaking their heads at the wounds and devastation before them, but a little bit of classic American hope for a brighter tomorrow lives on.

Hairspray's final takeaway is quite different. The Corny Collins show has been racially integrated, Tracy and her mother get their chance to dance, and we end on a positive note that celebrates our accomplishments and looks forward to more progress: "you can't stop the beat." We're not left with despair and visions of future progress; we're actually celebrating a civil rights victory in the entertainment industry and cheering on the drumbeat of change. That's the message that becomes hypocritical with an all-white cast: the stage is just as whitewashed when the curtain falls as when it opened.

I'm all for suspension of disbelief in casting. Go for race and gender blind casting if you feel like it, and I'd love to see more "Romeo and Julians" out there. But an all white production of Hairspray with a thin cheerleader-type in the role of Tracy sends the opposite message from what the musical is all about. A Hairsprary II focusing on the roles of minorities and other groups in entertainment circa 2012 might be an interesting exercise, but that's obviously not the show Plano was putting on here. If you just want a feel-good sock hop, put on Grease and be done with it, because that's all you're doing anyway when performing Hairspray without confronting the notion of race.
posted by zachlipton at 3:17 PM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


I was all prepared to be outraged at this, but having read the article and the thread, I can't find it in me.

They prepaid for the rights - they had some black kids in the cast but they dropped out - so they decided to go ahead anyway. Fine, whatever. It might not be whitewashing (although personally I think the theory that the black kids got stuck in the chorus and decided to drop out on that basis is pretty likely).

The big mistake here is the stupid, weak rationalistions by the adults involved - just leave it at "all our black kids dropped out, and we had prepaid for the rights, so we made do". Don't try and pretend that you are striking a blow against the tyranny of 'political correctness' because then you just sound like a racist idiot.

An anecdote - when I was a kid, I went to a very racially diverse international high school. We did Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye was played by a Korean guy; his daughters were Welsh, Chinese, and Malaysian. I'm a brown dude, and I played a Russian. I'm sure we did colorblind casting to be inclusive, but we would have had to in any case because otherwise we could never do any large musicals. We didn't have enough white people.

Kids' shows have to be held to a different standard than professional shows or even adult amateur shows. It's not about producing a good show; the primary aim of a kids show is for kids to have fun. If it's actually good, it's a (rare) bonus.

/rant
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:18 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure that anyone's saying "drag is okay but blackface isn't", in quite the way you're seeing, craichead. We only got into drag because someone asked "well who says that Edna Turnblad has to be played by a guy?"

I mean, that is a fair point, that Edna doesn't necessarily have to be played by a guy (and by "have to," I mean "it will not cause the death of children if Edna Turnblad is played by a woman). I was only making the observation that the reasoning for Edna being "traditionally" played by a man is a little different than the reasoning for HAMLET being "traditionally" played by a man.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:19 PM on January 31, 2012


I'm not sure that anyone's saying "drag is okay but blackface isn't", in quite the way you're seeing, craichead. We only got into drag because someone asked "well who says that Edna Turnblad has to be played by a guy?"
I think someone actually did:
Can someone explain to me why having a male play a female role is ok, padding a thin girl to play a fat girl is relatively ok, but having white kids play black kids is not ok, and having white people wear blackface, not to mock black people but to portray a character in a play, so incredibly not ok?
posted by craichead at 3:41 PM on January 31, 2012


Plano performers, you are absolutely positively permanently punished!
posted by planetkyoto at 3:52 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another anecdote. A couple of years ago, I auditioned for a musical society production of Parade, a Jason Robert Brown musical set shortly after the US Civil War, in Georgia, with a substantial black cast. Its' central theme is racism - against Jewish and black people.

I was really excited about this show - it has a great score, and the black roles are awesome. I'm not black, but I'm brown, and in Australian musical theatre close enough is good enough when it comes to minority casting (there are very few black performers around here). So here was a principal role I was actually eligible for! They don't come around often.

I proceeded to have the single worst audition of my life. Truly appalling. I flubbed lines, couldn't understand what the director wanted of me, even went off key during my audition piece. Just one of those days, and I was insufficiently prepared.

They still asked me back for a callback. I didn't go, because their desperation was palpable - they must have been desperate, if they wanted me back after that audition. They needed a black cast, they didn't have one.

I was right. They ended up going with blackface. In a show about racism and slavery. I was glad not to be a part of that.

They weren't bad people. They didn't set out with the intention of whitewashing the show, or being offensive. They were just thoughtless, really loved the show, and really wanted to do it. The lack of racially accurate cast members was simply perceived as a surmountable obstacle.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:53 PM on January 31, 2012


My mistake, craic.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:02 PM on January 31, 2012


Yeah, apart from taking issue with the obvious axe grinding on the part of the writer, I'm having a hard time finding my outrage at what she's actually reporting. Children's theater is many things -- a few awesome, some outright shitty, and most just "meh" -- but Plano's doesn't sound any different from what I've seen in our area. For example, my niece (white/Jewish) was recently in a ridiculous production of The Wiz. And the reason why it was ridiculous was not because of the color of the actors (98% white and Asian), it was because they were absolutely the least funky group of people I've ever seen stage a musical. They had a lot of heart to even attempt it, but the adults that chose that particular musical grossly over estimated their actors inherent sense of rhythm, which was near zilch.

Like roll truck roll said, the point of children's theater is education, not brilliant performances and sparkling production values, though those are great if they occur. So despite the article, I give PCT credit for at least acknowledging these issues and attempting to rework the play a bit to suit their cast. A different play may have been a better fit, but I have a feeling you can only perform Oklahoma! so many times in Texas and Oklahoma before people just stop showing up.
posted by mosk at 4:38 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Blackface has, it seems to me, typically been a tool of oppression, and that's not true of drag.

I'm not sure it's been true of blackface either.
ut
There is a troubling history to blackface even if you credit Lhamon's take that it wasn't uniformly an oppressive practice, but the question of why male appropriation of female gender isn't similarly offensive. The fact that it's typically gay male performers who are doing drag is part of it, but I think it would be interesting to tease out similarities and differences in the history of minstrely and drag.
posted by layceepee at 5:18 PM on January 31, 2012




Sorry, I'm having trouble linking to a review of Lhamon's book, Raising Cain.
posted by layceepee at 5:20 PM on January 31, 2012


I dunno if this is 100% relevant to the conversation but it seems at least a few of the people who have commented so far might like to hear it.

I grew up in Richardson, which borders Plano - in fact my house was juuuuust over a literal stone's throw from the border. Went to Berkner HS. About 1/3 of my friends lived in Plano. Most of the places my friends and I went to hang out were in Plano. I had a comfortable upper-middle-class childhood in what I thought was a totally normal suburban environment.

Then I went away to college in Boulder, CO. I was excited because (among other reasons, I promise) CU-Boulder is notoriously stocked with attractive women. So I get to Boulder, and I'm going to classes, doing the college thing, and I'm not seeing it. Sure, there are some definite hotties, but it's not like they're everywhere.

And then I went home for Thanksgiving break.

Oh man, every. single. woman looked smoking hot to me. Even women that I wasn't attracted to before, suddenly looked like they jumped off the front page of a magazine. It really freaked me out for a day or two... until I realized that not a single one of them would leave the house until they'd done up their makeup, and their hair, and put on something nice to wear. All of them. A lightbulb must have blinked on over my head, because I realized in a flash that I'd been brain-washed to think that all women were Stepford wives, or Stepford wives in the making. I'd been raised to think that only girls with bigger-than-average hair who spend an hour on their faces and wear sundresses were attractive. In Boulder, I was surrounded by young, strong, naturally attractive women, and I just couldn't see it.

And that's how I learned to hate Plano.
posted by hootenatty at 5:58 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


yeah, i was a hippie queer nerdy gal in plano. i was there during the cheeva stuff and i was constantly being asked by teachers to push up my sleeves to make sure i wasn't shooting heroin (i wasn't). i was a pretty big outcast for the year and a half before i dropped out. a lot of it seemed to revolve around the fact that i didn't look preppy/made up/overfussed. this is true in most high schoools, but it was especially true there when compared to northwest arkansas where i had spent most of my life up until high school.
posted by nadawi at 6:39 PM on January 31, 2012


Plano is white, wealthy and conservative. And they like it that way.
posted by Not The Stig at 9:54 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


EmpressCallipygos: "This was an intentional move by John Waters, in order to be deliberately outrageous."

Not John Waters? Pshaw, I say, pshaw.
posted by Samizdata at 11:03 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


....uh....Samizdata, I get the idea you're trying to make SOME kind of joke, but I'm honestly not sure at whose expense it is. Help?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:49 AM on February 1, 2012


What would Black Santa do?
posted by Debaser626 at 10:38 AM on February 1, 2012


There is a troubling history to blackface even if you credit Lhamon's take that it wasn't uniformly an oppressive practice, but the question of why male appropriation of female gender isn't similarly offensive. The fact that it's typically gay male performers who are doing drag is part of it, but I think it would be interesting to tease out similarities and differences in the history of minstrely and drag.

I'll help you out there. My recent post about drag was actually 100% inspired by my frustration with people who bring up drag in conversations about blackface. I don't think there's any similarity whatsoever, they are as different in night and day. Drag is practically an art form all its own at this point, and in many ways it flourished as a rebuttal to white/straight oppression and marginalization.

If you truly MUST have a drag equivalent to minstrelsy, look at films where straight men don female costumes for cheap laffs, like Big Momma's House or White Chicks. They aren't even "drag" performances in the way that we're used to from gays -- these are straight men temporarily sacrificing their own privilege for the sake of reinforcing popular stereotypes about women, and it's painful to watch in a way that true drag rarely is.

Not that straight people aren't invited to the table. The movie "Too Wong Foo..." had three straight male actors playing drag queens -- actual drag queens, in a movie that (however fancifully) paid tribute to the function that drag serves as a performance and a pasttime. And these men took their parts seriously, never hated on women, and never deigned to wink at the camera to prove that they were still really their manly selves underneath all the hair and goop. In my opinion, that was a big moment for drag in pop culture.
posted by hermitosis at 11:29 AM on February 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


Blast from the past.
posted by Infinity_8 at 1:16 PM on February 1, 2012


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