Tag Archives: Katori Hall

Separation of Church and Stage?

Jason Karasev, Anna Khaja and Joel Polis in 'My Name Is Asher Lev'.

Jason Karasev, Anna Khaja and Joel Polis in ‘My Name Is Asher Lev’ at the Fountain Theatre (2014).

by Jonathan Mandell

“Art and religion share the psychological state of transportation—being transported. We all love being taken out of ourselves, temporarily.” –  Jonathan Haidt, NYU professor, author of  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

So why in fields that are both devoted to awe and transport, does the norm seem to be an unspoken separation between church and stage?

Could this be exactly because of their similarities? Could the theater offer to both theater artists and theatergoers a kind of substitute for the awe they felt as children towards a religion that they no longer can as readily accept intellectually or morally?

That’s how Scottish theater critic Mark Fisher sees it: “There are a lot of ex-observant artists seeking to find the equivalent sensations. But drama thrives on ambiguity.”

A good example may be playwright Marsha Norman, who in a recent interview, talked at length about her faith: She grew up “trapped in an Evangelical hotspot” and remains greatly influenced by Bible stories, but now embraces a “personal faith” that seems to have no room for organized religion. “I’m not concerned with is there a God or isn’t there a God, but I’m concerned with the trials people face and how they get through them.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that a person who works in the theater is less likely (or more likely) to be religious than the average person in their community. What’s intriguing is not so much the individuals’ private beliefs, but the way religion plays out publicly on New York stages.

Ridiculing Religion, Worshipping Theater

The Book of Mormon, which focuses on two young Mormon’s mission to Africa, famously mocks organized religion as a whole, and singles out the Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints, highlighting the church’s past history of racism, and what the musical’s creative team see as its odd beliefs.

Almost four years after it opened, this musical remains one of the hottest tickets on Broadway, while more faith-affirming shows have flopped miserably—one thinks of Alan Menken’s Leap of Faith, or Scandalous, Kathie Lee Gifford’s ode to evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

But, some will protest, The Book of Mormon is funny, and tuneful, and smart about musical theater, while Scandalous was…not. So it may be a coincidence. But it may not be a complete stretch to point out, as I did in my original review, that The Book of Mormon is “worshipping at the altar of The Great White Way”—borrowing, ribbing, and paying homage to such landmark Broadway musicals as The King and I and The Lion King, with The Music Man and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying thrown in. When at the end, the musical acknowledges in a clever way the human need for the spiritual, audiences can be forgiven for getting the message that it’s musical theater that can supply it.

Internal Struggles
In the bluntly provocative Disgraced, playwright Ayad Akhtar examines his sophisticated New York characters’ varying reactions to Islam, slyly putting much of the anti-Islamic sentiment in Amir, the son of Pakistani immigrants, who grew up Muslim and now sees himself as an assimilated affluent attorney living on the Upper East Side with his blonde American wife, Emily. The defense of Islam rests largely with Emily (who’s a Christian), a painter inspired by Islamic art, as well as with Isaac, Emily’s (Jewish) art dealer, who makes a distinction between Islam and what he calls Islamo-fascism.

If the issues here are primarily political, Amir directly attacks the religion itself, citing heinous passages in the Koran.

Amir does not seem to serve as a straightforward mouthpiece for the author, since the character’s actions and attitudes are confused and self-contradictory, at one point admitting to feeling pride at the events of September 11th.

“You’re an American,” says Jory, Isaac’s (African American) wife. “It’s tribal, Jor. It is in the bones,” Amir answers. “You have no idea how I was brought up. You have to work real hard to root that shit out.”

The main character has no such hostility to her religion in Grand Concourse, a play by Heidi Schreck that was at Playwrights Horizons last month, though she ultimately engages in a losing struggle with it. Sister Shelley, a nun in charge of a soup kitchen in the Bronx, eschews a nun’s habit and is so unsure of her faith that she turns on the timer to the microwave to force herself to pray for a set number of minutes per day. Emma, a college dropout, visits the kitchen, seeking guidance and offering to help out with cooking—talk to a priest, Shelly advises.

Much of the action of the play involves the interaction of Emma with Shelley and other members of the small family that has developed in the soup kitchen, a single sometimes-homeless customer named Frog, and the janitor and security guard Oscar. Emma turns out to be unreliable to the point of being reckless, and she neglects to take care of Shelley’s cat while the nun visits her dying father in California, with disastrous consequences.

The result is that Shelley quits being a nun. “It was a decision I would have come to, eventually, though your actions were clarifying,” Shelley tells Emma. Perhaps I missed some cues, but they weren’t clarifying to me—her decision seems mysterious, but perhaps that’s the point?

Suspension of Disbelief (Commencement of Belief)
Although they both deal with Catholic characters, Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho at the Signature Theatre, offers an almost complete contrast to Grand Concourse. The play is based on the true story of three church schoolgirls in Rwanda in the 1980s who reported seeing an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The Church eventually affirmed the authenticity of this miracle, determining that the Virgin Mary had visited the girls to warn them of the bloodshed to come; Kibeho was one of the sites of the genocide that occurred in 1994. While director Kip Fagan’s production of Grand Concourse was literal and precise, down to the chopped carrots and the boiling pot of soup, in Our Lady of Kibeho Michael Greif presents an impressionistic and mystical world, with stage effects—dark dramatic lighting, swirling video projections, beds lifting in the air—intended to induce a sense of the miraculous and of spiritual wonder.

In this way, it bears greatest resemblance to The Oldest Boy by Sarah Ruhl at Lincoln Center, which is reportedly also inspired by a true story: An American mother who has married an immigrant Tibetan chef, is visited one day by two Buddhist monks. They tell her that her three-year-old son is the reincarnation of a revered Tibetan Lama, and they ask her whether she would be willing to give him up so that he can be raised in a monastery in India.

As with Our Lady of Kibeho, the stagecraft of The Oldest Boy is breathtaking. The backdrop of sunsets, the use of puppetry (the reincarnated toddler is portrayed by a marionette), the ornate costumes, and the gentle music instill a sense of awe and calm, and add up to a nearly hypnotic effect.

The miracles in The Oldest Boy and Our Lady of Kibeho are not up for debate or much interpretation—the audience is directly presented various demonstrations of the truth of the Kibeho students’ visions and of the Tibetan-American boy’s reincarnation. To me, the miraculous moments felt force-fed, as if I had stayed too long at a church (or temple) to which I do not belong. Let me admit that this was my limitation as a theatergoer.

I have no evidence that either playwright was directly proselytizing for their faith (I doubt that they even share the religion of their characters), and many others were capable of a suspension of disbelief; Our Lady of Kibeho made a couple of critics’ top 10 lists for 2014.

Jonathan Mandell, a proud member of the American Theatre Critics Association has written about the theater for a range of publications, including Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, the New York Times,Newsday, Backstage, NPR.com and CNN.com. He currently blogs at New York Theater and Tweets as @NewYorkTheater. This post originally appeared on HowlRound.com

Invisible Women in the White Male World of Theatre

by Jill Dolan

Jill Dolan

I’m coming late to the controversy over the resoundingly white male-written and -directed season announced for the Guthrie next year, in part because I’m tired of hearing myself rehearse the same old indignities at these repetitive insults to women’s artistry and integrity.  Reading the many smart excoriations of Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling’s defensive protestations about why it’s okay to ignore gender and race in season selection, I’m simply reminded, yet again, of the supreme arrogance of white men like him (not all white men) who are accustomed to seeing and remaking the world in their own image.

I was deeply moved by Polly Carl’s essay, “A Boy in a Man’s Theatre,” on HowlRound (4/28/12), in which she eloquently admitted, “I am compelled to talk some truth about finding yourself ‘other’ in a white man’s world—about the importance of insisting on being seen.”  Describing her reaction to watching a rehearsal of Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Carl realized that although the new musical isn’t her “exact” story, “it was my story.”  The power of recognition—of seeing a life that looks like yours on stage—was overwhelming for Carl.  And if I’ve done my math right, Carl is in her 40s.  She’s been feeling invisible for a long time.

Polly Carl

I wish someone like Joe Dowling could imagine what it feels like to go to the theatre or the movies, or turn on the television, and never see yourself represented.  If you’re white and male, and especially if you’re straight, it must go without mention that something that at least looks like your life will be part and parcel of the story told of an evening.  I can’t imagine the privilege of just assuming that the world will look like you, and that if it doesn’t, it’s because affirmative action or some other “self-serving” quota system (as Dowling accused protests over the Guthrie season of being) has allowed the riff-raff of gender, race, ethnic, and sexual difference to sneak in.

Even the conservative Wall Street Journal published an article called “Lots of Guys, Too Few Dolls,”shortly after this year’s Tony Award nominations were announced, in which the reporter—Pia Catton (a woman)—noted that “one is reminded of a sad truth:  While Tony’s are equally bestowed on male and female stars of the stage, there’s a colossal gender gap in the honors given to the men and women who create the shows.”  Catton went on to report that the percentages of plays written and directed by women on Broadway has barely changed over the decades, quoting experts like Susan Jonas, who co-wrote the 2002 New York State Council on the Arts report on the status of women in theatre, and mentioning the recently established Lilly Awards (named after Lillian Hellman), which turn their backs on the Tonys’ snubs by giving their own honors to women working in theatre.

On a much brighter side of this ubiquitous story, this week I received by snail mail the new season announcement from Arena Stage, in D.C., and was reminded that the gender and racial diversity in play and director selection that Dowling considers impossible or beneath him (or both) happens as a matter of course at other U.S. theatres.  In a market bigger than Minneapolis, with subscribers equally as august and long-standing, Arena artistic director Molly Smith regularly programs seasons that include a majority of productions written or directed by women and people of color (and both).

Molly Smith

For 2012-2013, Arena’s eight-play season includes three plays by women, two of which are by women of color: Pullman Porter Blues, by Cheryl L. West, and The Mountaintop, by Katori Hall, as well as a revival of Metamorphoses, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman.  West’s play will be directed by Lisa Peterson, who, along with colleagues Zimmerman, Jackie Maxwell, Kyle Donnelly, and Smith herself, comprise a roster of five women directors out of the eight productions.  Of the remaining three shows directed by men, two are directed by African Americans (and Tazewell Thompson also wrote the play he’ll direct).  The one show written and directed by a white man is One Night with Janis Joplin, so its content counts as gender diversity, if part of the issue is whose stories are told and whose bodies are seen on stage.

Good for Molly Smith and her artistic staff and her board, who no doubt ratified her progressive vision.  Smith is directing My Fair Lady at Arena next season, the Lerner and Loewe musical she mounted last summer at the Shaw Festival in Canada.  That production was a terrific, high energy, multi-racial cast production that rivaled her 2010 reimagining of Oklahoma! in its rejuvenated vision of the classic American musical.  Smith takes the American canon—part of Arena’s mandate—and refashions it to speak across identity communities, instead of sequestering it in presumptively white enclaves and preserving it for white people.  That narrow vision—Dowling’s vision—doesn’t reflect or do justice to the complex race, gender, sexuality, ethnic, and class composition of contemporary America.  Dowling’s vision is former presidential candidate Bob Dole’s bridge to the past; Smith’s is a glorious, hopeful representation of a reimagined future.

Playwrights Horizons in New York also deserves a place of pride in this counter-pantheon of progressive American theatres.  For 2012-2013, long-time artistic director Tim Sanford (a white man) offers six productions, new plays all, of which four are written by women (one of whom is African American), and one is a musical adaptation of Far From Heaven (written by Richard Greenberg and directed by Michael Greif), Todd Hayne’s wrenching 2002 film about the wife of a closeted gay man navigating her nuclear family life in the 1950s.  White women direct three of the six productions:  Anne Kauffman directs Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit; Carolyn Cantor directs her frequent collaborator Amy Herzog’s The Great God Pan; and Leigh Silverman directs Tanya Barfield’s The Call.  Sam Gold, who’s proven his sensitivity as a director of women’s work, directs Annie Baker’s The Flick.

Tanya Barfield

Playwrights’ season teaser brochure also includes a clever “key” to the genres and themes introduced by its six plays.  The guide includes symbols that run alongside each play’s title, indicating whether it addresses “comic relief,” “gaiety” (of the LGBT variety), “parenthood,” “race relations,” “impossible love,” “job inequality,” “prophetic vision,” “skeletons in the closet,” “strange neighbors,” “suburban angst,” or “Mormonism.”  Just reading this key made me laugh; what a witty reminder that any production has something idiosyncratic for everyone and that “universality” never means just one thing.

Molly Smith’s “Oklahoma”

Arena and Playwrights regularly stage plays written and directed by women and people of color, not to fill a token slot in each season, but because these productions showcase voices that have something to say across communities.  They make visible populations of citizens alongside all the Joe Dowlings who are too blind to see how these so-called minorities/future majorities are remaking our collective world.  Molly Smith’s Oklahoma! is the state we live in now, thank goodness.

Likewise, Emily Mann’s production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, now playing on Broadway with a cast of people of color, shows us something new about ourselves and the canon of American drama.  Mann knew Williams, and insists he told her that given New Orleans’s Creole population, he could imagine the play with an African American cast.  Mann researched the French Quarter of the period, and found ample justification for casting the Dubois family and Stanley as black, conflicted by the same class differences that propel Williams’s drama when it’s cast with white actors.

“Streetcar” directed by Emily Mann

But critics like Ben Brantley consider this “gimmick” casting, and scoff at Mann and the producers (who also mounted an African American production of Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) for fooling around with the American canon in ways they, like Dowling, find self-serving.  These reviews sound reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s admonishment last summer that Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks had gone too far in their adaptation and revision of Porgy and Bess.

Underneath all these criticisms that purport to champion good American drama is a warning to women and people of color that they shouldn’t get too uppity, that they should steer clear of white men’s work and stay barefoot and happy—and invisible and silent—in the ghettos of their “special interest” theatres.

The same blatant discrimination was recently called out at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, where of the 22 films nominated for the 2012 Palme D’Or prize, none were written or directed by women.  The oversight caused a similar online uproar as the Dowling debacle among the film (and larger) arts community, through which petitions circulated for signatures to protest this blatant exclusion.

Have we gone back to the future?  Is it the 1950s again?  In a political moment in which Republicans and Tea Party-ers threaten to reverse every achievement for women’s reproductive rights garnered since Roe v. Wade; when the same politicians inflame xenophobic anti-immigration sentiments about our southern borders (and when similar anti-immigrant racism roils political waters in Cannes’ France); and when LGBT activists have to celebrate when Obama announces that he’s “evolved” into thinking same-sex marriage is okay after all (gee, thanks, Barack), maybe it’s no surprise that the festival director at Cannes, and Brantley at the Times, and Dowling at the Guthrie think they can discriminate against women and people of color with impunity.

Let’s not let them get away with it.  Write to Molly Smith at Arena, and Tim Sanford at Playwrights and tell them how pleased you are with their 2012-2013 season announcements.  Write to Dowling at the Guthrieand tell him how disappointed you are that he’s such a Neanderthal.  Sign the petitions circulating protesting the exclusion of women from the prize at Cannes.  And write letters to the Times protesting that white men like Brantley and Charles Isherwood foster a discourse about the arts in which decisions like Dowling’s season are okay and productions like Mann’s Streetcar are dismissed.

Don’t just go to the theatre—respond to it, write about it, protest it, reimagine it.  It’s too important to keep allowing the barbarians to guard the gate.

Jill Dolan writes for The Feminist Spectator

Is the Great White Way Finally Seeing Other Colors?

Is Theatre Just for White People?

That’s pretty much what academic Tom Loughlin said this week, with a post at his blog called The Great Whiter-Than-Ever Way.

The Broadway League’s recent demographic report found that 83% of tickets were bought by caucasian theatregoers. Loughlin writes: “I think it’s safe to make the following conclusion: Theatre is primarily for white people, as both audience members and practitioners.”

The blog has, unsurprisingly, drawn plenty of responses, both below the line and elsewhere in the blogosphere. At least some have settled into considered debate. Scott Walters calls for change and consideration beyond the surface issues, and 99 Seats duly attempts to engage with it on that level, while Art Hennessey has thrown some wider statistics about audience diversity into the mix at his blog.

This materializes at a time of seemingly unprecedented exposure for black female playwrights on Broadway.

Katoria Hall

This season, for apparently the first time, Broadway will host as many as four distinct works written or adapted by African American women. Already running is the Martin Luther King Jr. play The Mountaintop, by the young playwright Katori Hall, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Also running is  Stick Fly, Lydia R. Diamond’s upper-middle-class family drama, featuring Dule Hill, Mekhi Phifer and Tracie Thoms. And the  new edition of the Gershwins-DuBose Heyward opera Porgy and Bess, with a revised book by Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog /Underdog). And angling for a theater this spring is By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, by another Pulitzer recipient, Lynn Nottage (“Ruined”).

Some of the women who are being produced on Broadway this season say they are not completely sure how to characterize their rise to prominence — or even totally comfortable with their being looked upon as part of a breakthrough season.

Lydia R. Diamond

Lydia R. Diamond stops herself from the kind of pronouncement that implies a circle has been closed. Not enough work by enough people of color has regularly been produced for any kind of victory to be declared.

Says Diamond: “If Suzan-Lori and Katori and Lynn and I got together we might say, ‘It’s a little safer today, and oh, look how far we’ve come. But we still have a long way to go.’ I feel that it’s important we learn from this moment, but not be so comforted by it that it has corrected all the wrong.”

Nottage takes this observation a step further, arguing that black women remain marginalized in many other facets of the entertainment industry, and figure more centrally in writing for theater because the form has been more welcoming. “There are more of us writing at a high level than ever before,” she says. “But we have to find a medium in which we can do it. And it’s partly because we’re shut out of film and TV that we are writing for this medium.”

Lynn Nottage

Broadway is also noticing the potency of African American ticket buyers, an economic force that for a long time had been undervalued.

“I think there’s a sense in the industry that there’s a black audience out there interested and engaged,” Nottage says.

In a perfect world this confluence of playwrights-of-color on Broadway would be the norm, not the exception. Playwrights rightly bristle at being sorted into categories and resist having their works considered from the perspective of the author’s racial or ethnic background. Good work should speak for itself.

Kenny Leon, the director of the recent smash revival of Fences,  directed both The Mountaintop and Stick Fly. He notes, “I can’t remember the last time there were three women playwrights on Broadway during the same season, let alone three African-American women.”

Katori Hall’s ebullience over reaching Broadway is tempered by an awareness that this season is hardly a usual one. “I’m used to the Great White Way being the Great White Way,” she said, “so yes it feels really good. But I’m hesitant to celebrate because next season we may be back to white male writers only. Let’s be cautious.”

Diamond has witnessed the enthusiasm and the sheer numbers of African-Americans coming to Broadway that has made the recent revivals of “Fences,” and “A Raisin in the Sun” (also directed by Mr. Leon) and the all-black staging of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” directed by Debbie Allen, solid hits. (An all-black “Streetcar Named Desire” is on the docket for 2012.)

“I remember standing in line for The Color Purple with my in-laws and my mother,” in 2005, she said, “and seeing black audiences lined up around the block twice. That was sort of mind blowing for me. I thought, I don’t know why we don’t see more things like this here if there are this many people lining up to see them.”

“I’ve worked very hard with marketing people to include African-Americans,” she said. “I know that there’s a huge population interested in seeing themselves reflected onstage.” Yet, she added, “At the same time I don’t think my work speaks only to an African-American audience.”

Leon pointed to other black female writers who deserve to have their work seen on Broadway stages.

Lynn Nottage is a top-of-the-line, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who should have her plays on Broadway,” Mr. Leon said. “Regina Taylor is writing some great work. Pearl Cleage is still writing good plays.”

Suzan Lori Parks

It is, of course, an uphill battle for any emerging playwright to get new work presented on Broadway. But while Ms. Hall cheerfully said, “The fact that me and Lydia and Suzan are coming to Broadway I have to see as something of a triumph,” she still has discouraging memories of regional theaters, where much new American work first gets seen.

“I’ve had frank conversations with theaters who say, ‘We love your play, but we’ve already done a play by another black person this year,’ or ‘I don’t think the kind of people you write about are the ones our audience wants to see,’ ” she said. “Up and coming young black female writers are still struggling to have their voices heard and have their plays produced. I may be on the mountain right now, but they are still in the trenches.”