Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How to Not Offend People (Intercultural Edition)

Just two snakes hanging out. Nothing strange at all...

The other week, I traveled to the exotic land of New Jersey (exotic to me because I have never been there except that one time where I needed to rent a car and didn't want to drive out of Manhattan). I wanted to catch a matinee of Mary Zimmerman's "The White Snake." This was my first Mary Zimmerman production, so from her reputation, I knew what I was getting into: fairy tales, puppets, intricate costumes and a general sense that the entire thing was a magical fable rather than a naturalistic play.

"White Snake" was based on an ancient Chinese fairy tale, about a magical snake who can turn into a woman. She then falls in love with a man. Like other fairy tales/myths about inter-species relationships, you can probably guess that it doesn't end well. But you don't come to a Mary Zimmerman show because you want to be preoccupied with plot. You go to a Mary Zimmerman show for the same reason you go to a Julie Taymor show, because it looks so damn beautiful. Just look at this picture:

I want costume designer Mara Blumenfeld to make me a Halloween costume.

Yet what "The White Snake" also showed me was how an artist of a particular background, in this instance a white woman, can represent a background different from her's, ancient China, and do it respectfully without stereotyping or exoticizing the people in it.

How did she do it? Inspired by the recent protests around a touring production of "Miss Saigon" (a musical that is a textbook example of how not to write about a foreign culture), I've developed an easy list of 5 bullet points, inspired by "The White Snake" about how to successfully play with another culture and not offend the people in that community.

  1. Follow the one-drop rule. "The White Snake" featured a multi-cultural cast, and let the script, costumes, props and music do the work of letting the audience know that the story was set in China and the actors were supposed to be Chinese. Most notably, Matt deCaro, who is Caucasian, played a Chinese Buddhist monk. If you have to use even one drop of product to change the color of the actor's skin, so they can represent a character from another race, then you need to rethink your production concept and costume design. Or have the playwright write a better play. In other words, don't do what Roundabout Theatre Company did with "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

    Who needs facepaint when you have that headdress?

  2. Cast creatively. If you want to do a rainbow cast, where the actors aren't racially specific (a move I don't always agree with but that's another topic), don't relegate your actors of color to secondary roles. American art and media is oversaturated with stories that feature white heroes, or feature a primarily white cast. I compile the Top 10 most produced play list for "American Theatre" every year and in 2013-14, the original productions of nine of those plays had all-white leads, or an all-white cast. So if you're playing with a non-Anglo culture, don't cast white leads. That's rubbing salt in the wounds of non-Caucasian artists, who have a hard time finding work, and roles that aren't racially specific as it is. As for "White Snake," Asian-American actress Amy Kim Waschke played the main character and the man she falls in love with is played by Jon Norman Schneider, also an Asian American actor. If I had my way, I would rather see them in roles that aren't dictated by race, but considering how often I don't see an Asian couple onstage as leads, I will take this small victory.

  3. What a beautiful couple.

  4. The white savior. Don't do it. Just don't. It's been done, it's tired, and it's not even remotely accurate in real life (just look at colonization, India, all of Africa, or ask anyone who's of Native American descent). Don't do what "Miss Saigon" did. Don't do what "The Last Samurai," "Dances with Wolves" and "Avatar" did. This is the theatre and art, and the entire point is to go against the audience's expectations and what they have become accustomed to. And what everyone is used to seeing is this: the white male character saving the day because the natives cannot do it themselves. So in figuring out what story to tell, let the loudest voice be one that is usually underrepresented in the culture. In "The White Snake," that voice is the snake (sometimes literally, the loudest). When was the last time any of us saw an American play, or a movie, or a TV show, featuring a hero (not a sidekick) who was Chinese and a woman?

  5. When in doubt, just say no. If at any point, for instance in a play about the Cambodia, something onstage is making you think, "This might look strange to some people," or "It might upset someone" or even, "I wonder if this is a good idea," please A) Talk to a few people who are Cambodian or of Cambodian descent and ask, "Does this offend you?" or B) do something else! Consider it thinking on your feet (aka being an artist).

  6. Educate. If you, as a playwright, feel that you want to expand beyond what you know, and play with someone else's culture, you are within your rights to do so. But please do not commodify or exoticize the culture. Rather than say, "Look at this exotic landscape and these strange people, aren't they so beautiful and strange and EXOTIC?" (aka "Miss Saigon"), say, "What do these people, who may look different from you and me, how do their stories relate to the stories we know? What can they teach us? What can we teach each other?" Use the different locale to educate and show that, despite the differing skin colors and cultural backgrounds, we all occupy a shared humanity. 

P.S. On that last point, I dug up a quote from Mary about "The White Snake" and, true to form, the play isn't really about a magical snake.
I always like a project to be a challenge in some way, and the challenge here was the extremely different versions of the story through the centuries. In some, the main character, the White Snake, is a devilish figure who snares a human to be her husband, and the Buddhist monk who breaks up her marriage is the hero. But through time, White Snake became more sympathetic and the monk became the bad guy because he's a fundamentalist and believes it's not natural for a man to be married to a snake. I've teased Bill [Rauch, artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which commissioned "White Snake"] that underneath it all, this is a marriage-equality play.

*These rules don't include productions whose main goal is a parody of things that racist people like to do (like in "The Scottsboro Boys"). This guide is for, to give an example, if you are writing a play set in Latin America, but you are not of Latin American descent, and want to know how to stage it without offending people who are of Latin American descent.

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