I recommend to everyone the article on Teachable Moments by my colleague Harriet Black Nembhard. She is commenting on the “minstrel scene” in State College Community Theatre’s production of CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN. She suggests among other things that the scene should have been excised from the play as a n example of a racially insensitive comment in an otherwise pleasant family comedy. I couldn’t agree more. My dear friend and colleague Lloyd Short played the father in the play and was one of the actors who played the scene. First, let me state that Lloyd is not a bigot. In fact he is the opposite. He is someone who has been a defender of human dignity and equality throughout his life. He has not only talked the talk, he has also walked the walk. Upon graduating from Rutgers Law School he committed to working for VISTA as way of alleviating the suffering which had resulted from our disparate and too often unjust society. I consider him my brother, not in blood, not in skin, but in principle. He argues in a letter which I hope will be published by this newspaper that the scene could not be cut because it would do dramatic damage to the purpose of the play and that in any case, a community theatre does not have the right or copyright authority to change the text. With this position, my dear brother, I do not concur.
My wife and I sat through what was otherwise a delightful family comedy. Toward the end of the play we were slapped in the face by the minstrel scene which was meant to convey some information which had nothing to do with race. In fact it was meant to convey humor. We didn’t laugh. In fact we were totally taken out of the play and couldn’t help thinking – are these supposed to be sympathetic characters?
They were of course, just using the style of the time, using the derogatory characterization of black people as a way of conveying humor. The same way too many of us men, use gender demeaning jokes to convey negative images of women, the way all of us have used negative images of Native Americans, Italians, Irish, etc. as a way of depicting certain negative characteristics of people, the way that Nazis used anti-Jewish jokes to help perpetuate the holocaust. NO I AM NOT IMPLYING THAT THE PRODUCTION, THE THEATRE COMPANY, OR ANY OF THE COMPANY MEMBERS ARE NAZIS. They are my neighbors and my friends. Rather I am suggesting that in this instance they showed an insensitivity to the feeling of some of their audience and abandoned the opportunity for a teaching moment.
One of the greatest aspects of our American society is that we are in the process of being an example to the world of how diverse peoples can live together, work together and build a new world where people do not kill each other because of how they look, worship or think. It is something we didn’t automatically come to. Brilliant and idealistic as our founding fathers were, most of them were bigots and sexists. (How do you really think Thomas Jefferson would react to a Brack Obama as the President or Hilary as the chief foreign minster/) But they did establish a framework by which their progeny could work toward building such a society. It has taken blood (the most costly war we have had was the Civil War) sweat, tears, patience, tolerance, sensitivity and a wonderful compassionate sense of justice. When we replay the “tapes of the past” we must exhibit a vigilance to be sure not to undermine what we have built in the present.
So what is to be done?
Perhaps when we choose to do plays like CHEAPER or HUCK FINN we should exercise great care in order to tell our truth, predicated on a struggle to create an environment of tolerance and civility and not present the cultural misconceptions of the past. Of course, we must ask why do we choose to do plays which have potentially offensive material in the first place? Do we have some perverse nostalgic attachment to a past which is mired in bigotry ? Do we need to celebrate who we were at the expense who we are trying to become?
A few years ago I was hired to do direct a production of UNCLE TOMS CABIN at The Mint Theatre in New York. It was difficult. Though Stowe’s book is a major anti-slavery text, much of what was in Aiken’s drama is built upon stereotypes (which by way, were played by white actors in black face during the height of its popularity) . As an African-American whose roots are deep run deep on both sides of the institution of slavery, I was honor bound to present a true picture of the experience of my ancestors while not compromising our contemporary realities. I had to go line by line, scene by scene. In the end I hope it was successful. The New York Times reviewer found some of the scenes compelling even though they retained their melodramatic flavor.
I know that the cast and production team of CHEAPER thought about the minstrel scene before hand. I know that Lloyd, who had just played a character written as black man in a previous play, agonized over it. I was not part of their discussions so I can not speculate on how they came to the decision to use the scene without alteration. But, we do know the result of their deliberation. Maintaining the textual integrity of the play won out over the potential offence it would cause. That is yet another teachable moment.