Opening up a real dialogue on race

I had to laugh out loud when, after a brilliant "Daily Show" segment on Sen. Barack Obama's speech on race, Jon Stewart dropped the yuks for a moment and said (to paraphrase): "And so it is that a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as if they were adults." Stewart hit the nail on the head. Although I haven't had a chance to watch Obama's speech in its entirety yet, from what I have seen, it was an honest, direct and nuanced attempt to grapple with a complex problem.

All of this leads me to something I had meant to blog about a couple of weeks ago, when I saw a preview performance of Madison Repertory Theatre's current show, Thomas Gibbons' "Permanent Collection." The show blends art-world and racial politics as Sterling North, a black corporate exec, takes on the directorship of the Morris Foundation, which houses a priceless collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, as well as some little-displayed African art. North's desire to incorporate more of the African pieces into the displays rankles the museum's white director of education, and controversy ensues.

After the preview-night show, I felt invigorated in way that, frankly, I rarely do when leaving the theater. Sure, there are good plays to be seen in Madison, but this seemed to me an almost perfect blend of entertainment with meaty ideas. The production was fiery, at times funny and offered characters with real moral complexity. It's a play on race and culture that treats the audience as if they were adults, capable of seeing the merits of each character's position from shifting angles.

I was previously unfamiliar with this play, and I'm glad Madison Rep chose to make it a part of its season. Madison is a changing city but its older generations - you know, the people who are more likely to go to professional theater - are largely white. We like to think of ourselves as an enlightened, progressive place, and to a good extent I think Madison is, but anyone who doesn't believe that they have blind spots regarding race is probably fooling themselves. In that way, I thought Madison's Rep choice of this play was especially well suited to its community. Being entertained and being made to think - in equal measure - is, for me at least, a perfect night at the theater. And if art, as well as political speeches, can move forward our national dialogue on race, I think this is the sort of play that can accomplish that.

For some local reviews of Madison Repertory Theatre's production of "Permanent Collection," see Isthmus, the Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal. The show runs through March 30 at the Overture Center for the Arts.

March 20, 2008 8:00 AM | | Comments (1)



What I find interesting is plays, contemporary plays, where there is no discussion of race, gender, sexual orientation or class. I imagine putting "straight" in front of every description of a heterosexual character, "white" in front of every description of a usually white/determinedly white character, etc. Of course, I want plays that concern race without being as painfully obvious or self-congratulatory as, say, Spinning Into Butter seemed when I read it. (Has anyone seen this play? Reactions to it?)

As we all know from my incessant babbling, I get to see a lot of plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. One I saw last weekend was Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, a new play about a returning Iraqi veteran. Nothing in the script marks race, but in this production, everyone appears to be white except for the woman playing Jenny — possibly a "race-blind" or "color-neutral" casting, possibly affected by the OSF's African American regulars being busy in August Wilson's Fences. Still, that was an interesting choice even if, for some reason, the theatrical people involved are supposed not to talk about race or mark it in some way.

In Eugene, which is, I think, around 91 percent white (and, to fill out the picture, .8 percent African American; 1.1 percent Native American; 2 percent Asian and 5 percent Latino), there aren't a lot of good actors in general, which means there really aren't a lot of good actors who aren't white. I talked to one of the artistic directors here last year, and he said that this demographic make-up limits the plays he can consider doing. You know, like Take Me Out — not gonna happen here. OTOH, at the U of Oregon and Lane Community College productions, students of color (who aren't usually counted in the demographics of the city/town) often have more prominent roles. I've never lived in a town this white before. It's a little ... strike that ... a lot freaky.

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