Part 1: Permission for Stories-Critics

In theatre or film, it’s no secret that the mass media caters to certain acceptable cultural norms. No secret except, it seems, to those who are involved in it professionally.  This upcoming week, I’ll focus on this notion of voices and permission to tell stories.

Take for instance the reaction to some different plays. Recently I came across “Relativity” by Cassandra Melody on the LA Theatreworks’ online performances (fabulous site!).  Despite winning the Alfred Sloane prize and the August Wilson Playwriting Award, “Relativity” had many negative reviews  – most of which were not well backed up.

The New York Times’ review didn’t comment on how the Melanin Foundation, an organization in “Relativity” out to prove the superiority of blacks and dismiss the protagonist’s stem cell research based on universal DNA similarities, was a “strained premise.”  The number one truth back in Playwriting 101 about dramatic premise is that if it’s presented well and that reality is sustained, both of which “Relativity” did, audiences will fly  to Neverland and clap for Tinker Bell.

The play did use the reversal of having the usually disenfranchised be the prejudiced ones effectively to show that an oppressed group has a mistrust of progress and knowledge when it has only historically been used to their disadvantage. I hadn’t even thought about it much like that…until Hela.

But the play wasn’t just about black-and-white.  It was also quite obvious that the Melanin Foundation was addressing a contemporary issue. As science advances, so do groups claiming pseudo scientific grounds for moral superiority  — gay vs straight; one faith vs another faith — except in this case it was the usual underdogs doing it and not the usual suspects.  Not one reviewer mentioned this larger, important issue.  Can it be that they also cannot see beyond black-and-white to some of the larger issues that apply to all forms of prejudice?

Another reviewer called the language “bombastic.”  Not to anyone who’s heard some African-American scholars lecture — it is a specific style that Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West uses, even readily admitting it to come from a Baptist influence.  Indian, French, South African, African American public speakers often have a style and rhythm unique to their culture — not all but definitely some in a pronounced manner identifiable with a culture.  Are even these rhythms of language and nuance of cultural buzz words so missing from our mainstream?

For example, in the South Asian culture, even though there are dysfunctional families and children that became estranged, it is rare due to a mixture of ingrained guilt-culture-duty never not speak to one’s parents for months or years or to visit only on holidays.  There may be the rare exception, and it may be a story swallowed by the public which can relate to such alienation, but for people within the culture, it would be not be a situation they relate to.

This is the same to American reactions I’ve heard in relation to plays dealing with infidelity by British playwrights like Tom Stoppard or David Hare: the Europeans are so…[fill-in-blank]. Where in American stories, we see scenes of burnings (clothes or people), killings, revenge, in response to infidelity. Obviously.  Marriage, infidelity, are a cultural viewpoint.

All of these reviewers are entitled to their opinion — everyone’s a critic as they say.  But what I am more and more curious about is how certain styles, manners, themes, and stories are turned down, dismissed or not accepted by “mainstream” so they are not allowed production or success through critical negativity.  Plays especially need critics as a lifeline.

It was some critical success and a lot of Jay Z to get “Fela” onto Broadway. And kudos to that show for pulling off a cultural statement, entertainment, and nuance at one go. And kudos to NYTimes Charles Isherwood for admitting what I’m discussing here: that he has his own bias when he see it.

It needs to be acknowledged and then let go and taken on its own terms.  Where else will storytellers with an authentic cultural viewpoint and strong story be allowed to present a different viewpoint of that which was always taken for granted, whether of infidelity or science, and show that’s not just “how it is.”

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