A Conversation Worth Having

Awkward Stage welcomes all feedback and discussion with respect to our developing new works, and especially regarding our recent production of TITUS: The Light and Delightful Musical Comedy of Titus Andronicus, as it deals with both controversial and sensitive subject matter and issues such as violence, sexual violence and racial stereotyping.

Last week, we received a public letter posted on Twitter, Facebook and a blog from a patron expressing her passionate and deeply felt response to the first 10 minutes of the production.  Her perspective is valid and important to us, but we believe it might have been different had she seen the rest of the play.  While we don’t agree with her interpretation of our intent or message, or the intent and perspective she has ascribed to our cast and team, we appreciate and accept her reaction.  We thought carefully and long about how best to respond, and decided it best to publish her letter on our website together with the replies from the director, book & lyric author, and the actor who portrayed Aaron.

We are proud of our work, we are proud of our cast, and we are proud of our new writers and director.

Awkward Stage Productions welcomes the very vital conversation of diversity in Canadian theatre and we share the community’s passion for finding a way forward.  If you are so inclined, we include a link shared by the Jessie Richardson Awards Society to sign up for email updates specific to the discussion of inclusivity in Vancouver Theatre.  Please sign up.  These are the conversations most worth having.

 

The original open letter:

September 29, 2015

To: Andy Toth, Sandra Herd, Andrew Wade and Jenny Andersen,

My name is Sereana Malani, I came to the closing performance of Titus, The Light and Delightful Musical Comedy of Titus Andronicus. From the title and the opening number it was evident and expected that this would be a silly mash up of Shakespeare and musical theatre. What was not evident or expected was the bold mistreatment and fetishization of Harrison Mooney, the performer playing the character of Aaron the Moor.

Out of a cast of fifteen, two of your performers were persons of colour, Mr. Mooney being the only black male. By repeatedly and excessively calling attention to Mr. Mooney’s race, his blackness, his maleness in such a derogatory manner you devalued him as a performer and as a human being by reducing him to a walking punch line. The overt tone of your jokes reading as: “Hey everybody! Look at The Black Guy! Isn’t he hilarious?!” If you thought you were being funny, if you thought you were being clever or cute, you were not. I felt pity for the cast who had boldly bought into this cheap commentary, having read their bios they are young and largely inexperienced, Mr. Mooney himself stating that this is his first foray into the acting world. In short they don’t know any better, they don’t grasp the impact of the message they are selling. That message being that actors of colour are here to either mill about in the background or be dragged centre stage to have their race lambasted and their humanity stripped for your viewing pleasure. Actors of colour are not your props.

As creators and producers of theatre you must be clear and cognizant of the messages you are sending, of the lessons you are imparting to your audience. An audience that, judging from the evening I was in attendance, is very young, very impressionable and very white. Rather than recognize the danger and divisiveness of tokenism in casting your message reinforced Mr. Mooney’s “otherness”, using his race as a weapon against him, implying repeatedly that his race was a detriment all the while exploiting the very real issue of diversity in casting.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines satire as “the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” The only irony in your production was that you exposed your own bigoted and shortsighted views of a major issue in contemporary Canadian theatre. The ultimate flaw in this production was that the jokes you were making at Mr. Mooney’s expense were simply not funny. Your play served as a gross representation of the problem you are perpetuating.

A new Canadian work should be cause for celebration. Mr. Wade and Ms. Andersen, perspective in storytelling is important and it is very clear that you were writing from a place of ignorance and privilege. I encourage both of you to join the conversation on inequality and educate yourselves on the marginalization of people of colour before you see fit to frame their struggles through your own privileged lens of experience.

Mr. Toth, your director’s notes, in line with your directorial choices are problematic. You cannot use this platform and these young emerging artists, making them complicit in this racist tokenism and then bandy about social media buzzwords while telling me it’s “satire” replete with jazz hands. That is lazy, flabby social commentary at best. These young artists place their trust in your leadership and if your intention was to lampoon the issues of diversity and opportunity in theatre, you missed the mark by a long shot.

Sereana Malani

 

From Artistic Director Andy Toth in reply:

September 29, 2015

Ms. Malani. I appreciate very much your letter. And I am humbly extending to you my deepest apologies if I or this show have personally offended you. I want you to know that, although we took great care in the creation of this show to deal with this issue intelligently, we are under no illusions that this is a finished work, or that we got it right. I am considering my response very carefully now, but at the outset, please know that your disdain and your comments are heard and indeed welcome.

We recognized early on in the writing process with this piece that we were on many layers of very thin ice. The original Titus, thick with ridiculous violence perpetuated in the pursuit of power and revenge seemed silly to the writers of the piece and indeed to me as director. We felt like the exaggeration and irony of having Harrison play a hapless journalist at the outset, and then rising to a position of power within the piece as the play progressed would be welcome. His skill with words increased as the play went on, and he went on to subvert the system that had him sidelined, lambasting an ignorant, smiling, jazz hand waving mob at the end of the piece by forcing the audience to acknowledge that this violence, this bigotry, this terror, this horror is what we are all in fact capable of.

As a side note, we were simply telling the truth in the piece. Harrison is in fact a journalist who has never acted before…. and in fact, he was miraculous.

Again, I want to say that we are not convinced we are right in how Harrison was presented. I do want it to be clear that Harrison was instrumental in the writing of this character and the arc created – but I would much rather Harrison speak to this if he is so inclined.

In the end, I would very much like the opportunity to extend my apology to you in person. I am a director of privilege. I know we all worked hard to find the dark corners of our perception on this piece: to challenge ourselves and our colleagues to reinterpret the gender roles, the colour lines, and toy with what funny actually means. In this regard, for you, we failed. I am truly very sorry for this.

With thanks for your effort and your candour,

Andy Toth

Artistic Director

Awkward Stage Productions

 

From Titus actor Harrison Mooney in reply (from online comments, reposted with permission):

September 30, 2015

Sereana,

Harrison Mooney here.

I appreciate your response to the show and I can understand how you would arrive at these concerns. Trust me when I say I originally had similar concerns as well, and when I took on this role, I sat with Andrew and talked through every issue I had with the script until it had reached a point where I was comfortable with it. Let me try to explain how I got there.

In your open letter, you write, “I felt pity for the cast who had boldly bought into this cheap commentary, having read their bios they are young and largely inexperienced, Mr. Mooney himself stating that this is his first foray into the acting world. In short they don’t know any better, they don’t grasp the impact of the message they are selling. That message being that actors of colour are here to either mill about in the background or be dragged centre stage to have their race lambasted and their humanity stripped for your viewing pleasure. Actors of colour are not your props.”

I’m choosing not to take offence to the suggestion that I’m too inexperienced or unthinking to realize when I’m being otherized. Like you, I’ve been “of colour” my whole life. You know we learn to recognize it, especially since it happens so bloody often. But in addition, my graduate studies were in blackness and otherness. I focused mostly on the writing of James Baldwin and, because I saw many meaningful connections, the character of Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus. This may be my first foray into acting, but let me assure you that I understand this play, and this role.

Aaron is an otherized character. He’s a slave. Nearly every line in Shakespeare’s indelicate script draws attention to his blackness. He’s inexplicably evil. There’s no redemption for him whatsoever, and in the moment he could be given some, when he begs for his child’s life the way Tamora did to open the show, he only professes further villainy. Aaron is a racist character as written, and when Shakespeare drags my character to centre stage and humiliates him, well, that’s an exaggeration designed to expose and criticize Shakespeare’s writing of the character, which strikes me as a pretty topical issue, since you and I both know that many characters of colour are written just as inelegantly today. Fits the definition of satire you cited.

But going further, one modern reading of this character is that he’s also something of a meta figure, a black man who realizes he’s not invited to the dance as the entire opening scene unfolds with him as a spectator, and decides to go after those propagating a system that has him enslaved, mistreated, dehumanized, and excluded. It’s also the reading I ascribe to, and the one I brought to the character when I began to explore his arc. Aaron isn’t a stock villain — he’s a captive, mistreated and angry, then cut loose and taking vengeance. He’s fuelled by his anger at the very thing that repulsed you: the stripping of his humanity.

In the scenes after you walked out following my introduction, the character grows. He develops a backbone, he begins to seethe at his mistreatment, and identify with Aaron’s anger. Eventually, he finds ways to flex his agency and bring pretty much dismantle society that had no place for him. He leaves the world a better place for his child. Plus, as my character becomes more naturally the character on which he’s based, the acting improves, until by show’s end, I find myself delivering a difficult and emotional Shakespearean monologue, off-book. Turns out my character didn’t need acting experience: he just needed to understand Aaron’s anger at the way he’s been treated. That’s an arc I’m more than happy to portray, because I think it helps to explain why some of us in the black community seem so goddamn angry sometimes.

Anyway. I hope that helps. If you want to continue this conversation, I’m more than happy to. My email is (removed for privacy).

 

From playwright Andrew Wade in reply (by private message, reposted with permission):

Sereana,

I would like to apologize for this delayed response. I wanted to give Harrison and Andy a chance to answer first, and wanted to ensure that I gave this the due consideration your letter deserves.

I deeply regret that you had such an experience at the show, and your feedback is greatly appreciated. As work continues on this piece in the future, your words will carry weight in future edits. While we, the creative team, are intentionally walking some fine lines with this piece in regards to taste and offensiveness, I certainly do not want the play to trigger reactions that lead to people such as yourself to walk out of the theatre ten to fifteen minutes into the performance.

I know the rest of my response is going to come across as defensive, so I do want to first state again clearly that I value and appreciate your feedback. There are many points around these issues that we agree on. I agree that I am a man of white privilege and I agree that I do not fully emotionally grasp what it feels like to be ‘otherized’, as Harrison put it, because that is not my reality. I have my own ‘privileged lens of experience.’ I can aim to understand as best I can, and I can include people with more experience in these matters like Harrison in the creative process, but I will also create flawed works and make mistakes.

In the creative process of putting this show together, I would say that about half of our creative team’s conversations focused around the rape scene in the production, a quarter of our talks on the issue of racism in the play, and a quarter on everything else.

I am not saying we tackled these issues as well as we could within this show, but we did not step into it blindly. Both issues of sexual violence and racism were debated and considered closely, over and over. Before the rehearsal period began, fully cognizant of how very, very non-otherized Jenny, Andy, and myself, are, we consulted with Harrison on the both of his characters’ arcs (as ‘Harrison’, the character, and as Aaron). This lead to a number of substantive changes. Some of these changes pushed the play further towards ‘otherizing’ Aaron, acknowledging further just how terribly he is treated by the other characters.

One of my main goals in this adaptation was to give the character of Aaron a solid emotional arc, something which I felt was missing in the original Lamentable Tragedy. In the Bard’s version, Aaron stands onstage for most of the first third of the play, saying absolutely nothing, until he is revealed to be ‘inexplicably evil’, as Harrison phrased it. Throughout Shakespeare’s play, other characters (aka: all the white people) repeatedly insult and degrade Aaron based on the colour of his skin, culminating in a last-straw moment when even his lover, Tamora, demands that Aaron kill Aaron’s own son. Why kill the child? Because the child is black, and therefore a disgrace to the throne. And then Aaron, the devil that he is, gets sentenced to be buried in the street and left to starve, a cruel sentence decided by arguably the most sympathetically written character in the show, Lucius. (Oh, and Lucius earlier wanted the baby to be hung.) And when we, the audience, see all that, we are supposed to think, ‘well, good riddance. Glad that devil got what he deserved.’

Which is all rather awful.

In my adaptation, I didn’t want to have the only Moor in the show be an inexplicably evil force. I didn’t want the audience to be happy to see him die. I also didn’t want to ignore the racist undertones within the original play. No, my aim was to build a real character with a real emotional arc who was rightly vengeful against a world of characters who mistreat him. Whether or not I was successful in this aim is certainly up for dispute.

You make the argument that the first ten to fifteen minutes of our adaptation are rather racist. I agree. Both ‘Harrison’ and Aaron are sorely mistreated by the so very, very white-privileged people around them.

In this show, I am trying to walk a very delicate line where there is an intent to have the audience laugh at how awful and racist all these characters are, and to then feel really terrible about having laughed at all. Given your feedback, that humour/shame balance needs to be better calibrated.

Diversity in casting is a very real issue, and musicals around town are far more white than our city’s demographics suggest should be the case. In TITUS, yes, I do have Shakespeare’s character make a few jokes about how hard it is to find black, male, non-equity musical theatre actors in Vancouver. About how delighted he is to have found ‘Harrison’. Is this degrading to ‘Harrison’? Absolutely! Is this a racist, hugely offensive moment? Yep. This is intended as a moment where the characters of ‘Harrison’ and Aaron get shot down and pushed around by all these so very, very white-privileged characters.

That said, there is also an intent there to impress on the audience that these things are SUPER NOT OKAY. In this aspect, our Fringe production did not do what it needed to. There needs to be a better balance there. A better way for the play to acknowledge, in that moment, that these things are offensive. We need to tell off the audience for laughing, to better find that that humour/shame-on-you,-think-about-what-you-just-laughed-at balance.

Later on in the musical, both ‘Harrison’ and Aaron push back against their mistreatment, gaining power and status in every scene. Whereas in the original, Aaron remains ‘inexplicably evil’ to the end, in our adaptation, Aaron gets the last words of the play with an incisive ‘How Dare You Find This Entertaining!’ accusation both to the other characters and to the audience. How dare they laugh at how he has been treated. How dare the audience enjoy what all these awful characters have done on this stage. How dare they applaud.

Given your reaction, the play needs more of that ‘this is not okay’ spirit within the earliest section of the piece. This is something I will work on. We need to better and more quickly tell off the audience for finding ‘Harrison’s mistreatment as something funny. Find that laughter/shame-on-you balance.

(One aside: The subject of opportunities for people of colour in theatre and on the screen is a absolutely a very real issue. Characters are typically assumed to be white unless the script says otherwise. When it comes to adapting Titus Andronicus, this problem is compounded because so much of the script centers on Aaron’s otherness, on his marginalization, on him being ‘The Moor’, which strongly suggests that the rest of the cast be, well, somewhat whiter than he is. And our production met these criteria. I don’t know how to fix this within the confines of a faithful adaptation of The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. I welcome your feedback on this matter.)

My aim with much of this play is to make the audience laugh, and then make them feel like terrible human beings for having laughed, hopefully with the result of encouraging personal and public debates, and even personal growth. I want issues such as violence within our media, sexual violence, and racism to be addressed and confronted, leaving the audience hyper-aware of their own perceptions on these issues. I want people taking about these issues at the bar after the show. And I want to do this within the frame of a musical comedy.

The show isn’t there yet. The balance hasn’t been achieved yet. And we will certainly use your feedback when considering any future edits.

If you would like to chat in person, Harrison and I are happy to meet with you. (personal details removed for privacy)

Thank you again for your feedback,

Andrew