Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Race and the North Coast, & the KC 4, An Introduction

photo: CSU--East Bay cast of Xtigone

From my latest Stage Matters column about the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival productions at HSU, the North Coast Journal cut a paragraph that had to do with race.

The paragraph followed the description and review of Xtigone, produced by CSU—East Bay. Here is the paragraph:

At the standing ovation the cast seemed relieved as much as elated. The journey from East Bay to Arcata was in some respects a long one. Those involved in the production were a diverse but largely black and Latino group, so they made sure all of their vans had at least one white passenger. Even so, one van was stopped by police.

The editorial objection was to the implication that the van was stopped as racial profiling, without providing evidence that this was the case. The objection was communicated to me in a couple of emails and a phone message. I responded by asking whether this editor knew of a case in which the police admitted to racial profiling. But I added that I could confirm nothing beyond what I wrote, so if the last sentence was objectionable, they might drop it. I assume it was then felt that the rest of the paragraph didn’t make much sense without it, so the whole graph was cut.

The paragraph doesn’t in my view assert any fact about racial profiling, one way or the other. It is about the expectations and experience of the people from East Bay who came here.

I was told by an East Bay faculty member about making sure every van had a white person in it, and that a van was stopped by police, much closer to Arcata than to Oakland. She also said that students were upset by seeing a Confederate flag in a store window in another town along 101.

Xtigone is a play about urban gun violence, brought to HSU and presented by a highly diverse cast from another CSU school in a very different part of California, the East Bay or Oakland area. By all accounts, the cast and other members of the production were very committed to what the play had to say. It took courage for them to bring it to this festival audience—which included a lot of schools in non-urban areas, and which looked largely white. And though it may surprise people on the North Coast to know this, it took courage to bring it to this part of California.

That idea, however, and trepidations based on race may surprise people here, and even offend them. But apart from the well-known fact that even well-heeled African Americans have been pulled over at least once for driving while black, perhaps I can illustrate my limited understanding of their point of view with this anecdote that happens to also involve theatre.

I was at the Eugene O’Neill Center during a summer National Playwrights Conference, one of four people who piled into a station wagon one afternoon to go into the nearest town of Waterford, Connecticut. Three of us were white, one of us was not, and he was August Wilson, the double Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. (By the way, I've embarrassed myself by referring to this summer as "ten years ago." It was 20. That's hard for me to fathom.)

We all had various errands, and eventually we all had to find cash machines. In those days not every bank card worked in every machine, so this involved several stops. Finally only August and I hadn’t gotten cash, and we searched with increasing urgency for another bank before they all closed. We found a small one, just at closing time. There was no bank machine outside, so we all rushed in the building, looking around frantically for one inside.

The people inside looked startled, and for a moment it crossed my mind that we might be giving the impression we were up to no good. After seeing there was no machine I was ready to dash out to the car and continue our search, but I saw August talking earnestly to one of the bank employees. He was patiently explaining what we were doing. He even introduced himself. The employee smiled, and said something to the effect that I know who you are, Mr. Wilson. If for no other reason, I realized, than we were all still wearing our name badges, which everyone was required to wear every day at the O’Neill.

Back in the car, August and I confirmed that we had the same thought simultaneously—that we may have looked a little like bank robbers for a moment. I thought it was very funny. August Wilson did not. It was not an impression that a black man could take lightly, he more or less said.

Sometimes you can imagine what things look like from another’s perspective. Sometimes you can’t. You just have to listen.

Of course it doesn’t take being black to see that racism is still real. Since some people woke up to understand that the President of the United States is black, it’s arguably gotten worse, or at least more overt. You can argue that the police have lots of reasons to stop a vehicle, and that the Confederate flag is a novelty item. I think you can also argue that the Old South does not have to rise again. In significant respects, it never left.

I will say that even this hearsay evidence is enough to concern some people at HSU, who see this with the perspective of a school that is trying to encourage diversity.

Now I’ll wind up these posts on the KCACTF productions by clarifying how they came to HSU. Throughout the year, schools (from community colleges to large universities) invite “respondents” from KCACTF to visit at least some of their productions. The respondents (who used to be called adjudicators) view the production one night and talk to the members of the production afterwards. I’ve been to several of these at HSU, and they are always interesting and valuable. In fact, I suggested to the student critics at our first session that they would find it helpful to attend such a session. The respondents, who are usually theatre faculty from various member schools, describe their responses in great detail. (And as a sidelight, the two respondents who came to HSU most recently to see An Evening With Rumi were Joseph Gilg and Bill Wolack. These two veterans of KCACTF were also the only two awardees of this year’s District 7 Golden Medallions, which I gather is the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award.)

Then before the regional festival, a committee of respondents selects four productions out of all they’ve seen to be “invited productions,” which means they are brought in to the festival. This year, the four plays I write about in the following posts were selected. Often this happens weeks or months after the play was originally produced, so everybody has to be gathered together again. Then they have to figure out how to re-mount their production to fit the host theatre, and to fit into the available trucks. At the festival they have a set number of hours to “load in” and set up the production, set their lights and sound, their projections and so on. And then they have a certain time to tear down and “load out” after the show.

This is quite a task under any conditions, but additional problems do arise. There were some lighting glitches for the second show (Xtigone) which I heard were at least partly due to a burnt-out circuit. Whatever it was, it seemed to also affect the third show (The Time Machine), which was still getting ready at show time. It began late, which in addition to further frustrating the crowd that in some cases stood for an hour outside or in the corridors, it probably penalized the production.

For after all the shows, another festival committee decides which of them should be “held,” or made eligible for selection to go to the national festival at the Kennedy Center in April. That doesn’t mean it will go—only four or five productions from all 8 regions are invited. But it seems that everything counts in determining the production to be “held,” including efficiency. That makes a certain amount of sense—because efficiency will be even more important to successfully mounting a show way back East at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

But it’s also worth noting in terms of this year’s festival productions. While Up was the production that was held—perhaps for the reasons I suggest in my post on it below—I wouldn’t call it the most significant production at the festival. In my view, that was Xtigone. This was a new production of a new play, ambitious and intriguing in both form and content, that’s clearly the first step for a play with a bigger future. More about that in the following post.

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