There's a Road We Must Travel

I recently came across a surprising article called, "Should There Be All-White Productions of Hairspray?"  Talk about click-bait! I was dying to read this and see what the hell it was about. Of course there shouldn't be all-white productions of this show about race in America, so who's asking this question...?

Then I read the article. and to my astonishment, the show's writers and their licensing agent Music Theatre International are both okay with this. In fact, for all-white productions of the show, MTI provides this letter to put in the program:
Dear Audience Members,

When we, the creators of HAIRSPRAY, first started licensing the show to high-schools and community theatres, we were asked by some about using make-up in order for non-African Americans to portray the black characters in the show.

Although we comprehend that not every community around the globe has the perfectly balanced make-up (pardon the pun) of ethnicity to cast HAIRSPRAY as written, we had to, of course, forbid any use of the coloring of anyone’s face (even if done respectfully and subtly) for it is still, at the end of the day, a form of blackface, which is a chapter in the story of race in America that our show is obviously against.

Yet, we also realized, to deny an actor the chance to play a role due to the color of his or her skin would be its own form of racism, albeit a “politically correct” one.

And so, if the production of HAIRSPRAY you are about to see tonight features folks whose skin color doesn’t match the characters (not unlike how Edna has been traditionally played by a man), we ask that you use the timeless theatrical concept of “suspension of disbelief” and allow yourself to witness the story and not the racial background (or gender) of the actors. Our show is, after all, about not judging books by their covers! If the direction and the actors are good (and they had better be!) you will still get the message loud and clear. And hopefully, have a great time receiving it!

Thank You,
Marc, Scott, Mark, Tom & John

As in Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O'Donnell, and Tom Meehan, the creators of the show. Wow... so... um... what do we do with that?

And John Waters also signed the letter, the guy who wrote and directed the original film, who actually lived through the cultural moment Hairspray describes. Even if we can dismiss Shaiman, Wittman, O'Donnell, and Meehan, can we dismiss Waters, who's writing from his own experience...?

Then again, once you really starting thinking about all this, it just gets more complicated. After all, as progressive as Hairspray feels, it's still true that the black folks in the story can't get their Happily Ever After until the "white savior" steps in on their behalf...

So I did what I often do with complex theatre issues and questions -- I posted the article, both on New Line's Facebook page and in our St. Louis Metro Area Theatre group, and asked folks what they thought. That's when an even bigger surprise hit me...

In the Metro group, everyone was adamantly against the idea of a white actor playing a black character, and the actors of color who commented felt understandably hurt by this; but no one seemed  to know how to grapple with the fact the writers disagree with them. That's what's hard for me. These four white guys write an insightful piece of theatre about race, but they also make this decision that suggests that they don't understand the issues around race after all, a decision that really upsets black theatre artists.

On the New Line Facebook page, people started posting angry, abusive, insulting, condescending comments about what a stupid question it is (even if the show's own creators don't think so), and how bad New Line looks for bringing it up -- even though we didn't endorse the decision, just shared the article. The writer of the article and I both agree that we don't like the idea at all, but we can't just dismiss entirely the creators' opinions, can we?

Honestly, I could tell from the comments on New Line's page that most of the people commenting had not read the article, so they probably didn't know that the article (and I) agreed with them. I could also tell that most of them were white and most of them hadn't really thought much about race or the incredibly complex set of issues surrounding race. They just had a knee-jerk reaction and, like too many people on Facebook, commented on an article without actually reading it first.

Best way to look like a fool.

The big takeaway from the article for me is that this shit is complicated. And one sentence posted on Facebook does not resolve or explain it. My big takeaway from the reaction to the article is that most white people don't really think much about race and they/we/I don't understand the issues nearly as well as they/we/I think.

One local black woman, Jasmine French, wrote very insightfully about this in the metro St. Louis group:
And yes, [black actors] can say with a straight face that we understand the show better than the writers... When it comes to the black characters, the writers were coming from a place of observation... They and their loved ones weren't in the shoes of those black characters... My grandmother always talks about when the schools integrated. When family would travel to visit her and how everyone would wait up for them, scared that the police or KKK caught them... My grandfather barely speaks on what he saw (he's from Alabama so we can all just picture how peachy that was). I sang "I know Where I've Been" for my grandparents, for the civil rights movement, for the black lives matter movement. The writers wrote it for ticket sales. Its a wonderful song, don't get me wrong, but just because they wrote about black characters doesn't mean they understand a black person's experience, and them attaching that letter co-signing and allowing this is proof that they don't.

Like I said, this is complicated stuff.

We just announced New Line's next season, which will include the classic satire Anything Goes, but that show's "Chinese converts" pose some tough questions as well. Their portrayal in the script is borderline racist, and there's a long creepy history of white actors playing these two Chinese guys, which I knew we could not do. We're still figuring out a way to get the plot point across without being unintentionally racist. I think we may have a decent solution, still thinking about it...

Bottom line, we'll never fully understand or solve the issues around race in America unless we can have a conversation about them. But clearly this article was too provocative..

So I finally deleted the post and the link to the article on the New Line page. The conversation was shut down by people who weren't interested in thinking these complicated questions through. In contrast, in our Metro St. Louis group, everybody was against the idea, but they had a conversation. Yes it got emotional (as would be expected), but not nasty.

Personally, I would not go see an all-white production of Hairspray. I hate the idea, on both a practical and an artistic level. But I don't know what to do with the creators' position. These guys obviously have thought through these issues, while writing the show, so I can't just dismiss them.

Not every issue is clear. Most aren't. And those are the ones most worth thinking and talking about...

No answers here...

Maybe we should let one of the show's writers have the last word. Marc Shaiman wrote this to The Huffington Post about an all-white production of Hairspray in Texas in 2012:
A recent article out of Plano Texas reported of a children’s theatre production of HAIRSPRAY that featured not a single black actor.

Many years ago, when MTI started preparing for the release of HAIRSPRAY for licensing to regional, community and children’s theatre, the subject of 'color-blind casting' was hotly debated. Starting the discussion with 'absolutely no production can exist without actors who are the race of the characters,' I was asked by a rep of MTI 'Ok...what about in Japan?.' 'Oh...' I replied.

'How about South America? Scotland? Sweden?' they said. 'Oh...' I replied.

I then remembered when Scott & I went to his summer stock alma mater when they performed HAIRSPRAY. Up to Vermont we drove only to see two Asian actors in Velma Von Tussle’s 'Nicest Kids In Town.' This was a company of young actors put together to put on a bunch of shows that summer. Were we to stop the production because it was unrealistic that Velma would allow Asian teenagers to be on The Corny Collins Show? Would that not be a form of racism?

I thought back of when I musical directed a community theatre production of WEST SIDE STORY in Plainfield NJ in the early 70’s. 'Anita' was played by a African American (a beautiful woman named Audrey) who was probably in her 40s. And she was, probably, the only non-white in the cast. Should we not have been allowed to tell this story of the consequence of bigotry. Should Audrey not have been allowed to play Anita because she was black? Or 40?

By the way, the kid who played Tony was REALLY cute.

I have grown to realize that when you write a show — particularly one you are lucky enough to see have a long life — you are, in effect, giving birth to a child. And you try your hardest to teach that child what’s right, instill good values — and a sense of humor — and then, when the time comes, send it out into the world. My mother and father raised me right, but would they be proud of every single choice I have made in my life since leaving home? Probably not. But they did their best, I do my best and we authors of HAIRSPRAY do ours.

A few years ago, we were horrified when pictures appeared online of a one weekend only bootleg production of our show in Italy that had people in full blackface. Really terrible images. By the time we saw the photos, the production had come and gone but we were put on red alert to what some people out there might do. So, we authors wrote a program letter that acknowledges that not every community on earth has the correct racial make-up to portray the characters in HAIRSPRAY as written. But that we did not feel it was correct to tell an actor they are incapable of portraying a character and hopefully moving an audience by inhabiting that character, regardless of their skin color. Which, ironically, is a huge part of the message of HAIRSPRAY. But that blackface was forbidden. Who knew we would even have to say that?

We also stress to every group that licenses it that the best solution is to look outside their community until every avenue is exhausted. There are literally (and lucky for us) thousands of productions out there. It is simply impossible to police every single one but MTI does a remarkable job. As do the folks who license it throughout the world.

I would ask for everyone to consider what I am saying here before assuming that greed and only greed has led to the decision to allow HAIRSPRAY to be performed to the best of the ability of each troupe that takes it on. This is an ongoing learning process, and we authors are doing our best to spread the right message and learn the lessons each production and each year brings us.

Marc Shaiman

Is it okay or is it racist to let a black woman play Anita in West Side Story? Is it okay or is it racist to allow a white woman to play Motormouth in Hairspray? Two very different questions, I think. In a cultural vacuum maybe the two are the same. But we don't live in a cultural vacuum...

I'll leave it there for now. But I won't stop thinking about this... and neither should you.

Long Live the Musical!