Fences…Meh?

This is going to sound awfully petty, or snobbish, but I finally got around to watching Fences, the filmed adaptation of the August Wilson play from 2016. Directed by and starring Denzel Washington, it essentially adapts the 2010 Broadway revival in which both he and Viola Davis starred. Most of the rest of the cast is the same, as well, including Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel. Viola Davis’ Academy Award-winning performance as Rose notwithstanding, the film is not particularly good. It is quite slow, suffers from bad direction, and has the same flaw the 2010 revival did: Denzel Washington is just NOT a good fit for Troy Maxson.

When I learned back in 2010 that there would be a revival of Fences, one of Wilson’s best plays (though I am more partial to The Piano Lesson) I was excited, but when I learned that Washington was starring, I was less interested. Washington is a FINE actor, in every sense of the word, and he has given us so many indelible performances in his career. But…he is no Troy Maxson. Troy is described as

“a large man with thick, heavy hands; it is this largeness that he strives to fill out and make an accommodation with. Together with his blackness, his largeness informs his sensibilities and the choices he has made in his life.”

Denzel Washington is many things, but “large” is not one of them. This physical prowess is really crucial to the character of Troy, as he literally and figuratively towers over everyone in his life, from his wife to his sons to his best friend. (For comparison, the original Troy when the play first premiered in 1985 was James Earl Jones. Not only is Jones large in the physical sense, but that VOICE is itself enormous, and fills up every space around him.) As a result of this physical mismatch between actor and character, Washington seems to “play” big. And while there is an element of performativity to Troy’s physical being, the character more uses his body as a means to push others away and prevent them from being closer to him, because he is so intimidating. The kind of intimidation we see, instead, from Troy is the steely-eyed, “I guarantee it” Denzel, rather than someone who just needs to bully people out of the way or tower over them. And, while impressive, that conveys a very different character than the one presented in the text.

I found the direction of the film to be rather plodding, as well. Filming a script that takes place in one location–the Maxson’s back yard–is a challenge, and so Washington places action in different areas (the garbage truck, the Maxson’s bedroom, etc) to provide more dynamic filming, but that has the added effect of dragging the film out, as establishing shots and other work needs to be done to set the scenes. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem, but this also cuts conversations in half, moves around interactions, etc, and generally bogs down the progress of the story. One scene that stands out as a particularly egregious example of this sees Troy visiting Gabriel in the hospital, in between conversations he has with Rose in Scene 2.2. In the play, the conversation between Rose and Troy about whether he will come home that night, how he signed Gabriel into the hospital, and the phone call which interrupts them to tell Troy that Alberta died while having his baby all takes place in this one continuous scene. In the film, this is broken up into several scenes: Rose meeting Troy at work, Troy in the hospital feeding Gabriel, the phone call waking up Troy and Rose late at night.

Beyond dragging this fairly short scene out over multiple scenes, the insert with Troy and Gabriel seems to be an attempt to rehabilitate this component of Troy’s character. We see Troy tenderly feeding Gabriel, who is wearing a bib (much like the baby Troy is about to have himself), and it clearly communicates that his committing his own brother to the hospital wasn’t a cynical ploy to get part of his army disability, but instead a decision he may wrestle with. That is an expansion of the text that isn’t necessary and is far too manipulative in terms of the audience’s sympathies.

While I think Williamson is great casting as Gabriel–both because he is a good actor and because Gabe is so reminiscent of Williamson’s iconic role as Bubba in Forrest Gump–the film’s (and possibly the 2010 revival, I’m honestly unsure) presentation of Gabriel is more tragic than the text suggests to me. I’ve always read Gabriel as a developmentally interrupted character, a man who suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in World War II as a young man, but who appears to more or less be independent and capable of living on his own, which is what makes Troy’s decision to commit Gabriel–something he refuses to do early in the play–a cynical, somewhat cruel thing to do. However, Williamson plays Gabriel as much more disabled, needing to be fed with a spoon at times, and at others, wandering around in circles when he gets excited. This has the effect of making the hospital committal seem much more necessary.

I am sure there is more about the film I could criticize, but truly, it’s not a “bad” movie. The performances are good, the music is nice, the dialogue is of course the great mixture of AAVE and storytelling that August Wilson does so well, and Rose is a really fascinating character. And yet…the film left me disappointed. Instead of Fences, I might recommend the TV movie adaptation of The Piano Lesson, starring Charles S. Dutton, Alfre Woodard, and Courtney B. Vance, from 1995. Now there’s an adaptation that works.

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Drama is Always Relevant

I’m teaching a new-to-me play in my Introduction to Drama course this semester: Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. I feel quite ignorant for not having read any of his work before, but I am an Americanist, after all. The play is one of his best known works, though he wrote poetry, essays, and books, in addition to plays. It is based on a historical event for which I can find irritatingly little information about: the intervention of a British colonial officer in Nigeria which prevented a ritual suicide in a local village in 1946.

The play contrasts the Yoruba rituals of the Nigerian village with the cultural trappings of the British occupiers. Soyinka warns against seeing this as a mere “clash of cultures,” which he says “presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter.” This is part of his directive to producers of the play, in order to avoid presenting the conflict as a struggle of equals simply misunderstanding each other, when it is in fact a struggle between occupier and the occupied, colonizer, and the colonized. The struggle (if that is even a suitable word here) in such cases is never equal, as Soyinka reminds us. The play itself makes this clear, as the British colonizers have guns and resources unavailable to the villagers. Yet beyond being a very good play, I found the dialogue to be remarkably modern in places, and that it even anticipates current debates over cultural appropriation.

When we are introduced to the British officer Pilkings, and his wife, Jane, they are preparing for a costume ball being held at the British Residency, and at which the King’s brother, Prince Henry, will be in attendance. The Pilkings are dressed in egungun clothing the colonial officers confiscated from the villagers during an arrest. These costumes can be part of a variety of ceremonies, but the play refers to garments worn during ceremonies honoring ancestors who have passed on. The spirits of the ancestors are invited to dwell in the community during such a ceremony, and may in fact momentarily possess the wearer of the garments.

Upon seeing Officer and Mrs. Pilkings wearing the egungun clothing, the indigenous police assistant officer Amusa becomes frightened and is unable to speak to either of them, as he is afraid and shocked. He tells them it is improper for them to wear clothing associated with the “dead cult” and that he cannot speak about death (specifically, the ritual suicide about to take place) to someone in a costume related to death: “I arrest ringleader but I treat egungun with respect.” The Pilkings tell Amusa he is being ridiculous. Later, the character Olunde arrives to see Mrs. Pilkings dressed in the egungun costume. Olunde is himself a villager, but has been studying medicine in England. (He has come back because it is his father who intends to commit suicide.) Jane asks for reassurance from Olunde that he isn’t shocked by her costume, and he assures her he is not. She says that wearing is “all in a good cause,” meaning for the ball and the arrival of the Prince. Then, Soyinka provides a rather cogent anticipation of that white-person-in-inappropriate-cultural-costume trend that rears its ugly head every Halloween:

OLUNDE: “And that is the good cause for which you desecrate an ancestral mask?

JANE: “Oh, so you are shocked after all. How disappointing.”

OLUNDE: “No I am not shocked Mrs. Pilkings. You forget that I have now spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand.”

JANE: “Oh. So you’ve returned with a chip on your shoulder. That’s a pity, Olunde […]”

Every Halloween, it seems, people of color have to contend with foolish costume choices by white people who are either deliberately ignorant or deliberately cruel in their understanding; Soyinka indicates here that it doesn’t matter why it is done, or whether it is purely accidental. It is still a kind of desecration at worst, or illustrative of a lack of respect at best. The Pilkings’ attitude here, toward the egungun costumes, reflects their later attitude toward the ritual suicide in the village. The Horseman of the late King is duty bound by Yoruba tradition to commit suicide; by preventing him from completing this responsibility, they interfere in a web of cultural and familial relationships they do not understand. And because they refuse to respect that which they do not understand, tragic results follow.

None of us can ever hope to know every detail about every culture on earth. But speaking as a white person, I can say that we tend to use that as a justification for not learning, and/or just not caring. And even worse, we dress up in these “costumes” for no particular important reason–for parties, for contests, for FUN. Heaven forbid we maybe not don the garments of another person’s culture just so we can look super cool in front of our other white friends. And, should a person speak up about the hurt or damage such cultural appropriation causes, we dismiss them as “too sensitive,” “too PC,” or “having a chip on their shoulder.”

As an educator, I am so happy to have finally read Death and the King’s Horseman, and appreciate how adroitly it speaks to this particular issue and others. I may sound naive, but I am a firm believer in the power of education–specifically, of centering minority voices and exposing students to voices outside their everyday experience–to shape minds and attitudes.

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Spreak in the Archives, Day 1

My campus is (finally) on Spring Break (Spreak) this week, and I am spending much of it far away, in the hills of Western Massachusetts at Smith College for a research trip. I am investigating the papers of the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA), which was a radical, progressive, intersectional-before-the-word-existed feminist political group. Specifically, I’m interested in their use of theatre and/or street drama to advocate for their causes. So far, I’ve found quite a lot of “stuff,” and a good deal of it related to drama.

But first, Smith College could not be more delightful, even though the weather today was awful: gray and cold with a constant drizzle. While it took me a little effort to find my way to the archive reading room itself, the staff was super helpful and everything was really easy to do. So, I tackled about 4 boxes today, with plans to do about 4 or 5 tomorrow. I can also work for a bit on Wednesday, if needed. So, what am I finding?

-The TWWA performed a handful of self-written skits at their annual International Women’s Day (IWD) events, which started in 1975, and which ended around 1980. These skits were slice of life style vignettes, featuring characters facing everyday problems, such as waiting in a welfare office, trying to find time to cook dinner and make the political meeting, or struggling on a teacher’s salary. More analysis will be needed to make sense of all of these skits, but initially they seem to function as clear, simple ways of de-stigmatizing aspects of poverty and family life that persons of color might deal with every day.

-The TWWA has some interesting overlap with my other research topic, the Free Southern Theatre (FST), in that both groups emphasized self-criticism and reflection, through evaluation and record keeping. Both groups also seem interested in their own histories, which shows through multiple versions of their “origin story” and timelines, etc. I am sure this is so members, new and old, can have the benefit of knowing their group has a trajectory and is going somewhere.

-And, as with any archive dive, there are always the odd, the funny, and the interesting bits that aren’t relevant to your project, but which catch your attention anyway. Today, it was a letter from a core member about her move back to the Bay area, and how she wants to have a shared political focus with her husband, because they were both activists, but she wanted something they could be doing together.

Archive work is slow and painstaking, and sometimes it’s stressful to make sure you are getting the information you need or might want, since time is always limited. But I’m staying organized with a really helpful scanner app on my phone that lets me take pictures and then immediately upload them to my Dropbox cloud storage. So I should be able to go through my research in a less stressful manner.

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Book Orders, How Do They Work?

It’s that time of the semester–time to submit my textbook orders for the impossibly far-seeming Fall semester 2017. The pressure to get them in on time is pretty strong, since each department gets a stipend from the book store that goes in the general account. And who doesn’t want (essentially) free money? (Bookstores do this to ensure faculty get their book orders in on time so that the school is compliant with federal guidelines about such things. But because faculty are notorious procrastinators, they have to bribe us to get it done.) I ordinarily have my book orders in way ahead of the deadline, but I need to shake up a few things in my courses, so I am debating new texts right now instead of just ordering the same texts I’ve used before in these courses. In addition, I have one brand new to me course I’ll be teaching, which requires conceptualizing the course from scratch. So, here’s a brief rundown of my current plans: Continue reading

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A New Native Son, Part 2

Read Part 1 here

As promised, I wanted to address a few more things regarding the proposed upcoming adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son. First, the way the novel links to our current political situation, and second, what Suzan-Lori Parks, the writer tapped to adapt the story, could bring to the work.

It’s not much of a stretch to say that the idea of racial equality and what we pejoratively refer to as “race relations” are strained right now. Even before the current administration and its questionable policies came into being, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement showed the hard truths many of us (i.e., mainly white persons) hadn’t realized: That the criminal justice system, from local police up to federal courts and from local jails to federal prisons, is intensely racist. Of course, the facts of institutional racism are certainly nothing new, and Native Son addresses this head on. Whether it is the police who hurl racial slurs at Bigger, the judge who refuses to allow for a fair inquest, or the death penalty which is applied with lightning speed, Wright exposes these institutions for what they are. Even journalists are implicated, writing stories referring to Bigger as an “ape” and other racial slurs. With all of this in mind, the film will probably be a timely union of fiction and reality.

To next turn to Suzan-Lori Parks, I want to convey how important she is as an American playwright. A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Parks has also written for the big screen, writing the screenplay for Spike Lee’s Girl 6. What Parks is primarily known for is her postmodern style. Her key works, among them The America Play are influenced by such other playwrights and writers as Adrienne Kennedy and Langston Hughes. Characters in her plays might travel across time, space or race in order to comment on history, race, and culture. Parks is also interested in the way we (re)present history and memory, as in her most recent work, Father Comes Home from the War (Parts 1, 2 and 3), which was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer. Because she is a bold and, sometimes, rather abstract writer, I am fascinated to see how she shapes Wright’s long, but generally tightly focused novel (things meander a bit in the last third). To begin, the novel runs well over 300 pages and is told from a narrative perspective that, while 3rd person, is inseparable from Bigger’s own mind. There is a deliberate closeness here that Wright crafted, so the reader would always be seeing the world through Bigger’s eyes, and imagine recreating that for film will be a challenge. I’m also curious as to how the film treats the character of Bigger. He is an unlikeable protagonist, a rapist and murderer–how do you make a film about him without either alienating the viewer or shifting the perspective onto another character? And if you do either of those approaches, how do you keep the flavor and spirit of the novel intact? It will be hard, and though I am generally optimistic about Parks’ involvement, there is precedent for a bad adaptation of Native Son already.

There was a made for TV movie of the novel in 1986, which I have yet to watch, even though it appears to be dumped on YouTube in various lengths. The film starred Oprah (!) among other well known actors, but this is not the adaptation of which I speak. A stage adaptation has been done several times, notably adapted in part by Orson Welles, but I am not interested in this, either. There was a version made in 1951 which starred a 43-year old Richard Wright as the 20-year old Bigger. It was directed by Pierre Chanel, filmed in Argentina, and savagely edited to appease 50s-era American censors. The film was recently found and restored to a 107-minute print which you can read about here.

Chanel wanted to make a kind of film noir version of the novel, which makes a certain kind of sense, since film noir and Naturalism overlap in stylistic ways. Yet the bizarre adaptation and laughable performance of Wright himself make the film a curious artifact, rather than anything approaching a serious text. The film turns poor domestic worker Bessie into a jazz singer, and Bigger seeks her help in covering up what he did, rather than roping her into his scheme and then killing her. With the recent attention paid to this film, the new adaptation will have even more baggage to contend with, especially with regard to what it chooses to cut out or change. The changes in Wright’s film adaptation, which he wrote himself, empty out most of the serious thematic concerns: violence against women, racist mistreatment at the hands of the law, white institutional racism, etc. And because something must be cut out of a lengthy novel in order to adapt it for the screen, Parks’ screenplay will undoubtedly have glaring omissions. But what will be taken out, and what will the effect of those omissions be?

We just have to wait, but I am really excited to see what happens.

 

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A New Native Son, Part I

Content Note – discussion of fictional rape and murder follows.

THIS IS NOT A DRILL, Y’ALL: Variety is reporting that Richard Wright’s novel Native Son will be adapted for film by Rashid Johnson and Suzan-Lori Parks. And I’m not sure I can effectively express how excited, interested, trepidatious, and curious this development makes me! Native Son is a crucial text of the 20th century. Published in 1940, it was an enormous best seller and the first Black novel to made a Book of the Month Club selection, which was sort of like being listed on Oprah’s Book Club back in the day. It is a challenging, at times frustrating, yet very true to life expression of urban Black life under de facto Jim Crow. It is also possibly the last truly Naturalist novel of the American 20th century. I teach Native Son quite frequently, in a 20th century American lit course. It fits well at the middle of the semester, requiring students to engage with the lack of progress for Black Americans in 1940, and to set up the (minor) advancements made by 1959, the year the next text on the syllabus, A Raisin in the Sun, was published. But Native Son is a problematic text. So problematic, in fact, that Wright wrote an entire essay, called “How Bigger Was Born” to head off possible critiques and explain his reasoning behind the novel. So, it is this problematic quality combined with the choice of screenplay writer combined with our current political/social zeitgeist that has me so excited. Oh, and did I mention that there’s already been a film adaptation of the novel, starring Richard Wright as Bigger? Yeah, so let’s talk about it. But there is so much to discuss, this is going to be a two-parter. Continue reading

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Trumptuffe

I was teaching the 17th century French play Tartuffe, by Molière, last week to students in my introduction to drama class. We got into a really interesting discussion about hypocrisy and why phony human beings irritate us so much. Why is being a hypocrite, as the main character is, so annoying, and why do we fight so hard to break the spell they cast over others? While I did not directly bring it up in class, the political parallels felt overwhelming. Continue reading

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Blogging Break

I’m finding that this semester is a bit overwhelming right now. My class meetings and work load have shifted only slightly, and yet it appears to have upended my normal routines and scholarly output. I also must confess to being MUCH more focused on politics and current events than I ordinarily would be. And, apparently, I am not alone. The Atlantic published a piece noting that 29 percent of their small sample say they feel more distracted and less productive at work these days, mainly due to checking social media and news more frequently since the election. This tendency is no doubt exacerbated–or caused?–by the rather slapdash debut of the current administration.

For my part, I am waking up to the fact that I have been woefully lazy in my civic engagement, and have decided that now is as good a time as any to get involved. Thus, I have found myself doing more calling and writing to elected officials, more social media outreach, and more attendance at rallies and events that I think matter right now. This, of course, all takes time and energy, which would ordinarily be directed to professional matters.

And, so, I’ve come to the realization that I may be simply treading water this semester, rather than moving forward. I have a book review coming out soon, and I am waiting to hear back about a grant. I am making plans to hit an archive, funding by another grant, and I am working as a campus peer reviewer for the improvement of teaching. So, it’s not as though I am doing NOTHING. It just feels like a bit more nothing than usual.

So, to wrap up, there is no blog of substance this week, just this missive to tell you where I’m at right now. And hopefully, you’re at least treading water, too–it beats drowning!

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Fast Take: The Postmodern Presidency

My husband sent me this column in The Irish Times in which Fintan O’Toole writes the following about Trump’s Muslim ban:

The problem the executive order is really meant to address is not terrorism, but Trump’s own campaign rhetoric. The order relates, not to actual, living, breathing events or conditions, but only to language.

It is pure postmodern politics: The order is a text that refers only to another text, which is Trump’s stump speech on the campaign trail and its dark promise of a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

My husband knew I would find this interesting because I teach postmodernism in an American literary context quite frequently, and this certainly caught my eye.

O’Toole’s point about the ban mentions that not one person from any of the 7 countries covered by the ban have committed a terrorist attack within the US; because the Executive Order (EO) mentions 9/11 and the San Bernadino shooting, neither of which originated with visitors or citizens of those 7 countries, one is left to wonder what the purpose of the EO really is. And that, for O’Toole, is what makes the EO a postmodern text–because it is untethered to any objective reality.

And I would agree with him. Postmodernism, among other hallmarks, is defined by its resistance to any notion of objective, capital-T truth. Postmodernism developed out of the anxieties and uncertainties following WWII and the destructive capabilities of both atomic weapons and the Nazi war machine (how odd that both nuclear weapons and Nazis are such prominent topics right now!). It seemed humanity could no longer create anything new, but could only destroy. And since any and all notions of reality and Truth had been obliterated, artists sought different, non-traditional ways of making meaning. One method saw writers ratcheting up the meta-referential style the Modernists had started post-WWI, and another saw artists take bits and pieces of other artistic ideas and paste them together to make something else (often referred to as collage, both literally and figuratively).

And so, Donald Trump’s EOs seem to fit the bill. They are borne out anxieties and fears, and do not adhere to a fixed notion of reality. Instead, these orders are self-referential in the extreme, taking parts of document from the Obama administration, parts of ideas from  the Bush administration, and sticking them together to create a collage representative of the post-9/11 United States.

I’d rather have a soup can, honestly.Campbell's cheddar cheese soup can

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Some Thoughts About Intersectionality

Intersectionality has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s an important concept in my scholarly work, but it is having a larger cultural impact right now, I think, and it might be instructive to consider this impact more closely. Much of this is inspired by the Women’s March of January 21, 2017 and a recent article about the woman who accused Emmett Till of whistling at her, directly causing his lynching.

I’ve encountered critiques of intersectionality, sometimes from pundits who think it’s “too complicated” a concept to foreground in a protest, sometimes from conference committees who think the word is too esoteric for academics and thus shouldn’t be in a panel title (true story). But that simply isn’t true. Intersectional feminism (and the broader ideas of intersecting identities) is simple enough that USA Today, of all newspapers, had a short but well explained article defining it. So–not complicated, really. But I’ve been thinking so much about intersectionality and sacrifice, inspired by seeing the Mothers of the Movement at the Women’s March. These remarkable women show up and show out at important events. They supported Hillary Clinton. They do work in their own communities. And they stood on the stage at the Women’s March. And I started crying.

To  back up a bit, the Women’s March was initially a somewhat white idea. When it was first conceptualized, it was a small grouping of marches suggested by white women, which started to consolidate into a larger march. At this point, the march was a backlash against the Trump election and his particularly abhorrent remarks about women (about white women, mainly). At this time, I recall seeing in Black Twitter some resistant comments along the lines of “y’all voted for Trump, so you can go get shot in a protest, I’ll be fine right here at home.” Because 53% of white women in this country voted for Trump, compared to about 6% of Black women, his election is often specifically attributed to the failure of white women to consider what a Trump Presidency means for women, particularly women of color (WOC). So, a white women’s march in anger against Trump was not something that seemed especially productive nor something for WOC to participate in.

Along the way, professional organizers and WOC were brought in and given the opportunity to recraft and reframe the march. A written platform was drawn up. Sister marches around the world were planned. And the largest single day set of protests in history happened. What follows is no an analysis of the march itself, of it goals, of its results, or anything of that nature. There is plenty of that available online. What I am concerned with here is the nature of sacrifice and how it relates to intersectional feminism. Continue reading

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