March 10, 2011

Why do you have to bring [oppression] into it?

CultureBot's Jeremy M. Barker has this to say about politics and playwriting (h/t Parabasis):
Most contemporary plays are very essayistic like this; given the homogeneity of the typical theater artist and audience, we know that a play that starts off about war will have something bad to say about it, that a play that engages with gay issues will be pro-gay. (Someone please name me the last big pro-war or anti-gay play you saw professionally produced.) In this typology, the “narrative,” which is essentially the entire play being produced, exists to narrate a series of points that makes the predictable ending impactful, which we charitably still refer to as catharsis.

I'm getting the weirdest sense of deja vu.

I'm having a bit of trouble understanding what is meant by political. I can't really separate politics from aesthetics because politics has a huge influence on aesthetics. How we define good, beautiful, and true has a lot to do with who holds systemic power.

I can agree that sometimes what we call political theatre can be simplistic and preachy, but that has more to do with the fact that it's simplistic and preachy and not that it's overtly political. It's one reason why I can no longer stomach Tyler Perry's work.

I can understand the limitations of constructing a fictional reality around a specific point of view. But what I'm finding it hard to understand is why it's a problem for artists to claim their own subjectivity, such as Josh does for MilkMilkLemonade or what I do for Tulpa, or Anne&Me.

But Joshua Conkel makes a good point when he responds:
I see his point, but I also resent it a little. I might have written a pro-gay play in MilkMilkLemonade, for example, and I'm sure people know straight away that it's a pro-gay play. That said, I don't think anybody knows from the start of the play exactly WHAT I'm going to say about gayness or HOW exactly I'm going to get there. Just because you know a play will be pro gay before you watch it, doesn't mean that it's pro gayness is a spoiler alert. You still have no idea specifically what the playwright is going to say on the subject or how he/she will take you there.

What I see happening in the Barker quote seems to minimize and devalue such work as being "merely" about issues. It's a very insidious form of erasure. Like Josh, I do find it a tad insulting because it positions the struggles that affect our lives as something inconsequential (or rather, inconsequential compared to its entertainment or aesthetic value). Just as the personal is political, the political is also personal. And since art is, at least initially, very personal, I cannot separate my personal self from my political self from my artistic self. I simply don't have the luxury.

The irony of this sentiment, of course, is that the very people who see themselves as separate from and immune to certain kinds of narratives (and political ones at that - ie, who deserves to be in power) are the ones who consume, benefit from, and perpetuate limited narratives themselves. When a story comes from one's experiences as a woman, a person of color, and/or a queer person (to name but a few things), it's pushing an agenda; it's too political; it's not something people can relate to. Yet somehow, I'm supposed to understand the trials and struggles of the King of England or the founder of Facebook as a universal human experience.

Um, OK. If you say so.

ETA: Barker responded while I was posting this.

13 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. I'm sorry, but I think you've totally missed my point. My argument is not that we shouldn't make political theater or art, it's simply of question of how we do so and whether it's an effective political act. What I'm describing is what I see as a tendency on the part of the sort of writers I'm describing to preach to a choir and offer up stories that are supposedly meaningful and political which really amount to little more than entertainments which allow the audiences to leave feeling progressive and cultured, even as they largely fail to challenge the status quo. Your link to the "deja vu" article is extremely meaningful to me; whenever someone wants to write something off as an "issue" play, it's probably a sign that something in that work was getting at them. It could have done so in an effective way or an ineffective way, but that's the work I want to see more and the complete and total opposite of what I'm criticizing. At the very least, that author has taken a risk; the audience is marginalizing them. My guess is most programmers, literary directors, and playwriting teachers would likewise marginalize them. In my own small way, I want to stand up for them. Your comment that aesthetics are political is dead on: I'm describing a set of aesthetic approaches (and unsurprisingly it's what I'm identifying as majoritarian) that represent a sort of contemporary self-satisfaction. Work that doens't push buttons, that doesn't engage audiences, and that ultimately declares its value presuming that because what it says meets a set a predetermined sociopolitical norms, that therefore it is important and good and right. It's the equivalent of signing a petition stating your opposition to something that's already going to happen in order to make public that you didn't agree. I suppose it's good you didn't, but it's not a political act by any means.

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  3. For me the thing that makes an issue play exciting is when it makes me feel something I wasn't expecting. This is wonderful when it happens regardless of a didactic approach or a presumed familiarity on my part as the spectator. Some liberals and well read desensitized individuals might think that there is too much preaching to choir in modern narrative. I encourage then to find ways to act upon the message that they seem to glean before it is even spoken.

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  4. For me the thing that makes an issue play exciting is when it makes me feel something I wasn't expecting. [...] Some liberals and well read desensitized individuals might think that there is too much preaching to choir in modern narrative. I encourage then to find ways to act upon the message that they seem to glean before it is even spoken.

    That's an interesting point.

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  5. I'm with you, but I did just read his follow-up and thought there was an interesting idea in it. He seems to make a point about whether political plays can be written non preachy-like with an end goal in mind or if they have to be, well, kind of accidental.

    In other words, if you write a play thinking, "this is a gay play that will change people's minds about such and such gay issue' the play will end of being bogus. But if you just happen to be a gay writer just writing a play and end up organically and almost accidentally writing a political gay play, it's stronger in entertainment value and towards its cause.

    I don't know if I agree.

    What's your experience? When you started to write Tulpa, did you know you were writing an explicitly political race play?

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  6. What's your experience? When you started to write Tulpa, did you know you were writing an explicitly political race play?

    Honestly, yes and no.

    I knew I was writing about race. I knew there were some things I wanted to get across, but it wasn't in a didactic sense. It was more like a sharing my experience sort of thing where I felt freer to get beyond nice, clean rhetoric and into the messy, human parts - the parts that really matter.

    Not that I have any answers. It's been over a year since I talked about it, and I still don't have any sort of solid This Is How It Must Be Done sort of things to say.

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  7. As a follow-up, the parts that were most difficult about writing Tulpa, or Anne&Me were those nitty-gritty human parts, the parts that don't have any prepackaged ideas or answers, the parts that dug into deeper aspects of my experience and uncovered some things that made me relive things I try not to push aside.

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  8. God, I've been thinking about this all day.

    It's hard to write plays about your experience as a minority that aren't political, frankly, whether you intend to or not. Because, really, as a minority you're whole life is politicized. Everything you do is political, whether you like it or not.

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  9. It's hard to write plays about your experience as a minority that aren't political, frankly, whether you intend to or not. Because, really, as a minority you're whole life is politicized. Everything you do is political, whether you like it or not.

    Exactly. Just having a minority IN the piece is political, especially if there's more than one. Dwayne McDuffie (RIP) said it best: even just having more than simply exist is "pushing an agenda" or making it a "minority piece."

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  10. Before reading this post, I was outlining my next novel which interestingly enough is a superhero/comic book themed novel in which the two primary protagonists is a 14-year-old black girl and a gay white man.

    I knew the issues of everyday bigotry would be a consistent theme for the minorities in the story.

    For instance the teenager experiences racism and misogyny and the gay male faces homophobia.

    Of course knowing I'm going to be accused of pushing an agenda, the question is how much do I address isms and how do I pull no punches without coming across as preachy.

    Because you know that folks are going to accuse the bigotry depicted as being unrealistic and sooooo over the top. Monsters, aliens and supervillains, totally suspense of disbelief. Calling out everyday racism, sexism and homophobia, OH EM GEE THAT'S SOO NOT BELIEVABLE.

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  11. Because you know that folks are going to accuse the bigotry depicted as being unrealistic and sooooo over the top. Monsters, aliens and supervillains, totally suspense of disbelief. Calling out everyday racism, sexism and homophobia, OH EM GEE THAT'S SOO NOT BELIEVABLE.

    OMG! That really happens? I'm so shocked and horrified!!!

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  12. Great post and great comments.

    Maybe I'm a cynic, but I think most works by Black people are going to be called "preachy" or "didactic" because the expectation of our participation in society is to keep our heads down and nod. It's just a replication of everyday interpersonal interactions with White people, where bringing up your negative personal experience is akin to sucking all of the oxygen out of the room. You can't be Black or gay or disabled without apologizing for your presence.

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  13. This is what happens when I don't check Blogger's spam section.

    Anyway.

    Thanks for clarifying, Jeremy. In that case, we're not really at odds.

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