Friday, October 29, 2010

Cultural Property?

Recently been watching plays with "deep cultural roots"...
But as performance studies and the Humanities have taught me, any broad statement like that will get you in trouble. So let me specify:

I saw In the Red and Brown Water, part of the Brother/Sister plays trilogy by Tarell Alvin McCraney at the Marin Theater Company in Mill Valley, CA and tonight I saw Fela! The Musical on Broadway.

Both plays ignited that subtle disturbance within me--
questioning the extent to which the plays exotified and essentialized
Black, African, African-American culture
for the white consumer audience.

From the face paint and wooden masks on the set of Fela! to the gospel soundtrack of Water, I struggle with the fact that these identifiable aesthetic forms seem to have been co-opted for the capitalist market it serves-- one that so far, by observation, is primarily white, upper-middle class, and interested in learning about the "struggle" and "corruption" in Africa. Boo hiss.
At the same time, and I'll be honest, another part of me revels in the fact that these forms are being exhibited to this audience at all. That in some way, this problematic (read: colonized?) representation of this demographic is a step above not being represented at all. On top of this, tonight Fela! asked for a higher degree of participation from the audience, as the actor instructed this stiff crowd in how to shake their hips. I have yet to conclude whether the participatory element enhanced or detracted from the power relationship between audience and performers.

However, none of this waxing philosophical is trumped by the fact that in a 200 person audience at MTC I was sitting next to the only two Black men in the front row--that is, until they were asked to leave because the white couple who bought those seats finally showed up. Sorry man, no room for you here.

I want to be able to look beyond the racial makeup of an audience, and yet I can feel that there is something fundamentally wrong (read: eerily reminiscent of historical precedent) about plays that are so culturally specific being presented to a completely alien audience. I mean really, a bunch of white people gawking at the spectacle of people of color on stage performing their "culture"? No thank you.

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