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Texas Theatre Shampoos the Black Kids out of Hairspray

Posted by Terrence Williams in The Theatre

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You need two things when you do the musical Hairspray: a fat girl to play the lead character, Tracy Turnblad, and a bunch of African-American kids to play the African-American kids.  It’s pretty much that simple.

But at a children’s theatre in Plano, Texas, they’re doing Hairspray without those things. The girl playing Tracy is wearing padding to puff up.  Unlike Cyrano, where you can slap a big nose on and get away with it, Tracy Turnblad is supposed to be chubby to begin with.  And there are no African American kids in the show.  None.  The roles of Seaweed, Mother Maybelle and all the other black Baltimoreans are being played by kids so white, they make the Cleavers look ethnic.

Plano Children’s Theatre is one of those so-called “acting academies” which is more or less “pay to play” outfit that charges parents $250 a pop for their kids to be on stage.

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This is how the production might normally look.

Hairspray is a musical comedy based on an old John Waters movie. The show is performed frequently at high schools and community theaters around the US, after a successful Broadway run and series of national tours.  The musical version was also remade back into a movie starring John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky as Tracy.

The premise of all of these Hairsprays is the same:  A fat, funny teenage girl in 1960s Baltimore dreams of joining the cool kids on the “council” of a local afternoon TV dance show.  She becomes an activist when she discovers that her black friends at high school aren’t allowed on the show except on “Negro Day.”  How Tracy, Seaweed and their gang of dancing misfits integrate “The Corny Collins Show” is what Hairspray is about.  The world gets integration and the larger girl gets the good-looking guy.  It’s good, clean fun with a serious message about segregation, acceptance of differences and how things used to be in America… and apparently about how things still are at the corner of 15th Street and Custer Road in Plano, Texas.

At a recent matinee, witnesses reported a room full of proud parents, grandparents and others who didn’t seem to notice or mind that the little white boy playing Seaweed was singing the lyrics “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” as he gyrated in some awkward approximation of Hairspray‘s dirty-dancing to “race music.”  Maybe they didn’t know Seaweed and his soul-singing sister, Little Inez, are supposed to be African-American.  Maybe they didn’t care that Mother Maybelle, Seaweed’s mother, was being played by a white girl in a curly blond wig singing this: “They say that white has might and thin is in/ Well, that’s just bull ’cause ladies big is back/ And as for black, it’s beautiful!”  Maybe.

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There are also no naturally big girls in Plano, TX (apparently)

Darrell Rodenbaugh, president of PCT’s board of directors responded to questions regarding an all-white cast by saying, “Well, should we deny these kids the opportunity to do a fun show?” he said. “We’d paid for the rights to the show six months in advance. We couldn’t cancel it.”

Didn’t any black kids audition?  No, said Rodenbaugh, it’s hard to recruit black kids to PCT because there apparently aren’t that many in Plano. (African-Americans make up less than 8 percent of the Plano, Texas, population of 259,841, according to the most recent census numbers.)

So why do a show with black characters in it if you know going in that you won’t have any black kids to play them?  Rodenbaugh had several answers about how much the kids wanted to do Hairspray, how they weren’t going to bow to “political correctness” and how “the parents expect this.”

They expect to see white kids playing black characters?  “Yes,” says Rodenbaugh, who has kids in the cast of Hairspray, one of them playing Little Inez.  He said PCT also did the musical Once on This Island with an all-white cast.

Rodenbaugh said they might do To Kill a Mockingbird with an all-white cast or Othello or The Wiz.  Apparently, he sees nothing offensive or amiss about having no black actors in a show about racial segregation.  Doesn’t having an all-white cast ignore the core message of Hairspray - you know, the message about how the black kids weren’t allowed to be on a show with white kids until brave little Tracy took a stand?

Rodenbaugh goes on to say that each young member of the PCT Hairspray cast had been asked to write a “report” about what the plot was about. “They’re learning a good lesson in this show,” he said.

I’m sure they are. I’m just not sure it’s the right lesson.

Hairspray‘s director, Cassidy Crown, says PCT has to work with what they have and she did feel uncomfortable with the all-white cast.  Apparently, she had hoped nobody would notice.

Hairspray‘s choreographer, Darius-Anthony Robinson, is a well-known Dallas-area professional choreographer.  Robinson said when he went into rehearsals for PCT’s Hairspray, there were several black kids in the ensemble, but after a few days, they all dropped out for various reasons.

“At that point, I said we gotta figure out something else. I did say we needed to try to do something. Maybe do another show,” said Robinson. “But the more we tried to figure out stuff, the worse situation it put us in. I do believe that this is not a show you do without black kids in it.”

At Robinson’s urging, PCT management called the rights holders, Music Theatre International, and asked for special dispensation to do Hairspray with the all-white cast. MTI agreed, with the provision that they print the following statement in the program:

“… 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!”

– Signed Marc Shaiman (composer), Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan (book writers) and Scott Wittman (lyricist)”

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And these are the black characters! (Just kidding.)

​Brad Baker, chairman of the nearby Collin College theater division and director of its upcoming Hairspray, says his contract with MTI to produce the show is very specific about matters of size and race.  Any instance of blackface makeup incurs a $13,000 fine from MTI.

MTI’s note to PCT mentions that there have been requests to allow blackface on white actors for Hairspray.  They never allow it.  And choreographer Robinson said he made sure “there wasn’t even a hint of tan makeup” on the white-for-black kids at PCT.

“The creators of the show were pretty adamant that it be a checkerboard cast,” says Brad Baker.  “It’s about race, it’s about integration, it’s about social change.  I think it disserves the story and the point of the play (to have an all-white cast).”

There’s another “edge of entitlement” to Hairspray, says Baker, and that’s in the casting of who plays Tracy Turnblad.  Hairspray shows that “a fat girl can be the lead in a Broadway musical,” says Baker.  “She can be the love interest and she can be the lead.  There are numerous high schools producing this with their beautiful blond, thin cheerleader in the role, padded.”  That, says Baker, is almost as bad as casting white kids in black roles.

PCT’s Tracy isn’t fat and she is padded.  But compared to the other stuff, it seems perhaps only a minor misstep.

Robinson says he’s trying to make changes in the way they do things at PCT, but it’s sometimes a struggle.  “The board wanted the kids to do Ragtime and I said absolutely not,” says Robinson.

Ragtime, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel, is a huge Ahrens/Flaherty musical about civil rights struggles in early 20th century America.  One of the characters is black educator and civil rights hero Booker T. Washington.

“The board didn’t understand at first why I was objecting,” says Robinson. “They all just loved the music. I know. This is Plano.”

Readers — What do you think?  Does the fact that PCT is a pay-to-play operation make this okay or is it pointless to perform the piece without what many would consider the essential elements?  Post your comments below!

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The Tao of Steve: Cult of Personally

Posted by Steve Paladie in Motivation, The Theatre

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“Criticism is something we can avoid easily – by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” — Aristotle

As an artist, a designer, an independent contractor or employee, and often just as a person, it is your responsibility to do things for someone. Think about that for a minute… There seems to be a fundamental expectation for us to always have others in mind when we do stuff. Even if you “work for yourself”, you’re probably obligated to others, in one way or another.

And with that obligation comes an incredibly selfish and hazardous pitfall, at least on occasion.

Because in just about every artistic or creative discipline, others evaluate your output. And because what you do is more often than not subjective, often devoid of “the right answer”, it is intrinsically exposed to the elements of others’ analysis (read: criticism).

So how do you not take it personally?

By realizing that taking personal responsibility for your actions is not the same thing as taking things personally.  Just do what you think is right, do it well and don’t judge… yourself or the consequence.

I know that’s easier said than done, but I think that’s the answer. If you infuse everything you do, every action, every response with honesty, integrity, balanced and ethical consideration, and if you’re able to acknowledge that to yourself in the face of criticism, condemnation or blame, then there is nothing to take personally.

Put another way, as credited to some (Miguel Ruiz & Ellen Burstyn to name two) and paraphrased by many, it is said:

  1. Show up and be present.
  2. Pay attention.
  3. Speak your truth.
  4. Don’t be attached to the outcome.

This begs to be the subject of a much more in depth article, and has been written about by people a lot smarter and more qualified than me; and of course doesn’t apply only to the matter at hand.

But it’s a pretty solid mantra and if lived well, will go a long way toward assuring an unapologetic existence.

Living unapologetically means never questioning your actions. And if you don’t have a reason to doubt your actions, then you don’t have a reason to contemplate other’s criticisms because it then has no basis or merit.

And then there’s no reason to take it personally, right?

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The Relevancy of Critics in the Internet Age

Posted by Terrence Williams in The Theatre

 

“This production should play up regularly and resonantly the promise that things could go wrong.  Because only when things go wrong in this production does it feel remotely right — if, by right, one means entertaining.  So keep the fear factor an active part of the show, guys, and stock the Foxwoods gift shops with souvenir crash helmets and T-shirts that say “I saw ‘Spider-Man’ and lived.”  Otherwise, a more appropriate slogan would be “I saw ‘Spider-Man’ and slept.”  — Ben Brantley, New York Times

Would you see a show with a review like the one above?  The answer is apparently yes.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was poised to be the Broadway failure of the century.  Already the butt of most theatre jokes, the critics weighed in and determined that this spider had been cursed.  Yet, here we are, still sometimes joking, but it’s not as funny any more.  Why?  Because that great “disaster” of a show is proving more and more successful at every turn.  In December, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark grossed almost $3 million in a single week – an all-time Broadway record.

Spider-Man is a musical that got two separate sets of witheringly bad reviews, first for the preview performances, then for the heavily-revised version now playing And none of it seemed to matter.

Musicals have always found it easier to survive bad reviews than smaller plays. But they never used to be able to weather the kind of abuse that the New York Times’ Ben Brantley gave Spider-Man or the negative word of mouth that came from all the bad critical attention.  Today, the critics and the public are often so out of sync that when the New York Times’ Patrick Healy listed the top-grossing musicals, he went out of his way to mention that The Book of Mormon was “critically acclaimed” since almost everything else on the list was not.

It may be that with a show like Spider-Man, the bad publicity—including the dismal reviews—actually made people want to see it.  The production became legendary for its accidents, including a stuntman who fell almost 30 feet onto the stageCould it be that people started going hoping that Spider-Man would become the NASCAR event of Broadway?  The next big hurrah was the firing of director/writer Julie Taymor after she kept the show in previews for months.  The negative press seemed to never end.

What the critics rightly started quickly snowballed into an internet frenzy that could not be stopped.  After all, who needs Ben Brantley to attract people to a musical when Conan O’Brien spent weeks making fun of it for an international audience?

Spider-Man was definitely also helped by its connection to a popular brand name, which can make audiences happy to see it no matter what the critics say. The Addams Family, which recently closed its run with nearly full houses, also got bad reviews and overcame them through a combination of star power and familiar subject matter.  So did Broadway’s second-highest grosser, Wicked, which may have started the decline of critics’ power by becoming a gigantic hit despite bad notices.

Spider-Man is estimated to have cost $75 Million.  And while some folks say that pigs will fly before Spider-Man recoups for its investors, one has to wonder:  At an average of $1.4 Million in sales per week (gross), how long would it really take to recoup?  The article linked above reports that the show’s operating costs suck up most of that weekly million, but our sources indicate that this is not true.  And as the new Broadway record-holder for highest grossing week, how long until sales actually slump?  Could Spider-Man be the next Wicked?!  (I can hear the collective gasp.)

Does all of this raw data mean that theatre reviews are irrelevant?  Not necessarily.  After all, even when a show is highly publicized, people want some idea that they are going to get their money’s worth.  That may come from a review.  It may just as well come from any number of online sources these days.

In the end, producers and directors still have to woo people who can give them favorable coverage — just maybe not full-time critics exclusively.  Spider-Man and other shows have benefited, almost surreptitiously, from media that doesn’t usually deal with theatre.  Last year, Glenn Beck spent time on his TV and radio show telling his audience that he loved Spider-Man, and his fans flocked to the show.  In today’s fragmented media world, theatre critics may be no match for a falling spider or a crying pundit.

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The Problem With Perfectionism

Posted by Terrence Williams in Creativity, Motivation

Perfect:  Having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics.

Perfect:  As good as it is possible to be.

Perfect:  An imperfect target.

Are you a perfectionist?  I can be, at times.  We aim for something impossibly high and march right out the door.  We work our collective butts off and pour our energy and enthusiasm into maintaining our incredibly high standards.  Others may stare at us, but our passion for the best compels us forward, doing better, doing more, never resting until it is all complete.  Without question, this insane pace and our own expectations are propelling us to the great results we achieve.  Wouldn’t you agree?

Falling into the “Perfect Trap”

Sometimes we can get a bit out of hand with our perfectionism.  Have you noticed?  When we fall short of our (sometimes impossibly) high standards, we become upset with ourselves or discouraged, making us unlikely to even finish the tasks we’ve started, let alone take on new ideas.  Sometimes the idea of nailing every last detail ends up manifesting itself as inefficiency, stress and even more subpar results.

Can you Finish?  Heck, Can you Start?

True perfectionists have a hard time starting things and an even harder time finishing them.  Always.  I, myself, have a creative project that I have been wanting to pursue for over a year now.  But I haven’t.  Why?  Regardless of my exhaustive list of excuses, the simple answer is that I’m a perfectionist; I’m worried that all of the energy put into the project won’t result in a project that I’m happy with.

The Problem With Perfectionism

The reality is that the real world does not reward perfectionists.  It rewards people who get things done.

Work on setting your penchant for perfection aside.  Work on being a doer and a finisher.  Work on being less perfect.

Get your projects off the ground.  Get them moving.  Your perfectionism will rear its head.  Breathe.  Keep moving.  And be less perfect.  The world may just reward you yet.

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Censoring Shakespeare: Who’s Afraid of The Tempest?

Posted by Terrence Williams in The Theatre

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Two years ago, Arizona made headlines with its ban on ethnic studies in the state’s schools, and the Tuscon school district in particular was under scrutiny for its Mexican-American Studies Program.

As it turns out, the ban also includes William Shakespeare’s The Tempest — a story about a banished duke of Milan who seeks revenge through his use of magic while at sea.  The Tempest was written in 1611 and is the basis for the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, which introduced the world to Robby the Robot.

Arizona’s new law prohibits courses and classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

Anyone who see that The Tempest allegedly promotes resentment is probably having a good laugh right now.  But not if you live in Arizona.

The Tucson Unified School District will end its 13-year Mexican-American program, after a judge in December found it to be in violation of  the law. The district plans to clear the books from all classrooms, box them up and store them in a depository.

According to Curtis Acosta, one of the former teachers in the program, he asked if he could begin teaching Shakespeare’s The Tempest and was told no, due to the likelihood of discussions of race, ethnicity, and oppression.  Apparently, the healthy discussion of themes such as these are not welcome in Arizona’s public schools.

Various works of Shakespeare have been banned in recent U.S. history, including Twelfth Night in Merrimack, N.H., in 1996, and The Merchant of Venice in Midland, Michigan, in 1980.

Are you afraid of The Tempest?