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The Reviewers Gaze Through Blinders

A Critique of Some Reviews of We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, by Jackie Sibblies Drury

By charles c. smith

[The following is an excerpt from charles c. smith's article "The Reviewers Gaze Through Blinders: A Critique of Some Reviews of We Are Proud to Present…". To read the full version of the text in PDF form please click HERE]

With debates swirling around cultural and racial diversity in Canadian Theatre, and having been involved in those debates for a considerable number of years, I was curious when I received a call from playwright and director Ravi Jain inviting me to see the production of We are Proud to Present at the Theatre Centre in Toronto. My curiosity grew when Ravi indicated that Franco Boni and he were inviting me to see this play and to write, not necessarily about the play but about its reviews that appeared in the Toronto press.

What a peculiar request, I thought; and rather risky. For instance, there were only 2 shows left and I might not be available to see either. Also, what if I came away with the same thoughts as the critics? And what if I simply didn’t like the play at all? As well, I have to confess that a bit of a chill went down my spine when Ravi mentioned to me that the play was by an African American woman with a particular focus on anti-Black racism. Was this going to be about cultural appropriation – a Brown man focusing on Black peoples? This question was quickly resolved for me when I learned that previous productions of this play had been directed by persons of colour who are not Black and who worked closely with Drury.

In meeting with Ravi and Franco, I soon learned their interest, i.e., they were concerned about the number of reviews where White reviewers appeared to have been limited by a ‘gaze’ that left them short-sighted when it came to Black and White bodies on stage, in this case in a play about the work-shopping of a script that tells or rather, purposefully fails to tell, the story of what has been called the first genocide of the 20th century where the German colonial power nearly wiped out the Herero of what is now Namibia.

Needless to say, I could not resist and went with my wife (who happens to be German and an invaluable advisor and contributor to my writing) to see the performance. On entering, we were quite amused with the play’s beginnings, the seeming informality of being shown to our seats by the cast, the high-school presentation style postings of material about the historical subject matter on the wall, and then the play’s artfully clumsy formal start that went on to swing like a pendulum between the seemingly inept lecture about the haunting historical facts, the dynamics of which the heedless ‘actors’ turn out to be quite unequipped to grasp, and the ‘performance’ of the play in the play – a matter progressively fraught with contentious rehearsals for a play that never comes to be.

The experience of this particular piece of theatre seemed more than timely, given that I had devoted a lot of thought (and words) to the topic of ‘voice and authenticity’ in my recent writings on law, education and the arts.1 So, after I saw the play, it was with some wariness that I began to read the local reviews of We Are Proud To Present; especially given several similar scenarios in the world of theatre were currently fuelling an intense debate on racial dynamics on stage and about who could conceivably tell whose story – or who should be permitted to do so.

As I began reading reviews of We Are Proud To Present, I was also aware of other similar scenarios that suggest that the reviews of this play are not alone but, rather sadly, are legion. To me, this suggests a sectoral issue, one that is critical to artists who fall outside of the Eurocentric project. Some context here is important as it places this play and its reviews within a contemporary discourse that is now raging across North America, the continuing fiasco with the Oscars not being an anomaly. For example:

  • Award-winning actress Tonya Pinkins’ rationale for leaving production of Brecht’s Mother Courage;2
  • Ross Jackson’s accusing American theatre of three very troubling practices: slotting, tokenism, and dehumanization;3
  • Assorted discussion of the “Depressing montage of white actors in non-white roles as exposed/highlighted in Master Of None.”4

I must add quickly, before being accused of Americanizing Canadian theatre, that these debates swirl across Canadian terrain as well as shown among others in the 2014 research Figuring the Plural, an examination of ethnocultural, or ethnically/culturally specific, arts organizations in Canada and the United States.5

To return to Canadian soil and stage, there are several current examples that relate to:

  • Canstage and its selection of all-White directors, playwrights, choreographers and translators;6
  • The challenges issued by Real Theatre Canada in regard to allegations of racism in Vancouver theatre;7
  • The writing of choreographer Natasha Bakht on how South Asian dance forms have been reviewed;8
  • The contentions raised by Peter Chin in regard to a review of his new work;9
  • The writing of George Elliot Clarke about pervasive racism in Canadian Theatre;10
  • The Equity in Theatre project of the Playwrights’ Guild of Canada which looked at gender equity in theatre and the intersections of gender with race and other social identities;11
  • The attempt by Luminato to bring an exhibit developed by a White South African on human zoos to Toronto;12

And for Quebec, playwright and director Rahul Varma has issued the following charge of carryover racism of the colonial past:

“Quebec is hit by the blackface controversy again. In an article titled La victoire des moustiques published in Véro, actor Louis Morissette attacked Radio-Canada for wanting to hire a black actor to play a black character instead of employing a blackface, i.e. a white actor in degrading make-up: blackened face, afro-wig, puffed-up lips and enlarged hips – for his year-end satire called Bye Bye 2015. Those who criticized his stand on blackface, he mockingly called them mosquitoes. Morissette is not alone; he is a product of the inherent colonial racism so present in the Francophone art world. Boycott him and his shows.13

These are just some of the recent examples that spring to mind and I’m sure I’m leaving much out here, but my intent is simply to give some sense of the veritable vortex of a controversy as context in which the reviews of We Are Proud to Present must be placed. We have to look at this as a sectoral issue and as one that is of critical importance to artists who fall outside of the Western Eurocentric project that still dominates the Canadian (and the North American) stage.

charles c. smith is a published poet, playwright and essayist. He is also the Cultural Liaison in the Dean’s Office at the University of Toronto Scarborough where he lectures in the English Department/Creative Writing. (For the full bio please view the PDF below)

To continue to the full version of the text in PDF form please click HERE

1 See: Feminism, Law and Inclusion; Crisis, Conflict and Accountability: Law Enforcement and Racial Profiling in Canada; Anti-Racisim in Education: Missing in Action; Pluralism in the Arts in Canada: A Changes is Gonna Come; The Dirty War: the Making of the Myth of Black Dangerousness published respectively by Canadian Scholars Press (formerly Sumach Press) and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Several chapters of my work on racial profiling have also been published in U. of T. Press. In addition, I had also spoken about this in keynotes and lectures on contemporary Black aesthetics at Queen’s University, Concordia University and the Big Dream Conference in North Bay. These latter pieces were efforts to discuss heterogeneity and radical Black aesthetics as I have become increasingly concerned about the homogenization of arts’ funder categories that lump all racialized peoples into the category they term ‘visible minority’.
2 Who Loses, Who Thrives When White Creatives Tell Black Stories, January 01, 2016. See also: The New York Times, Theatre 1/1/2016
3 Blackness in Nonprofit Theater: Where Representation Becomes Marginalization, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion Project with NPQ, January 29, 2016
4 Caroline Siede, January 29, 2016, http://www.avclub.com/article/heres-depressing-montage-white-acto…4?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium+ShareTools&utm_campaign=default
5 Mina Malton et al, Art Institute of Chicago, 2014
6 See Matthew Jocelyn ducks real question on Canadian Stage diversity, Globe and Mail, January 29, 2016, J. Kelly Nestruck
7 See Allegations of systemic racism in Vancouver theatre could spark change, http://globalnews.ca/news/2143702/allegations-of-systemic-racism-in-vancouvers-theatre-scene-could-spark-change/
8 See Mere Song and Dance, in Pluralism in the Arts in Canada: A Change is Gonna Come, edited by charles c smith, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
9 See Is everyone a critic: Changing Paradigms in Dance Criticism, in The Dance Current, Kathleen Smith http://www.thedancecurrent.com/feature/everyone-critic
10 See The Stage is Not White and Neither is Canada, in Pluralism in the Arts in Canada: A Change is Gonna Come, edited by charles c smith, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
11 See http://eit.playwrightsguild.ca/
12 See Social Media Uproar over rumours of ‘Exhibit B’ Installation coming to Luminato, J. Kelly Nestruck, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/social-media-uproar-over-rumours-of-controversial-exhibit-b-installation-coming-to-luminato/article23867715/, April 9, 2015