Little Theatre, Big Issue

The controversy surrounding Confederate Monuments and Sir John A. MacDonald tributes has come to Deep River with the local production of Anything Goes.

What do we do about historical nuances that we wish were not a part of our past?

As a society, we recognize the importance of remembering and accurately depicting defining historical moments of our culture: in war, in politics, and in art. We have filled history books, compiled museum exhibits and erected statues to help us recall and, in many instances, revere important historical events and persons. We remember and celebrate theatre in a specific way: by re-creating and performing it.

In the last few years, we have re-examined the way we pay tribute to more complex parts of our history – specifically, the aspects that are marred by racism and prejudice. What does it mean to pay tribute to a known racist? What does it say about us to erect a monument that inspired racism?

If we memorialize racism, are we condoning racism?

Nobody could dispute that erecting a statue of Hitler sends a very chilling and aggressive message about racial and religious intolerance. When we name a bar after a former racist prime minister, the argument is muddier. What about if we perform a play that did not intend racism, but is racist nonetheless?

The 1930’s musical theatre piece, Anything Goes, by Cole Porter, premiers April 13 at Mackenzie Highschool by the Deep River Players. The play itself has innocent intentions. The action is set onboard a cruise ship where the antics and blunders of celebrities, criminals and crew result in love triangles, intrigue and comedy. The musical is light-hearted, a little cheesy and extremely dance-y. At first blush, one senses Porter simply meant to engage the audience in a “good time” for a couple hours.

The play, however, is undeniably racist.

Anything Goes has been written and re-written multiple times. The first version was sickening. The show’s signature song lyrics included racist slurs so derogatory that I have removed them from this column. (Adam Feldman has reproduced them in his Time Out, New York opinion piece on the play, if you wish to seek them out).

At the time the play was written, America was ripe with racism. The 1930’s may have been the time of swing dancing and Hollywood glamour, but it was also the time of the Nazi rise to power, of the Ku Klux Klan and the perpetuation of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Now, as the lyrics say, “Times Have Changed”. Society is much more progressive – and less racist – albeit by no means clean of all racism . The show, too, is less racist, having many of its lyrics replaced.

Nevertheless, Anything Goes still features a highly controversial scene where the main characters engage in a lengthy vaudeville portrayal of demeaning racist stereotypes for comedy. Porter wrote the scene to feature actor William Gaxton, a specialist in comedic disguise. The play is built around the racism inherent in this disguise and, as such, cannot be removed.

Herein lies the dilemma. The play is an accurate portrait of the 1930s. While the time was a fun, care-free, and silly time of luxury for some, it was not that way for all. Prejudice ran so deep at the time that it was embedded not only in the dark shadows of society, but in its brightest emblems.

Anything Goes presents an ethical and cultural dilemma at the feet of a small-town theatre troupe. Like the cities re-considering Confederate statues or establishments questioning Sir John A MacDonald’s namesake on their windows, the Deep River Players had to decide what to do with a great musical that had a big racism problem.

The way I see it, there are two options: ignore the issue, or deal with it.

The Deep River Players could have ignored the racism issue by proceeding without acknowledging the racism in the show or could have chosen not to do the show altogether. Either way, the Players would have been side-stepping the issue: choosing not to engage with it. This cannot be the way forward. How do we learn from our past if we allow it to continue or pretend it simply did not happen?

The Deep River Players chose to deal with the racism head-on. I cannot imagine this was a decision to be taken light-heartedly. After all, this is a play produced and performed by a predominantly white cast. The play will be received by a predominantly white audience. They had to wrestle with the possibility – or even probability – that their own experience and background may allow some offensive material to pass or even slip-by, unnoticed.

The production team always needs to make choices in a play. For this play, they had to make many difficult and nuanced choices.They determined that acknowledging the racism meant including a sincere apology and warning in the program about the challenging content. They determined that addressing the racism in the show meant changing the script, where they felt they could.

Even before the dress-rehearsal, we have already seen this conversation about racism developing in the many questions it has brought up for everyone: production, cast and audience.

The production team had to ask themselves : what is wrong with this joke? Do we want the audience to laugh at this? Do we leave the scene in? Is writing an apology in the program enough?

As a cast member, we have had to ask ourselves similar questions: what does my participation in this musical mean? Am I condoning the racism inherent in the show? What part can I play or should I play to stand-up to racism?

The final questions will be left to the audience. It is my hope that our friends and family choose to not side-step the racism issue but similarly choose to confront it head-on by attending and considering. Anything Goes presents an opportunity to open-up a dialogue, to ask one’s self hard questions, to sit with an open but critical mind: How do we feel about the racism in this play? Have times changed enough?

While I cannot say I agree with each and every decision production made about this issue, I nevertheless applaud their willingness and courage in attempting to address this very divisive subject. Whether Deep River Players wanted to produce Anything Goes despite its darker side or whether it had the intent to open-up a discussion about racism, it certainly has a small controversy waiting at its feet at the premier.

The choice to engage a play with a racism issue was made months ago, when the Deep River Players decided to produce Anything Goes. The subsequent choices about how they were going to address the racism issue (what jokes would be kept in, what pieces would be left out) have been numerous and have at least indirectly affected all aspects of the show from costumes, to dialogue, to plot.

Did this Troupe err in choosing to re-create this theatre piece? Did it take a big step forward in addressing racism by choosing this piece? Did it manage to play this difficult hand right? Like any great production, the audience’s reaction to the production’s decisions big and small can only be known once the curtain opens.

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