Sunday, 4 November 2007

Commission me not for my complexion

Over on the Guardian’s theatre blog page today, there is this pile of hogwash. Of course it’s always interesting to hear reactions to theatre from those coming from a position of seemingly total ignorance, but on what possible grounds does Bidisha (the author goes by a one-name name, like, uh, Björk*) feel qualified to make the following, perplexing accusation:

“The danger is that the current spate of commissions is simply part of a trend picked up by the white men in power, in which non-white men are ‘in’ for the time being, while nothing really changes; the plays go on, but nobody heeds their message. The establishment must get behind those dramatists who are non-white and even (yuck) women, whose vision of society is the most penetrating and whose wisdom may save it.”

For a piece purporting to critique a “white” tendency to group all “blacks” together, that’s some pretty serious lumping together that Bidisha has undertaken (would it be cheap to wonder how White-Man-in-Power Nicholas Hytner, for example, would have fared in White-Man-in-Power Hitler’s Germany?). That she has hung it on the topical peg of Roy Williams' new play Joe Guy - which as a Tiata Fahodzi production is in no way a commission from a White Man in Power, unless Artistic Director Femi Elufowoju jr is a consummate illusionist par excellence - seems wrong-headed in the extreme. That it is co-produced with the Soho Theatre (artistic director Lisa Goldman) adds a further dimension of wrong-headedness to these accusations about who commissions what, and why. Tiata Fahodzi translates as Theatre of the Emancipated; it seems foolish at best to argue that the emancipated should go cap-in-hand to “The Establishment” (I’m sorry, the what?) and ask for their support. Surely the point in being emancipated is, well, precisely the opposite.

Similarly, doesn’t saying - “Parcelled up into various catch-all terms, the funniest of which is the meaningless 'ethnic', are dozens of countries, histories, cultural influences and artistic traditions. Any reference to white racism or discrimination is expressed in a spirit of sadness, not outrage.” - rather smack of, at best, hilarious hypocrisy and at worst, unconscious racism? Is “white” really any more meaningful a term than “ethnic”, taking in, as it does, dozens of countries, histories, cultural influences and artistic traditions? It is? Tell that to anyone who’s seen a No Poles or No Irish sign in a pub window.

Elsewhere she turns her attention to race + gender, arguing “the playwright Tanika Gupta, who has been producing exemplary work for years, is still not a household name. It is men who are being promoted.” Leaving aside the question of whether Sugar Mummies was really exemplary, I would suggest that Tanika Gupta is pretty much as much a household name as Roy Williams or Kwame Kwei-Armah. Or indeed David Eldridge, David Harrower, Marie Jones or Charlotte Jones. That is to say, well enough known in households where the names of reasonably successful modern playwrights are known at all. Bidisha is kidding herself if she thinks that even Sarah Kane or Mark Ravenhill will mean much to the disinterested user of the Clapham omnibus.

I’m not going to begin to open that can of worms that is: “the plays go on, but nobody heeds their message”. We’ve already established that Bidisha appears to have a somewhat oblique understanding of what theatre is/is for/does, so it seems foolish to waste time going over old ground regarding plays with “messages”, one of which, to its credit, Joe Guy isn’t, really.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the article, though, is the way that having opened by claiming that “whites” group “blacks” together, Bidisha then goes on to discuss "black" writing in much the same way. More worryingly, she appears to imply that writers of Caribbean/African/Indian/whereveran origin/ancestry are the only ones who should be tackling plays about their communities. What is interesting is that while I don’t think many liberal-minded people would mind if Roy Williams wrote a play with a largely white cast – hell, Sing Yer Heart Out... is precisely that – I suspect the same people would be much less interested in a white writer creating a play with mostly black characters. Indeed, after my Guardian blog on this subject, I got an email from a (white) writer friend who said: “I recently suggested [details cut to preserve anonymity] to [...] who are interested in commissioning me. [...] was great, ripe for dramatisation, and something I think I could write well. Only the story was about [...] black men. And that was the reason I was given for why the theatre didn’t feel it would be right to commission me. Not, 'We don't like the idea' or 'you're not good enough' but because I am white and middle class. Ironically, they then asked to commission [a black writer] for the same idea.” On the other hand, Stephen Jeffreys gained a great deal of praise for his play about American racial segregation and the blues I Just Dropped By to See the Man, which had a mostly black (sincere apologies to anyone genuinely offended by that generalisation) cast. Here’s hoping the attitude that informed the latter decision will ultimately prevail.

Writers need to be freed from precisely the sort of identity politics Bidisha promotes in order to be able to write about whatever they like. As Roy Williams does. Sure, if he’s interested by an issue concerning identity then he should make a play about it. There is also the ongoing concern to do with the form that such plays can take. As critic Carole Woddis noted in a comment to my piece: “The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a flowering of greater stylistic experimentation, Winsome Pinnock for one. Edgar White and Derek Walcott were just two earlier pre-eminent Caribbean writers whose styles embraced a whole range of embroideries - ritual, fantasy, dream - to explore various themes to do with ‘the mother country’.” It is vital that the doors to these options remain open. It is hard to imagine them doing so if: “The establishment must get behind those dramatists... whose vision of society is the most penetrating and whose wisdom may save it.”

Wouldn’t it be better if “the establishment”(!) just got behind those who wrote the best plays? Or indeed those who co-create the best works-for-theatre using non-traditional or experimental models of theatre-making?

* Edit: originally Jordan. See third comment.


claire said...

that blog entry has made me rather happy. i will shamelessly direct to it next time i get into this type of argument.

Richard said...

"Bidisha is kidding herself if she thinks that even Sarah Kane or Mark Ravenhill will mean much to the disinterested user of the Clapham omnibus."

I think you misunderestimate the artistic pretensions of the denizens of SW4. The 137 goes directly from Clapham Common to the Royal Court.

Marc said...

I'm especially shocked by this: "those dramatists who are non-white and even (yuck) women, whose vision of society is the most penetrating and whose wisdom may save it".

Bidisha is instructively open here about her philosophy of minority supremacism, surely just as obnoxious and incoherent as any doctrine of group superiority. She then slides in a nasty unstated premise that society is about to topple to justify special treatment. That is the left's favourite excuse for reprehensible interventions, just as it is on the authoritarian right.

Is Bidisha a deeply illiberal thinker to find in the Guardian? Or a reflection that the left just has different groups it thinks deserve to decide things on behalf of the inferior remainder, and different motives for invoking La Patrie En Danger?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Bidisha about one thing though. The god awful Soho Theatre 'Giving Asian Women a Voice' 'season' of readings --- you really could not invent as parody a more pathetic and hilarious surmisal of the patronising, condescending attitude of some people in theatre towards Asians, nor of the violin strings that Arts Council funded bodies play for their grants to produce the most deadening and loathsome kitchen-sink realism 'exotic emotional pornography of suffering' that passes for 'Asian theatre' these days, and has done for a long time, and shows no sign at all of changing.


Anonymous said...

Also, surely someone needs to point out that, far from being some kind of victim, Tanika Gupta is a pretty awful playwright who owes what little success she's had almost entirely to her ethnicity.

Anonymous said...

Andrew --- that was about the only note I could find myself entirely agreeing with in her whole piece, and you wrote a bracing and neseccary response. Too much unfocussed rage, accusation and resentment.


Ian Shuttleworth said...

I've enjoyed setting out my eastern-European market stall (as it were) by posting a comment on the Guardian site pointing out how rapidly it has become quite obsolete to view the issue of multiculturalism in terms of skin colour. There's even a whiff about Bidisha's article of what Andrew once termed (when talking about my own depressive tendency) "misery snobbery": a suggestion that, no, tinted people should have priority in such complaints even though the numbers are now at best ambivalent in that respect - "Tsk, bloody Poles, they come over 'ere, they steal our victim status..." I expect she'll respond to this joshing with fully as much humour as I've ever seen her display about anything ever.

Anonymous said...

Ian Shuttleworth

'Misery Snobbery' is another good phrase that Andrew coined. Regarding it, Bidisha represents a privileged position that many Asians in the arts and media have. That is the British Asian middle class, one of the most successful and prosperous ethnic groups in this society. The sons and daughters of professionals, doctors, accountants, and businessmen, many of them self-made, hard working men and women who sacrificed everything to send their children to private school to secure the best education they could get. They graduated (like Bidisha) from Oxford or Cambridge university and enter a world in which being from an Asian background is a positive advantage because of the impulse to promote from among minorities in order to ‘reflect the ethnic composition’ of British society. But these individuals are highly privileged middle class people; cosseted from the real disadvantages that some members of the Asian working class face, and yet they get a helping hand up on account of the need to represent the ‘oppressed Asian’ (it can only be described in the abstract). People of privilege benefiting from all that impulse, doubly priveliged, assumed to contain innate worth because of their ethnic background. Just look at the worst tokenism in the arts field, including theatre, just look at the amount of Asian newsreaders on the BBC for example. It’s all part of the condescension and tokenism that accrues, the hollowness and falsity of it all. There’s no real engagement, it’s so ultimately patronizing.


Ian Shuttleworth said...

True, but then again, when such jobs tend to go to the middle classes anyway, why should we be surprised that this also applies to other ethnicities? I suspect that in such areas it's class-based blinkers that primarily need to be removed. And they will naturally fall, though clearly not fast enough.

Nor is it just white people that have such bias. A few weeks back I was at the launch of my new local venue, the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, chatting to Tamara Gausi of Time Out when Larry Coke of Gyenyame for Performing Arts came along; when I told him I was from the FT he started pitching at me, as regarded the funding strategies of the opera "Mary Seacole" providing a possible feature (I'm an arts hack, not from the front bit of the paper!); he gave me his card. Tamara and I were both embarrassed that he was expending all his efforts on the white male; he didn't even ask her where she was from, and moreover she was the one of us that had space for what he wanted to say, so I passed the card on to her. Now, I'm pretty sure that was class- and market-based bias on Coke's part rather than race- and/or sex-based, but when it has that kind of excruciating effect...

Andrew Haydon said...

The class-elephant in that particular story is that you were both "too embarrassed" to say anything, of course. How terribly... :-)

Ian Shuttleworth said...

:-) but I said "embarrassed", not "too embarrassed". I gave Tamara the card and made sure with the administrators that she got interview time with him later... which was of course being white-male paternalistic :-)