It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: On Prejudices

Dave Sikula free forms his way into controversy.

I’d been struggling to come up with a topic for this week’s entry, and, frankly, I kept coming up blank.

Some of this was due to having been out of town this last week; some of it was due to dealing with some weird Eustachian tube thing I’ve got (it alternates between plugged-up ears and vertigo; it’s much better now, thank you, but still a nuisance); some of it was due to being in rehearsal.

The result is, this will probably be more free-form and scattered than usual.

So, what’s bugging me? What’s my beef? What’s sticking in my craw?

The first thing that comes to mind is an episode from my recent trip. While driving through the wilds of southern Illinois, I was listening to a podcast featuring an interview with Michael Chiklis. While I’m not particularly a fan of his, I was interested enough to listen to the program. I didn’t watch either “The Commish” or “The Shield” (though I always heard good things about the latter), and my only real exposure to him was through his portrayals of Curly Howard (in a TV biopic of The Three Stooges) and Ben Grimm (in the dismal “Fantastic Four” movies). He’s one of those actors whom I’ve found likeable enough, but who never really made an impression on me.

From the interview (and Wikipedia), I learned he has (surprisingly to me) classical training, having gone to Boston University, but overall, he came off as something of a blowhard and goofball, but in an innocuous way – sort of a “Hey, I’m an LA actor who had a notable TV series” vibe.

I could have left it there, but the interviewer asked him about Shakespeare, and Mr. Chiklis launched into a combination condemnation of Shakespeare and defense of Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, that had steam coming out of my ears. I was literally yelling at and arguing with a two-year-old interview playing on my iPhone

Let me state here my firm status as a Stratfordian. It’s not even a belief. I’ve studied the Shakespeare “authorship” question to a great degree, and there’s not a shred, not a smidgen, not an atom of evidence that anyone but William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote those plays. Not to name call – oh, hell, let me go ahead and name-call: anyone who believes that Oxford, or Bacon, or Marlowe, or Queen Elizabeth – or anyone else – wrote the plays is an ill-informed idiot (though, mind you, I’m not eliminating Shakespeare collaborating with other writers; there’s plenty of evidence for that).

I have no idea why these people so piss me off. It’s not an anti-elitist thing; I’m certainly an elitist in a lot of things. But there’s something about this topic that just pushes my buttons. In a way, it’s kind of how I feel about the Kennedy assassination, although in that case, I’d be willing to listen to conspiracy theories, even if they all fall apart of their own weight. On matters such as these, I side with Occam’s Razor and believe the simplest theory is the right one.

The takeaway from all of this is, if you really want to get my goat, try to bait me on Oxford vs. Shakespeare; I’ll bite every time.

Moving on.

In trying to come up with a topic for today, I asked my long-suffering wife if she had any ideas. She mentioned she’d seen a Facebook post that took a Minneapolis reviewer to task for alleged racism. Personally, I found the review poorly reasoned and written, but far from racist.

My feelings about reviews and reviewers have been expressed here before; basically, I don’t have a lot of use for them. But this case proved interesting to me. The review is of a production of Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid.” While the reviewer (I refuse to call him a critic) seems not to understand Moliere’s dramaturgy and style, he begins by criticizing the director’s “highly questionable choices, one being the use of colorblind casting.” A phrase like that can easily act as a red flag to some readers, but beyond objecting to Asian, Latino, and African American actors playing French characters, he doesn’t go into a lot of detail. It seems he’s mostly puzzled why the director would cast actors of color while the Theatre avoids producing plays by writers of color. (though, admittedly, there is a tone of “people should only do shows wherein they’re cast ethnically appropriately”).

I have to admit that I’m torn on some cross-cultural casting. When I direct, I try to do it and have indeed done so more than once. I do have trouble wrapping my brain around casting family units of different ethnicities – and let me speedily add that it’s not a matter of having a problem with interracial relationships; I’m thinking of, say, a “Glass Menagerie” with an Asian American Amanda and a white Tom and Laura, or a “Long Day’s Journey” with a white James, a Latina Mary, and African Americans as Jamie and Edmond. I fully admit that the “problem” is my own; if I can accept that any actor is pretending to be someone up on that stage in the first place, I should be able to blind myself to differences in race. I mean, I’m able to see beyond something like an Irish American actor playing a Swede or a Canadian, so why not stretch my own limitations?

And let me hasten to add again, that this prejudice really only applies itself mostly to “realistic” plays or productions. If I see a farce or a deconstruction or something epic (such as Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata”) with an interracial family (whose ethnic differences are incidental to the plot), I have no problem with it – nor do I have a “problem” with cross-casting in general. One of the best things I’ve ever seen at ACT was their production of “Tartuffe” with an almost-exclusively African American cast, and I’ve seen a few productions of Chekhov that used multi-racial casts.

I realize that, in bringing this issue up – let alone admitting to my own limitations – I may be opening a can of worms and opening myself to criticism, but I don’t think I’m alone, and I think it’s a topic worth discussing (or I wouldn’t have spent a few hundred words on it) – though I’d hope it would be an open discussion, without either side shutting down the other for misunderstanding.

Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s my background, maybe it’s my cultural “training.” Whatever it is, though, I’m ready to be educated and enlightened.