Ann Arbor Theater Vixen: Jenn McKee's Blog

{November 3, 2009}   Political theater and the empty seat problem

On a recent Saturday night, I went to review Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play, “Dutchman” (staged by Magenta Giraffe), for Between the Lines at Detroit’s Furniture Factory. I was one of about nine people in the audience.

That’s a pretty darn empty theater for a Saturday night, and it got me to thinking about how “Dutchman,” like Matrix’s production of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” before it, has a daunting task in terms of drawing theatergoers in. When you’re offering tough, complex, classic works that find their way onto more college course syllabi than actual stages, people often stay away in droves.

I get the resistance. Seeing a fun, happy-ending, feel-good show like the touring production of “Legally Blonde, The Musical” will always sound more inviting, just because, especially this past year, regular life feels hard enough. Why not seek out something that will take us somewhere happier for a night? (“Dutchman” focuses on a white woman and a black man on a train who flirt, abuse, and argue until one commits an act of violence.)

But I was reminded by “Dutchman” how much there is to be gained by seeing theater that you know will be intellectually rigorous and challenging. A key part of this involved the talkback that MG offers after every performance of “Dutchman.” This changed my entire experience at the theater that night, partly because I now often have to go alone to shows (since Joe has to stay home with our girl). “Dutchman” is a play that absolutely begs to be unpacked and discussed, and without having that option, I would have felt far less satisfied.

Regarding that discussion, though, a few interesting things happened. First, I was only one of two or three people in the audience who were white, suggesting that in addition to the nature of the play proving to be a difficult sell, white theatergoers may also tend to stay away because they consider “Dutchman” to be a “black show.”

And I’ll admit, there’s definite discomfort in seeing the closest version of your own identity represented on stage by a cackling, abusive, ugly, violent character. That’s part of the point, of course; but getting people to invite that discomfort into their evenings, their lives, is a tall order.

And while I wanted to participate in the post-show discussion, I found myself holding back. Some of the talk addressed how the train passengers watched as violence unfolded in “Dutchman,” and an actor mentioned that he knew a woman who voiced her disapproval when a headphone-wearing man on a bus was singing misogynist lyrics, and the man yelled at her and no one else on the bus stepped in. Everyone in the cast and the audience clucked in judgment at this, and said how awful it was, but I was thinking, “I may not like the lyrics, either, but the man’s got a right to sing along with them if he wants, number one. And number two, I wouldn’t have intervened, either. He wasn’t physically threatening this woman, presumably, but rather was angry that someone was telling him to shut up, and that’s an issue that’s strictly between these two people.”

And no one at the talkback addressed the main reason that people don’t intervene in these situations, which is a sense of self-preservation. Whether you’re brown, black, or white, and whether you have a lot or a little, people naturally want to hold on to what they have – and I don’t even mean that strictly in the monetary sense. People think of their families, and how they just want to get through the day and get home to them. And I understand that. Obviously, there’s a line past which one is morally obligated to get involved and try and help, and God knows that line gets blurry sometimes. But speaking as someone who avoids confrontation like the plague, I get the general resistance to getting involved.

(As a side note, a disturbing bit of misinformation was passed along in the MG talkback. The “birthers” came up in the conversation – those who pressed for Obama to produce a birth certificate – and an actor said the push behind this movement was that these people couldn’t believe an articulate, smart black man was American. But the truth is far more insidious, of course, as the movement strove to de-legitimize Obama’s election and presidency by “proving” that he didn’t fulfill a basic requirement for the office – that is, being born in America. I tried to jump in and correct this misunderstanding, but unfortunately, the opportunity passed too quickly.)

I’m aware of the irony inherent in talking about non-involvement while not being able to insert myself into a casual post-show conversation. But therein lies a genuine problem. I did feel a bit hesitant about adding my two cents, cowed by the nature of the show that preceded the talk. Giving voice to the unheard is clearly a key part of shows like “Dutchman,” so the last thing, I thought, this crowd wants to hear is MORE from a white person.

And feeling like I’d been silenced wasn’t fun. So maybe part of the experience of “Dutchman,” for me, was having the sensation that so many felt for so long.


Hi Jenn,

I’m so glad the show and the talkback stuck with you and got you thinking – that’s exactly what our goal was! We would have loved to hear from you that evening, but it’s fabulous to get your thoughts more than a week later. I hope EVERYONE who saw the show is ALSO still thinking about it – and I hope that more people come out to see it, despite what discomfort they may feel. Art isn’t about being comfortable! =)

Hope to see you at another show soon!

-Frannie Shepherd-Bates
Artistic Director, Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company

Mona says:

I must clarify two things you reported.

1. I must object to the “clucked” in agreement comment. The idea that we all ignored the point of self preservation. I didn’t say anything to that affect. I actually didn’t say anything at all when that comment was brought up.

2. I think you misunderstood the actor talking about the Birthers. Though I can not speak for him, I think it’s clear to everyone the movement was illegitimize Obama’s presidency. I believe the actor was simply trying to infer that the undercurrent of that movement was based out of the disbelief that a Black man would become president during our time.
Please see J. Garafalo’s interview on the subject with Bill Maher. I’ve discussed this interview with members of the cast. Prior to the talk back.

I suggest you turn off the annotations, as the comments are less than academic.

I think it’s natural to hold your tongue at a talk-back, as unnatural as that sounds. I find myself not wanting to be to radical by expressing my opinion, so I stay quiet and let someone else speak- until the moment passes. It’s the thought that counts.

thank you for seeing the show

Jenn McKee says:

Thanks for the response.

In my defense, when the “birthers” discussion began, the cast member asked, “Do you all know about the ‘birthers’?” and several members of the audience shook their heads.

This is what concerned me: that no clear explanation was offered before talking about the “movement”‘s larger implications.

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