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Month: October 2021

History for Everyone

History for Everyone

We went to see SIX on Broadway recently (whole other story) which is about the six wives of Henry VIII. The point of the show is that the history of the King is really the herstory of the Queens, and that they are the reason why he is famous. Also, in the production, the actors cast in the roles of the six Queens are not ethnically accurate to the original wives. This is in line with the same trend as seen in Hamilton. “Color blind casting” is what some people are calling it.

Now you could argue that if the goal is to create cognitive dissonance by casting ethnic mismatches (“an African-American George Washington??!”) then the casting is not actually “color blind.” If Hamilton were truly cast “color-blind,” then there would be a white George Washington in one production and a black one in another. But that’s not how it’s being done in this new wave of theatre. A more accurate term which is also currently in use is “nontraditional casting,” to reflect a conscious choice of casting outside of ethnic expectations to make a point, or impact the overall piece.

Bridgerton: we’re here for the hotties, not the history.

You may have seen this kind of casting in some recent streaming TV shows like Bridgerton on Netflix or The Great on Hulu. The former is set in regency England (Jane Austen’s time period) and the latter is another version of the often told story of the rise of Catherine the Great. Both are completely fictional, and quite enjoyable and well done shows. But there’s something incongruous, absurd even, about the casting, in the sense that race relations in that time period were so much different than they are today, and therefore it makes no sense for a black guy, however suave and debonair, to be a Duke in a Russian or English court in the late 1700s.

I’ll just put it bluntly: in that time period, black people were not in high positions of power in Europe, and except for rare instances noted in history, not engaged in courtly intrigue with them, as their peers. In portraying black and white people together as equals, something which makes sense in a story set in modern times, you might say that these shows are erasing history – trying to cover up or forget the shame of the racial injustices of the past. These shows are creating a fictional version of history that ignores a glaring aspect of it.

Alternately, you might say that, since these shows are simply recreating history, then by incorporating modern values about race into the narrative they are promoting inclusivity and empowering previously marginalized people. Some of these old history stories are rousing stuff, and why shouldn’t black people get to play these amazing roles? Is it so different from a woman playing Hamlet, as happened long ago? George Washington is a towering figure of American myth – why should white people get to own him forever?

I fret about the erasure of history as I write this, but then I have to wonder: is it so bad if future generations forget about the racial discrimination of the past, so long as it never returns? Maybe it’s possible to take the old adage about forgetting history too literally.

Let’s say some young person in the future is watching Bridgerton and is completely unaware of the impossibility of black and white people all dancing together at an upper class ball in regency England, unaware that back then the races did not mix like that, or be treated as equals. It’s not like we don’t routinely botch history in our many recreations of other eras. If someone then made them aware that black people were treated poorly, as a lower class of human, in that time period, their reaction might be an incredulous, “Really??! How could people have tolerated that? That is insane!” Maybe we could achieve a future where racial discrimination seems absurd and an obscure fact that needs to be dug up in old history books.

The problem, though, is that racial discrimination is still a thing of the present. So a show which pretends that discrimination didn’t exist in the past might lure us into forgetting that it exists today. It might help us ignore a glaring aspect not of history but of our own time. It might just be a distraction on TV, posing as proof that we have finally ended racial discrimination.

We need our distractions, so maybe the best thing is to think of these shows as escapist entertainment, fun and playful. Meanwhile, we continue to seriously look at racial issues in our society. We have nontraditional casting on the one hand, and critical race theory on the other, both tools in our struggle to repair race relations. Wouldn’t it be something, if some day, a mixed race cast in a period piece was not a politically charged choice, but merely a curious anachronism.

Theater Breaks through to the Light

Theater Breaks through to the Light

Last weekend I went with the whole family to see a moving one-man show called “A Shadow that Broke the Light,” performed by Charlie DelMarcelle, and co-created by him and his brother Adam. It’s about their brother Joey, who died of an overdose, but really it’s about the overdose epidemic in our country that is impacting so many lives and families. We saw it at West Chester University, where the creators are workshopping it now, as it is undergoing some changes (more on that below).

The show was first produced by Simpatico Theatre at the end of 2019, as a performance installation that ran continuously for 24 hours at Troy Foundry Theatre in upstate New York. I didn’t get a chance to see it then, though my partner Aileen did, driving the 4+ hours to get there. She was excited to go because she has known Charlie for a long time, and worked with him before. He is a brilliant actor, as I got to see last weekend.

After Covid times came, the piece wasn’t performed again until just recently. And, because of Covid times, it had to change, so Charlie is actually workshopping it right now, at the University where he works. I don’t want to say too much about why it has had to change, but just consider how overdose deaths have increased since the pandemic began.

Charlie’s performance was strong. He engagingly told stories about his brother, but also about other people whom Adam has interviewed about their own experiences with loved ones dying from overdoses. Charlie really shows his acting chops when portraying other characters. There was a good deal of humor to leaven the serious, grief-stricken and sometimes angry tone of other parts of the narrative. When reminiscing about loved ones, even though they might have come to tragic ends, it’s heartening to remember the funny moments.

The short piece felt like it ended too soon, but there then followed a period where the audience was invited to share their own stories. I talked about my cousin Sammy, who died of an overdose in 2001. Then there was outpouring of stories from audience members. It seems that half the attendees must have come up to talk. It was amazing and painful to see just how many people have been impacted by drug addiction. Many tears were shed in a very emotional and revealing hour, and Charlie himself expressed amazement at the audience response.

The plan is to create a touring production of the show, but for now you can see it at West Chester University through Oct 29, 2021. There is no admission fee. If you can’t make it, maybe because you don’t live in the area, Simpatico Theatre has posted a few videos of Charlie telling some stories about his brother Joey (see links below). Though it would be better to see it live if you can.

2021 Halloween Scene

2021 Halloween Scene

We wanted proper Halloween decorations this year, and this is what we ended up creating. I say “we” but it was really the rest of the family. Mostly I just fetched stuff, and wrote this chronicle. The background behind this fantabulous scene: it’s largely made up of set pieces from Aileen’s theater productions of the past. She has a storage building out back full of set pieces and bins of props and costume pieces.

The head in the center is a set piece from the Wizard of Oz. It was donated to Aileen’s theater company from another production, though she never used it. I did help with digging it out and transporting it (it’s huge and quite heavy), as well as securing it with bungee cords. It makes a great centerpiece; I think it looks like some mad scientist supervillain.

The gravestones/tombstones are made of styrofoam and were used in Aileen’s production of Dracula in 2016. The urns in front are also styrofoam and may or may not have been used in a set. Those pieces all came out of the attic, where a part of Aileen’s huge costume collection is kept (a lot more is at the theater where she works).

The skeleton on the left was in the storage building, and the reason you only see part of it is that it was a bit decayed. Another frightening fact about it is that when Aileen went to retrieve it, she unleashed a swarm of wasps! Some type of paper wasp had constructed a nest inside that was attached to the spinal cord. She fled the building, then after a bit sprayed the nest, and a day or two later we gingerly retrieved the skeleton and removed the paper nest (the wasps were still in the building, clustering on a nearby window).

The skeleton on the right was a new purchase; it has red LED eyes! The lights in the center were also a new purchase. The flood lights, however, have been with Aileen’s theater company for ages. They are outdoor flood lights, so safe to keep in front of the porch, and it’s a good thing they are, because it has been raining a lot lately. The candles you can see here and there are battery powered and are a staple in Aileen’s productions.

The best part of the tableau is the pumpkinhead guy in the back. That was put together by Aileen’s son Tiernan, who used a mask he wore in a previous Halloween costume, and some orange fabric. It’s sitting on a top of this weird lamp that has plastic strands or tubes lit up by LEDs; I don’t know what to call it. Two of the tubes are twisted up and inserted behind the mask to light up the eyes. The lamp was used as a fairy tree in a production of Midsummer’s Night Dream. Now it’s a spooky pumpkin tree!

I hope you enjoyed this detailed look at our 2021 Halloween scene, which you can see in person if you ever drive through Morgantown, Pennsylvania this month.

Have a safe and happy Halloween!