Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Arts and Social Engineering: the Importance of Gender Bending and Race

Last year I went to the annual Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. You may remember me discussing it at the time.

They had a production of The Tempest showcasing Martha Henry as Prospero – the revenge seeking wizard exiled to a remote island. The role of Prospero is considered a plum role and highly sought after by men in their fifties or sixties as it is quite possible they would have a 15-year-old daughter. Given that the director chose to fundamentally transform Prospero’s character from Miranda’s father to her mother it’s a bit more of a stretch for the 80 year old actress. But hey, that’s the magic of theater.

Also part of last year’s Shakespearean offerings was Julius Caesar…where the lead was played by Seana McKenna, Cassius by Irene Poole, and  Michelle Giroux as Mark Antony – women all. Nor were they the only gender bending roles, several other male characters in Julius Caesar were played by women because:

“It makes a lot of sense that in this day and age, a play with so few female characters should have women playing some of the more juicy male roles.” - BWW

It makes a lot of sense to a certain segment of the population. To the rest of us it just appears stupid and manipulative.

Image result for seana mckenna julius caesarSeana McKenna (left) as Julius Caesar and Michelle Giroux as Mark Antony

Yet CBC Radio seemed surprised that all that gender-bending created a bit of blowback.

This year at Stratford, two of Canada's theatre greats will be playing "trouser roles." Seana McKenna will play Julius Caesar and Martha Henry will play Prospero.

Even in the 21st century, it has unsettled some patrons.

Speaking to The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright, Martha Henry says that Stratford has had complaints about the cross-gender casting.

"They've had people who were really incensed about this. Some even said they weren't going to come."

Martha's response?

"Tell them that if they don't come, they can't complain, because they will have nothing on which to stand. Come first, and see what you think."

Um, okay, I’ll not complain about not spending $100+ per ticket to not see the performance. We chose instead to see the Music Man which was a wonderful production. Even then one had to suspend one’s disbelief somewhat to imagine that in 1912 River City, Iowa a black Henry Hill could pull off the con of selling non-existent band instruments and wooing Marion the fair librarian.

Image result for daren a. herbert stratford festival

But then, The Music Man is a bit tongue-in-cheek in the believability department to begin with so casting is less critical than it is in oh, say, a historical Shakespearean play where they pretend to be gender blind. Daren A. Herbert, the actor who portrayed Hill explained why he hates the term “colourblind” casting: 

“I hate the lie it portrays because it insinuates that you’re seeing something that is not unseeable. People come to see this show and they see me — a black guy. There’s no way to pretend that I’m not.”Windsor Star

Image result for daren a. herbert stratford festival

In other words, there is no such thing as “colourblind” casting: nothing is more obvious than the color of one’s skin. It is what it is. And that’s fine. Herbert is a great actor, a great singer and dancer and the musical was a delight. But you know and I know and Daren A. Herbert knows he was chosen for the part because he was black, not despite it. The arts have an agenda. At least The Music Man’s director wasn’t trying to convince us that men and women are interchangeable parts.

Plus they did their homework to ensure that the pluralistic culture of the mythic River City wasn’t a complete pipedream:

Herbert and director Donna Feore did some homework on that period — “and it’s not as though there were no black people there. There was one who was fairly high up in the Republican Party, so we’re not completely out of the bounds of reality.”

Ha ha! A Republican! Now isn’t that a kick in our racist teeth. Anyway, we all know the premise is still a stretch - it’s not a racist thing, it’s a historical thing - but we chose to play along and had a good time.

All of which is a long way around to the lede, allow me to introduce the next Agent 007: Lashana Lynch will play 007 in new James Bond movie.

Lashana Lynch

“It’s a popcorn-dropping moment. Bond is still Bond but he’s been replaced as 007 by this stunning woman,” the source told the Mail.

Either that’s a bad publicity photo of Lashana or I no longer understand the meaning of “stunning.”  For insurance purposes however Danial Craig still plays a retired James Bond although his special number has been reassigned. Good luck social engineers of the arts and letters crowd, sooner or later you hit the wall. I think you may have arrived.

Image result for james bond hits the wall