Anti-racism at City Lit
It is important to say, and to mean, that Black lives matter. The “all lives matter” response neglects the historical fact that Black lives have frequently been treated as if they somehow existed outside the “all” that matters: not only enslaved for the material benefit of others or lynched for the emotional comfort of others, but also deprived of voting rights and access to public accommodations, restricted in their choice of homes and schools, treated with all too often fatal results by police as eternal suspects, and so on through the awful litany of what it means to not matter. Black lives matter.
City Lit's values regarding diversity and equity are those of Barbara Jordan, the late Black congresswoman and subject of Voice of Good Hope, our last production before the pandemic temporarily shut us down: “We have made mistakes. In our haste to do all things for all people, we did not foresee the full consequences of our actions. And when the people raised their voices, we didn't hear. But, our deafness was only a temporary condition and not an irreversible condition.”
A commitment to diversity and equity is a commitment to democracy, to e pluribus unum. It is not automatically a commitment to all of the wide range of viewpoints pushing for the same goal, just as no commitment to free expression compels agreement with every voice heard. Times of political polarization produce extreme views, and the illiberal left has been perhaps the loudest voice on the topic of how to move forward toward an anti-racist society and, more specifically, an anti-racist theatre community. Good for them, in many ways, but much of what they say is grounded in ideas that seem antithetical to democratic values and artistic principles, and City Lit necessarily stands apart from those ideas.
Specifically, there is a counterproductive streak of intolerance in the illiberal approach to the problem, from which I choose to separate City Lit. An early harbinger of this development came in 2018 when a suburban theatre company booked its successful production of David Mamet's Oleanna into a Lincoln Park rental house. To be blunt, it's easy to see the play as misogynistic. This production's suburban run had escaped much notice within Chicago's theatre community, but its Chicago booking sparked a strong reaction. A Twitter campaign erupted, attacking not only the play but those involved in its production and transfer. After a few days of this, the booking house cancelled the suburban company's reservation and issued a cringe-inducing apology for having had the insensitivity to book it in the first place. (To be sure, there had been ancillary issues complained about, mostly to do with insufficient supervision of the show's stage combat, but these could have been addressed by the booking house insisting that all proper safety measures in such matters be strictly enforced in their building. The real issue—the only one worth cancelling the show over—was always the play itself.)
I posted a comment on City Lit's Twitter account: “I don't know which I dislike more, Oleanna or thought police.” This was disingenuous, as I know I dislike thought police more.
This willingness on the part of some theatre artists to see other theatre artists muzzled has a chilling effect, and this effect seems to be intentional. BIPOC Demands for White American Theatre, a manifesto associated with the hashtag #WeSeeYou and much discussed nationally in theatre circles, at one point demands “without argument, the total banishment of any play” that perpetuates stereotypes of American indigenous peoples, and concludes this point with the clarification “This means Peter Pan, too.” One need not feel inclined to defend the Native American stereotypes in Peter Pan to find this disquieting.
City Lit has felt this chill. During the pandemic shutdown, like most theatre companies, we have looked to virtual programming as a means of staying in touch with our audience. We put out one Zoom-style reading and were unsatisfied with that as a format for drama, so hit on the idea of recording whole novels as an audio-only podcast, chapter by chapter, with each chapter an episode released every week or so as in radio drama. This would be true to the company's roots in concert readings, and be a worthwhile project on the merits, not merely a stopgap while we can't produce onstage.
As it happens, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is my favorite book, but one we would be unlikely to adapt for the stage, in part simply because I would hate to see us condense it down to a 1:45 running time. A multi-part podcast would allow us to do the entire book, verbatim.
Most importantly, the book's actively anti-racist theme makes it perfect for these troubled times. Huck has been brought up in a racist, slave-holding society and has been formed by it. He hasn't spent a lot of time in either school or church, but whenever he was at either place, he never once heard a teacher or minister speak out against slavery. If it was discussed from the pulpit, he heard that it is sanctioned by Scripture. Every adult he considers respectable believes it is part of God's plan and an institution that benefits both races involved. Twain says the book is about a boy with a deformed conscience but a good heart, and that expresses it perfectly. Late in the book, he is plagued by fear of hellfire because he has helped Jim escape. Jim's owner was Miss Watson, who was always nice to Huck and never did anything to hurt him, and this is the mean and low-down thanks he gives her, to rob her of her valuable property. He has tried to pray, but knows he can't cleanse his soul as long as he is still complicit in his sin. So he sits down and writes her a letter, telling her where he and Jim are and how she can go about reclaiming Jim. As soon as he finishes it, waves of relief pour through him, he's able to pray easily, and he feels like a burden has been lifted from him. Then he starts thinking about Jim, and how much Jim has meant to him over the course of their journey together, and about the time Jim told him that he, Huck, was his only friend in the whole world. Now he feels bad again, and he looks over and sees the letter. He hesitates, then takes it and throws it in the fire, saying to himself, "Well, then, I'll go to hell." That's the climax of the book, and its irony is left to the reader to perceive.
I have abandoned plans to do Huck Finn and have chosen another book. The frequent occurrence of the N-word in the novel made it impossible to find actors willing to be in our podcast. It was not that the actors found the book offensive; it was clear they didn't. It was that they feared becoming the center of public controversy. Who can blame them?
There have been three major stage versions of Huck over the years in Chicago: a two-part adaptation at the old Organic Theatre, a remount of that adaptation years later at the Goodman, and a different adaptation as part of Steppenwolf for Young Audiences. All three productions retained the word, and dealt with the issue through public discussion. The Organic held regular post-show discussions; the Goodman hosted a packed-house onstage panel discussion with a variety of viewpoints represented, including on one side those of the Black editor of an edition of the book that replaced the word in every instance with the word slave, and on the other those of Meshach Taylor, the actor who played Jim in the production; Steppenwolf provided its audience of Chicago Public School students with study guides to encourage classroom discussion. On all fronts, the understanding was promoted that the integrity of the book's language was necessary to its anti-racist theme.
A counter-example: the racism of a novel like Gone with the Wind lies precisely in its willingness to soften the realities of slavery. The N-word occurs only occasionally in its pages, generally spoken by blacks and lower-class whites; whites with social standing use the word darkies, which is intended as a polite term. Not only are the enslaved completely loyal to the O'Hara family who owns them, even continuing to work for them after emancipation, but no Black character in the book is portrayed as having a family of his or her own. Murders committed by the Ku Klux Klan are decorously endorsed as a necessary consequence of Yankees having turned the Black population against southern whites. Slavery is presented as a private matter concerning one big happy bi-racial Southern family, all of whom suffered needlessly at the hands of invading Yankee soldiers and carpetbaggers. Twain would have been disgusted by Margaret Mitchell. He always knows that to indict a society you must name its crimes clearly.
Race in America has been a frequent topic on City Lit's stage over the years, but we have only done three shows we would consider fully anti-racist as distinct from merely non-racist, and our recent experience with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn suggests we would not be able to cast and produce two of those three shows today.
Many shows about race, perfectly worth doing, fall into the non-racist category. Our Barbara Jordan play, Voice of Good Hope by our resident playwright Kristine Thatcher, is one of these: a lovely play, it celebrates Jordan as a great American who was courageous and articulate in the cause of civil rights and democratic principles, but nonetheless does not examine the structural supports that hold in place the racism she fought.
The three shows that did examine racism as a structure were Pudd'nhead Wilson, another Twain novel; The Bloodhound Law, another Thatcher play; and Confederates in the Attic, an adaptation of Tony Horwitz's nonfiction book. The last two of these were part of a five-year slate of annual shows examining the legacy of the Civil War during the war's sesquicentennial period. I believe that only The Bloodhound Law, a historical drama centered on the reaction of abolitionist Chicago's city council to the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and therefore not set among a population sympathetic to slavery, would be likely to escape the kind of wrong-headed illiberal censure that can intimidate would-be participants.
Pudd'nhead is set in a fictionalized version of Twain's childhood home town, and as always in Twain, the racist characters have no idea they are racist. The plot concerns the switching at birth of an enslaved baby and a white baby (the enslaved baby is of only one part African blood to thirty-one parts Caucasian, but under the law this makes him Black) by the enslaved baby's mother, herself enslaved in the household of the other baby's parents, in order to save her son from slavery. Each baby grows up in the other one's life: the master's true son is raised with the physical, educational, and social degradation that is imposed on a slave, while the enslaved woman's true baby has his character destroyed by a life of white wealth and privilege. Her attempt to save him by making him legally white makes him worthless. The book's point is that none of the social or pseudo-scientific justifications for slavery's existence are true; it's just a condition some choose for others. One hundred twenty years before science decided race is a social construct with no genetic basis, Twain was already there.
Confederates is Horwitz's account of his 1990s two-year tour of the South, encountering among others a large variety of unrepentant racists: private militia types, city officials debating Confederate statues, sweet little old ladies leading Sunday-school-type classes for white children to perpetuate lies about the Confederacy, and so on. They’ve inherited the failed state that was the Confederacy and are doing what they can to keep it alive; twenty years later they and others like them will form much of the MAGA constituency. It's a picaresque series of portraits of racists who, as in Twain, don't realize they are racist and therefore don't hesitate to demonstrate that they are. They are portrayed comprehensively—not sympathetically by any means, but neither as cartoon villains. Horwitz's point is that the Civil War is not over—“it's just halftime,” as one person puts it to him—and the bedrock structure of institutional racism is still strong.
Both of these books depict people using the N-word freely, as did our adaptations of them. It may be necessary to stipulate that in neither case does the author use the word in direct narration. That is to say, neither employs the slur himself, but both depict their characters (one set fictional, one set real) using it in order to propel his book's anti-racist point. It seems likely this distinction would be lost upon activists who consider Peter Pan outside the pale of acceptable expression, and so we doubt if we could succeed in gathering a cast for either Pudd’nhead or Confederates if we wished to produce one of them now—though a production of either would be more relevant today than when we did them. I consider this unfortunate and counterproductive, and will try not to let it affect our future production choices.
This is not an argument to say that it's okay for white people to use the N-word; City Lit would dismiss anyone who used the slur in conversation on our premises. It is to say that respect is due a piece of art that confronts its characters' racism—and society’s—by portraying it accurately.
One small theatre company's freedom of expression is not the largest concern in this national discussion, but it is the concern that only we are responsible for, so the task of City Lit remains to describe the world as we see it, as well as to make clear we see it from the perspective of an ally in the broad movement to ensure that Black lives matter.
City Lit has not been perfect on issues of diversity and equity. Few if any organizations of any sort have been. The meaningful commitment is always to do one's best, and I reiterate on behalf of City Lit that artistic freedom is not a hindrance to a commitment to equality. Quite the contrary: it is a theatre company's most important tool in that commitment.