I Lost It At The Obies

I Lost It At The Obies


In 1956, the year the Obies began, Eisenhow­er hadn’t even started his second term and Bill Clinton was in grade school. The Dodgers were still in Brook­lyn, Steve Allen hosted the Tonight Show, and the Mar­cia Clark of the day was Joseph Welch. Jack Kerouac was just hitting the road, Elvis wasn’t anywhere near the building, and an obscure professor at Cornell, Vladmir Nabokov, was becoming resigned to the fact that no one would risk publishing Lolita.

Down in the Village, Edna St. Vincent Millay had died only a few years earlier, Delmore Schwartz was pub­licly going mad, and Djuna Barnes, austere and cranky in her one-room apartment on Patchin Place, just across the courtyard from e e cummings, still had a quarter of a century to live.

Brooks Atkinson was the theater critic for The New York Times, Waiting for Godot was baffling Broadway audiences — a metaphor for impotence, explained Nor­man Mailer in the pages of this paper — few producers would take a chance on Chekhov or Ibsen, and almost no one had even heard of Jean Genet. Joe Papp was working as the stage manager for “I’ve Got a Secret” at CBS, Ellen Stewart was designing bathing suits, and Sam Shepard was still several years from becoming a bus­boy at the Village Gate.

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Over on Greenwich Avenue, in a one-and-a-half­ room office, a writer for the Columbia Encyclopedia, a psychotherapist, and the author of The Naked and the Dead were wondering if their new five-cent weekly could make it through the end of the month. But Jerry Tallmer, the paper’s managing editor and theater critic, had an inspiration. The Circle-in-the-Square had pro­duced popular Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams revivals, Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the Living Theater were mounting plays in living rooms and lofts, and The Threepenny Opera was starting its long run at the Theatre De Lys — there might not be anything up­town but blockbuster musicals and meretricious melo­dramas, but the downtown scene was beginning to be called “Off-Broadway.” Why not have an award cere­mony to celebrate the work being done in this new, al­ternative theater? A kind of Tony award honoring art not commerce. A gathering of the community to en­courage its artists. But what to call the new award? Off­-Broadway — OB — voilá — Obie!

Forty years. There’s a danger, of course, in calling at­tention to our age — how can an award so middle-aged, so venerable, claim to honor the new, the untried, the experimental, the innovative, the adventurous? (How, in fact, can we share a 40th anniversary with the Fortune 500?) Well, it’s not as if we haven’t stumbled along in the first place — changed, evolved, mutated, even, on occasion, blundered. But as long as we can keep our process casual, informal, and unstructured — and as long as we can keep the ceremonies from becoming institu­tionalized — we should be able to stumble along for an­other 40 years at least.

This isn’t the place to explain the selection process — except to say that while some things have remained the same (the judge who can be counted on to annually resign in a rage), many more have altered (adding more judges and a cadre of auxiliary scouts to handle the extraordinary prolifer­ation of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway, for instance, or eliminating “bests” except for the best play award, or gradually “shaping” the list of win­ners rather than taking a strictly nu­merical vote, or implementing the in­formal “seven-year rule,” under which you can’t vote for anyone with whom you’ve had an affair in the last seven years, a rule less invoked these days than in the 70s, and a rule that we once had to consider amending to include “or whom you contemplate having an affair with on the night of the ceremonies either”).

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As for nominations? Well, we decided early on that the spectacle of five nominees on TV — four of them giv­ing the performance of their lives pretending they’re hap­py for the fifth — was hardly in the spirit of artistic achievement. Why should art be competitive? Three­-time winner Morgan Freeman put it best at the Obie ceremonies a couple of years ago. “If you want to give me an award, give me an award,” he said. “Don’t nominate me for it and then tell me I wasn’t good enough to win.”

As for the ceremonies themselves, we equally dis­like the spectacle of tuxedoed and gowned guests sitting in rows in some gigantic auditorium with an accountant holding the envelopes and a TV crewman flashing 30-second warnings at the winners — though we have caved in on the “no TV” principle and this year will be on the tube for the fourth time. But there’s no limit on acceptance speeches (length or language), no “in ceremonies held earlier this evening” condescension to “lesser” awards, and no smirk­ing emcee with stupid host tricks. As I wrote in these pages on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Obies — and I see no reason to change a word — “Here at the Voice, we like to think of the Obies as a kind of funky family reunion, an informal yearly get-together where we can reminisce with old friends, or get to know newcomers, or welcome back former coworkers who’ve gone on to big­ger and (so we tend to believe) worse things.”

But enough. The 40-year his­tory of the Obies should speak for itself — a chronicle of artistic achievement, boisterous celebration and even an occasional boo.

1956 Shelley Winters, starring uptown in Hatful of Rain, drove her own car down to the Limelight to host the first Obie ceremonies, and was immediately besieged by photographers from the AP, the Daily News, and Movietone News. Under the klieg lights of Dumont television, and before a crowd of over 200 mem­bers of the new Off-Broadway community, the three top acting awards were presented to Julie Bovasso for The Maids, Jason Robards for The Iceman Cometh, and George Voskovec for Uncle Vanya. The best new play award was given to Lionel Abel for Absalom, the best production award went to Uncle Vanya, the best musical award was presented to The Threepenny Opera, and José Quintero won the best director award for The Iceman Cometh (thanking the actors, in his acceptance speech, “for teaching me my craft”). Among the other winners — a young actress named Frances Sternhagen, and an unknown young producer named Joseph Papp for the Shakespearean Workshop Theatre.

1957 It was a Gaelic afternoon at the Limelight, Colleen Dewhurst winning the Obie for best actress, James Joyce’s Exiles winning four awards, playwrights named Shaw, Wilde, and O’Casey figuring in other prominent Obies, and Irish coffee served to the 300 guests, who included the legendary Vil­lager and honorary Gael, Romany Marie. WOR’s Jean Shepard handled the preliminaries and postscripts, with Geraldine Page, gowned in linen and capped in straw, handing out the parchments. Other awards included Gene Frankel for best direction (Volpone), a special citation to Paul Shyre, and Louis A. Lippa for best play (A House Remembered, a play forgotten). Unable to attend the ceremonies due to rehearsals for a summer-stock production, Dewhurst sent a telegram — “Believe me when I say, happy the girl the sun shines on today.”

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1958 An ex-Marine recently turned actor, George C. Scott won the Obie for best actor for his performances in Richard III, As You Like It, and Children of Darkness. Maureen Stapleton served as emcee, handing out Obies to Scott, Anne Meacham as best actress (Garden District), Stuart Vaughan as best director (New York Shakespeare Festi­val), Samuel Beckett for best play (Endgame), and 11 other awards, including an Obie to a neophyte named Tammy Grimes for her performance in Clerambard, and an Obie to a recent newcomer to Off-Broad­way named Lucille Lortel. Clarence Derwent, Tony Randall, and Huntington Hartford were among the 300 guests, and Raymond S. Rubinow, chairman of the committee to close Washington Square Park to traffic, made the first polit­ical speech at the Obies — pointing out that the continued success of Off­-Broadway was linked with the preservation of community life in the Village.

1959 The Obies moved to the Village Gate, with over 500 in atten­dance, including Anne Bancroft, Arthur Lau­rents, Diana Sands, Lorraine Hansberry, guest judge Kenneth Tynan, and a contingent from Radio Free Europe. A special touch of emotion was added to the proceedings when emcee Kim Stanley, nearing the climax of her announcements, discovered that her husband, Alfred Ry­der, had won the Obie for best actor. She had no advance knowledge of his place in the vot­ing, and tears were near the surface as she hand­ed his Obie to his stand-in, actress Nan Mar­tin, since he was uptown rehearsing for a television production of Billy Budd. Other awards went to Ivanov for best production, a­nd Mostel for Ulysses in Nighttown, Hal Hol­brook for Mark Twain Tonight!, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green for their show at the Cherry Lane.

1960 The year of the Living Theater’s The Connection — Judith Malina and Julian Beck won the Obie for best production, Jack Gelber for best new play, and Warren Finnerty for best actor. What a year for playwrights — among the winners were Jean Genet for best foreign play for The Balcony, Samuel Beckett for Krapp’s Last Tape, and Ed­ward Albee for The Zoo Story. And what a year for actors — among the 10 winners were Eileen Brennan (best actress for Little Mary Sunshine), Vincent Gardenia (Machinal) and Nancy Marchand (The Balcony). Six hundred guests attended the ceremonies at the Village Gate, hosted by Anne Bancroft. Taking out ads in the Voice congratulating the Obies on their fifth year were Judy Holliday, Harry Belafonte, and an actor not yet known for his stage work — a fellow named Jerry Lewis.

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1961 Few people may have heard of Jean Genet, but that didn’t include the Obie judges, who in the sixth year of the awards gave him his third Obie, this one for best play for The Blacks. Congressman John Lindsay led off the afternoon with, as the paper noted, “a discussion of the intellectual and cultural climate of the city,” then turned the pro­ceedings over to host Julie Harris. Among the winners — Gerald Freedman for his direction of The Taming of the Shrew, Khigh Dhiegh for best actor for In the Jungle of Cities, Anne Meacham for best actress for Hedda Gabler, and performance awards to Godfrey Cambridge and James Coco. And for the first time, Off-Off-Broadway was honored — a parchment going to the improvisational revue The Premise starring Joan Darling and Tom Aldredge.

1962 Lotte Lenya presented an Obie to Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days as best foreign play “with judge Walter Kerr wish­ing to be announced as abstaining.” After a mo­ment’s hush, there came a scattering of hisses, boos, and some small applause. On the podi­um, co-judge Edward Albee indulged in a brief, dry smile. Among the winners Kerr agreed up­on were best performance awards to a 31-year-old actor named James Earl Jones (several pro­ductions) and actress Barbara Harris (who delighted the audience by performing a Second City sketch with Alan Arkin) for Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad; acting Obies to Vinnette Carroll, Rosemary Harris, and Ruth White; and best American play to Frank Gilroy for Who’ll Save the Plowboy? In explaining that he’d flown in from Califomia to receive his award, Gilroy added that when his agent had said, “What do you think it is, a Pulitzer Prize?” he’d responded that the Obies mean more to him than any recognition he could have received.

1963 Uta Hagen came forward to present the awards. Peering out in­to the dim, smoke-filled room, packed to the walls with standing latecomers, she echoes the opening of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which she was currently starring on Broadway — “What a dump!” Best actress and best ac­tor awards went to a recently married couple, Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott, both for Desire Under the Elms, and another couple, Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, received Obies for their performances in The Typists and The Tiger. Other winners included Olympia Dukakis and Joseph Chaikin (not a couple) for different productions of Man Is Man, and Alan Schneider, best director for his work on The Pinter Plays. Two highlights — entertainment by the belly dancer Sabah, and the announce­ment that from this year on the Voice would give a $500 prize to the best new American play of the year — the first award going not to an Off-Broadway play but to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which had just been turned down for the Pulitzer.

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1964 When an award to Julian Beck was announced for his set design for The Brig — which also won an Obie for best production — Beck and Judith Malina were just coming in the door of the Village Gate. Under strain from the two weeks of the federal trial that resulted from the closing of the Living Theater — a trial that ended two days later in conviction — the Becks received a prolonged standing ovation. Colleen Dewhurst was the host, entertainment was provided by Tiny Tim, Samuel Beckett was cited for best play (Play), LeRoi Jones for best American play (Dutchman — for which he also received a $500 check donated by Edward Albee), and what a roster of young performers were honored — Gloria Foster, Lee Grant, Taylor Mead, Estelle Par­sons, Diana Sands, Marian Seldes, and Jack Warden. And speaking for the judges, Richard Gilman announced an anti-Obie to the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center “for outstand­ing disservice to the American theater.”

1965 This year the citation “for outstanding disservice to the Amer­ican theater” went to Walter Kerr. Among the performers receiving their Obies from host Gloria Foster were Roscoe Lee Browne, Frank Langella, and Lester Rawlins (tied for best ac­tor for their performances in The Old Glory), plus Brian Bedford, Joseph Chaikin, Robert Duvall, Rosemary Harris, James Earl Jones, Frances Sternhagen, and Sada Thompson. Other awards included best play to neophyte playwright Robert Lowell for The Old Glory, Irene Fornes’s first of many Obies for Promenade, and special citations to two newcomers to the scene, the Caffe Cino and Cafe La Mama. H.M. Koutoukas showed up at the ceremonies carrying his pet parrot, and Charles Stanley arrived in djellaba and burnoose.

1966 Another discovery at the Obies — a young actor named Dustin Hoffman won the award for best actor for his performance in The Journey of the Fifth Horse. Host Anne Jackson handed the parchment for best play to Ronald Ribman for The Journey of the Fifth Horse, and gave another Obie for three one-act plays to Off-Off-Broadway newcomer Sam Shepard — who went on to win eight more Obies over the following years. Other awards included second Obies to Gloria Foster and Frank Langella, plus a special citation to the Bread and Puppet Theater. Among those gathered at the Gate were David Gordon and Val­da Setterfield, who would receive their Obies nearly two decades later.

1967 Barbara Harris presided over the ceremonies, and a new group called the Mothers of Invention, led by a singer named Frank Zappa, entertained the gathering between awards. Futz, produced at the Cafe La Mama, took the top three honors — Seth Allen for best actor, Tom O’Horgan for best direc­tor, and Rochelle Owens for best play (tying with Eh? by Henry Livings and La Turista by Sam Shepard). Other Obie winners included performers Tom Aldredge, Alvin Epstein, Stacy Keach, and Rip Torn, and special citations were given to the La Mama Troupe, the Open Theatre, and Jeff Weiss. Three of the winners, in accepting their Obies, described themselves as “paranoid.”

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1968 Another young actor won an Obie for best performance in his stage debut — Al Pacino for The Indian Wants the Bronx. An old hand at the Obies by now, Sam Shepard won a playwriting Obie, joined by newcomer’s John Guare and a previously unknown Czech playwright named Václav Hav­el. Estelle Parsons, who’d just won an Oscar for Bonnie and Clyde, handed out the parchments to the 23 winners, who included Billie Dixon (best performance by an actress for The Beard), John Cazale, James Coco, Moses Gunn, Roy R. Scheider, the Negro Ensemble Company, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

1969 Julie Bovasso, in cowboy hat and bush jacket, introduced the judges — who included Elizabeth Hardwick­ — and handed out the best play award to the Liv­ing Theater for Frankenstein. “The theater is life and the theater is in the street,” proclaimed Judith Malina and Julian Beck by transatlantic cable. “We suggest that all revolutionary artists write on their banners ‘love and gentleness.’ All the rest is treason.” Richard Schechner, in accepting an Obie for the Performance Group’s Dionysus in ’69, responded less lo­quaciously — “We deserve it.” Among the other winners were Jeff Weiss, Julie Bovasso, The­atre Genesis, Ronald Tavel, and Jules Feiffer (Little Murders). As part of the entertainment, Ching Yeh recited Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy in Chinese, rearing his passion to a hilarious tatters.

1970 “Everything’s coming up marigolds.” Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds shared the best play award with Megan Terry’s Approaching Simone, and Sada Thompson was cited for best performance for Marigolds. Dustin Hoffman presided over the ceremonies, handing out other awards to playwrights Václav Havel, Murray Mednick, and Joe Orton, and performers Vincent Gardenia, Ron Leibman, Rue McClanahan, and Austin Pendleton. Alan Arkin won a directing award for The White House Murder Case, and special citations went to Andre Gregory, Charles Ludlam, Richard Foreman, and Stanley Silverman. Boos interrupted several of the awards, until finally someone in the audience yelled at a par­ticularly boozy heckler, “Earn your right to be on stage, you loudmouth” — apparently un­aware that the heckler had, in fact, received an Obie earlier in the evening and was drowning his glee in beer. “I haven’t been in a room filled with so much love and hate since high school English,” said Zindel in receiving his Obie, going on to thank the rabbit in his play for reminding him that “we share this earth with all living creatures.”

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1971 Backstage before at the ceremonies, host Elaine May was nearly catatonic with panic, but the minute she strode on stage she was transformed into the portrait of vivacity. “Does anyone have any questions?” she said in her opening remarks. “Anything at all.” “Can you find me an apartment?” came a shout from the audience. Otto Preminger, with whom May was making a movie, came along to keep tabs on her and to present one of the awards. Among the Obies — John Guare for best play for House of Blue Leaves, and play­wrights Ed Bullins, David Rabe, Athol Fu­gard, and Derek Walcott. The best actress Obie went to Ruby Dee for Boesman and Lena, the best actor Obie to Jack MacGowran for Beckett, and among the other winners were Stacy Keach, James Woods, and Hector Elizondo (one of this year’s presenters), who was shoot­ing the rapids in Utah and asked his son to accept his plaque, the award having been up­graded from parchment.

1972 “You remember A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races,” I said in my introduction to this year’s host. “We hope that An Evening at the Obies will be just as memorable — with Groucho Marx!” What Groucho had to do with off-Broadway was unclear, but the audience rose and gave a long standing ovation as the 81-year-old leg­end walked slowly to the microphone, perched on a stool, and upon being introduced to co-host Madeleine Le Roux asked if she was a vir­gin. It hardly needs saying that Groucho upstaged the awards, which included a best theater piece Obie to the Open Theatre for The Mu­tation Show. Despite his frequent leers ar the winning actresses, and a bit of byplay with Kathleen Widdoes about bananas when she came onstage to accept her award, the Fuck the Army award gave Groucho a moment’s pause (and the Voice as well, which called it the Free the Army show in its account of the event). When told that winner Charles Stanley had in­cluded Greta Garbo among the characters he played, Groucho commented, “You don’t look like Garbo,” to which Stanley replied — the on­ly time in his career Groucho was topped­ — “No, but I often wear her clothes.”

1973 “I wasn’t really the first choice to present the awards,” said host Sylvia Miles. “The first choice was Shirley MacLaine, but Shirley is still off in China doing research for her new book, Don’t Fall Off the Eggroll.” The best play award was shared by Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore and Joseph Walker’s The River Niger, with Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime (perhaps his greatest play) settling for a citation. Among the performance winners were Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Stacy Keach, Christopher Lloyd, Charles Ludlam, Sam Waterston, and Alice Playten, who thanked her psychiatrist “for con­vincing me not to quit when the going gets rough.” (Three members of the audience approached her after the ceremonies to get his name.) Accepting a special ci­tation for the WPA, Harry Orzello thanked the Voice “even though we haven’t had a good review in six months” — leading Miles to remark that “the Voice is like the Pentagon. First they bomb you, then they give you an award.”

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1974 “It’s a pleasure to present awards to people who did not run $5000 campaigns in order to win,” said host God­frey Cambridge in opening the ceremonies. “You’re awarded for paying your dues, for dressing next to the furnace, where some of the dressing rooms still are, and for going to school and learning your craft. It’s a pleasure to pre­sent awards like that.” Recalling his own reaction to winning an Obie in 1961, he went on, “I sat there grinding my teeth and acted like a typical Off-Broadway actor at an award show, muttering, ‘This goddamn thing is fixed! What the hell am I doing here, for Crisakes? I don’t need it. I know I’m good.’  But when they called my name, I cried like a baby.” Among the win­ners was Hal Prince for his direction of Candide, but the highlight of the evening was the best play award to Miguel Pinero for Short Eyes — he was out on bail, having been arrested that very morning for possession of a controlled substance.

1975 For the 20th annual Obie cere­monies, presenters were called upon — Angela Lansbury, Sam Waterston, Melba Moore, Marilyn Sokol, and Shelley Winters, who told the 500-member audi­ence, “If I win an Emmy tonight, can I trade it for an Obie?” Leslie Lee won the best play award for The First Breeze of Summer, and other playwriting Obies went to Ed Bullins, Lanford Wilson, Wallace Shawn, and Sam Shepard. Christo­pher Walken, Kevin Mc­Carthy, and Tovah Feldshuh were among the performance winners, and five special 20-year Obies were presented — Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the Living Theater, Ted Mann and Circle-in-the-Square, Joe Papp, Ellen Stewart, and The Fantasticks. “When I get an award,” said Beck, “I ask myself. ‘What have we done wrong?’ ” Unable to attend the ceremonies, Dustin Hoffman sent a telegram — “Sorry I can’t be with you for the 20th anniversary of the Obies, but send my best wishes to all the losers.”

1976 Clay Felker, the new publisher of the Voice, decided to hold the Obies in Lincoln Center (though he couldn’t get his way when he tried to persuade Elizabeth Taylor to host the ceremonies), leading to the first, hereafter almost annual reading of a disgruntled statement by the Obie committee. “We must protest that this choice of place,” the statement concluded, “was made without consulting the Obie judges.” When it came time for Edward Albee to make his presentations, he read from his napkin —  “I wonder if we should be quite so snooty about Lincoln Center … Off-Broadway is a state of mind and has noth­ing to do with where it’s done.” Among the winners were Ralph Lee for starring the annu­al Village Halloween Parade and the creators of A Chorus Line. The best play award was shared by David Mamet for American Buffa­lo and Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Richard Foreman for Rhoda in Potatoland. Said Mike Kellin, who won a performance Obie for American Buffalo, “Of the 11 people who saw the show, I’m very grateful that six of them were Voice critics.”

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1977 Another judges’ revolt, this time over the best play award to Sam Shepard for Curse of the Starving Class, a play, as it happens, that wasn’t produced Off-Broad­way, or anywhere else for that matter, existing, at that point, only as a script. Three judges, Robert Duvall announced in ceremonies at the Bottom Line, had voted for Shepard, two had voted against, and two had abstained, and as Duvall concluded his reading of separate statements by each group, an informal dissent was added from the audience — “Bullshit!” Hosts Marilyn Sokol, Paul Sorvino, and Gilda Radner (“No, Emily Litella, that’s not OD, that’s OB” — “Never mind”) handed out the plaques to the winners, who included Tommy Tune for his direction of The Club, Philip Glass for his music for Einstein on the Beach, playwrights Irene Fornes and Ntozake Shange, and per­formers Danny Aiello, Martin Balsam, Lucinda Childs, James Coco, John Heard, and William Hurt. A new award was added, for lifetime achievement, the first going to Joe Chaikin.

1978 Live from the Bottom Line! The 23rd annual Obies on Channel 13! Said host Dustin Hoffman to the viewers, the Obies are “the only awards where the audience can see actors not trying to pretend like they’re healthy people.” Among those thanked by the winners were Rimbaud, Gertrude Stein, and Eric Bentley’s mother. Other winners included Nell Carter and Swoosic Kurtz for performance, a special citation to Squat, the life­time achievement award to Peter Schumann’s Bread & Puppet Theatre, and the best play Obie to Lee Breuer for Shaggy Dog Animation, Breuer putting half the $1000 award aside as a revolving fund for “for theater people having emergencies.” For as Marilyn Sokol said before presenting several awards, “I’m here to tell you that winning an Obie is a future guarantee of absolutely nothing.”

1979 “Off-Broadway means to me,” said Judd Hirsch in accepting his Obie, “a place where they can’t fire you.” “Off­-Broadway means to me,” said Swoosie Kurtz in presenting another Obie, “toilets that don’t flush.” Ron Leibman hosted the ceremonies, which honored, among others, Michael Mc­Clure’s Josephine as best play (beating out Sam Shepard’s Buried Child), Al Carmines for sustained achievement, Jennifer Tipton for lighting, Tadeusz Kantor for The Dead Class, and performers Mary Alice, Fred Gwynne, and Meryl Streep. One of the winners, in his ac­ceptance speech televised on Channel 13, had a religious epiphany on the spot and exhorted the audience for 11 minutes to join him on the true path. And Weeden, Finkle, and Fay, in their entertainment segment, proclaimed their perception of the Obie committee’s function — “Sometimes we just say, ‘Godddamit,/Let’s give another to David Mamet.’ ”

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1980 The 25th anniversary of the Obies — and as the Voice noted in its account of the ceremonies, “What is un­doubtedly clear, and kind of nice in its own bumbling way, is that 24 years of practice didn’t help this year’s awards be anything less than the mess we have come to know and tolerate.” Chris Durang and Alice Playten entertained the gathering at the Ritz with a 10-minute history of Off-Broad­way, and the Flying Karamazov Brothers jubilantly juggled, having just won a spe­cial citation. Playwrights honored included Sam Shepard for sustained achieve­ment, Durang, Lee Breuer, Romulus Lin­ney, and Jeff Weiss, and acting Obies were handed out to, among others, Lindsay Crouse, Morgan Freeman, John Heard, Jon Polito, Bill Raymond, and Dianne Wiest. The cohosts were James Coco and Ruby Dee — who recalled that winning her Obie felt just like having “12 people in the theater when there’s two feet of snow.”

1981 The ceremonies at the Roxy were hosted by Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline, who announced, “Some actors like to work from the inside out. I like to work from the outside … out.” Kline (for Pirates of Penzance), Mary Beth Hurt, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken were among the winners of performance Obies, the sustained achievement award went to the Negro Ensemble Company, and the top play honor was shared by Emily Mann’s Still Life and David Henry Hwang’s FOB. And in a new tradition, one that seems to continue to this day, the ceremonies were panned in the Voice itself, proving either an abiding commitment to the F­irst Amendment or an ineradicable masochism.

1982 Harvey Fierstein stole the show. He’d just broken up with the man on whom the relationship in Torch Song Trilogy was based, as he told the audience at Savoy. “The man has his wife, but I have this,” he exulted, holding aloft his Obie plaque. He started to leave, but turned to the microphone to announce that he’d just become engaged to Tommy Tune, who was cohosting the ceremonies with Swoosie Kurtz. Tadeusz Kantor won the Obie for best theater piece for Wielopole, Wielopole, the sustained achievement award went to Irene Fornes, Caryl Churchill won an Obie for Cloud 9, and among the performance winners were Denzel Washington, Kevin Bacon, Carole Shelley, Josef Sommer, and Irene Worth.

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1983 Harvey Fierstein’s year once more, this time cohosting with Julie Bovasso. “I wanna say that I sat there in that audience for 11 years before I won an Obie,” he announced at the beginning of the ceremonies at the First City cabaret, “and I just want to ask the critics, ‘Was it so terrible? Was it really that bad?’ ” Gary Sinise won a directing Obie, and performance awards were handed out to Christine Baranski, Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Ruth Maleczech, John Malkovich, Donald Moffat, and Ray Wise (who ended up, years lat­er, as Laura Palmer’s murderer in Twin Peaks). Playwriting honors were shared by Caryl Churchill, Tina Howe, Harry Kondoleon, and David Mamet, and the  sustained achievement award was presented to Lanford Wilson, Marshall Mason, and the Circle Repertory Company. Another new tradition began — the Voice‘s annual grant of $10,000 to struggling theaters.

1984 Three of the transcendent pro­ductions of the decade were hon­ored — Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s Gospel at Colonus (with an acting Obie to Morgan Free­man), Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, (with acting Obies to Kathy Whitton Baker, Ed Harris, and Will Patton — the only time an award has gone to a cast replacement), and Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Through the Leaves (with performancc awards for Ruth Maleczech and Fred Neumann and a directing award to JoAnne Akalaitis). John Lone and Marybeth Hurt hosted the cere­monies at the Cat Club, helping hand out the sustained achievement award to the Music The­atre Group, performance Obies to F. Murray Abraham, Pamela Reed, and Dianne Wiest, and playwriting honors to Samuel Beckett, Irene Fornes, Václav Havel, and Len Jenkin. But to many in the audience the highlight of the evening was the special citation voted to Anne and Jules Weiss for their tireless devotion the Cafe La Mama. Said a delighted but discom­bobulated Anne Weiss, “Before we left home, Jules said, ‘Shouldn’t we get dressed up?’ but I said, ‘Oh no, they’ll never ask us up on stage.’ ”

1985 “This is a very tough fucking house,” said Dustin Hoffman at the 30th annual Obie ceremonies at the Puck Building. “Please listen to this shit,” he went on, holding a glass that had apparently been refilled more than once. “We’re all in consort about a couple of things. The critics vote these awards and we hate their fucking guts, because they don’t know as much as we know.” What’s im­portant, he continued, “isn’t the power the crit­ics have in deciding these awards, but the emo­tional vote of your colleagues in the audience who cheer when you win. When I won my Obie, 20 years ago, it was the greatest moment of my life. Everybody who is winning is winning for those out there who are not winning, and the reason you’re cheering is that you’re part of them.” Among those cheered by an audience that included Joe Papp’s special guest Robert DeNiro were Irene Fornes, who won the best play award for The Conduct of Life, sustained achievement winner Meredith Monk, directors John Malkovich and Jerry Zaks, and perform­ers Dennis Boutsikaris, Anthony Heald, Laurie Metcalf, and John Turturro, with special citations going to Spalding Gray and Penn and Teller. Said winner Max Roach — “Writing for Off-Broadway was one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had in my life.” Said winner Barbara Vann — “It’s very strange being here, be­cause l can’t remember that anyone has ever said anything nice about me in the Voice,”

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1986 Sustained achievement — Mabou Mines. Best play — a five-way tie between Eric Bogosian (Drinking in America), Martha Clarke (Vienna: Lusthaus), John Jesurun (Deep Sleep), Lee Nagrin (Bird/Bear), and Wallace Shawn (Aunt Dan and Lemon). Other awards, in ceremonies presided over by Christopher Durang and Swoosie Kurtz, and featuring entertainment by Dario Fo and Franca Rame, included Robert Wilson for direction, and Jill Eikenberry, Edward Hermann, and Kevin Kline for performance. Kline thanked his girlfriend “for putting up with all the crap any­one goes through playing Shakespeare,” Spald­ing Gray remarked that “I feel like I have so much to say, but I don’t wane to be self-indul­gent — there’s such a fine line,” Wallace Shawn commented that “When I was 10 years old, I had a canary that lived off Hartz Mountain birdseed — that seems important,” and Ellen Stewart, in accepting an award on behalf of Tadeusz Kantor, said that the Obie “is some­thing that is holy in Eastern European coun­tries.” But the biggest cheer went to Farley Granger for his Obie for Talley and Son. “You’ve made an old man very happy,” he said through tears. “In my long and varied career, I’ve never received an award and this is the first.”

1987 “Everybody knows that the Obies are the only awards that count,” said cohost Morgan Freeman. “The rest are just doo-doo.” Both Freeman and cohost Christine Lahti won performance Obies — no it’s not rigged, the hosts, presenters, and entertainment are selected long before the vot­ing — and other winners included the sustained achievement Obie to Charles Ludlam, the best play Obie to Richard Foreman (The Cure and Film Is Evil … Radio Is Good — “Next year I hope to write a play people will really hate,” he said), and performance Obies to Philip Bosco, Black-Eyed Susan, Dana Ivey, and Robin Bartlett. Presenter Jules Feiffer prefaced his remarks by attacking the Voice critic who’d reviewed his revival of Little Murders — “I’m just not comfortable having my work defined by schmucks.”

1988 Winner Peggy Shaw thanked the Voice “for encouraging lesbian­ism by voting for me,” and sustained achieve­ment winner Richard Foreman remarked, “We’ve all bitched and complained about the Voice, but let’s admit it’s played a major part in keeping the community alive.” Among the other winners, in ceremonies presided over by Er­ic Bogosian and Kathleen Turner at the Ritz, were performers Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, and Amy Irving, directors Anne Bogart and Peter Brook, and Christopher Reeve for his work on behalf of Chilean artists.

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1989 The crowd at the New Ritz cheered loudly at a quote from St. Augustine condemning plays as instru­ments of the devil, roared with laughter when Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney did their “if men had periods” number, applauded know­ingly when an obviously surprised William Converse-Roberts acknowledged his perfor­mance award by admitting, “I have nothing to say, I don’t even know who to thank, and I was getting drunk,” and savored the irony when Fyvush Finkel accepted his award by cit­ing a 10-year-old Voice pan. Hosted by Christopher Reeve, the evening saw the sus­tained achievement award go to Irene Worth, performance awards for Gloria Foster, Nancy Marchand, and Everett Quinton, and direct­ing awards to Ingmar Bergman and Peter Stein. But entertainer Leo Bassi — who also won an Obie — stole the show by lying on his hack and juggling a piano with his feet. “There are strange things that happen to me when I do this,” he explained. “I see this piano turning on my feet and I feel deep down, ‘What a waste of time.’ ”

1990 Penn and Teller were the first presenters. Before they’d give Dan Hurlin his framed certificate, they insisted on doing a card trick. Hurlin picked a card, Teller put it back in the deck, then spread the cards over the Obie. Penn took a hat pin out of his hair, Teller stuck the pin in his arm and let blood flow all over the cards and the award. Penn then picked the card with the most blood. It was the right card. Cohosted by Julie Bovas­so and Olympia Dukakis, the ceremonies hon­ored Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss), Suzan-Lori Parks (Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom), and Mac Wellman (Bad Penny, Crowbar, and Terminal Hip) for best play­wrights, and saw performance Obies go to Alec Baldwin, Jean Stapleton, Danitra Vance, and four awards to the Mabou Mines gender-reversed Lear. George Wolfe won a directing Obie for Spunk, Eric Bogosian and Joe Papp were among the special citations (Papp for his refusal to accept a grant from the NEA), and the sustained achievement award went to ACT UP. “I have been awarded the Obie prize three times for my plays,” Václav Havel cabled from Prague. “In all three cases it meant encouragement for my further work. Despite the fact that toward the end of last year I became president of our republic, I still remain a member of your artistic community.”

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1991 Stockard Channing and Alan Arkin hosted the ceremonies at the Palladium, which featured a best play Obie for Wallace Shawn for The Fever and playwriting Obies to John Guare for Six Degrees of Separation and Mac Wellman for Sincerity Forever. “I didn’t think this was actually a play and I was trying to get out of the theater,” said Shawn in accepting his award. Other winners included John Leguizamo, Ron Rifkin, and Stockard Channing for performance. The Blue Man Group accepted its Obie via signboard, Angela Goethals became the youngest Obie winner at the age of 14, and Lori Seid won the first ever Obie for stage managing. Outing herself by baring her Clit Club T-shirt, Seid thanked Madonna because “someone might buy a record by someone who might suck pussy.”

1992 In ceremonies dedicated to the memory of Joe Papp, cohosts Jerry Zaks and Kate Nelligan helped hand out Obies to, among others, performers Cherry Jones, James McDaniel, Roger Rees, Lynne Thigpen, Randy Danson, and Nathan Lane. Special citations included Anna Deavere Smith, and the sustained achievement award went to Athol Fugard. The best play award was shared by Donald Margulies for Sight Unseen, Robbie McCauley for Sally’s Rape, and Paula Vo­gel for The Baltimore Waltz. “I guess I’m put in the position of having to publicly thank Roy Cohn,” said Ron Vawter as he received his Obie for Roy Cohn/Jack Smith. Obie winner Laura Esterman thanked her director for stripping her of her mannerisms, leading Vawter’s partner and copresenter Greg Mehrten to proclaim, “I want to thank Ron Vawter for not stripping me of my mannerisms.”

1993 Said David Drake in accepting his Obie for The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, “I want to thank The Village Voice because when I was growing up in Baltimore, I didn’t have queer magazines. The Voice was the queerest thing I could find.” Larry Kramer, as it happens, was also one of the winners, his The Destiny of Me sharing the best play award with Harry Kondoleon’s The Houseguests, Jose Rivera’s Marisol and Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey. Other winners, in ceremonies cohosted by Nathan Lane and Ann Magnu­son, included Jane Alexander, Bill Ir­win, and Robert Klein for perfor­mance, and JoAnne Akalaitis for sustained achievement. Said Edward Hibbert in accepting his Obie, “The last award I got was for playing Lady Macbeth when I was 16. It’s wonderful to get an award for playing a dif­ferent sort of queen.”

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1994 “I am sustained,” said Edward Albee upon receiving the sustained achievement award. After noting that there was no check with his performance Obie, Michael Potts thanked the Public The­ater for giving him a job so he could qualify for health benefits. And Myra Carter, in accepting an Obie for her performance in Three Tall Women, remarked, “Thank God you got me here before I died.” Mayor Giuliani sent a proclamation declaring this Obie Awards Week — he apparently hadn’t read what the Voice had been saying about him — and Mary McDonnell and James McDaniel cohosted the ceremonies, which honored Anna Deavere Smith for best play (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992). Winner Bob McGrath recalled “as a kid in Burbank reading about weird theater and thinking, that’s what I want to do.’ ” Winner Danny Hoch announced that it was “an hon­or to be here in front of all you adults,” and at the other end of the spectrum, winner Judith Ivey quoted Ruth Gordon’s comment on re­ceiving an award at the age of 82 — “I can’t tell you how encouraging this is.”

Forty years. Forty years of encouragement, weird theater, and occasional shouts of “Bull­shit!” — with another 40 still to come. As Dario Fo commented upon winning his Obie, “There are critics involved in this, but nothing is perfect in this world.” ♦


Genet, Mailer, & the New Paternalism

Thoughts on: Genet, Mailer, & the New Paternalism 

It is easily imagined of Jean Genet that he is one those artists who so adore reality that they are obsessed with the ever-present possibility that it too will betray them.

Sitting through the too long evening of “The Blacks” or wending a careful and respect­ful way through the printed texts of “Deathwatch” or “The Maids,” we are overwhelmed by our sense of his distrust of us; his refusal to honor our longings for communion. Presently we understand that he does not seem to believe that is what we do long for and so, now and again, he drops even the remnants of his regard, and flails at us. He encloses the reckless and undefined dozen or so jokes; dismisses what he may consider to be the boundaries of even his own mind. He becomes the threatening soldier who may or may not put bullets in the gun, such being the depth of his contempt for the enemy. Of course, when whimsy does allow him to load and fire, we are shattered.

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Proper Meter 

Norman Mailer’s discussion of “The Blacks” (Voice, May 11, May 18) was, therefore, in proper meter. Between the play and Mai­ler’s discernible reaction to it, a duet was indeed sung. The rise and fall of his coherence and incoherence alike strikes a stunning and, I think, significant kinship with the French writer. This is especially so in his lusty acceptance of the romantic racism which need­ed evocation to allow for the conceptualization of “The Blacks” in the first place.

For, at this moment, on both sides of the Atlantic, certain of the best of men have sent up a lament which is much concerned with the disorders of a civilization which they do not really believe in their hearts are to be set aright by in­vocation of either fresh “frontiers” or antique “grandeur.” Sensing the source of the disorders to be deeper than any of that, they have will­fully turned to the traditional route of history’s more serious nay-sayers. They have elected the spirit and fraternity of what the balance of society is always pleased to hope are “the damned”: pros­titutes, pimps, thieves, and general down-and-outers of whatever persuasion. They are certain, as their antecedents in all ages have been, that if the self-appointed “top” of society is as utterly rotten as it is, then the better side of madness must be the company and deistic celebration of “the bottom.” As far as they are concerned, history has merely inadvertently provided them with a massive set of fra­ternals in “the Blacks.”

Among the Negro artists and in­tellectuals whom I know it is a melancholy point of reference. Our life-eating sense of fatigue began with, of course, the appearance of Mailer’s “The White Negro” a few years ago, and has been fitfully nourished by those echoes of dif­fering aspects of its theme in the “little magazines,” The Village Voice, living rooms and coffee houses: “The Negro is hell-bent for suburbia and the loss of his soul, dear God, dear God!” Nelson Algren agrees in print with Jonas Mekas that “A Raisin in the Sun” is, of all things, a play about “in­surance money” and/or “real estate.” (This particular absurdity, it is true, is rendered a little less frightening only by the knowledge that there are people who sincerely believe that “Othello” is a play about a handkerchief.)

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Romantic Shadows

But to discuss this paternalism at all, one must underscore the innocence from which certain attitudes invariably spring. We have been locked away from one another and, sadly, it is not really curious that we seem to throw such strange and romantic shadows upon the windows. How else might Algren, believing, apparently, that materially deprived Negroes are, somehow, the only “true Negroes,” equate the desire to escape the grim horrors of the ghetto with the fancied longing of a people to cease being “themselves” and “get to the psychoanalysts as fast as white folks do”? And, for his part, Mailer pens a theatrical com­mentary which, in some passages, is primed with an ingenuous acceptance of the racial mystique.

After he had written what was cogent about “The Blacks”: “… the truest and most ex­plosive play that anyone has yet written at all about the turn of the tide and the guilt and horror in the white man’s heart … ” and after he was done with gratuitous suppositions concerning the sexuality of the actors, Mailer indulged him­self mainly as a leading captain of the new paternalism, hardly pausing even to draw for us some of the richer implications of his own assessment of the Genet work.

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About Themselves

For “The Blacks” is, as Mailer partially observed, more than any­thing else a conversation between white men about themselves. This seemed to me the final trick, not upon reality which tends to hold its own, but upon illusion. For it is only an illusion that Genet has written anything else. He is a man and can only begin where any of us can: within our own subjectivity. As an entity, he must fancy “Les Negres” only as he thinks they should be along about now in the history of the world: if they have been treated thus and so forth, then this is the way they should behave and feel. He has rendered an equation and calculat­ed, one must say reasonably, for a sum. The result is an abstraction possessed of great flashes of power and all the inventive poetry of what is certainly an exquisite theatrical mind. But it is an abstraction which tends to remind one, through the absence of humanness, style or no style, that men have always found a dimension of nobility in their grandest guilts (have we not all seen the face of Eichmann in the dock?). Moreover, it seemed to me that we were spared the ultimate anguish of man’s oppression of man be­cause the abstraction is utilized to affirm, indeed entrench, the quite different nature of pain, lust, cruelty, ambition in “The Blacks.” The dramatist does not impress upon us that it is the sameness of kind which oppressor’s most des­pise in the oppressed; that they do not lynch or castrate dogs or apes as a way of life because they do not find their own images in those creatures. It is the reflection of oneself that most enrages when we are engaged in our crimes against a fellow human creature. In “The Blacks” the oppressed remain unique; it is, interestingly, their shadows that have been abstracted into “the style.” In it, the blacks remain the exotic “The Blacks.”

This may be because they are seen, still, by their creator as entirely relative to the fact of the presence of The Whites in the world. It does not occur to the European or the white American, as yet, that they might exist in any other context. The characters in the play dream not only of their revenge but of “turning Beauty black” because even the most pro­found of white men find it incomprehensible that a black man may behold the moon and stars without agonies of concern for how those images may have seem­ed to — The Whites. The play most certainly has validity in its purgation of the whites (in the audience) but what I found to be its spectacular quality of detachment for the blacks (in the audience) must surely be a limitation which derives from the fact that, for all of its sophistication, it is itself an expression of some of the more quaint notions of white men.

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Their Anticipations

It does not invalidate what we take to be Genet’s intentions because the whole play is, again, about the anticipations of white men; by the end of it we sense that they shall be disappointed if the blacks really do give more at­tention to building steel mills and hydroelectric plants throughout Africa than to slitting a few hundred thousand criminal throats.

With regard to Mailer and the new paternalism, it will be said, and swiftly, that Negroes cannot be satisfied; that, in this instance, the Negro intellectual is himself so “hung-up” that he does not understand at what Mailer is getting; that he has transcended what we still suppose to be the mark-off points of an old discussion and has found some more profound level where the white intellectual assumes all of that to be old hat and has moved on to where we can all really talk as the most in­side of insiders, which is to say, as some obscure undefined universal outsider who may be known as “the hipster.”

It has had a numbing effect, the creation of “the hip” into an ex­panded formalized idea. Negroes seem to have met it mainly with a crowning silence because who knew where to begin in the face of such monumental and crass assump­tions? A number of years had to dissolve before Jimmie Baldwin would remark in print, ever so gently: “… matters were not helped at all by the fact that Negro jazz musicians, among whom we sometimes found ourselves, who really liked Norman, did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely ‘hip’ and Norman did not know this and I could not tell him … They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” (April Esquire: “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.”)

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Naturally, whether or not some Negro jazz musicians think Norman Mailer or any other individual is or is not “hip” would be one of the great unimportant questions of our time — except for Mailer. He did not call his essay “The Hipster” or “The Outsider” or “We Who Might Swing” or any of that; he called it: “The White Negro.” He manufactured an absurdity and locked himself in it. He fabricated his own mythology concerning cer­tain “universals” about 20 million “outsiders” and rejoiced because his philosophy fitted his premise. He is like Seymour Krim in that respect in symbolizing all who fashion their particular fantasies and take the A Train to Harlem to find them and meet some frac­tion of one per cent of 700,000 people who bulge the community and go back downtown and write essays not on the prostitutes they met but on — “Harlem.” It is beginning to seem an inexhaustible tradition. What is a little new is the scope of the new arrogance. The new paternalists really think, it seems, that their utterances of the oldest racial cliches are, somehow, a demonstration of their liberation from the hanky-panky of liberalism and God knows what else. Consequently, from the depths of his particular seven-league assumptions, Mailer blithely writes: “They cannot know because they have not seen themselves from the outside (as we have seen them) that there is genius in their race — it is possible that Africa is closer to the root of whatever life is left than any other land on earth … ”

The most that can be said for romance as desperate as that is to repeat that the shadows on the window are erotic. How can the man who wrote it know that Negroes are, by and large, not in any wise sufficiently improv­erished of spirit to need or want that? How can Mailer or Genet or Algren really be expected to know, really know, that the commonplace reverse assumptions among Ne­groes about everybody else (“The Others”) are just as touching, in­nocent, and vicious? I know very few Negroes who are not firmly convinced that “the roots of life” are in Puerto Ricans, Italians, and everyone else of “Latin tempera­ment.” “Honey, those people really know how to live —” it runs. Sey­mour Krim does not know that when he left the most lowly of the bar-flies of Harlem, they re-engag­ed in chit-chat concerning the most traditional of very exotic notions of the Jewish people which are as grim and unworthy of them as they are any place else in America. Must we celebrate this madness in any direction? Is it not “known” among Negroes that white people, as an entity, are “dirty” (especially white women who never seem to do their own cleaning); inherently cruel (the cold fierce roots of Europe: who else would put all those people into ovens scientifically?); “smart” (“you really have to hand it to the m.f.’s”) and the rest of it? And never having been exposed to the glorious fury of a Moldavian peasant dance or the tonal magnificence of some mighty Russian folk song — we also “know,” like Mailer, that we “sing and dance better than white people.” Similarly do we “know” that we are “lazier” and “more humane.” Etc.

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Dies Hard

Moreover there is reason to now suppose that we (Negro writers) may have carried the skin-lightener hair-straightener references too far for a climate where context is not yet digested. Pride of race is not alien to Negroes. The Lord only knows that what must be half our institutions seem to function on the basis of nothing else! It may indeed be a long time after integration that it disappears out of the Ameri­can black man’s consciousness. Black racialism in the United States may ultimately show itself to be more tenacious than even its mighty opposite. Nationalism dies hard, as is witnessed by the St. Patrick’s Day parade down our streets each spring.

Of course oppression makes people better than their oppressors, but that is not a condition sealed in the loins by genetic mysteries. The new paternalists have mistaken that oppression for the Negro. They are as certain as Genet that the source of the wily speech is tied to color; that the brooding hatred which intelligent whites are apparently able to see is, somehow, wedded to the blackness.

No wonder the single-mindedness of the middle-class Negro’s search for comfort offends: it is an ugly fall from “naturalness.” Don’t any of these people know that working­-class social rules are not less in volume than those of more monied classes? There are just as many things which are forbidden — they are just different. A man who be­lieves in the taboos of his order is not freer than another man who believes in his at a different level of society. In society we, all of us, merely flee from rigor to rigor.

That is why, blues or no blues, life roots or no life roots, Negroes of all classes have made it clear that they want the hell out of the ghetto just as fast as the ascenden­cy of Africa, the courts, insurance money, job-upgrading, the threat of “our image overseas,” or any­thing else can thrust them. Worse, they have a distinct tendency to be astonished and/or furious that everyone doesn’t know it. Misery may be theatrical to the onlooker but it hurts him who is miserable. That is what the blues are about.

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Prison of the Premise

Out of his distaste for the middle-class Negro, Mailer is led to assume, for some reason or another, that the actors in “The Blacks” who seem to him to act with inhibition and self-conscious­ness must be middle-class Negroes. Well, knowing most of them to be part-time hack-drivers, janitors, chorus girls, domestics, it is im­possible to know what prompts the assumption other than the prison of the premise again. For my part, I am twice confused, because I genuinely thought the acting, al­most without exception, brilliant. Especially Messrs. Browne and Jones.

It points up the incredible eager­ness for the new villain: The true middle-class Negro simply amuses the life out of everyone because he stands on line at the opera; be­cause of his attaché case; because he is as passionately opinionated on West Germany as Congo; he amuses because he plays tennis; because his fatuousness has the audacity to sound as deep-seated as the chap he is talking to. Above all he amuses and outrages because he now persists in home-hunting with the wife in his foreign car in Scarsdale, searching for his little niche in the Great Sterility. And he certainly offends if, of an evening, he expresses boredom of the eternal race question and/or disapproval of the fact that Lorraine Hansberry goes around in dirty sneakers.

Well, there is certainly nothing fresh in the spectacle of white people insisting on telling all sorts of colored peoples how they should behave to satisfy them. It is, to say the least, the most characteristic aspect of the nation’s foreign policy.

Out of the perversion of what they think they understand about The Rise of the Negro Middle Class, the very same paternalists who will study every nuance of Genet or Antonioni have no time for the nuances of the homely, working-class “Raisin.” They pre­ferred a display of public dishon­esty or stupidity by refusing to see that it was, more than anything else, a long and, perhaps, laborious assault on money values. One speaks of dishonesty because, in a subsequent discussion with the Mekas entourage, it turned out that what they found most objectionable was the fact that the hero did not make the payoff at the end: “He should have played the game,” his co-reviewer, Miss Juillard, told me, “that would have been the swing­ing thing to do.”

I plead guilty to the four corners of my aspirations for the human race.

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Less Sophisticated

As a matter of fact, contrary to the original thoughts of this discussion, it is better to dismiss Mekas almost entirely. To think of it is to be reminded, with pain, that his particular variety of paternalism is of the older and less sophisticated type which simply turns motion-picture criticism over to a mysteriously qualified 19-year-old Negro girl because, presumably, that is what is done when it comes to those “colored movies” anyway. This is the young woman who also explained to me that she thought the movie told Negroes that they should want to “be white” because of all those passages wherein the college-daughter persisted in her preoccupation with things African. Intellectuality, it was explained, is “white.” (To such jibberish nothing can be added. A dedicated Voice reader like myself can only hope that the paper will institute a motion-picture-criticism column of some stature.)

Finally, isn’t it a little late in this particular century for Mailer’s remark that “a bad Negro actor” reminds him of nothing quite so much as “a bad white actor”? There is something insane about that sentence unless one truly be­lieves that there is, within the nature of being a Negro, some qualifying property which modifies all other adjectives in a sentence. Or that there should be. He re­iterated, the following week, that this problem is, however, relieved when the actors, sure enough, dance and sing or are otherwise active as entertainers, which re­mains, in his considered judgment, the true forte, as we were saying, of “The Blacks.”

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LOOKING BACK over the thoughts penned here, I am disappointed and saddened. The patches of anger and frequent flippancies do not, some­how, thrust my deepest and most sincere hopes through the window; crash the lock which gives birth to such misunderstanding in the first place. These gentle if impassioned artists whom I have mainly sailed into are not the “enemies” of Negroes. We all know that; that accounts for the afore-mentioned melancholy which colors all effort to try and really “talk to one another.” Heaven only knows that men fixed in a posture of consum­ing outrage because of the spec­tacle of this world have been, as I said at the beginning “the best of men” in all ages. Genet, Mailer, and Algren are right to be in contempt of the ghastly hypocrisy of their cultures; artists who are not are, indeed, lesser artists and lesser men. In any other context these three would deserve mainly saluta­tion.

It is on this account that the tender evaluation of those jazz musicians of Mailer is genuinely touching. It is my own, even though I have never met him. One hopes only that, recognizing his public turbulence as merely an echo of all thoughtful people these days, he will not let those forces with which he battles force him into such a rage that he cannot loom larger than their expectations and definitions of him. One powerfully hopes that.

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Above All

And, that above all else, he will not allow his apprehension of this world make him flail so; let him grow contemptuous, like Genet, of that which is his only hope for tel­ling blows: his words. Not let flee discipline of thought; not let cadence itself become a shadow of his former powers. No, it is not the death of arrogance which is wished for Mailer; I do not know what humility has accomplished in the history of man, when all is said and done. The wish is only that the arrogance become not shapeless; that it does not lose confi­dence in those of us who await the words which carry it with such hunger and need, on this barren landscape, knowing all the while the source and its truly monumental possibilities.

Norman, write not of the great­ness of our peoples, yours and mine, in the past tense because: “Vail kumen vet noch undzer oysge benkte sho!” — and “My Lord, what a mornin’!

CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Theater Uncategorized

Norman Mailer on Jean Genet’s “The Blacks”

Theatre: “The Blacks” Part 1
May 11, 1961

No one who believes in the greatness of certain plays would go to any one of our houses to enjoy them. They exist as thundering productions in the mind only. We know they might be done (“King Lear,” for example, should be played by Ernest Hemingway), but one also knows that way lies nightmare, madness, and no hurricane’s spout. Our theatre is cancer gulch. Any­one who has worked in it felt the livid hate-twisted nerves of the actresses, the fag-ridden spirit of the actors, the gulping mannerless yaws of our directors, hysterical at resistance, ponderous at exposition, and always psychoanalytical, must admit that yes, at its best, our theatre is a rich ass and/or hole, at its worst, the heavens recoil.

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Fever for All

By way of preface to some re­marks on “The Blacks.” If one is tempted to say it is a great play (with insidious, even evil veins of cowardice in its cruel bravery), one has to add immediately that such greatness exists as still another of those exquisite lonely productions off imagination’s alley. The show, the literal show on the boards (and the set for this one is worth an essay of quiet criticism in itself), that tangible corporal embodiment of “The Blacks” ended as good theatre, shocking as a rash, bug­-house with anxiety to some, nerv­ous fever-hot for all. (A lot of people left.) It is a good produc­tion, one of the doubtless best productions in New York this year, and yet it fails to find two-thirds of the play. It is a hot hothouse tense livid off-fag deep-purple voodoo mon Doo production, thick, jungle bush, not unjazzy, never cool, but at its worst, and Gene Frankel’s touch is not always di­rected to the fine, the gloomy ac­colade one must offer is that “The Blacks” is three times as good a production as that finking of the pieces and parts one saw last year in “The Balcony.” Frankel does an honest job, he clarifies the play ­— at a cost, but he does make it easier to see the play than to read it — he enriches the production upon occasions. The rich farty arts, that only grace our theatre can claim, are used with good force. The savory in Genet (that outer-Wil­liams, the ta-ta Tennessee, cry not that the French write it better than thee) is laid on rich and that is probably right. What but a funky style could handle a murder by fornication of a white woman who is really a black vicar in a wig, dig, who turns around and comes out not to be killed at all, because Genet likes vastly to put Pirandello in a pretzel. This metamorphosis of forms, this fall into death by re­verses brings an arbitrary climax to the play (since it comes just before the producer’a questionable if artistic decision to have an inter­mission) and it is, if one is to talk like a theatre bore, one of the best 10 minutes spent in the pit since … So forth. It’s very good. Frankel surprised me for 10 min­utes. The actors too. As recom­mendations go, this play is Highly Recommended. Take your family, take the kids, take the hoodlums on the corner. Take your gun.

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Fact of the matter, I am gracious to Mr. Frankel because I think he did a not unbrave thing in direct­ing this piece. “The Blacks” is a Mother F. Kerr. It is a challenge, as some of the adenoidals may still be saying. Consider this speech as a clue to the heat of the evening. Delivered with considerable ele­gance and cold fire by Mr. Roscoe Lee Browne:

“ARCHIBALD (gravely): I order you to be black to your very veins. Pump black blood through them. Let Africa circulate in them. Let Negroes negrify themselves. Let them persist to the point of madness in what they’re condemned to be, in their ebony, in their odor, in their yellow eyes, in their cannibal tastes. Let them not be content with eating Whites, but let them cook each other as well. Let them invent recipes for shin-bones, knee-caps, calves, thick lips, everything. Let them invent unknown sauces. Let them invent hiccoughs, belches and farts that’ll give out a deleterious jazz. Let them invent a criminal painting and dancing. Negroes, if they change toward us, let it not be out of indulgence, but terror.”

Now contemplate the problem of a director. He is to deal with 13 actors, all Negro, in the truest and most explosive play anyone has yet written at all about the turn in the tide, and the guilt and horror in the white man’s heart as he turns to face his judge. For after all where do nightmares go when they are gone? Who is to say the gates of heaven are not manned by cannibals mumbling: Lumumba!

Rehearsals inevitably must com­mence in a state. For the actors are not Africans. They are Amer­ican Negroes, they belong some of them to the Black Bourgeoisie which any proud Negro is quick to tell you is a parody of the white bourgeoisie — the party’s-getting-­out-of-line kind of cramp on the jazz. They belong to the Center, to the Left Minority Center, the New York Post, Max Lerner, Rose Franzblau, Jackie Robinson (bruis­es the heart to list his name), Mus­cular Dystrophy, Communities-of­-Cancer, synagogue-on-Sunday, put up those housing projects, welfare the works, flatten the tits, mash the best, beef the worst, and marry the slack and mediocre Negro to the slack and mediocre Jew. Whew!

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The Real Horror

But organized religion is the death of the essay. Let us leave the mediocre at this: the real horror worked on the Jews and the Ne­groes since the Second War is the mass-communication of nothing­ness into their personality. They were two of the greatest peoples in America, and half of their popula­tions sold themselves to the sub­urb, the center, the secure; that diarrhea of the spirit which is embodied in the fleshless query: ”Is this good for the Jews?” So went the Jew. So went the Negro. The mediocre among them rushed for the disease.

Well, the Negro at least has his boast. They are part, this black bourgeoisie, of a militant people moving toward inevitable and much-deserved victory. They can­not know because they have not seen themselves from outside (as we have seen them), that there is a genius in their race — it is possible that Africa is closer to the root of whatever life is left than any other land of earth. The genius of that land is a cruel one, it may be even an unrelenting genius, void of for­giveness, but it is impossible that the survival, emergence, and even­tual triumph of the Negro during his three centuries in America will not be considered by history as an epic equal to the twenty centuries the Jew has wandered outside. It will be judged as superior if the Negro keeps his salt.

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The Bends

But for now, they are going through the bends. They suffer from that same slavery of ascent the geist imposes on all of us. It is Liberal Totalitarianism. Curiosity of the age! The concentration camps exist in the jargon of our souls, one’s first whiff of the gas chamber is the nausea of cancer’s hour, the storm troopers wear tor­toise-shell glasses, and carry at­tache cases to the cubicles in which they work on the Avenue of the Mad. The liberal tenets of the Center are central; all people are alike if we suppress the ugliness in each of us, all sadism is evil, all masochism is sick, all spontaneity is suspect, all individuality is in­fantile, and the salvation of the world must come from social manipulation of human material. That is why all people must tend to be­come the same — a bulldozer does not work at its best in rocks or forest. Small accident that many of the Negro leaders are as color­less as our white leaders, and all too many of the Negroes one knows have a dull militancy com­pared to the curve and art of per­sonality their counterparts had even 10 years ago. The misapprehension on which they march is that time is on the side of the Negro. If his hatred is contained, and his individuality reduced, the logic of the age must advance him first to equality and then to power (goes the argument), because the Center makes its dull shifts through guilt and through need. Since the Negro has finally succeed­ed in penetrating the conscience of the best Whites, and since the worst Whites are muzzled by our need to grant the Negro his equa­lity or sink a little faster into the icy bogs of the Cold War, the Negro knows he need merely ape the hypocrisies of the white bour­geoisie, and he will win. It is a partial misapprehension. In the act of concealing himself, the Negro does not hasten his victory so much as he deadens the taste of it.

A fine sermon. Its application to the theatre is not arcane. The Negro tends to be superior to the White as an entertainer, and in­ferior as an actor. No need to dis­cuss the social background; it is obvious the Negro has had virtual­ly no opportunity to develop as an actor until the last few years, and the comparison is to that large ex­tent most unfair, but it is made nonetheless because the Negro does not generally lack professional competence as an actor, he lacks relaxation. The bad Negro actor reminds one of nothing so much as a very bad White actor: he orates, declaims, stomps, screams, prates, bellows, and binds, his emotions remain private to him­self, his taste is uncertain or directly offensive to the meaning of the play, he is in short a bully.

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Sense of Self

Now this is curious. Because the greatest entertainers in America have been Negro, and the best of the Whites, Sinatra, etc., etc. — I refuse to make a list here — exhibit their obvious and enormous debt every time they make a sound. The Negro entertainer brought mood and tempo, a sense of self, an ear for audience. The cadence in the shift of the moment became as sensuous as the turning of flesh in oneself or within another. Extraordinary was the richness of intimate meaning they could bring to a pop tune. It was their fruit, the fruit of Aesopian language. Used to employing the words ex­pected of them by the White, the Negro communicated more by voice than by his word. A simple sen­tence promised the richest opportunities to his sense of nuance that is it did if the simple sen­tence did not speak too clearly in its language. To the extent that meaning was imprecise, the voice could prosper. For meaning was ferocious in its dangers. Back of the throat, in the clear salts of language, was the sentence graven on the palate: White man, I want to kill you. Ofay, you die.

So the style of the American Negro took on its abstract manner. Where the sentence said little, the man said much; where the words were clear, the person was blank. The entertainer thrived, the actor was stunted. The Negro, steeped in the danger of his past, would obviously be in dread of en­tering the cage of formal meaning; he could hardly do it with the deep relaxation of a great actor. It is one thing for Olivier to be magni­ficent but for a Negro it is simply too dangerous. The emotions bank­ed to suffocation in his heart are never far from erupting. So he speaks stiff, he declaims, he denies his person. Now, you or me can point to Sidney Poitier, to Canada Lee, to the good cast of “Raisin in the Sun,” to moments in “The Cool World,” to this, to that — I know. One speaks precisely of a tendency. Nothing other. (Who has not felt a tendency constrict his chest or cramp his feet?) Only the minds of the Center will say tomorrow that I said all Negro actors are bad. But this I do in­sist — they tend not to be good. And in “The Blacks” this tendency is exacerbated.

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Consider the emotions of the cast when they must utter lines like the following to a white audience:

“Tonight, our sole concern will be to entertain you. So we have killed this white woman. There she lies.”

”You forget that I’m already knocked out from the crime I had to finish off before you arrived, since you need a fresh corpse for every performance.”

“And you, pale and odorless race, race without animal odors, without the pestilence of out swamps.”

“Invent, not love, but hatred, and thereby make poetry, since that’s the only domain in which we’re allowed to operate.”

“If I were sure that Village bumped the woman off in order to heighten the fact that he’s a scarred, smelly, thick-lipped, snub-nosed Negro, and eater and guzzler of Whites and all other colors … ” ♦

Continued below…

Theatre: “The Blacks” Part 2
May 18, 1961

Last week I left you — those of you who navigated the perils of my pompous prose — with a situation as be-jazzed as the end of one of those 12-installment serials we used to sit through on Saturday afternoons in neighborhood houses. Thirteen Negro actors at the edge of a cliff, obliged to utter such sweetmeats as:

“Tonight, our sole concern will be to entertain you. So we have killed this white woman. There she lies.”


“If I were sure that Village bumped the woman off in order to heighten the fact that he’s a scarred, smelly, thick-lipped, snub-nosed Negro, and eater and guzzler of Whites … “

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It’s a great deal to ask of a young Negro actor that he have the sociological sophistication to understand one can get away with this in New York, that our puri­tanical, bully-ridden, smog-headed, dull, humorless, deadly, violence­-steeped and all but totally corrupt city, famous for its housing pro­jects which are renowned as the ugliest architecture in the history of man, famous for its Mayor, Walkie-Talkie Bob, famous for its Commissioner of Parks, Newbold “Stringless” Morris, famous for its Fuehrer, R. Moses, the King of Concrete, famous for its Police and its Mafia (the happiest mar­riage of uglies in a century), fa­mous for its fix, famous tor the heroic efforts of the authority to stamp out The Menace, that ring of coffee-house dens where the Beats learn to plot, and triply famous for its newspapers, totali­tarian to the lashings — they will print any speech which is void of good prose — yes this famous city is so snob-ridden and so petrified of making a martyr that one can get away with near-murder. No­body will close “The Blacks,” or there’ll be demonstrations in Paris. No one will rise up from the audi­ence to strike the actors for sacri­lege. No hoodlums will paint swas­tikas on the marquee. The St. Marks’ Playhouse is a 200 seater or less, but if necessary 500 police would patrol the avenue to keep “The Blacks” going. Our democ­racy is a soporific hulk, a deadened old beast’s carcass with two or three nerves alive, no more. Like a dying patient, democracy holds on to the pain of its nerves, de­fends them. So the actors who play the parts are not taking their lives in their hands each night they go on, and the anxiety which lay heavy the night I saw the play, an anxiety which took the long jump from phenomenon to false conclusion (That cat in the front row has eyes for me. If I talk of killing one more White, I’ll be dead myself) will begin to dissolve before the reality: “The Blacks” is secure. The play is close to greatness, it will survive. It gives life to the city. There is so little real life in the dead haunt­ed canyons of this cancer-ridden city that a writer as surgical in his cruelties as Saint Genet gives Being back to the citizens. For in 20 years the doctors may discover that it is not only the removal of the tumor which saves the pa­tient but the entry of the knife. Cancer thrives on indecision and is arrested by any spirit of lightning present in an act. Cancer is also arrested by answers, which is why perhaps the cancerous al­ways seek for faith and cannot bear questions. The authoritarian wave of the twentieth century may be seen a century from now, if we still exist, as the reflection of man’s anxiety before the oncoming rush of this disease, a disease which is not a disease, but a loss of self, for unlike death by other causes, cancer is a rebellion of the cells. They refuse to accept the will, the dignity, the desire, in short the project of the person who contains them. They betray the body because they have lost faith in it. So in desperation the man who contains such illness ceases to be existential, ceases to care about a personal choice, about making a personal history and prefers instead to deliver his will to an institution or faith outside him in the hope that it will absorb the rebellious hatreds of his Being. Man turns to society to save him only when he is sick within. So long as he is alive, he looks for love. But those dying of inanition, boredom, frustration, monotony, or debilitating defeat turn to the Church, to the FBI, to the Law, to the New York Times, to authoritarian leaders, to movies  about the Marine Corps, or to the race for Space. For centuries it has been society’s boast that if it could not save a man’s soul, it could at least insure him from los­ing it. Ever since the orgy failed in Rome and the last decadence of the Empire welcomed the barbarian, the Western World has been relatively simple, a community of souls ruled by society. First the Church, then the Reformation, then Capitalism, Communism, Facism, and at last Medicine-Sci­ence-and-Management. But as it evolved, so Society used up its faith in itself. Today the Managers do not understand what they manage nor what is their proper goal, the Scientists are gored by Heisen­berg’s principle of Uncertainty, which in rough would state that ultimates by their nature are not measurable, and Medicine is beginning to flounder at the inability to comprehend its striking impotence before cancer. The modern faiths appeal to mediocrities whose minds are too dull to perceive that they are offered not answers but the suppression of questions; the more sensitive turn to the older faiths and shrink as they swallow emotional inconsistency: “I can’t bear Cardinal Spell but I adore Dorothy Day.” The cancerous who are inclined to the Fascist look to the police, the secret police, the krieg against crime, corruption, and Communists.

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Like Razors

“The Blacks” gives life because it is a work of perceptions which slice like razors; it cuts at one through the cancerous smog of partial visions and dim faith. It is a scourge to liberal ideology, vomitorium for the complacent. Eleanor Roosevelt would be ill, James Wechsler might sweat, Gov­ernor Lehman would leave. The play entertains the forbidden nightmare of the liberal: what, dear Lord, if the reactionary is correct, and people are horrible. Yet, with the same breath, it is revolutionary. Genet’s unconcealed glee at the turn of power from the White to the Negro would so charge the paranoia of the reac­tionary that he might suffer a heart attack.

Yet, as one insists, it is se­cure. It will thrive in the inter­stices of our totalitarian liberty, prosper out of the very contradic­tions which strangle our freedom. It will be a nerve which manages to supply the intellectual life of the city and ao keep it alive. One may hope the actors begin to settle into their parts, and start to offer the enrichments they can bring to almost every line by sensing their cues rather than picking them up, by savoring their lines instead of racing over them, and by com­mencing that work which is the real enterprise of the actor, that private effort of the imagination to create a real life for the char­acter they are playing, a life which begins before the play, will endure after it, and is drenched in the changeable mood of the present as they act the piece. The night I saw “The Blacks” the actors were fine every time they became en­tertainers. When they chanted in unison, when they danced, when they leaped from platform to platform, moved in choreographic starts and streamings, smoked cigarettes over the catafalque of the corpse to remove the stench of her murdered flesh, they were first-rate, the play came to life, the production was rich, colors were added to the script. But in their dialogue, particularly in the long quiet stretches of the first half-hour, they were tense and without individuality. No personal charm, no sly destruction of one another by the turn of a voice or slow laugh, no psychic wit to slice the presumption of another’s speech, no bodily contempt, no air was sufficient to be breathed. The Negro like the Zen master is, of necessity, the artist of the put-down. But it was this art, craft, this virtue — to dare to be sadistic in order to keep one’s authenticity — which was most missing. The play, as was suggested last week, rode lividly, gracelessly, nervously, over the best of Genet’s dialogue, his stops and starts, flowers and whips.

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Rich in Possibilities

But that may be recovered. The play is rich in poasibilities for an actor, so rich it can only improve provided the actors are serious about their work. On the months ahead, if they find themselves, the production could become a major piece.

As a drama critic, one is here obliged to take a bow. Over the past two weeks, 4000 words have been written. One has climbed his way over small essays on the Negro as actor and entertainer, the loss of spirit in minority groups, the vices of our city, the logic of cancer; one has even sermonized over the future of “The Blacks.” But not a word to summarize the story of the play. Not a specific line of criticism about Genet’s masteries and lacks.

It would take a larger bag of words than this to give account of the twists and turns, the frames within circles in the line of story of “The Blacks.” Even then one could not be certain. Since the attempt must still be made to con­tend with the vices of Jean Genet, I will quote here, however, from a description in The New York Her­ald Tribune:

“a group of colored players enacts before a jury of white-masked Negroes — representing in caricature a missionary bishop, an island Governor General, a haughty queen and her dwarf lackey — the ritualistic murder of a white of which they have been accused. When they have played out their weird and gruesome crime they turn on their judges and condemn them to death. Then — with polite adieux to the spectators — they dance with 18th-century elegance a Mozart minuet, with which the play began … “

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It is a fair job for a short para­graph. And it points the way to the worst contradiction in Genet. He is on the one hand a brave and great writer with an unrelenting sense of where the bodies are bur­ied. He is also an unconscionable faggot, drenched in chi-chi, ador­ing any perfume which conceals the smell of the dead, equally as much as he admires the murder. His first love is not art but magic. He provokes and then mystifies, points to the flower and smuggles the root. A boxer who wins every round on points and never sets himself long enough to throw three good punches in combination, Genet’s best perceptions are fol­lowed by his worst. A line which is a universal blow is followed by a speech too private for his latest lover to comprehend. Like Allen Ginsberg, he is maddening. In the middle of real power, a fart; in the depth of a mood comes a sneeze. The tortures and twists of his nervous system are offered as proudly as his creations; he looks not only for art but for therapy. With the best will in the world and the finest actors, no one in an audience could ever understand every single line in any one of his works, not even if one returned a dozen of times. He is willful, perverse. He has the mind of a master, and the manners of a vi­cious and over-petted child. So the clear sure statements of his work can never be found, and one senses with the whole of one’s critical faculty that they are not there to be found. Each delicate truth is carefully paralyzed by a lie he winds about it, each assertion of force is dropped to its knees on a surrealist wrench of the mean­ing.

Archibald: By stretching language we’ll distort it sufficiently to wrap ourselves in it and hide, whereas the masters contract it.

As Genet gives, he takes away; as he offers, his style chokes with spite. He cannot finally make the offer, the one who receives would not deserve it. So he builds the mansion of his art and buries it, encourages the stampede of a herd of elephants, rouses our nerves for an apocalyptic moment, and leaves us with an entrechat. To be satisfying, a fag’s art must be determinedly minor, one stone properly polished, deliciously set. Genet throws open a Spanish chest; as we prepare to gorge, we discover the coins are heated, the settings to the jewels have poison on their points.

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One does not spend one’s youth as a petty thief, one’s manhood as a convict in one prison after another without absorbing the vi­ciousness of a dying world. Genet’s biography is his character, never was it more so. Small surprise that Sartre could write a book of 600 pages in tribute. Genet is our first existential saint. But his de­testation of the world strangles the full organ of possibilities. He could become the greatest writer alive if only he dared, if only he contracted language to the point instead of stretching it.

In “The Blacks,” all the actors are Negro. Five are supposed to be White, but are White only as pretexts, as masks. In the murderous dialogues between Black and White which flicker like runs of summer lightning through the play, one never has the experience as it could be had: that moment of terror when Black and White confront one another with the clear acids of their unconscious. Witness the dialogue between the White Queen and the Negro wo­man Felicity:

“THE QUEEN (inspired): All the same, my proud beauty, I was more beautiful than you! Anyone who knows me can tell you that. No one has been more lauded than I. Or more courted, or more toasted. Or adorned. Clouds of heroes, young and old, have died for me. My retinues were famous. At the Emperor’s Ball, an African slave bore my train. And the Southern Cross was one of my baubles. You were still in darkness …

FELICITY: Beyond that shattered darkness, which was splintered into millions of Blacks who dropped to the jungle, we were Darkness in person. Not the darkness which is absence of light, but the kindly and terrible Mother who contains light and deeds.”

and a little later, The Queen:

“Show these barbarians that we are great because of our respect for discipline, and show the Whites who are watching that we are worthy of their tears.”

It could have the grandeur of Greek tragedy. In the context of the play it does not. One watches in one of those states of transition between wakefulness and sleep. Two principles do not oppose one another; instead a dance of three, a play of shimmers. White contends against Black but is really Black-in-White-mask against Black, and so becomes Black against Black. Much complexity is gained; much force is lost. These masks are not the enrichments and exaggerations of Greek tragedy, they are reversals of form. The emotion aroused in the audience never comes to focus, but swirls into traps.

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So with the action. One has a group of Negroes who are revolutionaries. They commit a ritual murder each night. But they are also players who entertain a world of White hierarchies, mounted literally above them on the stage. They are in subservience to them, yet they are not. For the audience never can quite forget that the Whites are really Blacks-in-White-masks. One is asked to consider a theme which may be the central moment of the twentieth century: the passage of power from the White to those he oppressed. But this theme is presented in a web of formal contradictions and formal turns sufficiently complex to be a play in itself.

Pirandello never made this mistake. His dance of mirrors was always built on pretexts which were flimsy, purposively minor. If one’s obsession is with the contra­dictory nature of reality, the audience must be allowed to dispense with the superficial reality in order to explore its depths. The foreground in “The Blacks” is too oppressive. One cannot ignore it. White and Black in mortal confrontation are far more interesting than the play of shadows Genet brings to it. If he insists with avant-garde pride that he will not be bullied by the major topicalities of his theme, and instead will search out the murmurs, the shivers, the nuances, one does not necessarily have to applaud. Certain themes, simple on their face, complex in their depths, insist on returning to the surface and remaining simple. The murder of Lumumba is thus simple. It is simple and it is overbearing. It is inescapable. One cannot treat it as a pantomime for ballet without making an aesthetic misjudgment of the first rank. It would be a strategic disaster of conception. So with Genet’s choice to add the minuet to Africa. One is left not with admiration for his daring, but with a dull sense of evasion. How much real emotion and complexity we could have been given if literal White had looked across the stage at literal Black. His rhodomontades and escapades leave us finally with the suspicion that Genet has not escaped the deepest vice of the French mind, its determination, no matter how, to say something new, even if it is absurd. And it is this vice which characterizes the schism in Genet as an artist, for he is on the one hand, major, moving with a bold long reach in to those unexplored territories at the edge of our awareness, and with the other, he is minor, a Surrealist, destroying the possibility of awareness even as he creates it.

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Destruction of Communication 

Surrealist art, stripped its merits, ignoring the exquisite talents of its painters and poets, depends in its abstract essence on a destruction of communication. To look at a painting and murmur “I see God in the yellow,” is surrealist; to say “I see God in the­ yellow because the color reminds me of the sun,” is not. The thought is no longer a montage of two unrelated semantic objects — it has become a progression. The logic leads to a cosmogony whose center is the life-giving sun. Of course the first sentence, the montage, is more arresting, a poetic tension is left if one says no more than “I see God in the yellow.” For some, the tension is attractive, for others it is not. Art obviously depends upon incomplete communication. A work which is altogether explicit is not art, the audience cannot respond with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.

In Surrealism, the leap in communication is enormous. Purple apples, we write at random, salic­ious horses and cockroaches who crow like transistors. The charge comes more from sound than from meaning. Opposites and irrecon­cilables are connected to one an­other like pepper sprinkled on ice cream. Only a palate close to death could extract pleasure from the taste; it is absurd in our mouth, pepper and ice cream, but at least it is new.

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Mute Rage

As cultures die, they are strick­en with the mute implacable rage of that humanity strangled within them. So long as it grows, a civilization depends upon the elaboration of meaning, its health is maintained by an awareness of its state; as it dies, a civilization opens itself to the fury of those betrayed by its meaning, precisely because that meaning was finally not sufficiently true to offer a life adequately large. The aesthetic act shifts from the creation of mean­ing to the destruction of it.

The West may not be dying, but no one would deny it is profoundly ill. We inhabit a giant whose body is powerful and whose mind is divided. Like a schizophrenic, re­ality is no longer continuous, but broken into pieces which do not communicate with one another. Cockroaches who crow like trans­istors. Said aloud by an actor in a theatre, 80 people would sit in silence, 20 might laugh, each in different ways. The meaning is like an icepick used in a trans-­orbital lobotomy. The surgeon does not know what he is doing. He inserts his instrument, slashes the brain, severs the psychic structure, and makes arbitrary new connec­tions. The patient leaves, reduced in violence, and severed from his soul. Meaning has been destroyed for him, but by meaning a little less, he is able to live a little more calmly — at a level reduced from his best.

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So, one could argue, functions the therapy of the surrealist artist, of Dada, of Beat. Jaded, deadened, severed from our roots, dulled in leaden rage, inhabiting the center of the illness of the age, it becomes more excruciating each year for us to perform the civilized act of contributing to a collective mean­ing. The impulse to destroy moves like new air into a vacuum, and the art of the best hovers, stilled, all but paralyzed between the ten­sion to create and that urge which is its opposite. How well Genet personifies the dilemma. Out of the tension of his flesh, he makes the pirouette of his art, offering meaning in order to adulterate it, until at the end we are in danger of being left with not much more than the Narcissism of his style. How great a writer, how hideous a cage. As a civilization dies, it loses its biology. The homosexual, alienated from the biological chain, becomes its center. The core of the city is inhabited by a ghost who senses in the unwinding of his nerves that the only road back to biology is to destroy Being in others. What a cruel fate for Genet that he still burns with a creative heat equal to his detesta­tion of the world. The appropriate Hell he inhabits is to be a major artist and not a minor one, the body in which he sits has the chest of a giant, and the toes, unhappily, of a dancing master. ♦


Scenes From The 2017 Obie Awards


Watch the 2017 Obie Awards in Full

For only the second time in its history, the Obie awards is streaming live on Facebook from Webster Hall. You can watch the event, which is now underway, right here or on Facebook.

When the Obie awards were conceived way back in 1955, “Off-Broadway” was code for marginal. The only stage scene that mattered in New York City was the one composed of well-funded productions in the traditional center of New York theater; nothing else much mattered.

But the Voice’s first theater critic, Jerry Tallmer, knew that the downtown scene was filled with innovative, risk-taking productions, and he thought it deserved some notice too. (Obie is a permutation of O.B., for “Off-Broadway.”) For 62 years, the Obies have sought to recognize the best work in New York’s theater community, no matter where the curtains open.

This year’s event, again hosted by Obie- and Screen Actor’s Guild–winning actor Lea DeLaria (Orange Is the New Black), comes live straight from legendary Webster Hall, presented by the Village Voice and the American Theatre Wing. Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Paula Vogel is slated to receive a special lifetime achievement award.


With “She,” Jinah Parker Triumphs Over A Culture That Abuses Women

Just over a year ago, when Jinah Parker began working on She, a dance- and spoken word–centered exploration of violence against women, she had no idea it would take her to the Here Arts Center, where, since May 5, she has been presenting the original choreoplay to theatergoers, educators, and advocates. The show is centered around four women’s personal stories, and it features Parker and an ensemble of dancers performing to an eclectic lineup of music that includes Amy Winehouse, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, and the Supremes.

The four actresses narrate the stories of their characters, which include a spirited teenage girl who is attacked at a party and undergoes victim blaming in the media (Montana Lampert Hoover), a grandmother who shares a horrifying secret from her childhood (Kimberley D. Chalk), a college student who is unable to identify her experience with her first serious boyfriend as abuse (Bridget Barkan), and a divorced mother (Tammi Cubilette) attacked by her ex-husband in plain sight of her child. Also presented is the story of Sandra Bland (played by Parker herself), a black woman who, in 2015, died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody.

The four stories originated from survivors of sexual abuse, who performed in the premiere of She. Spoken word is deployed alongside original choreography and video projections that depict the violence and its aftermath, along with global issues including street harassment, police violence, Bland’s arrest and death, and the Women’s March on Washington.

Directed by Phaedra Michelle Scott, the show has a racially diverse, all-female cast, who invite audience members to share their reactions and personal stories after each performance. The experience, Parker said, has been transformative for everyone involved.

How did the idea of She come about?

I was in a place where I was tired of being controlled and I was tired of feeling oppressed. I needed to do something that was uplifting. I wanted to do something where I felt empowered and would empower other people.

Do you have experience working with survivors of abuse?

My background is dance and education. I spent time talking to a lady who does a lot of work with trauma patients and yoga, and working through yoga to heal trauma. I also started working with Gibney Dance Center and ended up getting a scholarship to their arts program that works with social justice, specifically through trauma. They have clinical specialists there who had a lot of advice for me on how to work with trauma patients.

Did you draw on personal experiences while creating the show?

The character Ma is a representation of my grandmother. One day we were sitting in her kitchen and she told me this story. It was the first time she told anyone. My mother didn’t even know until she saw the show, and then she said, “So much makes sense to me now.”

Toward the end of the first rehearsal process, I realized I also had a story, and that’s the last story in the play. While I made a conscious decision to release the abuser years before, I hadn’t accepted it as rape and abuse until working on this show. I had just blamed myself. When I decided to include my story in the show, [it] was the first time I actually accepted that truth. I thought if I didn’t know that I had suffered from various forms of abuse, how many other women out there were also in the dark?

The performance doesn’t depict violence literally taking place, but it’s a disturbing presentation nonetheless. How did you deal with that, day in and day out?

After we run a piece the dancers often tell each other, “I’m so sorry. You matter. I love you. Know that you are cared about.” When you’re in the moment and having to beat up the other dancer and do some movement that is making them uncomfortable in some way, you feel it’s necessary to go to them and apologize. We all know it’s acting, but it doesn’t make it less horrible.

She’s run at Here comes at a charged time in America, particularly regarding respect for women and women’s rights. What does She say about women owning their sexuality in a culture that often attempts to stifle it?

That is what I’m saying in the piece in the middle of the show — the Madonna and Missy Elliot piece with the protest signs and oversexualized images in the back — the fact that women can dress sexy and be sexy, but that doesn’t mean we have to be sex symbols to somebody. We can be strong even while being sexy and owning our femininity. We do need to own our sexuality, but to own it we need to continue to educate ourselves on what is happening in our world now and love ourselves fully, because we can’t own anything without loving ourselves.

Rape culture, and sexual assault among high school and college students, has been in sharp focus in recent years. How did you shape the story about teenage sexual assault in She?  

The high school story is something I just added for this duration, after researching and finding out such a large number — one in five — of high school–aged students have experienced or will experience sexual assault or rape. We do talk about rape culture, but it is still seen as very taboo. We have sex ed, we talk about STDs and pregnancy, but we don’t talk about healthy relationships.

I guess I understand why we don’t talk about sex in the way that we should, because a lot of parents are trying to shield their children from having sex at the wrong time because of all the consequences that can come from it. But I almost feel like we need to do the opposite and have more conversations about sex, so you can really understand what it is and what healthy sex is, what a healthy relationship is.

She depicts not only the abuse but its aftermath and the all-too-common occurrence of victim blaming. It also depicts women taking ownership of the word abuse. How did you work that into the show?

There are a lot of women out there who will say, “I don’t deserve to use this term abuse.” A lot of these women are probably saying that because they’re blaming themselves. [During a talk-back], someone asked a question that triggered the entire cast, and at the end of the line she started crying, [saying], “It wasn’t until this show that I realized that what I had experienced was actual abuse.”

I think that’s something that this show does. It brings to light different forms of abuse. It’s not just someone pulling you to the side of the street and raping you. [The show is] educating so that women can be OK with the saying, “I was abused. This was abuse.”

How has working on She affected you personally?

Writing is something that I’ve always loved, but I’ve always been a dancer, choreographer, educator, in that order. I surprised myself at the end of the day. It’s given me even more confidence personally because I never thought I would write a script.

The revelation for me has been seeing the change that happens, with the work and with the [people], from seeing this process. There has been an immense amount of change in the cast. One cast member said, “My boyfriend spoke to me yesterday and [said], ‘Now I realize, after seeing this show, why you’ve changed.’ ” And she said, “What do you mean?” “Well, you don’t take any crap from me. You stand up to everything. You are stronger than you were before.”

She said, “Yeah. I am.”

She runs through May 21 at the Here Arts Center.


John Doyle’s “Pacific Overtures” Is Sleepy, Chamber-Sized Sondheim

John Doyle’s condensed, ninety-minute Pacific Overtures is but the latest instance of bonsai Sondheim: cultivating miniatures of Saint Steve’s masterworks in small pots through careful pruning and clamping. More than a decade ago, the director pointed the way with Broadway remounts of Sweeney Todd and Company in which actors doubled as instrumentalists on spare unit sets. In 2015, Fiasco Theater brought its scrappy, collegiate Into the Woods to the Roundabout. And now at Barrow Street Theatre, 130 spectators squeeze into a pop-up pie shop for a site-specific, in-your-lap Sweeney. In each case, there’s been a gain of emotional intensity along with loss of narrative clarity; this ascetic, muted Pacific follows suit.

First to go is Sondheim and book writer John Weidman’s canny staging concept for the 1976 Hal Prince–directed Broadway premiere: A Japanese kabuki troupe tells the story of the 1853 “opening” of Japan by American naval forces led by Commodore Matthew Perry. Such an approach slyly flipped the inherently orientalist project of white artists writing about the East, while also exploiting a musical tradition that embraces The Mikado, Madame Butterfly, and The King and I. The ritualized frame invites ironic slippage regarding concepts of cultural appropriation and assimilation. You know: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

In place of Boris Aronson’s legendary painted screens, or Amon Miyamoto’s severe but effective Noh theater tableaux (for the 2004 Broadway revival), Doyle presents a curved, white platform. The all-Asian cast promenades on this runway in modern dress, often speaking and singing to an attentive young woman (Megan Masako Haley) like cheerful tutors of her nation’s history. Narrated by a Reciter (grandfatherly George Takei), the musical unfolds as a fable illustrated by one of Sondheim’s most complex and
 varied scores: a blend of pentatonic sparseness (woodblock and flutes) with lusher Broadway ballads or flamboyant pastiche such as “Please Hello,” which mashes up Sousa, Gilbert & Sullivan, and the can-can for an imperialist sonic land rush. (What didn’t make Doyle’s cut: the tongue-twisting mother-poisons-Shogun ditty, “Chrysanthemum Tea.”)

As a human focus for the geopolitical drama of Japans forced globalization, Weidman invents the low-ranking samurai Kayama (Steven Eng) and the Westernized fisherman Manjiro (Orville Mendoza), whose respective attitudes toward the barbarian invaders (fearful and awestruck) reverse over time. The systematic infestation of folkways by a
 foreign culture is poignantly evoked in Kayama’s moody ode, “A Bowler Hat.”

With its reduced orchestra, modest singing style, and low-key spectacle, Doyle’s approach has its strengths. We
 really hear those dense lyrics; we lean in to appreciate the subtleties of the caste system. But this production, while 
scrupulously acted, seems to be having 
a conversation with itself, not the audience. There’s anger and irony in the 
material (which was unveiled during 
our bicentennial year) that dissipates in Doyle’s hermetic coolness.

Lovers of this difficult but forward-thinking musical will wonder: Where can it go from here? A J-punk Pacific? An intricately designed Bunraku Pacific? Should we simply abandon it to the
 concert hall? Andrew Lloyd Webber or the creators of Miss Saigon can muster bloated orchestras and million-dollar stage machinery for their Broadway reissues, while Sondheim acolytes patiently snip and bind the branches downtown. Mixed though the results may be, this earnest experiment proves the piece infinitely adaptable. Like Japan after 1853, that’s both its glory and its tragedy.

Pacific Overtures

Classic Stage Company

136 East 13th Street


Through June 18


“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” Marries Polar Exploration With Rom-Com Trappings

Knowingly quirky productions skate a dangerously thin line
 between being delightfully 
eccentric or just flat-out weird. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a new two-actor musical boasting a frisky electronic score, ties together fiction and incredible real-life history with an eminently bizarre concept — but one that ends up working rather nicely, thanks to smart writing, staging, and design. The era-mashing story involves a fantastical romance between Kat (Val Vigoda), a hipster composer and single mom of today, and Ernest Shackleton (Wade McCollum), the legendary British polar explorer of a century ago. Despairing of her life in a freezing-cold Brooklyn apartment, Kat storms up an impassioned song on her keyboard synthesizer. Her cri de coeur magically crosses through time and space to hook her up with Shackleton, who materializes through Skype from the deck of his ship Endurance, as he
 embarks upon a perilous expedition 
to Antarctica in 1914.

Kat, who has not slept in 36 hours, wonders if she might be hallucinating, but the audience knows better: We can see Shackleton projected, via a vast video screen, across the rear wall of her apartment. The shabby abode is rendered onstage as an abstract
 environment banked by snow; these frosty visuals induce viewers to 
suspend disbelief and come along for the wild ride. Herself duly intrigued by the astonishing turn of events and Shackleton’s gung-ho spirit — “So is being an explorer! Or an artist!” he 
responds to Kat’s “This is crazy!” — Kat grabs her electric violin and joins him for a series of chantey-style songs that detail the slow crushing of the stranded Endurance by polar ice. Projections of actual photos and films taken
 by Shackleton’s crew further document the wreck.

As Kat bemoans the impending disaster, out of her refrigerator bounds the laws-of-physics-defying Shackleton, gleaming with frost and characteristic optimism. Banjo in hand, he sweeps Kat into the Antarctic wilderness, taking her on the impossible journey of survival that forged the real-life explorer’s heroic reputation. Trekking across raging seas and icy mountains, Kat becomes inspired to vanquish her own personal doubts. “When you think that you’re down, fight for all that you’re worth, and you’ll find that you have all the strength you need,” the pair sing.

It’s a nice message, but some people might still be questioning the underlying reason for fusing a grueling fact-based adventure tale with a chipper fictional
 romance. But thanks to the expertise 
of its inventive makers and performers, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me proves an enjoyable bite-size epic, zipping along for ninety minutes on a good-humored script by Joe DiPietro (known for
 conventional tuners like Memphis); a lively, melodic score by Brendan Milburn that rollicks between folk and pop modes; and direction from Lisa Peterson that makes dynamic use
 of the skeletal Alexander V. Nichols–designed set, whose multimedia images are tinted with chilly blues. Vigoda, who crafted the tidy lyrics and plays a scorching fiddle, invests Kat with a winning energy, and McCollum, an especially fine vocalist, cuts a charismatic figure as the courageous Shackleton. Together, their 
 blazing performances melt away any doubts about the show’s potentially 
dubious concept.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

Tony Kiser Theater

305 West 43rd Street


Through June 11


A Sanitized, Cash-In “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” Hits Broadway

As a chocoholic, I felt uniquely qualified to address the
 retooled musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But as a fan of both children’s
 literature and Broadway, I came away disappointed, cheated of human warmth and theatrical energy.

Christian Borle leads the cast as a somewhat schizophrenic Willy Wonka; you’re never sure, when he opens his mouth, exactly whom you’re going to meet. (Act II opens with a malapropian patter song for Wonka, funny and smart but contributing to the sense that the candy man is of indeterminate age and mental state.) This version of the story turns Charlie Bucket into a latchkey kid, child of a single mother working double shifts, father missing and probably dead. Three boys rotate in the role. The smallest one, Ryan Foust, was on deck the night I went; he’s adorable, funny, and smart, if suspiciously sophisticated to be playing a youngster from a seriously deprived environment.

Charlie finds a new candy kiosk down the block from the two-story, tumbledown pile of junk in which he lives with Mom and four bed-bound grandparents; the shop looks like something from the Port Authority Bus Terminal and contains, in addition to shelves of bonbons, a television set and a dour clerk (Wonka, of course, shape-shifting to spy on the consequences of his own marketing efforts). The kid — the only genuine minor onstage — immediately recognizes it as a “franchise.” Planted in David Greig’s script from the beginning is the notion that Charlie is clearly the heir to Wonka as an imaginative inventor.

In its original incarnation, Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel is a morality tale about filial piety — the meek shall inherit the earth, virtue will be rewarded, all those old-fashioned values. This musical, with songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (in addition to several numbers by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley transplanted from the 1971 movie version), carries only a whiff of Dahl’s story.

The biggest problem with the mishmash of a show is the fact that it’s placeless, set in some corporate trade-show environment specified, from time to time, with video projections. At its best this conceit offers the possibilities inherent in an invisible candy factory, functioning like “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: When the utterly obnoxious Mike Teavee, updated in this production from having an obsession with one screen to having an
 addiction to many, disses Wonka by calling him a mime and tries to breach an invisible wall, he’s knocked on his ass. Wearing huge, expensive headphones and dangling an iPad from his pack, he gets a brilliant comeuppance for consistently disregarding instructions. First Wonka stomps his iPhone, to muted cheers from the house. But his transformation in the factory’s laboratory, not to be revealed here, is the perfect penance.

Teavee is played to the hilt by Michael Wartella, like the other obstreperous “kids” actually an adult; this casting decision is, I think, at the root of Charlie’s problem. Instead of cute and obnoxious, Teavee and his cohort are crass opportunists enabled by their parents. The gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde of the novel here becomes the “Queen of Pop,” with a loud posse and a slick daddy busily pushing his daughters social-media career.

The show’s major investment is in people, not set pieces; sixteen ensemble members play a variety of minor roles, most spectacularly the Oompa Loompas, engineered by puppeteer Basil Twist in a Japanese-inflected mode. They have tiny stuffed bodies and real human heads, and change color dramatically thanks to Japhy Weideman’s lighting. They wield enormous kitchen tools. Several of them don huge, bushy tails to become the factory’s squadron of giant squirrels. Their job is to sort hazelnuts the size of cantaloupes, and they’re pursued by greedy Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle),
 a spoiled Russian brat in a pink mink jacket, accompanied by her goon of a 
billionaire father. Veruca is here styled 
as a ballerina, herself pursued by the squirrels, reminiscent of the rampant mice in The Nutcracker. Joshua Bergasse’s choreography appears in short bursts throughout; like the music it is eminently forgettable. A rare bright spot in the misbegotten production is downtown diva Jackie Hoffman, playing Mrs. Teavee as
 a Sixties Idaho housewife who seems downright delighted by the drastic transformation visited upon her errant son.

Given the impulse of the Welsh author’s descendants to monetize every last scrap of his product, it’s no wonder that movies, musicals, books, apps, and candy treats are issuing forth with Dahl’s name on them. Who remembers that Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox originated in a Dahl story? Last year was the centennial of Dahl’s birth; he died in 1990. During his lifetime he was known to denounce certain adaptations of his work, including the 1971 Gene Wilder film.

The musical distills the manic denouement of the 1964 story — in which the
 entire Bucket clan, family bed and all, is shoved kicking and screaming into a rocketing elevator and transported to a new home— into a treacly ballad, “The View From Here,” by Shaiman and Wittman, sung by Wonka and Charlie as their elevator slowly floats up. That sort of taming is endemic here. Instead of saving the marvelous gift revealed in the final moments of the book for the climax of the show, Greig’s script announces the scheme right at the top. Most kids will eat this silly undertaking up; many parents may be disturbed by the lack of real nourishment.

For the legitimate Dahl experience, best to go (or send the kids) back to the original text, a 155-page, large-type book that can be consumed in an afternoon and has more wit, sarcasm, and fantasy, including the wonderful doggerel verses purportedly sung, in the factory, by the Oompa Loompas. As for this Broadway version, once you get past the occasional violence, incredible rudeness, mild innuendo, and the $15 price tag on the Charlie copies for sale in the lobby — well, it’s sweet.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

205 West 46th Street



“Six Degrees”: A Witty Con-Man Classic Picks Apart Bourgeois Complacency

In John Guare’s celebrated comedy of manners Six Degrees of Separation, currently being revived on Broadway in a vibrant new production directed by Trip Cullman, everything seems shot through with the possibility of transformation. Written and set in 1990, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid, it depicts a rapidly changing world — one hurtling forward in time even as it appears outwardly stable.

The play begins in a comfortable Upper East Side apartment, home to the well-off Kittredges: private art dealer Flanders (John Benjamin Hickey) and strategic partner Louisa (Allison Janney). Preferring the Waspy nicknames Flan and Ouisa, the two make an endearing, somewhat ludicrous couple, almost drawn from the pages of Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic. Suddenly, a handsome young black man named Paul (Corey Hawkins) bursts in at their door, a knife wound bleeding through his Brooks Brothers shirt, and their solid world’s foundation begins to shake.

Paul tells the Kittredges that he attends Harvard with their children, that he is the son of Sidney Poitier, that he was mugged in Central Park, and that, in the kerfuffle, he lost the only printed copy of his senior thesis, a study of The Catcher in the Rye. It’s an unbelievable story, he admits, “in this age of mechanical reproduction,” but the Kittredges eat up every word, alongside a delicious Mediterranean dinner Paul prepares in their kitchen once his bleeding settles. Over supper, he waxes romantic about his thesis’s concern with the death of imagination: “To face ourselves. That’s the hard thing. The imagination. That’s God’s gift to make the act of self-examination possible.”

In a queer twist of delicious plotting, however, it quickly becomes apparent that Paul is not who he claims to be, and what follows for Ouisa in the wake of that revelation is precisely the work of difficult, imaginative self-examination. The ultimately mysterious Paul blazes through the Kittredges’ lives like a meteor, vanishing almost as quickly as he arrived, but before he disappears he illuminates a deep poverty within them, gnawing away at the secure pillars and boundaries of their existence.

More than a quarter-century after its premiere, the play feels newly critical in our current neo–Gilded Age, built on debts and speculation, hollow imaginations and empty experiences. In the memorable monologue that gives the play its title, Ouisa asks us to consider what connects us, what separates us, and what we owe to one another, questions that resonate afresh in our present political climate. As an analysis of the fault lines surrounding race in America, it also bristles today with a renewed urgency. When Paul faces arrest by the police, Ouisa tries to reassure him that they won’t kill him. His blunt response: “Mrs. Louisa Kittredge, I am black.”

As Ouisa, Janney commands the stage with a calibrated mixture of poise, vulnerability, and bluntness. Hawkins scintillates in the role of Paul, lending the character a fiery intensity, occasionally to a fault in the play’s first few scenes. In describing his undergraduate research on Salinger, he channels the history of black pulpit oratory, but sometimes descends into a ranting register when he might otherwise use the language to enact a more subtle seduction. But Janney and Hawkins soon find their stride together, and as the play reaches its climax, they seize the rhythm of Guare’s drama like a pair of virtuoso musicians.

Six Degrees of Separation
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street
Through July 16