Last night I went to Ken Narasaki's house in Venice because he was throwing a wrap party for Lodestone Theatre Ensemble's just-closed Mikado Project. I have nothing to do with the theater company or the production, so it was nice to eat free food solely on the basis of being an Asian-American Artist Who Knows Ken and Who Also Knows Every Other Asian-American Artist in the Community. Seeing Ken argue about theater and politics reminded me of the recent Neil LaBute diatribe in the Los Angeles Times.
I'm not sure if the race-baiting opinion piece properly made its way around theater circles throughout the country, but it sure made a splash here. The timing of the controversial article, I might add, is somewhat suspect, given the fact that LaBute's new play, Fat Pig, recently opened at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
In the article, LaBute whines about how white actors aren't allowed to play roles of color. In his defense of—essentially—blackface, he declares:
I understand about slavery and all that, but that was a generally unpleasant time in our national history and it's firmly in the past. No one but a few folks who own "The Dukes of Hazzard: The Complete First Season" continue to think that slavery brought this country anything but shame and heartache. So we should all get over it, say we're sorry—I'm happy to do that to anybody who stops me at the Grove—and move on. Anyone whose ancestors were slaughtered by the U.S. Cavalry or spent time in a wartime internment camp may line up directly behind.
It's not so much that LaBute seems to casually dismiss slavery as a historical atrocity that basically has no bearing on modern times, it's his arch tone that really gets to me. I'd like to see LaBute get dropped onto a street in South Central and scream, "I understand about slavery.... We should all get over it!"
For the record, I think LaBute is a talented artist. As much as I hated his films, Your Friends and Neighbors and The Shape of Things, with a passion (I don't like movies in which I feel the filmmaker has contempt for his audience), I loved In the Company of Men. And when I flip through his plays in the bookstore I find them quite compelling.
But his blithe claim that he understands "about slavery and all that" only goes to show me that he doesn't understand "about slavery and all that." And I don't mean to be religion-baiting, but the church to which he belongs (the Mormon church) didn't even let black people be ordained into the priesthood until after 1978. In other words blatant, institutionalized racism was a part of LaBute's faith within the lifetimes of most of the people reading this blog. Now, I'm smart enough to know that the man should not be individually condemned because of his religion's past mistakes, but I certainly think the issue is certainly something worth looking at.
I'm not sure what prompted LaBute's need to write this long-winded article. Is he really concerned about a lack of acting opportunities for white actors? Well, at least he's trying to change society by always casting Caucasians in the lead roles in his movies and plays, as well as in most (if not all) supporting roles.
LaBute seems to think that one of the creative community's greatest travesties of justice is that Brad Pitt can't paint his face black and star in A Raisin in the Sun. Is this what were really concerned about in the arts? In reference to Laurence Olivier playing "Othello" in blackface in the 1960s, LaBute laments, "In these troubled times, the man would never be allowed to put on blackface and play that role." I know, Neil, and while we're at it I might add that, in these troubled times, we would also never be allowed to have racial segregation and have people use different drinking fountains.
Oh, please. Boo-hoo-hoo.
LaBute claims, "No one but a few folks who own 'The Dukes of Hazzard: The Complete First Season' continue to think that slavery brought this country anything but shame and heartache." You know what? It's not the people who own The Dukes of Hazzard that concern me. Who concerns me are intellectuals like Neil LaBute, whose fringe viewpoints are taken seriously by the L.A. Times simply because he's a well-regarded artist. If that opinion piece, word for word, was submitted by some playwriting student from the Midwest, he would be laughed out of his career forever.
As you know, I love hearing opinions that are contrary to popular belief. And I love playing devil's advocate, but I do so in the interest in seeing things from different perspectives. (That's the playwright's craft.) But when the devil layers his argument with such contempt, it really bugs the shit out of me. It's one thing to present your thoughts in the spirit of intellectual inquiry. But when you do so with so much vitriol and contemptuous conviction, you need a good ass-kicking to bring you down a notch.
Anyway, LaBute's article drew plenty of letters to the editor, including articulate ones by Ken Narasaki and playwright Henry Ong.
[Read the amazing follow-up to this post: "Neil LaBute Wants to Tell Me Something.]