Fatter Pig

Posted by Prince Gomolvilas
ON Monday, May 28, 2007

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.]
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  1. There has never been a time when black people were barred from joining the Mormon church. You might be referring to the policy of not ordaining those of african decent, which existed from the time of slavery in the US and was discontinued in 1978.


  2. I stand corrected. I have gone into my original post and revised the sentence in question to reflect the actual facts. Thanks for pointing this out.


  3. BJ Said,

    Happy Birthday to Brad & Angelina's baby Shiloh yesterday! She ate her birthday cake in Cannes. Here's something fun about Shiloh... an astrology reading on video that predicts who her future husband will be and when she'll get married, www.flownetworkproductions.com/shilohioliepitt.htm

    I predict that the bad boyfriend at 18 will be Michael Joseph Consuelos (Kelly Ripa's son), and that the good husband at age 28 will be Michael Joseph Jackson, Jr. (Michael Jackson's son). I figure by that time Mike Jr. will have had enough therapy that he will make a good husband. Both of these guys are ten years older than Shiloh. (When you watch the video, this will make more sense.) What does everyone else think?


  4. BJ...I smell a big fat spammer. You?


  5. BJ Said,

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


  6. Quin Said,

    i had heard of this editorial, finally got around to reading it... i'm going to have another good read..and finish my comment.

    first of all, let me correct you...labute had himself removed from the rolls of the mormon church a few years ago. always do your homework.
    and no, i'm not mormon or a labute crony. i just don't like when people write things that are wrong.

    that's why i want to re-read before i comment.

    get something cold to drink...


  7. Hey, thanks for the correction. That piece of information I just found out yesterday.


  8. Quin Said,

    re-read, and thought about, and i read the letters, too.

    i so hate the use of the 'm' word when people speak of labute and what he writes or directs ..personally, i think he writes about love in his body of work.. love on acid, perhaps, but, it's love all the same and how we as humans abuse that emotion. i digress.

    he says, "...And while we're doing this, why not acknowledge the achievements of several of our greatest playwrights — people like Lorraine Hansberry, David Henry Hwang, José Rivera, August Wilson, etc. — by allowing anybody who wants to play the parts they've written the opportunity to do so?"

    i see that point, anyone in theater, from stagehand to producer would love that to happen... some plays, however, do lend themselves to race. sad, but, true.

    i believe in casting by talent... i don't care if you are black, red, yellow, orange, short or tall... be talent, not a bloody prop that eats. give me magic, not spaces between lines that a truck can drive through. i can fix your fuck-ups in editing on a film.. when i'm in a booth watching you stand there on stage, and crickets are chirping, i want to stab you with a sharp pencil... i don't care who you are or what race or how your ancestors came to be here.

    show me the talent.

    i live in reverse discrimination. i am so white skinned, i wake in the morning, look down and yell, "where's the rest of me?" until i see my red toenails. i live in the projects of the bronx. i assure you, i stand out like no ones business. i worried like mad when i moved here.. i still do, not because i'm not of these cultures, but, because crime doesn't see colour. in my time there, i've become part of the landscape, still...i'm known by my race first, then my name. "oh, yeah, the white lady on the fifth floor"

    sadly, people can't put past atrocities behind them... generational behaviour keeps them in our faces. northern ireland (a waitress from that area recently told me that she and her mates would throw stones at the proddy's 'just because' when she was a child)... the gaza strip stays that way for a number of reasons, and i have a life from 1968 that has photos that only need a change of date to make them current looking.

    colour matters... my nappy head proves you can call me related to the moors visiting my ancestors 1000 years ago.. it doesn't make me anything but white.

    theater should be the one place we can be colour blind. some films have cast a hugely diverse racial group in classical plays... were they successful? no.

    labute has his heart in the right place.

    sadly, the world doesn't have the soul of atticus finch. if we did, we'd not have our problems.


  9. Quin Said,

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  10. Thanks for your thoughts. I don't like when the term "misogynist" is thrown around in relation to LaBute either. It reminds me of the way I have often jumped to David Mamet's defense (he's one of my favorite writers) because he gets accused of the same thing, almost in a knee-jerk sort of way.

    I think you hit it right on the head. LaBute's points would make sense in a country where race does not matter. Unfortunately, we're not there yet. I suppose we can "act as if" in the theater and hope that the rest of America catches up someday, but racial issues are at the forefront of the national dialogue and they can't be ignored no matter how hard we try or how hard we hope.

    Keep posted as this story develops further.


  11. thank you for your blog. you nailed it and i'm with you on this. i too wrote a blog on the LaBute article at: http://djuan-shelton.blogspot.com/

    LaBute is one of our important writers -- mostly because he's so damn prolific and inconsistent (like Sam Shepard, he writes a lot -- or in Shepard's case wrote a lot -- but not all of his plays are any good.). But he is also important because he taps into class boredom and the things we do when we have no place else to be but inside of our own heads.


  12. Anonymous Said,

    LaBute is considered misogynist not out of some "knee-jerk reaction" -- this is a reputation earned by his body of work.

    Most recently, anyone see, "The Wicker Man?" (well, actually, perhaps not, since about ten people saw it, in toto) Not just a bad film - LaBute's "take" on the original story was to turn women into murderous Harpies. I'm not going to rehash the discussion surrounding the film and its horrible anti-woman message here, because others have done it before me.

    He's always been somewhat of a buffoon, the Howard Stern of the playwriting world, being "outrageous" for the sake of being outrageous. But please don't kowtow to the guy. If you believe his writing is about "love," then woman-hating has reached new levels of acceptance.


  13. Ian Said,

    here is an essay I wrote for the times (likely never to see print) and I wanted to see what some other people thought of it.

    In Support Of Color Blind

    I stumbled upon the article online and from there discovered a plethora of angry rebuttals. If you haven’t read it already, I’ll give you a brief rundown: Playwright and filmmaker Neil Labute recently wrote an article regarding the disallowance of white people to play traditionally colored parts in theater:

    “Why do we barely bat an eye at an all black version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night… But why shouldn’t it cut both ways? Isn’t it simple prejudice to suggest that we should think otherwise?”

    As one would expect, the reaction was vehement. What surprised me though was just how consistently people missed the issue at hand. That his essay was in fact about artistic integrity and not about racism per se went largely unnoticed. I realize it’s difficult to discuss race in relation to another topic without the forerunner taking center stage, but like it or not, here at least, it’s necessary to acknowledge that small but crucial point. So when commentators mis-summarize the article by writing things like “…he’s relegated the whole basis of racism in America to ‘something that doesn’t really matter anyway’…” or “His central thesis is, ‘Slavery happened a long time ago, I apologize, now let's get over it…,’” they do a disservice to everyone who reads the rebuttal. Because, in large part, what they are opposed to, whether they realize it or not, is the casual tone in which Labute writes. This, however, is a matter of aesthetics and not philosophy. The point isn’t that actors of colors are having trouble getting substantial roles (there are enough people already trumpeting that grievance, which is probably why Labute chose not make it his topic of discussion) but that we live in a time when political correctness might be squelching potentially provocative work.

    Later in the article Labute mentions that he would like to direct an all-white version of A Raisin In The Sun. As it turns out, this was done once in Maine. This brings up my second point: Living in a culturally diverse area is a privilege. In the truest sense of the word. Having grown up in the aforementioned least-diverse state in the nation, and attended a high school that had two black students and I think one Asian student, I’m often surprised at the degree to which people in diverse areas take their diversity and liberalism as a given human condition. (For what it‘s worth I currently live in Los Angeles.) It would be nice if that were the case, but the fact remains it’s a given condition of one’s environment, education and possibly predisposition. That said, I would argue that a performance of A Raisin In The Sun, even in blackface if that is what’s required, is culturally needed all the more in a place like Maine than in Los Angeles or New York where that kind of first hand understanding and exposure already exists. Theater, above and beyond all other art forms I think should fight tooth and nail from preaching to the choir.

    Was that Labute’s point? Maybe, maybe not. It’s not for me to say. What I do know though is that Labute raised an important issue and was immediately slapped down without, as far as I’m concerned, even a consideration as to whether or not his unusual thesis had any validity to it. A knee-jerk reaction took hold ("I jumped into my clothes, and wrote this letter to the editor..." Ken Narasaki) and people ran with it rather than reserving judgment, staying their impulses and giving actual consideration to the writer and his subject. There is a line in the movie Seven that I always liked: “Wanting people to listen, you can't just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you'll notice you've got their strict attention.” When it comes right down to it, that is what Labute does. He hits us with sledgehammers constructed out of words. The result is two-fold: Yes he gets our attention, but at times the message is lost beneath the shock of having just been bludgeoned. However, one must remember that it is us that seeks him out. It is not difficult to avoid Labute’s writing if that’s what you want to do and so if you undertake to read one of his essays or sit through one of his plays you should do so only with the understanding that once you’ve been hit, it is your responsibility to shake it off and then seriously consider why before allowing yourself to react.


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