After filmmaker/playwright Neil LaBute wrote a controversial article for the Los Angeles Times about how white actors are unfairly denied opportunities to play characters of color in the theater, I wrote a controversial response for no reason other than the fact that I could. In my entry, I used various words to describe LaBute's article and/or LaBute himself, including "diatribe," "race-baiting," "arch," "long-winded," "vitriol," "contemptuous," and "the devil." I also suggested that LaBute needed "a good ass-kicking" and pointed out that his piece was suspiciously timed, given the fact that his play, Fat Pig, had just opened at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A.
Three weeks later, I received a personal e-mail from...Neil LaBute! When you see a personal e-mail from Neil LaBute sitting in your inbox, you fear for your life. I immediately called up two of my friends and told them, if I mysteriously disappeared, then I wanted them to investigate Mr. LaBute. And if I turned up dead, they would be responsible for avenging my death. I'm not sure what that would involve, really, except maybe writing fake, angry, taunting letters signed with Mr. LaBute's name and sending them to Aaron Eckhart.
You see, everybody has a public persona. Even though LaBute never shows up in the tabloids, you get a sense of the kind of person LaBute is from his work. You can claim that a man is not his art, but any artist will tell you that a man's art is truer to the man than the man himself. You do that with artists—make assumptions about their private lives by looking at their work—especially when you don't know anything about their private lives. So, you can guess that maybe Charles Bukowski is a drunk, or Paul Rudnick is gay, or Bill O'Reilly worships Satan.
LaBute's characters are full of macho swagger (even the women!) and contempt, and, yes, they want to hurt you and hurt you bad. So, when you see that Neil LaBute e-mail in your inbox, you can only think of the pain he wishes to inflict upon you.
Well, I'm sorry to report that LaBute's e-mail was friendly and thoughtful. He mainly wanted to point out that his article wasn't a PR stunt, that the Times contacted him about writing something that they wanted to print, incidentally, during the run of his play. I'm actually glad that he didn't want to discuss this issue of "color-blind casting" further. He let me have my opinion, and he stood by his, though he was curious about what I thought of the all-Asian version of The House of Bernarda Alba that recently ran in New York. I'm also glad he didn't call me out on my journalistic error of discussing him and his Mormon religion—which he is no longer a part of and which I didn't know. Someone recently pointed out to me that LaBute is not a Mormon any more. He was during the time of In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, but, according to his good ol' Wikipedia entry, his 2000 play Bash (which depicted Mormons doing very bad things) resulted in his disfellowship, and he subsequently left the church formally.
So, anyway, I wasn't very well going to let Neil LaBute have the last word, so I decided to write back. At first, I considered writing something like "Will you read my screenplay?" or "Can I have comps to Fat Pig?" or "Will you give Paul Rudd my number?" But I decided instead to write this:
Hi, Neil, thanks for your thoughtful e-mail. I kind of wish you were angry and abusive and threatening, just so I would have something dishy and entertaining to blog about. Alas, you're normal. Next time throw a guy a bone and threaten to break his legs or something, would you? Just kidding. So: a few things...
1. Don't be sorry. (RE: "i'm sorry that you didn't care for the tone") I'm as arch as you are. If you're going to make bold statements, you can't come across as wishy-washy, after all. :) <<<< (You see, smiley faces can help with tone, but I'm sure the LA Times doesn't allow smiley faces.) I suppose, from your work, you have a perhaps unfair public persona. A man who writes those plays and makes those films--he must be scary! So perhaps my perception of you colored your LA Times piece, at least in terms of tone. 2. Thanks for clarifying the LA Times/Fat Pig timing issue. 3. I do find it kind of funny getting an e-mail from you. My blog is primarily devoted to tales of my fat cat and killer squirrels in Germany; I'm one of the most unabashedly non-political playwrights of color working today; and I bristle at knee-jerk reactions to racial controversies, particularly in the media (I don't think Don Imus should've been fired--GASP!). So to be in dialogue with you about your LA Times piece is rather amusing. You should find comfort in the fact that I always seem to have a very strong reaction to your work--positive and negative, as I pointed out--and I can't say that about most things. 4. RE: The all-Asian version of The House of Bernarda Alba. My initial reaction was, "Oh god, is Chay Yew picking on the bones of dead playwrights AGAIN?" [Chay, if you're reading this, I am just KIDDDING!] My second reaction, in relation to its all-Asianess: I have no strong opinion about it. I'm just glad that actors of color are getting work. I look to my own frustrations, sitting in script meetings with studio execs and listening to them tell me to get rid of my Asian characters, and my black characters even, and replace them with Caucasian characters. They have hundreds of movies coming out every year that are chock full of white actors, and they don't want to allow me two or even one character of color in a lead role. I'm simply writing about the world we all live in, but somehow I'm perceived as subversive. But that's Hollywood. You know that. Things aren't nearly as bad in the theater, but most theater people are so busy dumping on the supposed atrocities in Hollywood that they ignore the fact that the same mainstream vs. indie mentality exists in the American theater as well. I'm not sure that fully answers your question, but you see where I'm coming from. I feel for actors of color.
...Thanks again for taking the time to write. I look forward to your next movie, which I will either love or hate because, as you know, there just ain't no in between with Neil LaBute. :) <<<< (There it is again.)
He responded cordially once again and seems to really care about theater. He's not budging on his views, and I still think he needs "a good ass-kicking" because of them, and so ends my correspondence with Neil LaBute. Why he singled my blog out, I don't know. There are far more articulate blog responses to his article (for example, here), and, from what I've gathered so far, those bloggers have not heard from him. He must think my hair is sexy.
But, seriously, folks, if I do disappear, you know who to go after.