I saw and read the article “Egypt: Correspondence Between Adrienne Kennedy and Nadia Maher” on Howlround, and once I finished it I immediately scrapped what I was going to write about for a single quote from the correspondence. While it was primarily about Ms. Maher’s thesis and it’s reception, with references to the events happening in Egypt all around her, one particular interchange caught my eye. Nadia asked Adrienne Kennedy, author of such phenomenal plays as Funnyhouse of a Negro, what her thoughts on multiculturalism were. Kennedy’s response was very interesting:
I hate all those terms. A writer should write for everyone. Great writers reach everyone in the world. My favorite novelist is Charles Dickens. All those academic terms and definitions are pointless…
Beethoven reaches all people. Louis Armstrong reaches all cultures.
Kennedy, a playwright whose themes often focus on gender, race, and identity, clearly believes that the concept of multiculturalism is bunk, but why? Is she right?
First things first, multiculturalism is “a body of thought in political philosophy about the proper way to respond to cultural and religious diversity.” (go ahead, Wikipedia it, you know you were going to. After that, check out this source, which is a slightly better researched and backed up). Still a little confused as to what it means? That’s one of the big complaints about the term: it’s so ambiguous that it’s difficult to pin it down to a single meaning. It often shows up in the guise of the “cultural mosaic” versus the “melting pot;” rather than meld together and assimilate, multiculturalism, as a philosophy, seeks to highlight our differences in order to strengthen both ourselves and those with their own voices. It seeks to promote self-reliance and self-determination, making multiculturalism closely aligned with nationalism. What’s not to love? It seems like the exact direction we should be walking in: looking for theatre that champions diverse voices, strengthening Queer Drama, Black Theatre, Latin Drama and the other forms of art that allow for unique voices to be heard. Don’t we as dramatists want to value the things that make us culturally unique?
Now I don’t think Kennedy is advocating for assimilationism, i.e. “the melting pot;” you only have to read Funnyhouse to see she has very complex ideas on assimilation vs. nationalism and the African-American identity crisis, so I doubt she’d write off the value of diversity. Kennedy, as someone who works with and values words, is likely wary of the danger of labeling something and its potential for negative impact on drama. By inventing a term for something that should just come naturally, we make it special rather than treating it as the norm. Why does a cast featuring Latin-American, African-American, Arab-American, and Asian-American characters need a label? Why can’t we just agree that it’s perfectly normal and move on?
Further, she declares that “Beethoven reaches all people… [and] Louis Armstrong reaches all cultures.” Something I think Kennedy strives for is universalism in theme, and that isn’t cultural, it’s cross-cultural. Racism is simply one form of oppression, as is sexism, classism, etc. A play, then, should necessarily be able to address all spectrums of oppression, otherwise it limits itself to only one group of people. Some of the best plays, as we’ve seen with Antigone, can be reinvented over and over again to talk to new audiences, to reiterate the same themes because they are timeless. Good plays can be specific, they can deal with race, gender, or class, but the best plays can do this while simultaneously painting strokes broad enough to be universal. Aristotle said in the Poetics that what separates drama from history is that while the historian deals with the particulars (dates, events, battles, facts) the dramatist has the more poetic job of constructing the universal and broadcasting it to their audience.
So what is multiculturalism? Is it dangerous to label it? Is it dangerous to make drama particular, does it limit its potential for impact? Or does making it particular focus the energy into a sharper point making more of an impact? It’s an important question to be asking right now, and as students of dramaturgy, it’s our job to ask it. This conversation about multiculturalism is far from over, and there are valid points on both sides, but the conversation needs to be happening now rather than later. What are your thoughts?