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Time and Place: Something We Can’t Seem to Get Right.

Howlround posted an opinion piece about a small town theater’s performance of Avenue Q.  Avenue Q is a hysterical musical that calls out touchy topics, such as homosexuality, internet porn, and race.  The play take a look at all the social topics that makes us get hot in the face and squirm, then helps audiences find comfort and humor in them.  Maybe I should be careful about the word comfortable?  When I say comfortable, I mean the musical allows audiences to notice the flaws and preconceived notions within themselves and have an open conversation about them.

The best number in the show that highlights this is, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”.  That’s a truth.  Everyone is a little bit racist.  Whatever, right?  We sing the song, feel better about ourselves, and gone on our night.  I’m not fighting that tactic.  That’s what I love about the show! But, I’m me.  I’m coming into the play with the lens of an African-American female who has a deep understanding of the consequences of ignorance and racism.  I know everyone is a little bit racist, but I also am aware that we should never get comfortable with that idea.  I listen to that song, feel better that it’s not just me, but also continue my night asking myself how we can change that.  Does everyone else do that?  No, probably not.  So, what can we do?

Now, the production that was mentioned earlier took place in Greenville, South Carolina.  Let’s dig into that.  The audience was an all white audience with the exception of a handful of POCs.  Probably less than a handful.  The cast was all white with the except of the Gary Coleman character.  They made sure to have Gary Coleman be African American, because we all know that blackface is wrong.  What about the character Christmas Eve who is Asian?  The actor was yellowfaced to play this part.  Why do we not consider that as equal of an offense?  The location probably made it hard to find an actor who could appropriately fill the role.  If that is the case, why do that show?  The insensitivity of the director makes it clear that this production is not coming in with a clear contextual understanding about the play and location the play is being performed in.

Originally, Avenue Q, was performed in New York City, which is loaded with diversity.  Audiences there really understand the struggle of having racist tendencies we all obtain while maintaining relationships with people of all sorts of backgrounds. I would argue that in New York there is more of a desire for unity, which is why the song is so great!  The song uses everyone’s racism to bond together a diverse group of people.  Same song in North Carolina doesn’t work the same.  Audiences that have never felt othered or have close relationships with those that have cannot connect to the piece in the same way.  A location that is historically racist, the worse case scenario kind of racist, doesn’t need a song about how it is okay to be racist.  There are certain areas and certain audiences that are farther along on the spectrum of acceptance and understanding.  Therefore, the kind of theater that should be presented to them needs to be adjusted.  Audiences of people who most likely had at least a parent have dangerous racist tendencies need to be reminded to watch out for the dangers of racism!  The last thing they need is permission to not keep moving towards unity.  Am I saying that all people in the south are racist? No, even growing up in Georgia let me see that isn’t the case.  However, we need to consider which places need to see which works.  Does the south need a bunch of plays telling them to be comfortable with their relationship of race?  No.  Once again, I grew up in Georgia, therefore I know there is much more work to be done.

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