From Race-Riot Casting to Dumb Lawsuits, the American Stage Simmers

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America is broiling, grilling, boiling, searing — pick your red-hot metaphor. And with temperatures stratospheric and more sweat beads flying in the air than in the offices of Mitt Romney’s accounting firm, tempers in the American theatre are just about aflame.

On the left coast, a production of The Nightingale at the La Jolla Playhouse has ignited, again, questions of color-blind casting: When is it appropriate and not appropriate? Who should determine when and how color-blind casting is appropriate? When is color-blind casting (especially when done in the good and benign name of multiculturalism) either intentionally or unintentionally racist? (Click on the link above if you’re unfamiliar with this specific controversy.) Actors are screaming, playwrights are shaking their heads, directors are in a lather, audiences are clueless, marketers are drinking, artistic directors are crapping themselves (with envy?), bloggers are screaming (well, bloggers are always screaming), La Jolla and the director appear suspended in a blindsided netherworld between proud and defensive, and good theater folks of all stripes are lining up to choose their verbal weapons. Ah, just another day on the American stage.

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Our question is this: How many more times will the American theatre face and fight this battle?

This is not to suggest that the topic, the battle, be swept under the racial rug. After all, there can’t and oughtn’t be unilateral disarmament or, you know, an armistice until we collectively get at the real root, the core, of why color-blind casting is still such an electricity-generating taboo among so many theater practitioners. We, as a theater community, really haven’t done most of the work to find out; we’ve done some of it, and even on that we don’t mostly agree. So, we really just argue, argue and argue. Do we, one should ask, show any sign of actually doing that work, the real work, the real investigation of what it is about color-blind casting that sets off so many people? Equally important, what should be done to begin to more collectively settle the issue? Or is it hopeless? Twenty years ago, the fury over Miss Saigon on Broadway galvanized, catalyzed and paralyzed the Great White Way. Twenty years from now, will we still, like now, still be arguing over the same contours of the same problem? Will the goal post not have moved an inch?

On the right coast, meanwhile, another controversy has erupted and that situation is so monumentally stupid that one hardly knows where to begin. At least the whole color-blind casting debate is intelligent; the American theatre should be tuned in to questions of race, class, fairness, presentation and intention. On the other hand, the law firm of Kenyon & Kenyon, which represents the company that owns the 1970s sitcom Three’s Company, is alleging copyright infringement on the part of playwright David Adjmi, whose play 3-C just completed its Off-Broadway run.

Um, seriously? (For more on Kenyon & Kenyon, a prominent but clearly deluded intellectual property firm, click here.) According to the Huffington Post, the firm claims Adjmi’s play is “damaging to a proposed stage version of Three’s Company.” Proposed by whom?

Can we first have a moment for these lawyers’ balls? They’re big, obviously, though not well cared for. Now, with that image in your head, let’s cut those balls off: Can anybody find a way to tell these lawyers that parody is constitutionally protected? (If you know the play, you know it’s a parody.)

Well, actually, this has already been done — by the ever-resourceful playwright Jon Robin Baitz, right here. The link will lead you to Baitz’s Facebook petition, which has blown up like you wouldn’t believe. Please “like” Baitz’s page and ask him to sign your name to it.

Adjmi should not be bullied, especially by lawyers for Three’s Company. I mean, really. And if the bullying continues, if this story goes on, you’re going to see far more, far, far more, than just heat on the rise.