Boys Like That: How two ‘West Side Story’ adaptations are perpetuating harassment and assault

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains descriptions of sexual harassment and assault. 

Like the state of 2020, no one could have predicted the show that would mark this year would be West Side Story. To some, it refers to the Ivo van Hove-helmed Broadway revival. Van Hove made drastic cuts from the original, which tracks with his reputation for re-imagining classics. These included eliminating Maria’s only solo, “I Feel Pretty,” and the quintessential “Somewhere” ballet (buh-bye Jerome Robbins) while compressing the three-hour musical into one act. Van Hove also added multi-racial actors, but sent mixed messaging by casting them as the Jets, originally intended to be white. He brought on choreographer Sergio Trujillo and ballet dancer Patricia Delgado for consultation to make the dance more “authentically Latino”, but only after the cast requested it. Did I mention there were also cameras?

Another recent adaptation that had the theatre community on its heels was Steven Spielberg’s film penned by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) still scheduled to premiere this December. Boasting the film debut of many young talents including newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose (Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Hamilton) as Anita, it has come with a lot of buzz.

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The Challenges and Surprises of Making Theatre on Zoom

In early March, Emma Durbin was midway through writing her capstone project for her playwriting BFA at DePaul University. The workshop of Durbin’s landscape was to be the first time she had worked with a team of professionals on a script of her own. The self-titled “playwright, dramaturg, and amateur sports climber” had been developing landscape for over six-months: drafting proposals, consulting with mentors, researching rock climbing in early-1900’s Scotland — and, of course, writing, rereading, and revising. She was halfway through a full draft when DePaul announced that the university would be switching to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the announcement, Durbin’s workshop was promptly canceled. Canceled and moved to Zoom.

Durbin’s landscape was one of many rehearsals, workshops, and performances that met their untimely end on account of the pandemic. Artists around the country, from community theatre hobbyists to BFA students to Tony-award-winning veterans, have been forced to find new ways to create live theater. More often than not, this has meant producing work over online platforms such as Zoom.

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Student Activists Call In Drama Programs Nationwide

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University art and theatre programs at predominantly white institutions often claim to be safe havens of artistic acceptance. Clouded by claims of ‘diversity’ and acceptance, many BFA arts programs and conservatories see themselves as exempt from racist practices and behavior. In reality, white supremacy is just as integral to the fabric of these programs as productions of Hamlet. Student artists are resisting their institutions and using their unique gifts to pave the way towards a more just arts education. Black students, Indigenous students, and students of color who have been harmed by this racist “BFA culture” are collaborating, taking action, and demanding change.

 

In addition to the pervasive whiteness and financial oppression often present within the superstructure of any predominantly white university, many experiences of racism and anti-Blackness are specific to drama school, ranging from unforgiving work schedules to classrooms that both inflict and exploit the students’ emotional trauma. As a white graduate of Boston University’s School of Theatre (BU), I witnessed and was complicit in this racist culture. To date, BU’s School of Theatre only has one full-time faculty member of color, and shows are often cast by tokenizing students of color, or casting white students in roles written for people of color. BU has a guaranteed casting policy which requires most students to perform in whatever show they are cast in each quarter, denying students their artistic agency.

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Chicago Artists Shine in Virtual Staged Reading of BLACK LIKE ME at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis invites audiences to witness the new play development process firsthand on September 10th with a virtual staged reading of Black Like Me by Monty Cole, based on the memoir of the same name by John Howard Griffin. This entertaining noir docu-drama examines the fine line between allyship and appropriation.

In 1959, a white journalist sought a doctor’s help to temporarily darken his skin so he could “pass” as Black. He traveled the segregated South for three weeks and published his experiences in 1961. Griffin’s journal has been celebrated by many as an indictment of racism, while others have described it as patronizing or offensive.

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The Black Theater Alliance Awards Announces Their 2020 Nominations

The Black Theater Alliance Awards, Inc. (BTAA) Announces Nominations for The 26th Annual Black Theater Alliance/Ira Aldridge Awards

From press release: In the midst of extremely difficult times, BTAA is most proud to announce BTAA nominees for productions presented between August 1, 2019 and July 31, 2020. In an extremely difficult season, excellence in the performing arts was supreme. BTAA saw 47 live productions. Virtual presentations are not considered, and 32 different production companies are participants. Having said that, 28 categories were immersed with 131 nominees. BTAA reviews equity and non-equity productions and performances; equity and non-equity performers are considered in the same category of competition. However, only Black theater productions companies are considered for The Negro Ensemble Company.

This year, BTAA has inducted a legendary name to a BTAA category: Tony Award winning singer and actress, Melba Moore. The Best Actress in a Play (Non-Resident) will be The Melba Moore Award. Date, Time, and Place for The 26th Annual Black Theater Alliance/ Ira Aldridge Awards will be at a later date.

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REVOLUTION GLOSSARY: What Is Accountability?

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Rescripted’s Revolution Glossary is our new series where we dive deeper into words which are part of the conversations about justice happening around all of us. The goal of this series is to provide a resource for people who want to expand their vocabulary around social justice topics, or people who want extra context and perspective on their word choices. Our hope is that this series can spark some important discussions, and help people jump into those discussions with enthusiasm.

Accountability is one of those words that pops up everywhere, but which means something slightly different everywhere it’s used. Phrases like government accountability, personal accountability, and community accountability bring to mind completely different concepts, but they’re all drawing on the same idea. They all relate to a person or entity’s responsibility for themselves and others, but also imply a mechanism which assesses and enforces said responsibility.

When organizers in movements for justice talk about accountability, they’re often talking about community accountability. To talk about that we have to take a little detour through the idea of transformative justice. Transformative justice is about challenging dominant ideas about finding justice when someone causes harm. Transformative Justice will eventually have a Revolution Glossary entry of its own, but for now know that transformative justice grew out of feminist movements against racism and violence anti-racist and anti-violence movements. Trom the 60s to the 90s, there was a slow accumulation of new theories about what caused and prevented violence, the relationship between violence and racism, and the role of the state in sanctioning violence. Continue reading “REVOLUTION GLOSSARY: What Is Accountability?”

ESSAY: What I Did For Love, And How I Plan To Do Less

A strange ritual would often take place in the halls of my university’s theatre center. College students would convene before classes or rehearsals to present the hours of sleep they had claimed the night before. The student who shared the lowest number would wear this insomnia as a badge of honor. Bonus points were awarded if the time spent awake was done at the library, or in the theatre after hours. I perceived this bizarre ritual as a product of the college experience. Little did I know, the professional theatre would not be that different.

Grind/hustle culture exists in every industry and is designed to incentivize overwork. The archaic 40-hour work week is pushed aside as the bare minimum and anything short of 110% is not enough. This workplace environment leverages guilt to maximize productivity. For an industry that thrives off freelance and contracted work, however, the hustle is more than just a point of pride. It is a necessity. The theatre has an age old habit of underpaying (if at all). Artists are forced to take on overlapping projects and survival jobs just to make ends meet.

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Revolution Glossary: Unpacking Allyship

Green Rev GlossThe Revolution Glossary is our new series where we dive deeper into words which are part of the conversations about justice happening around all of us. The goal of this series is to provide a resource for people who want to expand their vocabulary around social justice topics, or people who want extra context and perspective on their word choices. Our hope is that this series can spark some important discussions, and help people jump into those discussions with enthusiasm.

We’re diving right into our Revolution Glossary with the word “ally,” a word which often lands differently than  intended. Broadly, allyship is when a person with a dominant identity acts to counteract the oppression which gives power to their group and takes it away from a marginalized group. The first social justice related instances of the term ally probably referred to straight people in movements for LGBTQIA+ rights in the 70s. But in recent years ally has become a widely used and debated term.

Within the idea of “allyship” lies a bigger question. What role should people with dominant identities play in movements for the liberation of oppressed people? Oppressed people often disagree. In the present day activists have called for white people looking to take action on racial justice to redistribute their resources,  use their bodies to protect the lives of Black people, and  intentionally redirect focus towards the voices of Black people and other people of color. If a white person does all of these things, can they then claim the title of ally?

The obvious danger here is that regardless of the changes any individual person makes, racial inequity and colonialism aren’t math problems that can be solved by a simple transaction. A person with a dominant identity can go to great lengths to untangle themselves from one part of their privilege while still benefiting from it in other ways. And can a donation — or attending a protest — undo every microaggression, biased decision, or moment of privilege that person has experienced? Obviously not, but it’s easy to see how a privileged person might want to think so. There’s no way to make up for being racist or benefiting from racism, but when activists for racial justice put out calls like the ones above, they often report being inundated by white people who are looking for absolution. For that reason, many activists and advocates have decided that the term ally and the concept of allyship do more harm than good, and that they can accept help from people with dominant identities without giving them a specific title.

Other terms have arisen as potential replacements. “Co-struggling” emphasizes that everyone who organizes against oppression has to commit to a constant personal struggle, and that charity and pity are unhelpful lenses. “Accomplices” emphasizes that people with dominant identities should try to support an effort rather than lead it, but people in criminalized communities have sometimes pushed back against appropriating justice system language. And other people are fine to stick with the term ally, not necessarily as a title any person can claim, but as a goal to strive toward.

Whether or not you, dear reader, should call yourself an ally probably depends on context, and whether the people you’re talking to feel okay with you using that language. Either way, knowing  a bit about the term’s history and controversy will help you use it better in conversation, and understand the debate around it.

 

PHOTO ESSAY: Black Drag Royalty Demands Boystown Reparations

In an effort to bring our audience an authentic look into the activism taking place “on the ground,” Rescripted will be periodically featuring protests and highlighting the unseen heroes who are bringing restorative justice to the underrepresented masses.

On June 14th, Chicago drag performer Joe Lewis, also known as “Jo Mama,” organized a queer demonstration that many would consider to be the queer march heard round the world. What began as a protest against police brutality and violence against trans individuals turned into a call for accountability and reparations for the local black drag and trans community. Amidst a crowd of upwards of 1,000 people, some of Chicago’s most prominent black drag performers called for the dismantling of white supremacy throughout the historic Boystown gayborhood. Among the notable speakers were Lucy Stoole, Miss ToTo, Lúc Ami, Tatyana Chante, Zola and Rupaul’s Drag Race competitors Dida Ritz, The Vixen and projected All Stars front runner Shea Couleé. Miss Couleé transfixed the crowd as she told local bar owners and show runners to “make room” for the black drag talents who nurture the livelihood of Boystown but are all the while pushed to the periphery of queer nightlife. Couleé’s speech along with a spoken word piece performed by local trans activist Zola garnered viral status across all social media platforms. As a result, there was a virtual town hall that brought many Boystown gatekeepers into conversation with black drag performers who came bearing grievances. Tatyana Chanté, a local activist who has also organized multiple protest in the Chicago area said that they “hope people are awake now… and committed to being anti-racist” so that “Boystown can actually be a welcoming place for more than cis-white gay men.”

Photos by Christian Bufford

PHOTO ESSAY: Scenes from Honk for Justice Chicago

In an effort to bring our audience an authentic look into the activism taking place “on the ground,” Rescripted will be periodically featuring protests and highlighting the unseen heroes who are bringing restorative justice to the underrepresented masses.

In the wake of protests happening all over the country, sparked by the national outrage over the untimely deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, local activists have been taking the revolution into their own hands. Mobilizing protests in virtually every neighborhood across the metropolitan area, many activists have spearheaded efforts that have led to an unprecedented call to action against police brutality and racial inequality. One such activist is Jocelyn Prince, who orchestrated an ongoing interactive protest called #HonkForJustice. Every day Jocelyn corrals protesters to different intersections on the North Side of Chicago where they occupy the sidewalks, wave signs, chant and get drivers to honk their car horns. According to the open Facebook invite page, Jocelyn was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” In addition to this recent organizing effort, Jocelyn is also a frequent staffer and volunteer with the Democratic Party. She was a staff field organizer for both Obama and Hilary Clinton as well as the 2020 Kamala Harris For The People campaign.

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