Pursuing the Dream

As another Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches, MSPS reflects on the dream at Notre Dame.

Prior to a memorial service at Faith Apostolic last week, a buddy and I tuned in briefly to an old episode of “A Different World,” the early ‘90s Cosby Show spinoff about life for undergrads at an HBCU.

This particular episode revolved around the departure of one character to the Persian Gulf during the first U.S. incursion into Iraq. The characters—all of whom were black—were debating the appropriateness of a young, talented black man choosing to join a war for a cause that some didn’t see clearly—or at all.

In one exchange, a character said something to the effect of, “Why are you going over there to fight for something we can’t see when there are plenty of problems right here that we can see…?”

As we left the house, my buddy looked at me and said, “They don’t make shows like that anymore.”

Already forming the answer in my head, I asked, “Why not?”

Cynically, he answered, “Because there’s no need. We’ve realized the dream.”

“The dream” is still MLK’s dream, right? From the speech. The dream is MLK’s dream about kids growing up equal and everyone getting along and holding hands.

But the dream sometimes refers to something bigger, too. An end-goal: something quantifiable like one cup of sugar and two tablespoons of cinnamon and three whiskers of a cat. If we can just put together the correct percentage or ratio of white-to-black-to-Asian-to-Latino-to-Native together in a bowl and mix it around enough times, we will have the right recipe, the right product, the right dream.

They don’t make shows like “A Different World” anymore—a show acclaimed for purposefully tackling issues of race and class in America from the African American perspective. And we commented, as we drove to the church, that they don’t make shows like that anymore; they don’t make them because of a general liberal consensus that the dream and the product of equality already have been realized.

Is that true? Has the dream been realized?

Once we arrived at the memorial service, a colleague spoke to the congregation about the Kingdom of God. There in the same room were black, white, Asian, Latino, rich, poor, old, young: the Kingdom of God, he exclaimed. And there was cheering at the idea that for those couple of hours, the Kingdom of God—the DREAM—had been realized there in that space.

And then we left the church. And we filed to our cars. And we went home. And we went back to school and to work the next day… And something in the inspiring, emotional, celebratory atmosphere of the church was gone and the realization since has struck me: if the Kingdom of God and the Dream had been realized within the space and time and emotion of the church that night, then here on the outside the dream must not be so realized.

Of course there is progress, but the clear logic of last week’s events reminded me once again that, in regard to the Dream—MLK’s dream about the kids and the hand-holding—There is still some work to do.

Because they don’t make shows like “A Different World” anymore. And because if the Kingdom of God and Dream exist inside the space of the church, what does that say about outside?

Posted in MLK

Is Theatre for White People?

Written for MSPS by Ally Kwun

 

Eighty-three percent of of all (Broadway) tickets were purchased by Caucasian theatregoers.

Bam.

What do you think of that?

That statistic is part of The Broadway League’s annual report on demographics of their audience from mid-2010 to mid-2011.  There were many other interesting points that they made, such as that 65% of theatregoers were female, that 62% were tourists, and for those over 25 years old, 78% of them had completed college and 39% had a graduate degree.

So we know that the majority of Broadway theatregoers are white, female, not from NYC (booo) and well-educated.

What are the implications of that?

(Those are just the things thought tickled my brain. Here’s the report so you can pick and choose your own: http://www.broadwayleague.com/index.php?url_identifier=the-demographics-of-the-broadway-audience. Note: I did not buy the full $25 report I’m too cheap I’m taking all of this from the executive summary.)

I think this all comes down to WHY IS DIVERSITY IMPORTANT IN THEATRE? Is it necessary? Is it the same issue as diversity in general? Is diversity in theatre possible?

All important questions I have no idea how to answer. And like all things I don’t know what to do with, I google it.

Here is what I found:
The Greater-White-Than-Ever Way
Sh*t White Theatremakers Say
More Sh*t White Theatremakers Say
Okay, then. Let’s Really Talk About It.
More Statistics That Are Useful for the Race and Theatre Discussion

Read them. Comment on them. Join the conversation.

What if Jean Valjean was Black in America today?

What if Jean Valjean was black?

In America.

Today.

This week, forty-five Notre Dame students will travel to the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago to experience the 25th Anniversary Tour of the epic musical, Les Miserables, the popular theatrical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s critique of nineteenth-century French caste society.

Jean Valjean is the show’s celebrated central hero: An ex-convict who breaks parole after serving a nineteen-year hard-labor sentence simply for robbing a house in order to feed his sister’s dying child. A punishment that seems outrageous to the audience’s ears.

Once paroled, Valjean runs into all kinds of barriers in place to keep him from any upward social mobility. Not to mention he will be hunted throughout the show by the musical’s main antagonist, Police Inspector Javert.

Though not always, the hero Jean Valjean is typically played by a white performer.

And in light of some recent critical research and scholarship about the histories and accounts of experiences of black men and other men of color in the segregated criminal justice system in the United States, Valjean’s Les Miz epic might have a lot to offer a discussion of our time and our place if we would consider, even for a moment, the counter-factual question:

“What if Jean Valjean was black in America today?”

Would he be able to achieve what the character Valjean achieves? Would we still cheer for him?

Do we?

I’ll leave it open for now, though I will posit that we might not have to rack our brains too much to answer this question. The difficult history of racial caste relations in America and its equally unsettling relationship with punitive justice, nonviolent crimes, and especially the War on Drugs have been explained critically enough in recent years by scholars such as Michelle Alexander.

And so although the audience smiles and applauds when Jean Valjean is able to break free of his oppressive system and achieve a wild, swashbuckling and fulfilling life, I hope that we don’t ignore the very real possibility that the situation of the dashing, singing character Valjean seen at the beginning of the musical might not be very different at all from the real-life situation of the man standing just outside the Cadillac Palace in downtown Chicago and holding the sign: