Apparently everyone in LA blew up over it (see that here). The Wooster Group has been infamously quiet about it. It’s said that on average 1 out of 6 people walk out of it and have been since 2012. And on top of all of this, it had another unrelated, public and necessary scandal prior to it’s NYC arrival.
But even with all of that, I still wasn’t ready for CRY TROJANS (TROILUS AND CRESSIDA).
It’s hard to say anything about the piece without first addressing the bold, brash, brave, and possibly severely misguided conceptual choice that led to much of the very vocal backlash. In a nutshell, in 2012 The Wooster Group and The Royal Shakespeare Company came together to make TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, where TWG handled the Trojans and RSC handled the Greeks. They rehearsed separately, and then brought the two very different shows together, clashing the two styles and approaches into one play.
TWG (and this is all from the press packet) totally Wooster Grouped it, with films, earpieces, a detached acting style, focus on the language and – in the attempt to make something “distinctly American” – a design concept and narrative premise of “the Trojans as a made-up American Indian tribe, under siege by British invaders.”
Most everyone in the performance is white. Not only white, but super pale, blindingly white.
I invite you all to make your own decisions about their performance. Read the rants on the REDCAT event wall, the arguments from Native American theatre makers here in NYC, follow #noredface to see what people are saying about it on Twitter, and make your own decisions.
I’d like to dig into this offense and my own reaction to it, because this isn’t the first play with redface that I’ve seen in 2015.
AN OCTOROON uses literal redface as well, but that didn’t illicit the same response, in myself or the public. The redface was used in a similar way; a white guy, performing a stereotype of a Native American, complete with a Pocahontas-like rolling of an entire culture into a headdress, tomahawk, and a particular way of speaking.
Do we all let this slip by because Branden Jacobs Jenkins is a playwright of color? Or because white face and black face are also in the show? Or because the play attempts to deconstruct all of these stereotypes with direct confrontation and in that direct confrontation, the stereotypes are unpacked?
Seeing shows like this makes me acutely aware that I’m not equipped to talk about race.
But I’m also a white girl who grew up in Alaska, surrounded by Native Alaskans and taught an appreciation for the culture from a young age. And I’ve learned the hard way that white people thinking they can get away with anything onstage and in art is a recipe for disaster. Maybe I’m a hopeless optimist, but I have to believe that TWG knows what they are doing. They are trying to confront the whitewashing of Native American culture with this gross offense because they are making a statement about being “distinctly American.” As much as I hate it, a bunch of white people running in and out of a teepee and speaking with Native American accents in 2015 is distinctly American.
Their approach is rigorous and the performances are skilled. The overt theatricality of the costuming (found objects, plastic, foam), the constant stream of video clips of (almost) exclusively Native American and First Nation’s people, and the audio stream of Native American peoples’ voices all make it apparent that what you’re watching is a very consciously non-‘real’ emulation or facsimile of real indigenous people. The performance doesn’t feel like a mockery, but it also doesn’t feel like respect.
Do we need shows with a direct confrontation to remind us of the political stakes of the work that we make? Is this even what CRY TROJANS is after? Is the feeling of offense what The Wooster Group wants their audience to leave with? In 2015, to have the line between cultural homage, appreciation, and appropriation questioned, dissected, and crossed over multiple times, I have to believe that TWG is trying to serve a greater purpose with this decision. I might not support their concept, but I have to believe that it wasn’t all for naught.