Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Calling It Like I See It

So. I'm going to say something here. I'm going to put something out there, kind of bluntly. And it may not be pretty. I don't normally call people out like this, but this time, I can't avoid it and can't put it nicely.

I think MTC is a racist institution. Flat out.

To be fair, most of our institutional theatres are, but this one is just plain dumb obvious.

There just really isn't any other possible reason for their lack of institutional support for their production of RUINED. I saw it and it is flat-out awesome, as many, many people have said, repeatedly. It is smart, heartfelt, touching and incredibly brave. It's also a classic "play" play: unit set, all in one place, naturalistic storytelling (with some lovely touches of theatricality), strong characters and poetic language. It's been extended six times at MTC's Off-Broadway home. And, oh, yeah, it won the Pulitzer Prize (just in case you hadn't heard). Not to mention near universal acclaim. So...it runs Off-Broadway and as noted in many other places, this is what they're running in their Broadway theatre. Not this. And this is next year.

I don't throw the race card out there often, but I honestly can't imagine what else is going on there. When a show opens Off-Broadway to wide acclaim and big, shiny awards, the buzz machine starts going. Whenever something closes, they start talking about whether it can move in there. And this year, for RUINED? I haven't heard a peep. Not on Playbill. Not anywhere. Not even a story about how they'd love to move it but there aren't any open theatres. Because there are.

Well, maybe it's the cast size. Because large-cast straight plays just don't do well on Broadway. The same goes for ensemble dramas without a big name star in them. But then again, plays with all-black casts are huge, colossal failures, so no one would want to take that kind of risk.

And that kind of thinking is the worst kind of institutional racism. The kind that sees a stirring, beautiful play as a "black" play with a limited audience, in spite of all the obvious signs. The kind that makes you think the theatre programmed it because it was the good and noble thing to do, not because they thought the play had legs. But then to basically ignore it and let it languish Off-Broadway instead of making any effort to move it, that's another level of cowardice. (And, yes, before you start in, I don't think that playing to full, 299-seat houses is languishing. This isn't about the merit of the work; it's about equal treatment.)

Just for the record, the audience tonight was well-mixed, if not a little on the ordinary theatre side. A lot of older white folks, a few older black folks, a smattering of young people. And it was nearly entirely full on a Tuesday night.

I want to give the staff and board at MTC the benefit of the doubt. I really do. And I don't mean to be some anonymous guy out here ranting on the internets and cut them down. But after watching this play and the tremendous effort given by an incredible cast, it deserves more, a broader stage, a bigger audience, a wider reach. And it deserves a theatre to give it that support. If only MTC had a Broadway theatre that is devoted to producing new, challenging works that it could move into. Oh, right.

Seriously, though. This situation speaks to the institutional racism that drove August Wilson nuts. Because I don't think that anyone who works at MTC is a racist, or is thinking, "Well, RUINED is a black show, so we're not going to give it our support." I just think that the whole system is rigged against a show like RUINED and geared towards a show like AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Maybe they have tried and failed to find the capital or the right theatre or something. Or maybe they got a lot of "Not interesteds." But they left it there. They didn't take it to the press, to their audiences, to the wider world. And if they tried and no one cared...well, that's another matter. But I'd think that MTC has some pull in this town. Somehow, so far, it isn't moving further and that's the fact.

And I just had to call it out. A part of what's going wrong is that we're not calling things out when we see them. Especially after seeing this play, I couldn't sit by and say nothing. So it's out there.

If I'm wrong about any of this, please, please let me know. I'd love to be wrong about this.


Seth Christenfeld said...

Using Raisin and Cat as examples is a little disingenuous vis a vis Ruined, considering that both of those shows had major, major names in the cast, which Ruined does not. (I didn't see either one and can't vouch for their quality.)

(I don't necessarily think that MTC is racist. Amazingly stupid, yes. They did do an all-black new play at the Biltmore in its first season (the execrable Drowning Crow), for whatever that's worth.)

99 said...

That's a remarkably specific kind of stupid. Especially since I can't remember another time that that any theatre was this stupid: hit show + Pulitzer Prize = Broadway ASAP. I think calling it stupid cuts them slack that they don't deserve.

And, yes, Raisin and Cat had big names in them. But the original cast of August: Osage County didn't. Not to mention the potential for slotting in big names as replacements, as August has done. I think that's a small argument.

And Drowning Crow is exactly the problem. So, in the past, MTC premiered a bad play by a black writer on Broadway. Therefore it's reasonable that they should be gun-shy about moving a successful production of a great play by a black writer to Broadway? Because all black plays by black writers are doomed to failure? It's blatantly racist thinking. And that's the real problem.

Anonymous said...

Just to play devil's advocate: Wasn't "August: Osage County" brought to Broadway by commercial producers?

99 said...

Yep. And that's certainly part of the equation. The original producer, though, is usually pretty key in finding commercial backers. On the other hand, Steppenwolf doesn't own a Broadway theatre.

isaac butler said...

Hey 99,

I don't disagree with your point about institutional racism, but I spent some time today talking to some commercial theatre people, and wanted to offer their perspective on this... the point they made about Ruined and why it hadn't transferred had little to do with race/cast size and everything to do with timing.

Basically, the "original sin" here was not putting it in the Biltmore in the first place. Because by the time it opened and got the reviews and box that it started getting, it was essentially too late to put into a Broadway house.

Let's assume for just one moment MTC wanted to transfer it. (1) They couldn't put it into their own theater because of David Hyde Pierce (essentially they'd run a serious risk of losing a Big Name if they suddenly were like "oh, btw, we're putting you in a 300 seat theater now"). So they could move it to another house with some commercial backing buuut... (2) in pre-TONY season, there wasn't a lot of available real estate. And (3) you don't want to move a play right after the TONYS because you shut it out of the primary means of box office bounce that a play has (namely that it wins a bunch of awards).

Anna and the Tropics moved to broadway the fall after it won the Pulitzer. August was already on Broadway when it won.

Now MTC could've announced that, pending future success at the BO they're thinking about moving RUINED to the Biltmore-oops-Friedman-or-whatever in the fall, but unless their advance sales are pretty killer (i.e. regularly selling out weeknights at least a week in advance) that would look from a balance sheet perspective like an unnecessarily risk move, regardless of what the show is. IN other words, they might be able to run it for longer keeping it where it is. Opening a large cast play in the summer on Bway might expose it to unneccessary risk of closure.

Anyway... I'm not saying this to counteract the discussion of institutional racism in American Theater, which is one we definitely need to be having right now (you've probably read my various rants on integrated casting and how very white so much of our theatre is). And I agree with you that you look at their next season and you go "TWO DONAL MARGUILES PLAYS? WTF?!?!?!" I just thought this was an interesting perspective on the specific Bway-for-Ruined question.

99 said...

Thanks for the perspective, Isaac, and all of that very much makes sense, and does help to mitigate some of my frustration. I think part of that stems from the fact that this discussion doesn't even seem to be occurring. When I did the research for the follow-up, it was fairly clear that timing had something to do with it; most of the Pulitzer-winning transfers transfered before the award was given. And that's an understandable situation. Hence the cooling of my jets. The larger question of why it's not playing in the Whoever-Gave-Us-Money in the first place is indeed the real doozy.

The Playgoer said...

So glad to see the discussion over this continuing here.

Interesting point about the "timing" issue. And yes MTC would have been in a bind once they booked Accent on Youth into the Biltmore.

But I wonder if pulling the plug on that run would be an option, cutting the run short.

Also, one of my points in my earlier post on this question was that anyone paying attention to the Chicago premiere of "Ruined" would have noticed what an enormous HIT it was there. That might have given them a heads up. (For evidence of this see Chris Jones' blog at the Chicago Tribune, at the time of that run late 08/early 09.)

Then again, "Drowning Crow" was also a success at the Goodman, I believe, so I guess they could have dismissed the signs for that reason again.

99 said...

Good points about the Chicago run. There definitely seem to be multiple missed opportunitites here and you really have to start asking why. It does eeem to be a failure, not just of management, but of overall vision. And that's just plain scary.