My Friends Are Hurting, and Some Don’t Understand Why

By Bradley Rohlf
Contributing Writer

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Muny’s production of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” drew protests for its casting choices, among them those attending the Theater Communications Group conference.

Charges of “yellowface,” for “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” dance number from “The King and I,” using a non-Asian as Tuptim, and “brownface,” for not including more Hispanics in “West Side Story” numbers called “Suite of Dances,” were part of the outrage.

The 1989 Tony winner is an anthology of choreographer-director Jerome Robbins’ greatest hits, among them “On the Town” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” too. The Muny was the first to stage the production beyond the Broadway run and first national tour, and cast 50 people in their centennial season opener, June 11-17.

For clarification, “yellowface,” “redface,” “brownface” and “blackface” do not have to be literal, but can refer to anytime a white performer portrays a character of another race.

After protesters shouted at performers during the June 15 show, the Muny released a statement on June 17 in response to address the concerns about representation on stage.

The incident triggered a lengthy debate and outcry on social media. People of Color in the arts attempted to explain why the casting was insulting to them, and why cultural appropriation matters.

Terry Teachout wrote a piece on June 20 in the Wall Street Journal, “When Protest Threatens to Disrupt the Show.”

On June 24, St. Louis Post-Dispatch theater critic Judith Newmark wrote a column, “The Race Challenge: Who Gets to Play What Role?” 

The following is a column from Limelight contributor, Bradley Rohlf, a local actor and writer. Limelight supports open communication, perspective and regional voices. If you would like to respond, contact Managing Editor Lynn Venhaus at lynnvenhaus@gmail.com

In our world, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, but when people feel marginalized they are compelled to speak out. Many of the responses to this protest have missed the point.

The writers talk about what happened and the issues surrounding it, the purpose of the methods of protest, and the casting practices.

But they fail to acknowledge the pain caused to members of our community.

These publications have added to the problems, heaping more insult to the injury, and deepened the hurt felt by our friends and colleagues.

They have prolonged the discussion but not in a helpful, healing way.

I don’t want to assign intent to the words of others. But I do want to point out the harm these words have caused. This is not an indictment of a person, publication, or an institution.

This is an indictment of a greater societal failing that has been demonstrated in the ensuing conversation around this incident. People in our community are hurting because they don’t feel heard and they don’t feel welcome.

To illustrate, when someone is physically injured, the proper response is not to tell them how they could have avoided such injury or to reassure them that it’s not that bad.

Instead we ask, “Are you alright?” and assist them in first aid.

When we meet the pain of others with cold analysis instead of offering comfort, we are telling them that they don’t matter.

These articles and the Muny’s statement fail to recognize that these protests are not about the historical context of “The King And I,” or the historical context of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.”

As made clear by the statement about the incident by the Theatres of Color Collective (TOC), it is about “resistance to systemic oppression against people of color.”

This resistance has been met with questioning the methods of protest, or trying to broaden the conversation beyond the issue at hand. By doing so, these documents are communicating that they do not value the position being taken.

Regardless of intent, these words demonstrate the second point of the TOC’s statement, that when we “fail to acknowledge the ways in which those systems oppress others, it limits our ability to live up to the promises of who we say we are as a nation.”

When the Muny claims “The hurt that this has caused was unintended,” they diminish the validity of the pain.

A lack of intentionality does not reduce responsibility.

When WSJ’s Teachout determines the method of protest to be inappropriate, and when the Post-Dispatch’s Newmark suggests: “If they had written an open letter…they could have made a point worth serious consideration,” the implication is that their point is not worth serious consideration.

I believe the implication of Newmark’s assertion that “everyone knows it was an actress,” is that the protesters don’t understand the artifice of theatre. Such words belittle the theatre professionals who have lodged this complaint.

There are numerous examples of the way these documents obfuscate the core issue at hand. But rather than muddy the conversation by delineating each one, I want to stick to my singular point.

When you do not acknowledge someone’s pain, you implicitly deny it. Regardless of the factual accuracy of providing greater context to the conversation at hand, your presentation has refused to acknowledge the pain my friends are feeling.

When we deny someone’s pain, we deny their humanity.

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