im goin hard in the motherfuckin paper tho can i just say this is the part where shit starts to get real
Here is where we find the true nature of the proscenium arch: it aims to mollify and “civilize” that which is Other for the benefit of modern Western culture in all its “progressive multiculturalism.” Behind the proscenium, radical politics and articulations of minority experience become a declawed part of the stage illusion. The company or university mounting the production can curry the favor of those people who are genuinely interested in multicultural texts/performance while at the same time keeping a protective pane of glass between the calls to action on the stage and the nonpolitical audiencemember. As Cherrie Moraga wrote:
Corporate America is not ready for a people of color theater that holds members of its audiences complicit in the oppression of its characters. Who would buy a ticket to see that? […] Progressive theater needs them [an Anglo-American audience] because they bring in the middle-class ticket-buyers, those who can afford to pay full-price on a Saturday night and cover the cost of all the group rates and freebies that bring in the audiences who do see their lives reflected in the work. Without governmental support for the arts, community-based theaters striving to create an art of integrity and beauty are forced into dependent relationships with whiteuppermiddleclassamerica.
This, interestingly enough, is precisely what happened when “Anon(ymous)” was performed at Illinois State in conjunction with the School of Theatre’s Crossroads Project (of which I am a member). At the time of this writing, the Crossroads Project webpage notes that it “strives to develop multicultural audiences and artists who embrace and support a multicultural vision, and, together, build bridges of better understanding between people of all backgrounds of Illinois State University and in the surrounding community.” In pursuit of this goal, one so-called “multicultural” production is put on in cooperation with Crossroads programming every other season. For “Anon(ymous),” this programming included complementary tickets to the families of children who attend the UNITY Community Center, which describes itself as “a multicultural community of families with a support system focused on directing them towards resources and enrichment of its youth,” offset by the revenue brought in by the usual middle-class, primarily white audience.
Many of these families were recent immigrants to the United States; some had their children translate for them for the duration of their time at Illinois State. While this invitation to “Anon(ymous)” reflected Crossroads’ ambitions towards developing a multicultural audience, to what degree did it build a bridge of better understanding between people? For the UNITY families, the bridge certainly led towards a better understanding of the mainstream American theatre and performance customs, as well as the structure of an American university; for the white American audience members, actors, and technicians, “Anon(ymous)” provided no significant challenge to the conventions they were used to. As Ethel Pitts-Walker wrote nearly twenty years ago:
Unfortunately, many… are content to simply incorporate the disenfranchised into existing theatrical formats, and then label the result ‘multicultural.’
This kind of multiculturalism is prevalent in university and college theatre departments who ‘talk the talk’ but are hesitant to ‘walk the walk.’ Many departments have drafted precise mission statements which promote diversity and cultural pluralism. Rather than becoming an equal partner, the disenfranchised are often reduced to token participation […] Many institutions produce one ethnic play during the season and believe the mission of diversity is achieved; for a brief time the house is peppered with new faces who want to hear their voices; and then, the ‘store is closed’ until next year […] Having done this much, the institutions believe they have fulfilled their commitment to their constituents and grant agencies. And maybe they have. Unfortunately, little is done to foster a dialog.
All that is required for a production to be designated as “multicultural” is for it to have been written by a playwright of color about “the issues and experiences of underrepresented U.S. ethnic peoples or global (AMALI) cultures.” Peggy Phelan notes as Walker did that it is not uncommon for regional theatres to produce a single “multicultural” work in a season, and explains that this tokenization merely serves to reinforce cultural and social norms surrounding the superiority of the aesthetic standards of Whiteness. Not only does visibility unaccompanied by a critique of whose power is necessary to facilitate visibility prove an “impoverished political agenda,” but creating a token “multicultural” slot in a season forces competition among already-marginalized artists.
Slavoj Žižek described this type of multiculturalism as “a disavowed, inverted, self-referential form of racism” that “respects the Other’s identity, conceiving the Other as a self-enclosed ‘authentic’ community towards which he, the multiculturalist, maintains a distance rendered possible by his privileged universal position.” Filtering “Anon(ymous)” or any other multicultural text through the literal frame of the West (the proscenium) as well as the figurative frame (the visions of white designers and directors) and heralding it as the special, exotic “other” in a season creates an uncomfortable link to 19th century performance in more than just the venue used – it conjures up images of the othered bodies on display: in the 19th century, “the corporeality of the body is made the victim of a psychological-social-cultural hierarchy of highly simplistic dualism. The body is to be feared, vilified, denied, or admired as some ‘other’ from a safe distance in the gallery/theatre/circus ring, or lusted after in the pornography of the photograph or freak show.” Calista illustrates this in scene five of the play:
Anon. Someday I’m going to sail away.
Calista. No you’re not. Don’t be silly. You’re not going anywhere. This is your home now.
Anon. It’s not my home.
Calista. Yes, it is.
Anon. It’s not my real home.
Calista. Yes, it is. Now look at me. Look at me. Smile. I SAID SMILE.
Calista snaps a photo of Anon.
Calista. You’re very photogenic. You could be a male model. You’re so swarthy and exotic. That’s very in right now. Exotic is very in. I wish I were more exotic. I’m too pale. I wish I had a tan. I wish my skin was the color of café au lait.
This simple exchange highlights the ideas of the simultaneous denial of and lust for the “other” as well as the pornographic nature of the photograph (and, by extension, the proscenium picture-frame). Jean-Luc Nancy described “the violence associated with imposing contours or definitions on anything, or with trying to create the illusion of unity, of which the image is a prime example;” by this token, the superimposition of the picture-frame proscenium on a text that inherently resists it is an implicitly violent act.