Cafe Witness

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Culture Gap

Last week, I saw a play that was written by an African-American playwright. It dealt with issues of gender, race and identity. It tackled sensitive subjects like sexual abuse and racism. And it was framed around an iconic myth of nature, hope and redemption.

And I hated it.

Not because the play was heavy-handed, unsurprising or obvious (which it was), but because it was being lauded despite these shortcomings. Lauded, I felt, *because* it was a play about a different cultural experience than what the theatregoers in Pittsburgh are used to. In this particular case, I felt quality (or its absence) was being ignored in favor of political correctness -- of the NEED to champion a work of art that presented a less-omnipresent POV than that of the Straight White Male that governs so much of American society.

My continued evaluation of that play, and of my experience with it, have prompted numerous questions over the past week, including:

* Am I unable to connect with art created by artists from different cultural backgrounds because we lack the same shared experiences?

* Does our cultural background directly impact our ability to emotionally or intellectually evaluate art?

* Is mediocre art from underexposed cultures given a "pass" by the cultural gatekeepers simply because they feel obligated to promote any voice from within those cultures that are willing to step forward?

* Does allowing mediocre art to flourish do a disservice to the potential artists from within a specific culture by lowering the bar of expectations?

* Is it fair to compare art from various cultural backgrounds? Is it racist NOT to?

* How profoundly does a difference in gender impact one's ability to understand another?

* What larger cultural or social implications arise when art created for "shock value" ceases to provoke a "shocked" experience in its audience? Does that mean we've diverged too far from a "norm" of behavior, or does it mean we've simply assimilated that previously "extreme" behavior into our larger frame of reference and nullified its impact?

I don't have answers to any of these questions, but I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.

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  • I don't have answers but will share another experience.

    The year after Hurricane Katrina, a Mississippi high school debuted an original play based on the events and aftermath of Katrina at a Mississippi theatre festival. I do not know where the playwright is from but it was universally loathed by the Mississippians I talked with afterwards. They thought it was offensive at times and poorly written and executed. With most of the media attention on New Orleans, people sometimes forget that the MS gulf coast was wiped clean by the storm.

    The people who thought the play was brilliant? The out-of-state attendees.

    I don't think it was a "too soon" play. I just think it was not a good play.

    By Blogger karyrogers, at 12:56 PM  

  • i don't have answers either but a pov on culture & tolerance...

    wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to worry about the political correctness of liking or disliking something creative, if we could just say: "that was great and here's why..." no matter who we are and no matter who the creative is receiving the praise or criticism...

    unfortunately we are a long way from that - i do think my teenage kid's generation are getting closer to it - their generation seems much more open to diverse cultures & the tolerance that's necessary to accept them and experience open interaction between them...

    By Blogger glemak, at 3:22 PM  

  • I don't think that just because you were from a different culture and background, that that would prevent you from enjoying a play if the quality is good. There are always universal feelings that are shared throughout the cultures, and a well-done piece, be it a play, movie, painting, mural, speech passes through all those culture walls and usually resonates between all.

    It also depends on whether or not this play is good from an objective POV, because if it isn't and it's being "lauded" (I had to look that up) then it's most likely because of their self-image in promoting such a piece, content regardless.

    By Blogger Philip Crow, at 7:20 AM  

  • Some thoughts on the idea of mediocre work being celebrated because of its apparent cultural importance or because of the cultural backdrop of the play/playwright/performers. It seems that we absolutely promote multi-cultural work (in the sense that it is presenting a pov different from the dominant culture)for sake of its voice and more often than not, the production values become second to the voice that is being presented. To me, this is a way giving the dominant culture an out: you are going to see this cultural event and you don't have to actually engage in the debate of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism because you are seeing a work that is supported purely through its voice. And our culture of political correctness does not allow us to critique this kind of work because somehow we are then attacking the group whose voice is being presented. And it is only through critique that we can develop a vocabulary.
    I don't think that we can just say that there are ideas that transcend cultures but what we can do is create a space of dialogue between two cultures through a performance or an experience. I have seen plays in different languages: in fact there is a production of Midsummer Nights Dream happening in SF (where I live) in which part of the text is done in English and sometimes, more often than not, a performer responds in Hindi or Thai or Cantonese. Its the same words of Shakespeare but translated into the different languages and made culturally appropriate. So ultimately the question I had about the production was why? Why use the different languages? The ideas did not translate through the tone and the language but rather through the visceral experience of the production through its staging.
    So I went on a tangent, I apologize, but I think that we must critique work even if we are hesitant because of our cultural background. If I say something that offends someone, I have learned from that experience. So I say, hate the show but be very specific about why. Having this dialogue means that even though you may not have gotten out of it what the director/performers/playwright wanted you to take when you left the performance, you still created a discussion tangential to the production and it is just as valid.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:14 PM  

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