In my review of Black Ensemble Theater's The Jackie Wilson Story for this week's Chicago Reader, I quoted from a profile of BE executive director Jackie Taylor that appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004. Something that Taylor says in that piece--which was written by Debra Pickett--has stuck in my craw ever since.
After describing her own approach to theater--"each production has to have cross-cultural appeal, has to be musical and has to be, she says, 'uplifting'"--Taylor is asked about "what she sees out in the theater world today that inspires her." She can think of nothing but the musical Hairspray. However: "'I'll tell you what I hated,' Taylor says slyly."
She proceeds to describe "Topdog/Underdog," the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by African-American writer Suzan-Lori Parks, which Taylor saw at Steppenwolf.
"I was just furious," she says, detailing the play's two black scam-artist characters. "First of all, it was an all-white audience, and I cringe when I'm in a non-black atmosphere and we're doing things they can't understand."
More than that, she says, "We've got enough of that negative s - - - in reality," and theater ought to aim for something different.
So if I'm understanding correctly, the problem with Topdog/Underdog isn't that it misrepresents its black characters, but that it's too truthful and therefore lacks "cross-cultural appeal" (white audience members "can't understand" it, black audience members would rather not think about it) and isn't uplifting.
What, then, is the "something different" for which theater ought to aim? Escapist nostalgia of the sort Black Ensemble puts forth? The company's mission, according to its Web site, is "to eradicate racism" by staging productions that "perpetuate the history of the African American people." But Taylor's relentless focus on what crosses over and what uplifts means that the non-rosy aspects of that history are bound to be glossed over or put to use in a narrative of ultimate redemption.
In this context, eradicating racism means bringing people together by pretending problems and divisions don't exist because Jackie Taylor evidently doesn't think we can handle the hard stuff. She gets a lot of credit for making audiences happy, but she sure doesn't seem to think much of us.