Common cause.

Some 30 years ago when I was a jerky Jersey Boy listening to new-wave and post-punk music in an effort to be “alternative” and “rebellious” (within the safe limits of suburbia of course) the English band The Beat came out with a sub-song to their “Whine and Grind” entitled: “Stand Down Margaret” [ link ]:

I said I see no joy, I see only sorrow
I see no chance of your bright new tomorrow

So stand down Margaret, stand down please, stand down Margaret
I say stand down Margaret, stand down please, stand down Margaret

Oh tell me how can it work in your all-white law
What a short sharp lesson what a third world war

Stand down Margaret, stand down please, stand down Margaret
I say stand down Margaret, stand down please, stand down Margaret

For The Beat this was outside of their usual pop-ska repertoire, but there were many other ska bands of the time that were much more political, singing openly of the sorry state of race relations in the Anglo-Saxon world. One such band was The Selecter [ link ], which included on vocals Pauline Black.

She has recently come out with a book examining her life as a transracial child adopted transracially [ link ], in which she talks about feeling “like a cuckoo in somebody else’s nest”. She says about racism [ link ]:

I think you have to look at the reasons for racism. Nobody is born racist. They learn it. And they learn it for a reason. And the reason for it is working to keep people divided, and while you’re worrying about something else you’re not looking at the guy ripping you off.

Stand down Margaret…

In 1989, Black played Billie Holiday in the Tricycle Theater production of All Or Nothing At All. I remember listening to the radio show L’épopée des musiques noires (The Story of Black Musics) that airs on Radio France Internationale [ link ], and where Black musicians feel more free perhaps to speak of their alienation and their suffering from racism in the U.S. then they are allowed in the American media. Billie Holiday would speak about how she would often be run out of town for performing the stingingly political Strange Fruit.

And so we are here talking about performers whose audience is primarily not of the same race assigned to them, or that they are perceived to be. Which brings us to Lena Horne (among many, many, others), and notions of “passing”, and the exoticism of those “tinged” by race, which we have discussed here as concerns adoptees. The author of Horne’s biography (Stormy Weather), James Gavin, states [ link ]:

“She came out of what was called the ‘black bourgeoisie,'” Gavin says, “a very elite, typically fair-skinned minority of black people who managed to fit into white society by virtue of their skin color, their education, upward striving and very refined well-to-do bearing. . .White people liked the way they looked or they had some kind of talent that made them acceptable. And you were supposed to be grateful for it.”

Grateful.

I reluctantly did an interview about Lebanese adoptees with the BBC last week, and it was a nightmare (another post entirely). It has only re-inforced my concerns about who controls our Voices. I am consumed with the notion of Voice and audience, and the distances of mediation that separate those who need to hear and those who do in fact hear. When my mood is not so great, I’ve often spoken about this blog and our work online as just another form of “dramatic entertainment”, like soap operas, or reality shows, or, for that matter, the evening news; carried on corporate-owned transmission lines to a more-or-less exclusive and elite audience with access to it.

Similar limitations effect theatrical mediation. The play All Or Nothing At All is included in the Black Plays Archive of the National Theatre in England. They state [ link ]:

For political reasons producing ventures and critical work on British theatre for a long time adopted a broad interpretation of ‘black’ as identifying people of African, Caribbean, Asian and a range of non-European ethnic minority populations in Britain. [For example,] the Black Theatre Co-Operative producing work by artists as various as Farrukh Dhondy and Barbara Gloudon. While this interpretation of black has acted as a banner of common cause, of shared experience of emigration and social exclusion and has helped to increase public awareness of work by ethnic minorities, it is not helpful when tracing influence or traditions or in discussing particular identities as expressed in theatre.

“A banner of common cause”.

I like this idea, but I sometimes think we are not much more than Adoption Minstrels, performing for a jaded audience that was tired of us ages ago when we stopped being cute and started to talk (back). This would seem to map onto the final statement from the BPA that the broad “homogenizing” categorization of “black” somehow overpowers the “common cause” that might come from such a description. The problem to me seems to be one of audiences played to, and the resulting bifurcation of Voice.

All the same, I am intrigued by this focus on audience(s) that often is not so overtly expressed. And my question(s) are (finally):

Those of you who write, or perform, or express yourselves artistically, how do you gauge your audience? Does this notion of distance and mediation play a part in the execution or staging of your work? Do you avoid the “political” in your work in any obvious way? What repercussions have you felt for in fact “creating politically”? What would the reconsideration of your audience(s) mean to your work? How might we shift to or aim for a different audience, perhaps one more in need of hearing our Voice?

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2 thoughts on “Common cause.

  1. There seems to me to be too much to address in this, even in the questions.

    Me and my audience. In college, in a class on Surrealism, we read Jarry’s Ubu Roi, an were given an assignment to “ubufy” something; that is, to subject a subject to pitilessly scorn. I wound up ultimately writing a play (much longer than the actual assignment itself) about religion, which one of my friends sweetly asked me about, “What were you trying to ubufy,” because it seemed to him I’d ubufied everything. About one week into the assignment, the professor asked us how our ubufications were going; he asked if we were having any difficulties (not being able to get ourselves to go far enough, etc), and if anyone was stuck. Someone asked the question, “Who is going to read these?” And the professor got very interested an said, “Ah, but that does make a difference, doesn’t it.” Some people who had decided to ubufy themselves were relieved to hear only the professor would read them, although individuals could elect to read theirs aloud if they wanted. I had not considered my audience until that moment or that I might ubufy myself, And so I included a passage where I, the author, was crucified, shat all over myself in agony, and had to write my confession in my own blood on parchment made of my own skin–a scene that had the comic element that my hands being nailed to the cross presented a problem to me writing anything. and, of course, it was this very passage that I elected to read out loud to my peers. This is what happens when i consider my audience. Similarly, there have been many times when I received some piece of criticism about a work, and I then went on to amplify the offense underlined–not always, of course, but certainly often enough that I definitely recognize my tendency to further exacerbate perceived defects of my works.

  2. I hang out locally with experimental composers–and they have a long history of feeling and/or being dismissed, especially when politics get into the picture–though I’d immediately want to distinguish between activism and politics. Sometimes artists and audiences dismiss political works because they are merely topical, and therefore not universal, and therefore not artistic. There are ups and downs to this argument. By contrast, if one has integrated (especially local events) into some kind of narrative–ala Brecht’s epic theater–then this kind of activism may avoid the alienating quality that politics per se tends to evoke, whether in conservatives to don’t appreciate “liberal” jeremiads or “aesthetes” who don’t want the universality of their theater-going (or music) experiment rudely interrupted/destroyed. I find my use of politics to be rather gratuitous—it gets casually thrown into things, largely because I feel stupid about political events or I feel disabled from getting a useful leverage point for politics. The sense of the perverse I described above gets into how I use political material—exacerbating an existing annoyance—but the way that it is integrated into a larger thing (not to aspire toward human universality in art per se) has a quality of activism like I just describe. Except, I’m realizing that I should borrow from Brecht’s example, and set contemporary critiques in the past. It worked for the Gothic novel as well.

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