Performance Network's 'Driving Miss Daisy' and Michigan theater's big race problem

Let us start off by explaining that this is not a review, at least not in the traditional sense, of the Performance Network's just opened production of Driving Miss Daisy. We cannot and do not want to comment on the actors' performances or the director's choices or the play's production values. We're sure they're fine. In fact, the Detroit Free Press and Ann Arbor News have complimented the theater for delivering a competent if not engaging production, with John Monaghan at the Freep writing that the show is "an audience pleaser and a nice, safe launch pad" for the company's new director.

But it is in that quote that we find much of what's wrong with the Performance Network's choice of production and, frankly, much of regional theater today. At a time when Facebook's de-facto news ticker feeds us story after story of young (often unarmed) black men being gunned down by police, and a black president who is maligned as much for his race as his policies, and institutional practices that continue to dramatically disadvantage black students at our state's premier university (right in Performance Network's backyard, no less), the company's new management decided that theater's best response, best contribution to the conversation of racial injustice today, is to mount a 27-year-old play that sentimentalizes a black chauffeur's decades-long servitude to a bigoted, wealthy white woman.

Back in June, after a screening of Do the Right Thing at the Cinetopia Film Festival in Ann Arbor, director Spike Lee referred to Alfred Uhry's Oscar-winning adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play as "Driving Miss Fucking Daisy." His bitterness is understandable. 1989 was, of course, the year that Lee's brilliantly provocative examination of racial tension in a sweltering Brooklyn neighborhood — one of, if not the, best films of the year — was ignored by the Academy Awards, denied even a single nomination. Instead, trophies and kudos were reserved for, well, Driving Miss Fucking Daisy.

Yes, both Uhry's stageplay and screenplay focused on how these two characters slowly found common ground and respect while dealing with the challenges of aging. And, yes, both film and play drew connections between the Jewish and black American experience (catnip for the Bloomfield Hills crowd). But given that the character of Hoke (played by Morgan Freeman in the film) was presented without family, history, or, frankly, any real identity, it's hard not to view Driving Miss Daisy as yet another example of the saintly magical Negro patiently teaching a privileged white person how to acknowledge him as a fellow human being. In Miss Daisy's case, that takes nearly 25 years. It's as undemanding and self-congratulatory as a white play written about race can be.

We know this can read like an indictment against PNT in particular. It isn't. We should note that the company most likely chose this theatrical curio as much for its small cast size, easy ticket sales, and modest production requirements as its safe-for-white-audiences subject matter. And to be fair, the company will be presenting Dael Orlandersmith's lyrically challenging Yellowman later in the season, an interesting choice for the Ann Arbor company's predominantly upper-middle class, white audience. It will be interesting to see how attendance compares between the two shows.

But whether it's films like The Help, The Blind Side, or The Green Mile, or plays like Master Harold and the Boys and Miss Saigon, issues of race are often presented as something only white people can fully appreciate and solve. There is no real dialogue or understanding, only the slowly dawning realization by whites that maybe they should treat minorities with a bit more respect. And, of course, in most circumstances that same white character becomes the voice of righteousness and morality. As The Help teaches us, the house servants of the South would've lost their struggle for equality if not for the fictional little white girl who stood up and took their side.

Stories like these are a kind of socially conscious comfort food, assuring mostly liberal white audiences that voting for Obama and being nicer to the supermarket cashier proves that they are not racists. Key to this form of storytelling is that the black characters must be depicted as non-threatening blanks. Oh, they can have their troubles — like Hoke's illiteracy — but expressions of rage or frustration simply will not do. The word uppity may no longer be a part of our white vernacular, but black anger is still regarded with fear, suspicion, and contempt.

Yet if you seriously contemplate the black experience in America, anger and frustration are, perhaps, the most reasonable reactions to institutional and casual bigotry, wholesale cultural devaluation, and a near relentless drive toward social disenfranchisement. Where are the repertory theaters that dare to tackle Amiri Baraka's Dutchman? Why is the great August Wilson's work tokenized, hitting local boards with the same frequency as a cicada's life cycle (and usually during Black History Month)? How long must we wait for a local company to revive Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress or James Baldwin's The Amen Corner? Why must theater that attempts to explicate the realities of black America be rendered palatable for white audiences? Are Driving Miss Daisy and the Detroit Opera's upcoming production of Porgy and Bess really the best our leading performance venues can do? Even with its updated-for-racial-sensitivity script, Gershwin's unsavory stereotypes are a long way from the archetypes some claim.

Even smaller, fringe companies struggle to go beyond presenting the conversation from the vantage of white privilege. Next week, Puzzle Piece Theatre opens White People at the Abreact Performance Space. And though the play tries to confront the perpetual and codified racism that dominates white culture, nary a black voice or face is seen. Except for the valiant and now, tragically, moribund Plowshares Theatre Company, local theater has mostly ignored the anger, disappointment, and complaints that American blacks are forbidden to express elsewhere.

Though it might be a romantic notion, I've always believed that theater has the potential to reach audiences in a way film and television cannot. Not only is there an immediacy to live performance that cannot be replicated through the screen, stage plays have a chance to respond to issues and controversies in real time with provocative ideas. They are not bound to multi-year development schedules and lowest-common-denominator business models. There's a reason that the AIDS crisis and LGBT issues in general first found a bully pulpit in the theater. Because the work of Mart Crowley, Larry Kramer, Martin Sherman, and Tony Kushner was not encumbered by a need to be safe and palatable. Theater has traditionally been the place where artists challenge the status quo, where they unnerve and disturb the comfort of audiences too willing to indulge in entertainment that acts as a cultural echo chamber.

So what happened? Why has so much of modern regional theater become so toothless? Monologist Mike Daisey's How Theater Failed America posits that the boards have essentially become a luxury item for the rich rather than a venue for innovative cultural and creative expression. And though we don't agree with some of Daisey's proposed solutions, one only has to look at the long list of musicals, musty classics, and sentimental claptrap that litter local stages to see that theater has mostly been geared to support the interests of donors and funders — which, of course, tend to be older, white, and wealthy.

Today, the marketing and management of a theater is of more importance than the artists creating the work. In the more cash-strapped venues, the staff must handle both jobs, further blurring the lines between art and commerce. This has incited a creative, racial, and generational death spiral of artistry and attendance, with programming that has become oppressively safe and predictable. Regional theater is seen by many as just another commodity, catering to an ever-smaller clientele.

Which is, I suspect, why the story of black America, in all its rage, frustration, passion, and very occasional triumph, is ghettoized, seasonally earmarked for a single, token slot that has been funded by this foundation or that. It is a story too rarely told and one we feel denied from knowing better. You should, too.

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