Biracial Playwright's Work Dropped from MN Venue Due to 'Mulatto' in Title
In a case of misguided censorship, Ames Center in Burnsville, Minn., has refused to produce a production of CAUCASIAN-AGRESSIVE PANDAS AND OTHER MULATTO TALES by biracial playwright Derek 'Duck' Washington, which would have been staged by the city-owned Center's resident theatre company, Chameleon Theatre Circle.
Their problem is with the world "mulatto" in the show's title, which is a dated, usually offensive term used to describe a person with one white and one black parent. In the context of the biracial playwright and actor's work, however, the offensiveness of the term is a fundamental part of what he is trying to address.
Howard Sherman dissects the issue in detail at Arts Integrity Initiative, where he writes that "the dispute over the play came to light when, after several months of negotiations between Chameleon and the Ames Center for their year to year contract, told Washington for certain in mid-March that the play would not be permitted to go forward without a title change."
Washington refused to change the title of the play - which had already been a hit at the Minnesota Fringe Festival in 2016. And Chameleon, which has been Ames Center's resident troupe since 2009, is now looking for a new home.
Washington also sent an open letter to Brian Luther, executive director of the Ames Center, as well as the mayor, the city manager and the city council. An excerpt reads:
I was really excited by the proposal to bring the show to Burnsville as I had so many people come up to me after performances or throughout the Fringe Festival telling me they wished I could bring the show out of the city to their home towns in the suburbs. They felt it would be very valuable to their communities and that this tale of race would have a positive impact on their residents regardless of their demographic background. This made Burnsville an optimal place to launch the show after two successful runs in Minneapolis...
I'm told that members of the city took concern with the word "mulatto" being in the play's title. Mulatto is a word that represents someone that is the offspring of a white parent and a black parent. It is deemed by many to be a derogatory word, as its origins stem from a Spanish or Portuguese work for mule, which is the cross between a horse and a donkey. The show does not ignore the word's derogatory origins and in fact addresses them in the first few minutes of the show. In a large way discussing those origins is a lot of what the show is about. As a person who is both black and white it is a word I still hear even if it isn't quite as present in the modern vernacular. I put a lot of thought behind this word when writing this show. Could I have changed it "Mixed Race Tales"? Possibly, but it is a show specifically about my experiences of being both black and white. I felt like saying "Mixed Race Tales' included a much larger subset of people whose experiences may or may not have represented my own....
So when I was asked by the city if I would change the title, I said no. Not only did it not make sense for the show, it also meant it would be difficult to leverage the show's previous success operating under that title. Before the Fringe I did have one or two people express concern about the word which I believe I was able to lessen with a few sentences of conversation.
Luther, speaking on behalf of Ames Center against allegations of censorship, said:
"There was no intention to censor the show, or stop it from being performed. The only concern was with the use of an offensive term in the title. Being our facility is owned by a public entity, we need to be mindful of what goes up on our marquees, in our publications, displays, etc. It is a reflection of the entire City. As you can imagine, it's a challenge to balance the rights of members of our community (who may not wish to be subjected to language they find offensive), with artistic license. We made what we thought was the most appropriate decision for our facility."
Andrew Troth, artistic director of Chameleon, which released its own statement about leaving the Ames Center, added in an email:
"I will say this much on a personal basis: I find nothing to contradict or disagree with in Duck's public letter. I consider him a friend, I admire his work, I was excited to include his show in Chameleon's intended season, and I utterly disagree with the decision by management at Ames and the City to disallow it. It is my view that in deciding to move our productions elsewhere, Chameleon has exercised the only leverage available to us in response to the Ames Center's multiple points of disagreement with our season plan."
No word yet on where 'CAUCASIAN-AGRESSIVE PANDAS' or Chameleon will end up.
Photo Credit: Bob Alberti