Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Playwright Kirsten Greenidge takes on the man who said "Eh."

Clearly, Kirsten Greenidge would like a better calibre of people to come see her plays. You know, the kind who appreciate her talent and would give her the adulation she deserves. At least that's the message I took away from her opinion piece in The Boston Globe.

Here's part of what she wrote:

"Not so long ago I sat in one of my plays, watching the people in the row in front of me. Their hair was indeed a little gray, but just as noteworthy was their attire. The men had heavy, large-faced watches and well-made sport coats. The women had purses that might have cost three times my family’s usual grocery bill. They each looked healthy — the kind of healthy you get when you have health insurance. This country had kept its promise to them. So how would they react to a play about people whose relationship to that promise is more ambiguous than their own?

“What’d you think?” one asked her husband afterward. A Lexus “L” flashed from his key ring. “Eh,” he replied. In his hand was the program, open to my picture. Did he know I was sitting behind him? His displeasure was not malicious or callous; it was dismissive. Why go traipsing through the unfortunate experiences of others? If this play about have-nots were to implicate him in the not-having, it might ruin the effects of the perfectly lovely Malbec he’d had with dinner."

I don't even know where to begin in discussing those paragraphs. The guy with the Lexus key ring didn't like her play? So what? Is that any excuse for Greenidge to project her own stereotypes about who this man is, based on what he was wearing and what kind of car he "might" drive? And where did she develop the ability to read people's minds?

Greenidge seems particularly incensed that someone she views as well off - with health insurance! - didn't love her play. Would the "Eh" have felt better if it had come from someone younger, from a different cultural and socioeconomic background? Someone hipper? Someone who wore torn jeans and an old T-shirt, who carried a knapsack and took the subway and had a minimum-wage job that didn't offer health insurance?

I sympathize with the desire of a young African-American writer to have an audience that may share her cultural sensibilities and background, an audience she believes will appreciate her more and just get her. She yearns for an audience, above all, that cares about the issues and characters she explores in her plays. Nothing wrong with that.

And Greenidge makes valid points about audiences, ones that are apparent to anyone who's ever set foot in a theatre - they do appear older and whiter, more female. Surveys show they also tend to be more affluent. And those facts, she argues, make it more difficult for theatres and playwrights to offer plays that might upset their core patrons.

But like it or not, those are the people who come. They pay full price for tickets and buy season subscriptions. Many of them do support new work. Year in and year out they fork over their money, get dressed up and come out to see a play when it would be easier to stay home and sit on the couch in front of the TV.

Of course I want theatres to stage works that attract a younger, more diverse audience. I want them to experiment and challenge their patrons. Who doesn't want that? But as a middle class white person with health insurance, who's bought a few handbags in her day, I'm hurt by Greenidge's assertion that because I might not like a particular play, it somehow reflects badly on me. It's a sign that I'm not willing to step outside my comfort zone and try to understand experiences different from my own.

It seems to me that she could have made her argument just as strongly without holding the audience she has in such contempt because one person expressed a less than enthusiastic reaction to her play. Whatever you think about the man who said "Eh," he paid for his ticket and sat through to the end.

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