On Black Characters and the Cost of Diversity

michael-b-jordan-fantastic-four-e1392904953390As you likely already know, Michael B. Jordan will play the Human Torch in the new Fantastic Four film, slated for release on June 19, 2015. This casting decision was met with its fair share of outcry, because Johnny Storm is understood to be a White character, and Michael B. Jordan is clearly African-American. I think it would be easy to write it off as just another instance of fans of a very White and very male industry being a very White and male kind of racist. But there are deeper questions about misunderstanding of the role of diversity in artistic representation. During my tenure at this blog, I’ve written a fair amount about race and representation in the geek world, not just in comics, but also in video games, and theatre. I’ll be honest, I’ve found a dearth of good arguments against increasing the level of racial diversity in geek culture. Once more, with feeling: brown kids deserve more brown superheroes. Most counter-arguments to that notion are vapid, disingenuous, or just plain racist, like “most people won’t be able to relate to that character if his race is changed/is nonwhite”. There’s a comic over at Critical Miss that sums it up perfectly:

People can identify with Fox McCloud and he’s a bipedal fox. But a dude with darker skin is somehow too alien? What is that if not [racism]?

Arguments like this one are easily, and hilariously, dismissed (seriously, go read that comic). But every once in a while, a more seductive argument against diversity of representation pops up. It usually goes something like: “Why is it okay to change the race of [x], who is White, but not okay to change [y], who is a POC, to a White character?” The argument relies on a rather misguided sense of absolute equality, among myriad other problems. It’s probably easier to get traction on such an issue if we phrase it in terms of concrete examples.

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Penny Arcade Expo and “Zoo” Diversity


Geek culture is a beautiful thing, and terrible. In that way it is kind of like Galadriel. It is also very, very white. In that way it is also like Galadriel. Unlike Galadriel, it is not very female. In all seriousness, one of the things that geek culture struggles with most is being inclusive and diverse, on pretty much every axis. We have serious problems with the most 101-level diversity stuff.NRGfCLT Don’t buy that? Donald Glover couldn’t even suggest a film with a black Spider-Man without people freaking out and calling him ‘nigger’ for trying to “take Peter Parker from [them],” even though black Spider Man is already a thing. A woman can’t even suggest that GTA V might be sexist (who would have guessed that?) without receiving awful transphobic comments and threats. We, as a community, stumble on the most basic race/gender stuff. Class/ableism seems to elude us entirely. I don’t want to ignore or diminish all the great parts of our community that are actively doing something about that and representing in fantastic ways, but when I step back and look at all of our failures in that arena, I get pretty sad. Continue reading

Theatre Thursdays: Location, Location, Location


Gentle readers, I’d like to tell you a story. I work managing a theatre company that primarily produces works of what might be called “multicultural theatre.” What that means is that we basically do plays about people of color and that makes us somehow a special class of theatre, though mainstream theatres aren’t called “white theatres” for staging seasons that are either entirely white, or all-but. I’d be angrier about this, but it does mean that there are specific grants for which we can apply, and non-profits need grants to run. You take the good with the bad, I guess.

The company I work for is currently deciding whether or not to put on a play at another venue, which seems innocuous enough; theatre companies use one another’s spaces all the time. However, this potential working relationship began when the director of that venue — let’s call him Keith — approached me and my boss by saying, “I hate to say this, but there’s no other way to put it: my venue is having real difficulty getting people of color to attend our shows. We’d like your help.” The venue in question is close to my hometown, in an area where about half of one percent of all residents are Black, and the total percentage of people of color doesn’t break four percent. Their season consists of shows like Assassins, Annie, The Wizard of Oz, Legally Blonde: The Musical. All of which (shut up!) are shows I would gleefully fill a seat for. Especially Assassins. I love that show. But that’s a pretty white season.

I just didn’t understand how someone could be confused that in an area with virtually no Black people and very few Latinos, they had difficulty attracting persons of color to their performances. Let’s be charitable and assume that Keith was asking us how his theatre might engage with audiences of color, and I think that the easiest answer is: put on shows that they care about. I mean, for Christ’s sake, if the least white show in your season is Fiddler on the Roof, what do you expect? Continue reading

Theatre Thursdays: Star of Ethiopia Pageant

Yesterday was a big day, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I traveled to Washington D.C. to participate in a commemorative celebration. But I’m supposed to be using this time to talk about theatre, I think.

So the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington is also the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a presidential decree that freed slaves in states in rebellion against the United States. Those two moments, a century apart, are landmarks of unmatched significance in the history of the American Negro. It is no accident that the March and Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech was one hundred years after the Proclamation.

Between these two momentous dates, W.E.B DuBois organized one of the largest theatre celebrations America has ever seen. Called the Star of Ethiopia, Dubois’ pageant brought together thousands of artists on the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to create a spectacle that would be seen by over 30,000 viewers in its first performance in 1913. The pageant attempts to sketch a mythologized history of the black race in five parts, as follows: 1) The Gift of Iron, 2) The Dream of Egypt, 3) The Glory of Ethiopia, 4) The Valley of Humiliation, and 5) The Vision Everlasting. To quote DuBois, the Star of Ethiopia:

begins with the prehistoric black men who gave to the world the gift of welding iron. Ethiopia, Mother of Men, then leads the mystic procession of historic events past the glory of ancient Egypt, the splendid kingdoms of the Sudan and Zymbabwe [sic] down to the tragedy of the American slave trade. Up from slavery slowly. . . the black race writhes back to life and hope. . . on which the Star of Ethiopia gleams forever.

The four shows, in 1913, 1915, 1916, and 1925, were placed on the 50th anniversary of the Proclamation to engage with the timeline of African history described in the pageant. It mixed African traditional history and the role of griot with a fin-de-siecle sense of stagecraft and modernist design elements, fully embracing the combination of traditions that begat the African-American experience.

Now, when the Star of Ethiopia is called a pageant, that indicates that it is a pageant in the medieval style, using arts plastic and performative to draw the audience into an instructive narrative-cum-ritual. The Star of Ethiopia is analogous to Corpus Christi pageantry in that it conveys a history of the world, acting as a sort of narrative gesamtkunstwerk for the mythic history of African peoples. The elements are drawn from architecture, costume, painting, theatre, poetry, and opera. The message is one of progress and eventual vindication, the hero’s journey of a long-suffering people.

Of course, there were elements of pageantry at the March on Washington’s 50th Anniversary celebration. There was a procession throughout the nation’s capital, serving as a re-enactment of the 1963 march and ending at the Lincoln Memorial. This monument would then serve as backdrop for a narrative delivered in oratory, with speeches by surviving members of the King family, labor, religious and political leaders, and Presidents Carter and Clinton. Much as the Star of Ethiopia was punctuated with selections from Verdi’s Aida, the commemoration featured musical performances of the Star Spangled Banner and “We Shall Overcome”, positioning the national anthem alongside the anthem of the civil rights movement. The final act of oratory, a speech by our nation’s Orator-in-Chief, was heralded by the ringing of a certain church bell, a calling-out not only to the past fifty years of struggle, but to the one hundred years which preceded that.

Theatre Thursdays: August Wilson and Colorblind Casting

When questioned on the identity of one Christopher Marlowe, Hallie Flanagan, then director of the Federal Theatre Project, said “Put in the record that he was the greatest dramatist in the period immediately preceding Shakespeare.”


August Wilson

Well, put it in the record that August Wilson was the greatest American playwright at the turn of twenty-first century. A bold claim, I know, but one I stand behind. The latest of America’s greats, he belongs in the hallowed halls along with Miller, Hansberry, and Williams. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (Fences, The Piano Lesson)  became famous for a series of ten plays known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, or alternatively as the American Century Cycle. Each one played on the stage of black life in America and American life in general in each of the decades of the twentieth century. Wilson captured the spirit of African-American existence and ambition in ways previously unattempted and unmatched in quality. His works are as much plays as they are staged ethnographies of the black experience, invigorating to those who could identify with them and illuminating to those who could not. He passed away in 2005. Continue reading

Why I Love Neil DeGrasse Tyson

watch-out-we-got-a-bad-ass-over-hereNeil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, science advocate, author, and director of the Hayden Planetarium, is one of my favorite human beings currently walking the earth. I am not ashamed to say that I have signed copies of four of his books and am a giant NDT fangirl. No shame whatsoever. Let me just make a short list of reasons why he’s kind of an incredible BAMF:

1. He’s a strong, unapologetic advocate for science education and scientific literacy, making compelling and charismatic arguments for the place of science in society. These things make society not just better-informed, but better overall. To quote him:

What should happen, which we should all embrace and value, is that as a minimum people are scientifically literate. So that as an electorate you can make informed decisions about issues that rise up, where your knowledge of science impacts how you might vote on one issue or another, or on important decisions related to the future of society, its economy, the environment.  All of these, at their core, involve scientific fluency. So, everyone should be scientifically literate.

He also believes that scientific literacy serves to protect us from those that would pull the wool over our eyes, safeguards us from charlatanism in all its forms. Put another way: scientifically_literate_neil_degrasse_tyson_bullshit Continue reading