Theatre Artist and Theater Patron, Ken Narasaki, was offended by a couple of jokes in the play Dissonance now playing at the Falcon Theatre, that, as Ken puts it, offered some offensive language at the expense of Asians all for the sake of a “cheap laugh”. I found his open letter over at the Blank the Audience site. I believe it was posted as an open letter on Facebook as well.
Here’s the letter:
I walked out of DISSONANCE last night because of the main character’s “comic” use of the phrase “squinty-eyed bastards” and “Japs”. I have been involved with theater as an actor, writer, director, literary manager and a story analyst for the past 35 years, so I do understand that theater should not be constrained by “political correctness” and I do understand that the character was supposed to be a jerk, and I do understand that you should not be censors because there are things in most interesting plays that could potentially offend any number of people.
I just want to ask you this: Would you have presented the play as is if the character had said “black bastards” and “niggers”? How about “Jew bastards” and “kikes” in the context of a cheap laugh line?
I’m fairly certain that you would not, and I’m fairly certain your audience wouldn’t have laughed as they did last night.
Context is everything and I believe no words should be “taken off the table” because sometimes racial epithets can make important points in illustrating attitudes and illuminating characters. In this case, I saw absolutely no need for these words and believe it is only because the writer and the artistic personnel involved in the production simply discounted how disgusting these words would be to any of your Asian American audiences. Indeed, not every Asian would feel the same sort of horror that I did, but I feel it is important to let you know that it was a surreal experience to sit in what appeared to me to be an all-white audience, to hear those epithets, and to hear the audience LAUGHING. I felt like I’d been tossed back in time to the 1960s when I used to hear words like that on the schoolyard by racist bullies and ignorant classmates who found things like that hilarious. I had to leave because, honestly, I was emotionally sickened by the experience and flabbergasted that it was used so lightly and with so little reason or purpose; it was ugly to me, and a little shocking to realize that my fellow audience members apparently found such racist speech “naughty” or “daring” enough to laugh.
I would also suggest to you that ignoring the impact these kinds of words have on the few minority members in your audience probably have an effect you may not notice: A lot of audience members may wince, but stick it out and in the end, wouldn’t be angry enough to write you a letter, but on the other hand, may never return – in other words, you may be driving away audiences not angry enough to let you know because, after all, it’s not THAT big a deal; on the other hand, they know that your theater is not for them, so you’ve lost them without ever knowing why.
I hope you’ll give this some serious thought and discuss this because I seriously doubt that I will ever return to the Falcon.
Now Ken makes some good points and he’s probably right that the laughs wouldn’t have come so heartily if the jokes had targeted Jews or African-Americans, but whenever I hear about someone being offended I always find myself taking a closer look at the offendee rather than the offender, because as we know (or should) no one in a free country has the right to be NOT offended. It is the essence of Free Speech. Ken touches on this a bit, he seems to understand that theatre is hardly the place to be playing patty-cake with political correctness, but I’m just not sure why the offense has cut him so deeply that he’s considering never returning to the Falcon.
Obviously that’s his right and I defend it and clearly I’m male and whiter-than-white and though I’m blessed with a vivid imagination and a sensitivity to the plight of racial minorities I will never truly know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of any real ethnic bigotry.
But I still gotta ask the question: what’s the big deal?
I remember, years ago, a Japanese-American friend once floored me when, out of the blue, she pulled out the old DWA joke. You know the joke – though I’m sure you’re afraid to admit it – DWA: Driving While Asian. The stereotype is that Asians are horrible drivers, unfortunately, whether anyone wants to admit it, there is some truth to the cliche. I often find myself behind a car that is driving so badly it makes me want to run them off the road, when I finally get up close to them nine out of ten times they are either Asian or very very old. Sorry. That is simply an empirical truth that I have had to embrace in my 30 plus years of driving the roads of America. Most of you know it’s true as well, but I’m guessing you don’t have the balls to admit it. Certainly being a bad driver isn’t exclusive to these two groups, but it’s like the old adage, all Republicans aren’t racist, but if you’re a racist, you’re probably a Republican. Like the DWA joke, I find this Republican joke to be both amazingly shallow, narrow and containing a kernel of truth.
So back to this friend of mine, this was many years ago, I always knew my friend had a sense of humor but had never really seen it in action. Then one day I was driving and we were trying to avoid a careless driver and then pulled up and saw that the driver was Asian. She shook her head mournfully, “DWA”, she muttered. It was the first time I’d heard the phrase. I asked her what it meant. She told me, “Driving While Asian”. I laughed. Then asked her to explain. She looked at me deadpan and said, “Don’t you know? It’s because we have these squinty eyes and can’t see as well as other people.” I almost drove off the road I was laughing so hard. She laughed as well. She admitted that she sucked as a driver and really had no real answer as to why Asians are such bad drivers but that they simply were so she offered the “squinty-eyed’ excuse. Of course it was absurd and yet somehow plausible and I had never thought of it before, but it was simply a joke, based – barely based – in a truism. And so we laughed and enjoyed the absurdity of it all.
It was a refreshing moment, to say the least.
Because a simple truth about race was acknowledged – couched in humor – and no one was hurt by it. And probably because an Asian person had instigated the joke. There was no hatred, no malice intended, no feelings of inferiority, just a good old stereotypical joke. I’m Scottish and I constantly get nailed by jokes about drinking and stinginess with money. Neither which is true of course – ahem – and yet I find these jokes very funny and whether I care to admit it or not (I do btw) they carry some truth.
So what’s my point?
That these stereotypes and cliches, though they can be used in hateful ways and obviously still are, have within them a kernel of truth, and by airing those unspoken sentiments, sometimes laughing at them, we free ourselves from their dominance. Name the Beast and the Beast loses its power.
It makes me think of the brilliant Clybourne Park which just played at the Taper, how we just can’t help tripping over ourselves in an effort to not appear “racist” when talking about race. EST-LA is mounting an even more provocative play this month called The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King. I have read the play. It is going to offend all sorts of people and probably provoke all sorts of controversy. In a good way.
The great comedian Lenny Bruce understood this truism. He used to pick out a black guy in the audience, lock eyes and just start raining down racial epithets on the guy, “Nigger. Jungle Bunny. Sambo.” Until the guy was ready to kill him. Then Bruce would stop and smile and tell him that they were just words and they only hold dominance when we allow them to: our response to the attempt at offense is what matters, not the offense itself. He’d then have the guy do the same to him just out of fair play.
It’s one of the reasons I find the bleeping or editing of “offensive” language on Network TV ridiculous. Everyone knows what was actually said and now that you’ve bleeped it we’re thinking even more deeply about the word we know that you have tried to conceal. By trying to conceal it you draw even more attention to the thing that you are trying to conceal. By the attempt to censor you have made the very thing you are trying to hide even more powerful than it should be.
So yes, Ken, “squinty-eyed bastard” was an easy cheap laugh (I saw the play), but it had some basis in context and in character – as you were able to admit – and yeah I laughed a little bit, wasn’t exactly a belly laugh for me – but unfortunately I think the fact that it has wounded you so deeply says more about you then it does about the play or the Falcon’s decision to produce it.
And in answer to your question, Ken, yes, I would probably have laughed if the joke was geared towards Jews or African Americans, if it was a well told joke.
What was more offensive to me about Dissonance was the fact that everybody on that Falcon stage seemed to be doing a hell of a lot of ACTING which told me that the director LET THEM, add to that the fact that the story pretty much had NO rising tension or central conflict WHATSOEVER and add to that how most of the critics that saw the play didn’t mention ANY of this in their reviews.
Now that’s offensive.
About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.