That’s Provocative?

I’ve had many reviews that I thought were going to provoke people. Because I was so sure that I was going to stir up some controversy with what I wrote, I ended up taking twice as long to write them. Take this review of Syringa Tree, I chose my words very carefully as I brought up this key point:

“While Fagan’s exaggerated movements serve to differentiate the characters admirably for much of the play, a white actress playing the roles of black characters in this exaggerated fashion is also somewhat troubling, for the performance can occasionally descend into caricature.  This is especially unfortunate for a play dealing with the history of apartheid, because these exaggerations come very close to reinforcing racial stereotypes, rather than challenging them.”

I waited for the fallout. Nothing. No dissenting comments on my blog or at (Cult)ure, no in person objections.  In fact, I was so prepared to defend myself, and my opinions, from the controversial storm that I was sure to come, I ended up over-reacting a little to a friend’s comment who suggested I was too gentle.

It was a similar story with a couple other reviews. I would agonize over my words, often filtered through a post-colonialist or feminist lens, to point out serious failings with a given production, then I would wait, expecting a backlash. It never happened. If anything, overwhelming, audiences agreed with me. (This does make me wonder why the artists themselves were not sensitive to these concerns when they were recognized by their audiences.)

Then finally, it happened. A whole slew of negative comments both in person and in writing on (Cult)ure and my blog from a review I had written. I was prepared for this. After all, I had written this about blood.claat:

“Narratives are powerful things, but, in d’bi’s play, the mythological stories told of the past are equally violent and hold little hope for an escape from the cycle of violence/abuse. While there is power (the power to endure) in that mythology, there is ultimately no empowerment. That is nothing less than tragic. At the end of blood.claat I was profoundly moved and also very depressed as no solutions are offered to break the cycle of violence. There is very little hope here; the mistakes of the past are repeated in the present. Women are forced to find strength in their ability to endure their victimization rather than prevent it.”

However, this is what my readers reacted so strongly against:

“I found the choice to include nudity at all in the beginning of the show a little puzzling as later on in the show it is dropped as Mudgu mimes washing her nightgown. The nudity feels gratuitous and pointless, perhaps left over from an earlier incarnation of the script.”

For me this was just a throw away line pointing out a fairly minor inconsistency with the staging of the play. Funnily enough, it was that line that pissed people off.

The most angry commenter said this:

“blood.claat” begins with a ritual – as the entire piece is built around the ritual of storytelling. To even point out ‘the nudity’ and try to make an issue of it – is incredibly narrow minded. I am sad that as a reviewer you felt you even had to point it out. It reveals more about your own insecurities than it does about this production.”

Wow! So I condemn the play, and by extension the playwright (who is very liberal and political), through a feminist lens, and call her play disempowering. None of this offended anyone, but I bring up a consistency issue with costuming/nudity and people are incensed. This was a complete and total shocker! Needless to say, that after this reaction, I came to the conclusion, that you can never tell what will provoke people and I stopped agonizing so much about my critiques.

It’s worth noting, that the writer/performer of blood.claat would later actually change the ending of her play to address the political concerns, raised by myself, and a few others. I consider that the sincerest form of flattery.

Thanks for reading.

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2 responses to “That’s Provocative?

  1. nadinethornhill

    Perhaps the provocative power of your reviews are directly related to how strongly a collective audience responds to the play in question. I had a very strong emotional connection to blood.claat — more than I’ve had with most plays. And speaking to others, I know I’m not alone.

    Perhaps the more provocative the play, the more likely your reviews are to illicit strong reactions.

  2. That’s an interesting thought Nadine. It seems reasonable that if an audience connects with the play, they will be more sensitive to criticism of it. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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