We all know that there are some things in the theatre that were once traditions that are no longer acceptable, like not allowing women on stage or performing in blackface. While the ratio of male to female roles is still outrageous, and blackface does still happen in our very own country, we can say that we have made some progress in these areas. I believe, though, that there are other areas in which we need to improve at a greater rate. I would even go so far as to argue that there are some works that are no longer valid to a modern audience, despite how much they are loved and continue to be produced. Here are some examples, and some reasons why.
The music in this show is beautiful, it's got a lot of heart and a lot of dance numbers, but the last thing you hear out of the leading lady's mouth is this:
Sometimes, you can be hit. Hit real hard. And it feels like a kiss.
Now, I recently got in to a discussion about how problematic this moment is with a colleague, and he argued that it doesn't endorse physical violence at all. That his interpretation, that she is merely sad because the father of her child ruined his chances to be a part of her life because of his violence, must be the correct interpretation. While I look forward to discussing this with him further and I certainly respect his opinion, I have to wonder how the audience can be led to understand that interpretation from the source material. Relating a slap across the face to a kiss is at worst a problematic way to talk about a character's flaws and at best an affirmation that physical violence is love. Now, for some context the musical was written in 1945 based on source material from 1909. Despite the assurance of my colleague that "Rogers and Hammerstein would never write something that endorses physical violence", the ideas around love, marriage, and abuse were very different in 1945 than they are today. Passion was and is often used to indicate love, and a sign of passion was someone not being able to control their actions around another person because they give them so many feelings. Part of that demonstration of passion was often a slap on the face, from either gender, and it was accepted for a long time that such a show of emotion was real love. Hopefully, we now understand that it is not acceptable to hit people because they make you feel things, and know that such an action is physical abuse and must not be tolerated.
The Taming of the Shrew
Ah, Shakespeare. He wrote so many plays, so many in fact that some are rarely produced. This one though, has stood the test of time and been a popular hit again and again, because it's hilarious! And how could the story of a woman being forced into marriage, mocked, starved, and praised only for being the most obedient wife anyone ever saw not be hilarious, right?
I saw a production of this show a few years ago, and I will admit that I laughed. It's a comedy, it's designed to make you laugh at it. Oftentimes after I laughed, though, I felt very sick to my stomach. Especially because I could see lots of women in the audience feeling the same discomfort that I felt, but the men did not seem to have the same reactions (and were certainly laughing much louder than the women). This show was written centuries ago, and though it can easily be argued that Shakespeare was making a comment on how women are often said to turn into awful people after they are married, so he created a character to be the opposite, the show asks me to laugh at the abuse and torture of a woman simply because she didn't want to get married, and I cannot stomach that. There are lots of productions out there who try to change some aspects of the play to make it more palatable, but it's not just the monologue at the end that needs adjustment, and changing the gender of the abused party doesn't suddenly make it not abuse. The concept of the show is flawed and I do not want to be asked to laugh at abuse any more.
Plays with harmful gay/black stereotypes
I couldn't think of just one play where this has occurred, but I thought I would broaden the category. The key to understanding whether your stereotypical characters are harmful is looking at who is the butt of the jokes they may or may not be telling. Does their character have agency, or do they just exist to be funny because they're fabulous or sassy? Do the other characters interact with them the same way they do the other characters? Are the wants/needs/dreams/feelings of the character taken seriously, or laughed at?
An actor in a production that I saw a few years ago made a choice to portray one of his characters as extremely effeminate. I later went to him and told him I thought it was a very poor choice, simply because the joke became not that this character cared a lot about what he had done and the other characters were being inconsiderate and ruining his hard work, but that he was talking in a "funny" voice and being effeminate. The character could have been gay or not gay, it wouldn't have mattered in the context of the play, but the joke became about his gayness and not about what was happening in the scene. There are many plays, actors, and directors that have no idea how problematic it is for the audience to only ever see gay men (or any other minority) as a stereotype and not a flesh-and-blood human and I think there are a lot of playwrights that are in the same boat.
Plays that only celebrate/feature straight, cis, white men
The reality of the world we live in is that it does not consist of one group of people. However, almost everything we consume in the media is dominated by cisdengered, heterosexual, white men. Lots of people in the theatre industry still don't understand how hugely problematic this is, and I'm pretty tired of being asked to show the evidence again and again. Don't believe me? Do your own research. It's not hard, and nor is it my job to educate you that there has been an imbalance in theatre since the dawn of freaking time. If you want to present to me a show that features seven men and one woman, you had better be ready to argue its merits with me. I would love to see the tables flipped on that argument. Justify your lack of inclusion of women, your lack of content regarding non-cis/non-hetero/non-binary people, your lack of indigenous representation, your lack of non-white actors, instead of asking me to justify the importance of all of those groups.
Ultimately, people will argue against me on this and have very strong opinions in the opposite direction and I welcome that. We're all entitled to our opinions. But I'm beginning to understand that I do not want to see theatre that ignores problematic content for the sake of whatever good content it may contain- and I encourage you to join me in refusing to attend theatre that glorifies abuse, is demeaning towards marginalized groups, and doesn't justify its lack of diversity.