December 14, 2009: “Best of Both Worlds”

A stellar, all-black cast, a sexy, talented, gorgeous male lead—Gregg Baker—with the most amazing voice, R &B and gospel music, clever, clever staging, the modernized retelling of one of Shakespeare’s weirdest plays; you’d think I would have loved American Repertory Theater’s  “Best of Both Worlds.” But I didn’t.

“Why not?” my husband wondered. “You usually love everything. Even when they’re mediocre!”

Here’s what really, really bothered me:

Having seen another version of “Winter’s Tale” recently, I knew that in the second  act, the love affair between a young man (a prince) and his beloved (really a princess but no one knows that, yet) is threatened by the young man’s father (a king, obviously.) The issue? Class. The prince is a prince and his love is, gasp, poor. (A shepherd’s daughter, it would seem.)

How does this play at ART? The king/father objects to this romance because his princely son has fallen in love with a pretty, young whore whose pimp is her own father!

And, sure, the (originally shepherd) father-daughter et al whore house scene makes for some typically ART (read slapstick) theater: lots of sex, lots of mugging, lots of steamy singing and dancing.

Did ART (read white) decide that staging such a scene just too delicious to pass up?

I’ve read that some African Americans object to the movie “Precious” because it “airs the black community’s dirty laundry.” My understanding, however, is that thoughtful people of color were very much a part of the movie’s history. And that’s what makes me very uncomfortable: If white people chose to tell an all-black story, they must do so very, very carefully. I think ART went for the easy laughs, easy sex.

My discomfort was confirmed when, at the very beginning of the scene, the pimp daddy addresses the audience, telling us that he’s now in business, a business that didn’t require a whole lot of capital.

“Can you guess what it is?” he asks coyly.

The woman sitting next to me muttered,”Drugs.”

White people have enough crazy, crazy stories running in our heads re people of color already. I know I do.  I don’t need other white people to reinforce my craziness, thank you very much!

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1 Comment

  1. Hi,

    I shared some of your discomfort with the show–it seemed too much like a minstrel show to me in some ways, though in other ways I found it refreshing and exciting. I actually loved the two princes or dukes becoming vocal stars, and the psychology of the initial conflict in which a man insists his wife offer hospitality to his colleague and then he becomes jealous because she does it so well. I don’t think I can write about this intelligently, because I am uncomfortable with my discomfort, if that makes sense. Out of curiosity, I googled some of the creators, and learned that composer Deidre Murray is an important African American composer with lots of interesting, race-aware projects under her belt. Which gets me wondering whether my discomfort, as a middle-class middle-aged white woman, was intended on the part of the performers/creators? There were moments when Cleavant Derricks, the narrator, seemed angry with the predominantly white audience, but was that part of the point? He is a professional actor, and maybe making some of us uncomfortable was part of the goal of the production. So, I acknowledge my discomfort, but I’m not sure if that’s a short-coming of the production or part of its intent.

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