Then the question is: would this happen here?
The performance art piece “Exhibit B” evokes the spectacle of “human zoo,”in which Africans were put on show for the entertainment and gawking curiosity the 19th and early 20th Century Americans and Europeans. Visitors tour a room in which black actors portray the human exhibits as well as portrayals of what modern-day equivalents would might be like. Created by white South African theatre-maker Brett Bailey, “Exhibit B” has recieved rave reviews in several venues. In Edinburgh, The Guardian’s theatre critic Lyn Gardner saw the results as “both unbearable and essential”:
“Creator Brett Bailey has been fearlessly uncompromising in his approach. The experience in the exhibition hall is entirely without comfort. Confronting us with the appalling realities of Europe’s colonial past – the stuff I definitely wasn’t taught at school – isn’t just some kind of guilt trip. It reminds us that most history is hidden from view; it reminds that Britain’s 21st-century ways of seeing are still strongly skewed by 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century colonial attitudes. The masterstroke comes at the end: the pictures and the biographies of the ordinary black Edinburgh men and women who are taking part. Tomorrow, history will look a little different.”
Never mind: Sara Myers, as well as others, don’t want to see it, so they have conspired to stop the work from being seen, at least in England, by anyone else. In her petition at Change.org, she writes:
“I’m a Black African mother from Birmingham. I campaign and work with my community to try to breakdown the stereotypes that black people have to struggle against in society on a daily basis. I want my children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened to their ancestors are a thing of the past. We have come a long way since the days of the grotesque human zoo – we should not be taking steps back now.
If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery this is not the way to do it. The irony gets lost and it’s not long before the people behind the cage begin to feel like animals trapped in a zoo. One of the actors in his piece said “How do you know we are not entertaining people the same way the human zoos did?”
Sara wants her children to grow up in a world where the terrible ways less enlightened human beings treated each other stay so far in the past that nobody knows the happened at all. Sara is wrong. When my theater company performed a reconstructed version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” before it had become a virtual minstrel show, we included a slave auction. I was amazed to hear black teens asking their parents if such things really happened. Sara, who obviously doesn’t comprehend the power and techniques of live performance, actually thought that question from one of the actors was an indictment of the artwork. It was, instead, the point of it.
But because Sarah and others are offended by history and truth, and ignorant of the expansive emotional power of drama, she believes she should be able to keep the experience and enlightenment from everyone else.
The Barbican Theater issued cancelled the five-day run, stating that “the extreme nature of the protest” outside the theater had created a “serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff….We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work. Exhibit B raises, in a serious and responsible manner, issues about racism; it has previously been shown in 12 cities, involved 150 performers and been seen by around 25,000 people with the responses from participants, audiences and critics alike being overwhelmingly positive.”
The statement added it was “disturbed at the potential implications this silencing of artists and performers has for freedom of expression.”
First of all, the Barbican deserves criticism for failing to understand its own community, the power of the heckler’s veto, and the importance of never, never, allowing censorship, ignorance, and political correctness stifle art of any kind. This is exactly the kind of work that can save live theater, reminding society that its power to move is unmatched by all other alternatives. If theater managers and producers capitulate when the state does its traditional and historic duty to causeawe and emotional turmoil among its audiences, and retreat to the warm, safe idiocy and irrelevance of “The Lion King” staring some lapsed TV star, or the latest West End sex farce, theater is doomed. The Barbican is among the stewards of life theater, and failed its mission miserably. It had plenty of notice that this storm was brewing, and it should have been ready to do whatever it took to insure that those who think darkness and amnesia is preferable to light failed to pull teh curtains.
As for the protesters, they are fools, and unwitting allies of those whose values they revile. Self-righteous fools should not be permitted to dictate what are proper subjects, themes or messages of art. Hiding and forgetting the ugliest of human cruelty, bigotry and oppression just allows it to silently grow and gain strength again. The process begins with someone saying, “It wasn’t as bad as people say.” Exhibit B, and art like it, shows that it was, and why it was.
After the closing, Myers exulted, saying that she couldn’t understand why it too the protest to shut the performances down: after all, she had been quite clear about why Exhibit B was “offensive” and the fact that she and the protesters “didn’t like it.”
A note of pride: This is Ethics Alarms’ 5000th post.
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