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Basic Humanity Of The Arts World -- We Hope -- Transcends Race

June 7, 2007

The title of this blog post comes from an article by the San Francisco Chronicle's cultural commentator, Steven Winn which appeared in yesterday's paper. In the article, Winn discusses two recent Bay Area arts scene mishaps which may have (but probably did not) involve a level of racial discrimination.

Winn helpfully summarizes the two stories. I'll quote him directly:

Acting with what they later called unthinking haste (and what others ascribed to unthinking racism), Yoshi's released a 10th anniversary CD last month with no African American performers included. Some people noticed and began talking and e-mailing one another and discussing it on radio. Linked to another story, about the racial composition of the forthcoming Berkeley Downtown Jazz Festival bookings, the news made the front page of The Chronicle. Yoshi's issued an apology the next day and withdrew the CD, which they were selling only on their Web site, and vowed to issue a replacement.

At San Francisco Opera, three days before the opening of "Don Giovanni," soprano Hope Briggs was fired and replaced by Elza van den Heever in the role of Donna Anna. Instead of colluding with management on some face-saving euphemistic excuse, Briggs agreed to the company announcement, that she "was not ultimately suited for the role in this production." Briggs, who is African American, said she did not think race was a factor in her firing, saying instead that she had been given no advance warning that her work was substandard. That, in turn, raised the question of whether the company may have been reluctant to criticize a black singer during rehearsals.

Winn ends his article with a plea to people to remember what purpose the arts serve: "The arts, we believe, we hope, are different, a realm where we really can connect -- beyond race and class, beyond identity. We shouldn't have to count and keep score and pay attention in that way. But music and the other arts don't change or obliterate who we are. They show us the glimmer, the possibilities, the aspiration. That's why we keep listening -- to the music and maybe, if we're lucky, to each other as well."

Of course, Winn is correct. But what he doesn't go into in his article is the obsession that many artists themselves have with race. The theatre, in particular, is packed with race-related plays each year and public talk-backs about race issues. Artists don't seem to be able to get beyond the most basic debates about skin color in this country, whether it's Anna Deavere Smith creating the Institute on Arts and Civic Dialogue as a forum for the discussion of these ideas, or Equity getting uptight about colorblind casting, or playwrights like Lydia Diamond writing didactic dramas like Voyeurs de Venus.

Until American artists start moving beyond dealing with race in a ham-fisted, remedial way, I think we can expect the petty angers resulting from such incidents as the two that happened in the Bay Area this week to flare up again and again.



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