Wooster Group Play Cry, Trojans! Sparks Controversy Over Its Use of 'Redface'
The Wooster Group in Cry, Trojans! (Troilus and Cressida)
Photo: Paula Court
The 35th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards will take place on April 7 at Exchange L.A., hosted by Zombie Joe's Underground. Visit the Theater Awards website to buy tickets and also check out the nominees.
If the intent of the Wooster Group's recent REDCAT premiere of Cry, Trojans! (Troilus and Cressida), its radical staging of Shakespeare's drama about the horror and dehumanizing corruption of war, was to stir up an L.A. hornet's nest of inflamed identity politics, then the show can certainly be deemed an unqualified success.
The production, which closed on Sunday and openly compared the Greek extermination of the Trojans with the United States' genocide of its indigenous people, sent the majority of local critics out of the theater scratching their heads. It also sparked a tempest on REDCAT's Facebook pages in which commenters condemned Cry, Trojans! as racist, comparing it to The Lone Ranger and demanding that the New York-based experimental theater troupe's funding be yanked.
What appeared to most befuddle the show's detractors - and incense local Native American performers - was director Elizabeth LeCompte's provocative decision to represent her Trojans as ersatz Hollywood versions of 19th century Plains Indians and have them deliver their speeches in cadences that suggested B-movie "Injun" dialogue.
For longtime followers of the veteran avant-garde company, this incendiary intersection of race and representation echoes the controversy sparked by the group's 1981 production of Route 1 & 9, which famously employed Pigmeat Markham blackface routines in order to confront the unexamined racism of both the performers and their liberal downtown audiences.
Photo: Paula Court
And while Cry, Trojans!' use of patently inauthentic "redface" could similarly be seen as an attempt to implicate Hollywood representations of race in a Western narrative tradition that valorizes historical acts of imperialist subjugation and economic brutality, that objective was lost on many in the audience.
"That's not obvious in watching the play," says Randy Reinholz, the founding artistic director of the Autry Center's resident indigenous theater company Native Voices (whose new production Stand-Off at HWY #37 is reviewed this week by the Weekly), "and certainly the text is so obscured as it's performed - with the mock-red language."
Reinholz, who is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and a professor of theater, television and film at San Diego State University, went to see Cry, Trojans! at the first social-media whisper of impropriety and came away troubled:
"What was I supposed to do with my discomfort? As a native person, it makes me enraged to see those images. It seems racist when people are clowning and fooling with those images. I suppose I'm supposed to do something with that rage. What am I supposed to do? How is it directed? What social change is being advocated for? If you put those images onstage, they're powerful. They may not be powerful for people that don't have a sense of the history or are not affected by the history, [but] a third of my nation died in the Trail of Tears. So that's still a big deal. That's still a bit of a holocaust that still has meaning in my culture."
According to Mark Murphy, REDCAT's executive director, who had flown out to New York in January to see a rehearsal of the show, the possibility that the staging's cultural references could be taken in the wrong light was considered. "We did discuss with them that their approach was also complicated and was possibly going to be misunderstood and create some sensitivity," he recalls, "and that it would be important to be able to discuss the [thinking] behind the approach in the event that there were questions."
Wooster star Kate Valk
Photo: Courtesy of Jordan Riefe
Those discussions took place with audiences in post-performance talkbacks that Murphy says were "healthy" and "really useful and interesting." Apart from the Q & A's and answering the odd letter from complaining audience members (two so far, says Murphy), the theater has stayed out of the Facebook fracas because, says the REDCAT director, "It is not a very useful forum for in-depth conversation, especially since most comments are from people who have not seen the work.
"Because, although the language of Shakespeare's play is the 'thing,'" Murphy adds, "this is not necessarily just an interpretation of Shakespeare. It's a performance piece from a group known for working in many different and complicated and layered ways, sometimes almost on a subconscious level that Liz does not necessarily interpret in a direct, critical way. And if an audience member is not open to the group's methods and subtleties and complexities, and instead is just trying to focus only on the play itself, then they could be easily frustrated."
Beyond the audience talkbacks and Cry, Trojans! itself, LeCompte has mostly remained quiet on the controversy, although she did authorize a statement that describes the production as "set in an imagined theatrical world drawn from literary, filmic and personal materials" and that "references recognizable elements of native cultures from throughout the Americas in its exploration of the themes of Shakespeare's play and the atrocities of war."
Reinholz finds such ongoing silence frustrating. "We're going to ask them to talk to us" at this year's national Theater Communications Group conference, he says. "TCG is very incensed about this. I think talking about it in the press just has to be the absolute worst way to talk about this. When I call and say, 'Hey, man, I'm seeing all this stuff. What's going on with this? We have to go see the play.' Now I've seen the play and have to live with these images. Okay. Who's going to talk back to me? I'm still waiting."
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter:
Get the Theater
Your weekly guide to local culture with calendar listings and theater, dance, and comedy reviews.