On the phone, Lantern Theater Company artistic director Charles McMahon is being very careful.
Talking with me about what he calls the “aftermath” of his production of Julius Caesar “influenced by the aesthetic and philosophical similarities of feudal Japan to Shakespeare’s Rome,” McMahon says he’s been contacted by many people, “and they have pointed to vastly different issues.”
Does he want to elaborate on what those issues are?
No, he doesn’t.
But given the commentary swirling in Philadelphia and beyond over the last few weeks, we can guess.
A letter from Philadelphia theater artist Makoto Hirano to the Lantern splashed through social media and then regional blogs and publications. In it, the Japanese dance-theater artist offers “friendly unsolicited pointers” on “How to Stage Your Show Without Being Super Racist.”
These include, “Don’t say you were inspired by feudal Japan and then not cast any Japanese actors,” and pointed criticism of the ways the Lantern blended Chinese and Japanese cultural elements.
Actress and writer Erin Quill also weighs in on her Fairyprincessdiaries blog. She examines the Lantern’s apparent rationale for their setting as a Rome that has been conquered by Japan and then subsequently evacuated by all Japanese people (“no Asians in Rome-pan”) and can’t “stop her magic wand from applying several well placed whacks to the tushes” of everyone involved.
Makoto finishes by saying, “Don’t stage your production without consulting experts,” or “at the very least don’t forget to ask yourself IF THIS IS WRONG at SOME point in the process. Because let me be super clear: it is.”
So with mixed reviews despite a magnetic Forrest McClendon in the title role, it wasn’t exactly the 20th-season “highlight” touted in the press release. For instance, Citypaper’s Mark Cofta said feudal Japan was getting the “random ass-poke” in the modern game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey that Shakespeare production concepts have become.
Can McMahon, who does have a long history of casting multiracial classics, speak to whether Makoto’s assumption about a lack of experts on Asia at the Lantern in this case is valid?
“I’m not going to comment on the particulars of Makoto’s letter,” McMahon says, though he emphasizes that he values the writer’s opinion: “He’s an artist in this community. He has every right to voice his opinion and express it in whatever way he sees fit.”
Various comment threads, especially the one over at the Philadelphia magazine blog (which includes Cofta drawing ire for saying there are only two Asian actors living and working in this whole city) demonstrate the problem of borrowing Japanese culture without casting any Japanese actors and perpetuating a false stereotype of a homogenous Asian culture.
“When they see a production that appropriates an Asian culture or mixes distinct and separate Asian cultures together, and see no actors [who] look like [they’re] from an Asian culture,” one reader comments about the “baggage” Asian-American actors carry, “it just reminds them of that ‘who cares’ attitude and how invisible they are.”
McMahon says reactions to the show surprised him, but he takes them seriously, even though he feels his production choice is not out of line with what the Lantern and others have been doing with Shakespeare for years.
Individuals and members of the media have wanted to lend their ears to the Lantern, and the Lantern said it wanted to lend its ears to them in a cautious public statement about “foster[ing] dialogue.” But it’s tough for the artistic director, who says that the delay of more than two weeks between BSR’s initial interview request and our conversation after the end of Caesar’s run was not an attempt to silence the issue.
“I’m painfully aware that when something comes up that’s controversial, there are many times that somebody just tries to make it go away. . . .I think we’re very sensitized nowadays to B.S.,” McMahon explains. “I do not want to be somebody who’s going to start slinging that around.”
In other words, he’s “in the middle of a lot of communication and a lot of stuff that I need to sort through in a serious and respectful way.” For McMahon, though he says he values the press, the “real constructive forum” for this discussion right now is “private conversation.”
That is one of several ironies in our chat, since he also says theater itself is “public dialogue” because it’s “an art form in which people are an important part of the medium,” both onstage and in the audience.
McMahon apologizes a few times throughout our conversation for not having anything to say that would make “really good copy.” I answer that sound bites (or denigrating the Lantern or its critics) aren’t the point of talking about this. But I don’t agree when he says the controversy is still in its early stages. The show in question has finished its run, and the issue of a lack of opportunity for minority artists — even as the trappings of their cultures are assembled onstage as design concepts — has been churning for years. (McMahon does acknowledge this, noting that diversity panels have long been a staple of TCG conferences.)
The beginning — for some of us
“This, for me, is the early part of what I expect is sure to be a pretty big discussion,” he says. He is right about one part of that. It may be the early part of the discussion for him, but it is not a new discussion overall. And it’s already “pretty big,” both in terms of the Lantern’s production and the issue of multiculturalism in the broader theater world.
“I think this is an incredibly important, difficult, and emotionally fraught issue,” McMahon says of why it’s hard for him to speak up. He wants to advance the conversation “with humility. . .I feel reluctant to comment on things that I understand so poorly and so remotely, where my experience is very, very limited.”
But not so limited that you’d borrow the culture in question as a setting for your show?
McMahon veers away from that query by emphasizing, again, how complex this all has turned out to be and how he wants to proceed with care, because the Lantern’s mission is to serve the whole community: “We don’t want to alienate any part of it.”
I certainly will not be the first to point out that it’s already a little late for that.
“To the extent that there has been some sense of hurt or offense, that is something that I am absolutely not trying to do. It’s painful for me to think that something that I would do would be perceived as offensive by somebody else,” McMahon says.
So is this a case of the “I’m sorry you were offended” non-apology?
No, McMahon insists. “I think that when somebody is wounded, and they hurt and they tell me ‘this hurt me,’ it is not my business to tell them you’re not justified to feel that.”
As always, BSR looks forward to continuing the conversation.
For Gary L. Day’s review of this production, click here.
For Wendy Rosenfield’s essay on diversity in theater, click here.
For Robert Zaller's review, click here.
For an opposing opinion by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
What, When, Where
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, directed by Charles McMahon, February 6 - March 16, 2014 by the Lantern Theater Company. St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia. 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.