Pro­gres­sive failure

Why didn’t MJ Kaufman’s Whisper’s Gone’ gar­ner more press?

4 minute read
Why didn’t this show get noticed in the press? Cast members of Theatre Exile’s ‘Whisper’s Gone.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin.)
Why didn’t this show get noticed in the press? Cast members of Theatre Exile’s ‘Whisper’s Gone.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin.)

In June, I saw Whisper’s Gone by MJ Kaufman. It was fun. The acting was good, the staging inventive, and the text believable. However, this is not a review of Whisper’s Gone. Rather, this is a review of us, the progressive arts community.

Here’s your lede: According to the producer, there was no press. Local, regional, national, it didn’t matter.  Nada. Nicht. Null. None. Zip. Zero. Zilch. While this is not uncommon for small productions, the resumés of the artists involved would seem to guarantee at least a few reviews. (Here’s the only one I could find, in the Philadelphia Free Press. BSR spotlighted the show in a June 19 preview).

The assumption

Whisper’s Gone was a world premiere written by a playwright who has an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, and a long list of accomplishments — including top-notch residencies and fellowships, and a position as a staff writer on the Netflix series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Kaufman, a trans playwright, is represented by possibly the single best new play agent in the US, Beth Blickers. Whisper’s Gone was produced by Deborah Block, producing artistic director of Philadelphia’s well-respected Theatre Exile, and directed by Rebecca Wright, who has been a professional director in Philadelphia for the last 10 years, as well as the artistic director of the immersive theater company Applied Mechanics. The cast included trans performers, some of them Equity members, as well as cis actors who would be known to most Philadelphia theatergoers, such as Geneviève Perrier. The play is about negotiating questions of identity, including, but not limited to, growing up trans.

Here’s the reason for the above paragraph: there is a common assumption that works by underheard communities are somehow lesser than mainstream works, whether that shows in the credits of those involved or in some white male bourgeois conception of professionalism. The unspoken underlying thesis is that underheard voices are underheard on merit, which denies everything I understand to be true about the world we live in. More to the point, this production defies that analysis.

Why?

Frankly, I’ve been confused about the failure of this play to garner more attention. It presents itself as a play geared to everyone, but aimed at young audiences. Perhaps that’s the problem—except for the fact that YA literature is everywhere these days, and being read by people of all ages (John Green’s 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars, a sterling example of the genre, became a hit movie). So, if the lack of recognition is not about the intended audience, what could it be?

Perhaps it was because of its presentation exclusively in parks around the city — yet Shakespeare in Clark Park always garners an audience, so it’s not as if audiences are not used to the idea of theater in parks. Perhaps it’s the fact that the play was free, and in our capitalist society we tend to conflate price with value — except for the fact that free, whether it is free food at a supermarket opening, or a free workshop, or free admittance to a museum, has always garnered crowds. We all like the idea of getting something for nothing.

You could argue that the play was not extraordinary. While I agree, to say that writing by marginalized playwrights must be extraordinary to get noticed sets a ridiculously high bar which results in silos for the very artists we are trying to uplift. And as someone who has worked in the theater for a long time, I have seen tons of ink and multitudes of pixels spent on mainstream plays that are objectively worse than Whisper’s Gone.

Looking inward

Sadly, the only answer I can come to when interrogating the lack of press regarding Whisper’s Gone is that it’s us. The progressives who talk about lifting up marginalized voices let this one down. Why? Because even as we promote intersectionality, it seems that trans issues have a permanent red light. Yes, spectacle from trans or gender-nonconforming artists, like Taylor Mac, is celebrated, but in judy’s case (Mac’s pronoun), most reviews focus on the spectacle and judy’s unique political analysis, as opposed to the cultural acceptance of a trans or gender-nonconforming performer. Whisper’s Gone presented a much more quotidian opportunity. Between the themes of the work and the caliber of the artists involved in presenting it, this piece was a perfect opportunity to celebrate the acceptance of marginalized voices, and we blew it.

I didn’t want to write this essay, because I hoped it wouldn’t be necessary, but we have to realize that progressive politics extend far beyond legislation and into every choice we make in life. We can support other progressives, whether they are doing cultural, political, or spiritual work. In fact, we have to, if we want to make lasting change. It’s easy to come up with reasons Whisper’s Gone didn’t hit the mainstream radar, but I would argue that we didn’t know about it because our actual intersectionality doesn’t yet live up to our theoretical analysis.

What, When, Where

Whisper’s Gone. By MJ Kaufman, directed by Rebecca Wright. June 22 through 30, 2019, in various Philadelphia parks. (215) 218-4022 or theatreexile.org.

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