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Why Theater Should Spark Conversations Not Cancel Culture

July 17, 2020 by Diep Tran
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A few weeks ago, as Hamilton was released on Disney+ and inspired a whole lotta criticism and think pieces, another question was floating around the internet: Was Hamilton cancelled? The show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda posted this on Twitter: “All the criticisms are valid. The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical. Did my best. It’s all fair game.”

I want to get one thing out of the way: criticism does not equal cancellation. I was an English major in college and part of being an English major was discussing and critiquing plays, poems and books — sometimes down to the most minute detail, like the placement of a line break.

The thing about Broadway fan culture (and stan culture in general) is it doesn’t allow for that kind of nuance or even dissent. If you love the thing, you must defend it against all criticisms. And if a show is criticized, that means it’s tarnished forever — problematic becomes synonymous with cancelled. Both polarity does a disservice to artists, who make things so people can discuss and debate them. A show that stands the test of time can stand up to hyper-scrutiny on all fronts. Hamilton is a strong enough work that it can survive being taken apart and analyzed.

I’m not as generous as Miranda to say all criticisms are valid; there are such things as bad-faith criticisms (which you would know if you ever hang out on political Twitter). I am also skeptical of people who have latched onto the questionable things about Hamilton, or any piece of art, and use that as an excuse to dismiss the entire thing altogether, as if art needs to be perfect in order to be worthy of being consumed.

That is why I’m a fan of problematic favorites, or guilty pleasures: things you love but you also acknowledge the problems. Flaws don’t diminish a piece of art; they just show you that the people who made it were, well, human. I can love The King and I and yet also admit it’s portrayal of Siamese culture is inherently colonialist and white supremacist. But the songs still make me swoon.

Learning to live alongside the problematic is part and parcel of being a person of color in this country. I don’t think you should cancel The King and I and never produce it again. But open up the conversation. Let people express how they feel about it, even if it’s negative. Love and unease can exist simultaneously.

In learning how to articulate what I find good and not good about a play or musical, I’ve learned strategies that help me navigate my personal life. When a friend and I are having a disagreement, instead of reacting defensively, I take a breath and figure out why. Why am I feeling this way? Why are they acting like that? How can I articulate what I’m feeling clearly, without defaulting to blame? Learning how to analyze art has helped me analyze myself.

It’s also helped me make sense of the world right now, when popular discourse is forcing us to draw battle lines around issues like racial justice or mask wearing. Those who distribute propaganda want us to be polarized, to take a side without thinking about it.

But what if we all said no? What if we learned to articulate, for ourselves, why certain issues matter to us.

Black lives matter to me because….”

“I think we need to take funds away from the police and re-allocate them to social services because….”

Then we go from repeating talking points to truly understanding. To go beyond, “this thing is good or bad” to the why of it all.

Making an absolute statement shuts down conversation. A why or a because opens it up. And in today’s polarizing times, there should be less judgement and more listening. Most things in life aren’t 100 percent perfect or 100 percent terrible, it’s somewhere in the middle. We will be better off if we learn how to be comfortable in the middle.