Theatre as a two-way street

Denison Theatre’s The Drowsy Chaperone has been a huge hit with students and Granville residents alike. And last week, the cast and crew stayed around after the performances for “talk-back” sessions to address some of the issues raised in the play.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a musical within a play, featuring a wildly enthusiastic fan of Broadway musicals, who is perched on the edge of his armchair as he watches the songs on one of his favorite albums come to life. In the story, a chaperone attempts to keep a bride and groom from meeting before their wedding to avoid bad luck.

The Drowsy Chaperone offers an upbeat reprieve from reality, but there’s also an undercurrent of social commentary on the simplistic, insensitive manner in which minority groups have been portrayed for the entertainment of the masses.

Emerita Professor Joan Novak (religion and women’s studies) and Assistant Professor Jack Shuler (English and black studies) facilitated Thursday night’s talk-back, which included cast, audience members, and the director, Assistant Professor of Theatre Cheryl McFarren.

For several playgoers, this was their second visit to the show, and many of the spoofs of racial stereotypes didn’t really sink in until they had seen it twice, since the production is packed with glitter, dance, and catchy tunes that occupy the senses the first time around.

According to McFarren, one of the scenes that best illustrates the play’s combined parody and satire is at the beginning of Act II, which opens with the politically incorrect “Oriental” song. It probably got the most laughs, but this was because we’re no longer the Broadway musical crowd of old that might have accepted such representations as legit.

From the start of rehearsals, the cast was appalled by the slurs and worried that overall, the play might be misinterpreted by audiences.

But “risk is involved in every artistic endeavor,” Novak said. The cast bravely took on the stereotypes, like the ditzy blonde showgirl, the jokes about the elderly, quips at the expense of homosexuals, jabs at “Mediterranean” folk, and images of grinning, silenced African Americans—not as endorsements of those stereotypes but as inanely broad strokes that fit no one.

Shuler emphasized that the effort to avoid buying into stereotypes is a lifelong, active endeavor. If you maintain a passive attitude towards racism (in animated movies, sports team mascots, print and TV ads, etc.), he said, stereotypes can seep into you and warp the way you look at the world.

Noticing some discomfort among the cast about the tap dancing scene, Keith Nolen ’13 was concerned that many people know stereotypes are wrong but don’t really understand why. But thought-provoking analysis in the talk-back session helped to reveal some of the history behind these sweeping generalizations.

Intrigued by what writers 20 years from now will spoof in today’s culture, Novak summed up the evening’s learning opportunity by encouraging the talk-back participants not to give future playwrights a lot of material to work with in that department.

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11:55 PM March 4, 2011

Joe gorman wrote:

Just enjoy the show for what it is, a snapshot in time. You are able to see the past, so move on. The minstrel shows of the 30s disparaged everyone, but at least they brought talent forth from the fields and mountains of Appalachia that otherwise would have languished, hidden from mainstream America. Read jeff bigger’s book, “The United States of Appalachia” to see the importance of the this.

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