Striking A Chord

To the Editor,

I appreciate the kind words that critic James Reel had to say about the production of Play On! at Arizona Theatre Company ("Black Light," September 16). However, I was appalled by many of his racially insensitive comments about our work and his seeming ignorance of the unhappy history of African American musical theatre.

While ATC would love to produce the great black musicals of Broadway's past featuring the music of the great black artists, we can't. They don't exist. The Broadway musical stage of the earlier part of this century was no less racist than any other part of American society. Broadway was an almost completely closed door to such great black composers as Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Eubie Blake.

These artists were "allowed" to work in the fields of popular music and jazz, or the great performers were "allowed" to be featured in works by white authors, such as Paul Robeson in Showboat or Bill Robinson in The Ziegfield Follies. But they were not allowed into the wholly white fraternity of theatre composers like Gershwin, Berlin, Rodgers or Porter, though their work is of equal caliber. The few book musicals they did write are either so dated or so afflicted with the expected racial stereotyping of their time as to be unproducible today.

That's why so many black musicals of the last three decades are compilations. If the great black American music written in the first half of the century is to appear on the theatrical stage where it definitely belongs, it will mostly be in the form of revues like Ain't Misbehavin', Eubie, Black And Blue, Sophisticated Ladies or the current Broadway hit It Ain't Nothin' But The Blues. Sheldon Epps, the creator of Play On!, is one of the leading black directors of our era, who has tackled everything from Ibsen to Arthur Miller to most of our best contemporary black playwrights. He has made it something of a mission to find ways to bring classic African American music joyously to the stage.

Mr. Reel's statement that most of ATC's musicals of the past decade "merely tossed on the stage a small group of oversexed African Americans with a great sense of rhythm" is breathtakingly offensive to our artists, our staff and our audiences. It is blatant racial stereotyping and certainly not what I expect from a writer in the Tucson Weekly.

In the past decade ATC has produced exactly three predominantly black musicals: Ain't Misbehavin', Blues In The Night and Five Guys Named Moe. All the other musicals that we have produced have had multi-racial casts -- a key element of ATC's mission is diversity, and we often feature multicultural casting -- but none of our musicals has been predominantly black.

But Mr. Reel writes that he liked two of those three black musicals, the Fats Waller revue Ain't Misbehavin' and Sheldon Epps' Blues In The Night. I'll grant him that Five Guys Named Moe is not everyone's cup of tea. But it is based on the music of Louis Jordan -- most of which is low-down, raunchy, silly and outrageous. Perhaps a dark, probing examination of the Louis Jordan songbook would have pleased him more, but it's hard to imagine where "Caldonia" and "Let the Good Times Roll" would have fit in.

I certainly grant you that a critic's views shouldn't merely mirror the opinions of the readers, but I still find it deliciously ironic that the readers of the Tucson Weekly voted Five Guys Named Moe the "Best Theatre Production of the Year" in the 1998 Best Of Tucson issue.

"We've spent too long holding our breath for a musical with black characters as rich as in, say, a Lanford Wilson script," writes Mr. Reel. I think -- I hope -- this was an inadvertent error.

Leaving aside the fact that Lanford Wilson, an indisputably great playwright, has never written a book or a musical, why would Mr. Reel hold up this white playwright as a model for black musicals? Lanford Wilson has only written a handful of non-white characters in his entire canon of works. His most celebrated plays concern white Midwesterners and certainly don't touch on the African American experience.

Or did Mr. Reel mean August Wilson, the multi-Pulitzer prize winning black playwright and author of Fences (produced at ATC in 1989) and Seven Guitars (ATC 1997)?

The clear subtext of Mr. Reel's review to those of us who work at ATC is that we only feature black artists on our stage or in our company in Stepin Fetchit musical routines. (Or "horny Harlemites" as he so derisively puts it.)

Over the past four years alone, ATC has produced such serious and critically acclaimed dramas about black life as Pearl Cleage's Blues For An Alabama Sky, Athol Fugard's Valley Song (about "colored," i.e. mixed race, South Africans), August Wilson's Seven Guitars and Anna Deveare Smith's Fires In The Mirror. Additionally, we are committed to multicultural and gender-blind casting wherever possible.

I would argue that a consistent focus on diversity demands that we balance the heavy with the light, the tragic with the joyous, the exploratory with the celebratory. Should all our productions about African Americans, Latinas/Latinos, Asian Americans and other minority cultures be serious? Even a cursory glance at the program of Play On! reveals that this is a show written, produced and performed by African Americans with a wealth of credits in both serious theatre and musicals.

Was Mr. Reel, despite every press release, interview and piece of advertising in the media that clearly marked Play On! as a happy-ever-after musical comedy, really expecting it to "follow the Bard into darker realms of intellect," as he said in his review? If he wanted entertainers in the Harlem Renaissance, he had only to attend Blues For An Alabama Sky when we produced it last January.

Diversity is a key part of ATC's mission and a prime concern in everything we do -- from choosing plays to selling tickets, from building sets to raising money. Our Board of Trustees is consistently singled out as one of the most diverse of any Arizona arts institution. Last year ATC was awarded the Outstanding Voluntary Organization Award from the Black Board of Directors in recognition of our diversity efforts, the first time the award had been given to an arts organization.

Are we doing well enough? Of course not. While I would certainly not be ashamed to hold our record up against nearly every other major performing arts organization in the state, there is obviously much more yet to accomplish, much more work yet to be done. But here are a couple of interesting facts:

In each of the last eight ATC seasons between 28 percent and 40 percent of the performers on ATC's mainstage have been artists of color. Each mainstage season has included at least one work by a writer of color. The percentages would be even higher if we included workshops, readings and other ancillary programming.

And over the last eight years literally hundreds of reviews of ATC's work have passed over my desk from newspapers, magazines and other media from all over the state. To my knowledge, not one of them, not one, including not a single one in the Tucson Weekly, has been written by an African American.

-- David Ira Goldstein

James Reel replies: David Ira Goldstein is right that in haste I stupidly typed "Lanford" instead of "August" Wilson. I do know the difference, as I suspect he is well aware.

As for the rest of his letter, Goldstein seems to deliberately miss the point. My comments were quite explicitly directed solely to ATC's recent history of musicals, not to its other, far more worthy (and indeed, admirable) mainstage productions, so most of Goldstein's diversionary remarks ignore the matter at hand.

Most, but not all, of those musicals had predominantly black casts, with the "multi-racial" claim justified by only a few token white faces. Those productions generally indulged in the "breathtakingly offensive" stereotypes I bluntly described; if Goldstein is offended by the description, what does that imply about his shows?

I was by no means the only critic in the country to take issue with Play On!'s stereotyping. This and the other newly scripted revues Goldstein has chosen to present aren't doing much to champion African American culture. It's patronizing and racist to pretend that a pile of crap is a bed of roses just because people of color high-step through it.

Who Needs Piano Lessons?

To the Editor,

Regarding "Teacher's Pet Peeve," (Mailbag, September 23): Cheryl Lockhart complains that her sons earn twice what she earns. She does not tell us what her sons do for a living -- it is not unknown that some occupations are more highly paid than teaching. Besides, the American dream expects children to earn more than their parents -- and most parents are delighted, not dismayed, when it actually happens.

It makes Lockhart feel "the lowest of the low." She charges Arizona with being "the worst state in the country for teacher pay...embarrassing. Selfish. Mean." Are we really that bad? According to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the maximum salary for an experienced teacher in Tucson-$45,000-is about the same as it is in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, vastly more expensive cities to live in. Tucson teachers at the upper end of the scale make more than their counterparts in Seattle, Albuquerque, Birmingham or New Orleans.

Yet Lockhart insists that it is not nearly enough if teachers are to be able to afford piano and dance lessons for their own children. (Piano lessons? Does anyone still play the piano?) Well, how much more would be enough? She doesn't say, but she does refer approvingly to Michigan, where "teachers are making $70,000 to $100,000 or more."

Before all our teachers log onto for plane tickets to this teaching utopia, they had better ask Lockhart just where in Michigan she means. The AFT says that the maximum teacher's salary in Detroit is just over $56,000. Perhaps she means Bloomfield, where the average family income is over $100,000, triple Tucson's. In any event, to bring our teachers up to the level of this unnamed northern utopia, we would have to at least double their salaries. Is that what Lockhart is proposing? How unambitious Amphi teachers must be, apparently satisfied with a 5 percent raise when they should be demanding 100 percent more.

By the way, $45,000, the current maximum, comes to $5,000 a month for a teacher who works a nine-month year. At 40 hours a week, which is typical (not the incredible 80 hours Lockhart claims), that comes to nearly $30 an hour, a lot more than is earned by many of the taxpayers who would have to foot the bill for higher teacher's salaries -- and the teacher is also free to supplement her income during the three months she is not teaching. With health insurance, sick leave and pension plan added, teachers in the Old Pueblo are among our highest paid workers. Moreover, where a teacher is married, perhaps to another teacher or professional, as is often the case, they enjoy a family income far greater than that of most families in Tucson, not in Bloomfield.

-- George Goldberg