Why New York City Needs Fire
by Andre Lancaster
“Who needs a rebel if they are dead?”
from Lenelle Moise’s Expatriate, Culture Project
If Expatriate were only a play about the tragic love story between two black women, one gay and one straight, I would have walked out of the performance moved but not changed. Good theatre should change you I’ve always thought.. Thankfully, Expatriate hit the spot. At its core the play puts forth a powerful, cautionary story of the plight of young and terribly gifted artists who love and live as passionately as their art evokes. Think: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Essex Hemphill, and Heath Ledger.
What also made Expatriate especially poignant was its fresh choice of who would carry the story: a Black queer protagonist. In a year of hope filled multi-racial politics and the Tony Award winning musical, In The Heights, this being viewed as “fresh” may fall on deaf ears.
I could not disagree more.
Before I digress too much into Expatriate (go see it), let me directly address this article’s title and why New York City desperately needs fire. Disney, Starbucks, and the Post-Giuliani Police State are three reasons that come quickly to mind. A once unwieldy metropolis known for its insomnia and spontaneity is now overrun with quality of life laws and chain stores.
And for the comic book fans out there, yes, the title is also a not too subtle reference at the imagined hero of DC Comic’s City of Metropolis. In Lois Lane’s “Why the world doesn’t need Superman,” she writes:
“People have always longed for God… We wait for our savior’s return though it will never happen and we realize it was better had he never come at all.”
Ultimately, Lois Lane did revisit her article’s title and the urgency for a hero after Superman saved the world from evil in 2007’s Superman Returns. Hollywood’s messiah complex notwithstanding, the case study is still very apropos. New York City needs not one hero, but many sheroes and heroes. We need a burning enthusiasm for new stories from new perspectives; theatre that pays a living wage for all working theatre artists; a civic responsibility to produce culture instead of a nationalist fervor to wage war; and an audience hungry to be challenged and mindlessly entertained. And yeah, give us health care too!
These are some of the elements that make up our fire and it will, can, and in some ways already has brought new passion to theatre in New York City. Already movements are taking shape. The Code Committee of the Actors’ Equity Association is considering updating its showcase code to reflect the reality of producing 99 seat or less theatre in the year 2008. Off-Off Broadway producers are organizing and rebranding their work as Independent Theater. This fire has come in the form of Mike Daisey’s How Theatre Failed America and, yes, sometimes it will come in the form of a Black queer protagonist not unlike seen in Lenelle Moise’s Expatriate.
What will complicate our efforts will be when fire is misunderstood, ignored or beholden to the aged worldviews that we seek to set ablaze. Case in point: Part of my work at Freedom Train, a political theatre company based in Brooklyn, is to promote plays with Black queer protagonists to other producers. I have found that I have more success in presenting our plays not as Black queer plays (read: token) but as plays that speak to universal experiences. However, once these plays leave our utopia, we inevitably lose control over how they are presented. So while last year’s Freedom Train developed play, Nick Mwaluko’s Are Women Human?, was presented to our audience as a story of a person’s freedom for acceptance and love, it could very well be read as a thoughtful, but inappropriate work for another theatre’s audience. It is in fact a play about a Black transgender person and their audience is, well, white.
Many will read this article and miss the point entirely. They will cite show after show that has a Black lead or theatres that produce non-linear work, or even the rare company that pays its actors and stagehands as much as it pays its development staff. Really now?
Fire is an undeniable, natural element that creates fertile ground for new growth. To not be in constant desire for fire is (boring and) against nature. Openness is the oxygen to our fire — let it burn.
Andre Lancaster is the Artistic & Managing Director of Freedom Train Productions. Freedom Train Productions’ Fire! New Play Festival is set to open on August 6th at South Oxford Space in Fort Greene. More information: www.freedomtrainproductions.org.
Lenelle Moise’s Expatriate is showing at Culture Project in Soho through August 3rd. More information: www.cultureproject.org.