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    Brownface in Hong Kong TV Show Draws Outrage and Shrugs

    The TV show “Barrack O’Karma 1968” fueled debate online. To many Filipinos, it was about racism and classism. Other viewers jumped to the actress’s defense.HONG KONG — The Hong Kong supernatural anthology TV series has an eye-catching name, “Barrack O’Karma 1968,” and an eyebrow-raising plot.A Filipino domestic worker, navigating deceit, discrimination and accusations of voodoo, is transformed by her seemingly well-intentioned employers into a Cantonese-speaking surrogate daughter.The TVB series not only chose a Chinese Canadian actress, Franchesca Wong, as the main character for a two-episode subplot. It also cast her in brownface. On the show, her skin grows lighter and she gains a new fluency in the dominant language of the city.After the first episode aired on April 12 and backstage footage emerged of Ms. Wong affecting a singsong accent — presumably meant to be Filipino — as she brushed dark makeup onto her legs, some viewers said they could not believe their 21st-century eyes.“I was really shocked,” said Izzy Jose, 27, a Filipino performer and educator in Hong Kong. “That morphed into feeling really angry and morphed further into feeling disappointed.”The footage quickly became a flash point of debate. To many Filipinos in Hong Kong, it was a twinned mockery — racism and classism. To some actors, it was an all-too-familiar dehumanizing and undignified representation, a reminder that minority performers are often locked out of roles that purport to portray people like them. To others, the brownface portrayal was another example of colorism rearing its ugly head.But another strain of reaction began bubbling up. Many viewers of the show — which first aired in 2019 and which also has elements of romance and drama — jumped to its defense. Chinese-language news media lauded Ms. Wong’s performance and her efforts at a Filipino accent. Others declared it a matter of creative autonomy. Some accused critics of crying racism without understanding the full context of the plot, which, they argued, portrays Ms. Wong’s character as a victim.It all boiled down to a clapback that asked: What’s the big deal?TVB defended Ms. Wong in a statement saying she had “successfully portrayed her character” with “professional performing techniques and sophisticated handling of role-playing.” Franchesca Wong, who wore brownface in the TVB show, apologized on social media last week.TVBEric Tsang, an actor and general manager of TVB, further denied that racism played any part in the show and insisted that brownface was crucial to the plot.“Actually the main character is Filipino, and then she turns pale,” Mr. Tsang told reporters at a TVB event last week. “That’s the tricky part,” he added. “You can’t find a Filipino to paint white, so you can only paint an artist black first, so that she can turn pale again. If we’re making movies about aliens, and we can’t find an alien to the play the part, are we discriminating against aliens? This is what the plot calls for.” TVB’s publicists said that Mr. Tsang was unavailable for comment.Using brownface in this way for a plotline and assuming that all Filipinos are a certain color perpetuate odious stereotypes, critics say.“It essentially is an exercise of privilege,” Christine Vicera, a Filipino filmmaker and researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said in an interview. “Franchesca, at the end of the filming, is able to remove the brown skin. Whereas, Filipinos or Southeast Asians or South Asians in Hong Kong, we don’t have that privilege of removing our skin color.”Jan Gube, an assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong who studies multicultural education and diversity, said that many local viewers lacked the historical context to understand why brownface is offensive. Professor Gube said that most students in Hong Kong’s public schools do not grow up interacting with peers who look different from them. Local schools did not teach cultural respect — let alone the context for brownface — in an in-depth way, he said.“You’ll see a lot of comments from social media and local media saying that the actress is being faithful to her role,” he said. “Not a lot of people are looking at it from a cultural point of view, which means they may not necessarily be aware that donning that kind of makeup means something else to other people,” he added.Brownface (and yellowface — imitations of brown and Asian people by light-skinned performers) evolved from the racist vaudeville tradition of blackface, a staple of American minstrel shows in the early 1800s. Mostly white actors applied dark makeup to play mocking caricatures of Black people. With few other representations of Black people onstage — and later onscreen — blackface performances helped reinforce dehumanizing tropes.Asian countries have had a history of perpetuating colorism, in which the preference for lighter skin is imbued in cultural and social mores. Cosmetic companies have been criticized for selling skin-lightening creams. In Pakistan, the TV series “Parizaad,” about the struggles of a dark-skinned laborer, the lead actor appeared to have darkened his face to play the role, drawing criticism from some social media users. But the show was a big hit when it debuted last year.“Brownface is always wrong because it constructs a racist stereotype. The underlying racist premise of brownface is that the essence of a person is embedded in their physical features, not in their character or actions,” said Jason Petrulis, an assistant professor of global history at the Education University of Hong Kong who studies race and politics in U.S.-Asia relations.“An actor who performs in brownface is suggesting that she can portray the inner character of a Filipina domestic worker by embodying her, by mimicking her skin color or speech patterns or hair texture,” he added.About 203,000 Filipinos live in Hong Kong, forming the largest non-Chinese ethnic group in the city, according to a 2021 census. About 190,000 are domestic workers. In the past two years, as Hong Kong has doubled down on Covid restrictions, the domestic workers have been singled out for mass testing and have been slapped with fines for violating social distancing rules that often exceed their entire monthly salary.For Filipinos who find work as actors in the city, the roles are often limited to clumsy maids, gangsters or bit players in ads for cleaning products.“I’ve always felt that our ethnicity and skin color is used as props to add creative value on set,” said Ray Yumul, a 29-year-old Filipino actor and headhunter. “It’s something that needs to stop and change.”Mr. Yumul said he once responded to calls seeking a Filipino actor in a commercial, only to learn that he would be playing a germ.Ricky Chu, who leads Hong Kong’s anti-discrimination watchdog, the Equal Opportunities Commission, said brownface cannot be the sole measure in determining discriminatory behavior. The watchdog would also have to consider whether the makeup is “very exaggerated” with accompanying “speech and gestures,” he said in an interview.As for whether Ms. Wong’s affected accent in the behind-the-scenes footage constitutes offensive behavior, he said a formal complaint would have to be filed before the commission could judge. (The commission, citing confidentiality, declined to say whether it had received complaints.)Mr. Chu did say that as a viewer of the TVB show, he was more concerned by dialogue that used phrases like “all you domestic helpers” that reinforced “negative stereotypes.”TVB, a 55-year-old broadcaster known for variety shows and serial dramas, has faced boycotts from pro-democracy protesters who accuse it of a pro-China bias. It has also drawn complaints for using racial epithets in a historical drama.The latest controversy intensified after the two episodes in which Ms. Wong appeared in brownface. The broadcaster has since removed those episodes from its streaming site, saying it would review their content.Ms. Wong, who did not respond to a request for comment, apologized on social media last week, saying that she had learned that trying to “analyze, interpret and act” was only part of the job.Many of her supporters responded that she had nothing to be sorry for. More

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    Helping Hollywood Avoid Claims of Bias Is Now a Growing Business

    Studios are signing up consultants to help make sure their movies or shows don’t raise any cultural red flags.In the summer of 2020, not long after the murder of George Floyd spurred a racial reckoning in America, Carri Twigg’s phone kept ringing.Ms. Twigg, a founding partner of a production company named Culture House, was asked over and over again if she could take a look at a television or movie script and raise any red flags, particularly on race.Culture House, which employs mostly women of color, had traditionally specialized in documentaries. But after a few months of fielding the requests about scripts, they decided to make a business of it: They opened a new division dedicated solely to consulting work.“The frequency of the check-ins was not slowing down,” Ms. Twigg said. “It was like, oh, we need to make this a real thing that we offer consistently — and get paid for.”Though the company has been consulting for a little more than a year — for clients like Paramount Pictures, MTV and Disney — that work now accounts for 30 percent of Culture House’s revenue.Culture House is hardly alone. In recent years, entertainment executives have vowed to make a genuine commitment to diversity, but are still routinely criticized for falling short. To signal that they are taking steps to address the issue, Hollywood studios have signed contracts with numerous companies and nonprofits to help them avoid the reputational damage that comes with having a movie or an episode of a TV show face accusations of bias.“When a great idea is there and then it’s only talked about because of the social implications, that must be heartbreaking for creators who spend years on something,” Ms. Twigg said. “To get it into the world and the only thing anyone wants to talk about are the ways it came up short. So we’re trying to help make that not happen.”On Being Transgender in AmericaElite Sports: The case of the transgender swimmer Lia Thomas has stirred a debate about the nature of athleticism in women’s sports.Transgender Youth: A photographer documented the lives of transgender youth. She shared some thoughts on what she saw.Remote Work: Remote work during the pandemic offered some people an opportunity to move forward with a transition. They are now preparing to return to the office.Corporate World: What is it like to transition while working for Wall Street? A Goldman Sachs’ employee shares her experience.The consulting work runs the gamut of a production. The consulting companies sometimes are asked about casting decisions as well as marketing plans. And they may also read scripts to search for examples of bias and to scrutinize how characters are positioned in a story.“It’s not only about what characters say, it’s also about when they don’t speak,” Ms. Twigg said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, there’s not enough agency for this character, you’re using this character as an ornament, you’re going to get dinged for that.’”When a consulting firm is on retainer, it can also come with a guaranteed check every month from a studio. And it’s a revenue stream developed only recently.Michelle K. Sugihara, the executive director of Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, a nonprofit.Tracy Nguyen for The New York Times“It really exploded in the last two years or so,” said Michelle K. Sugihara, the executive director of Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, a nonprofit. The group, called CAPE, is on retainer to some of the biggest Hollywood studios, including Netflix, Paramount, Warner Bros., Amazon, Sony and A24.Of the 100 projects that CAPE has consulted on, Ms. Sugihara said, roughly 80 percent have come since 2020, and they “really increased” after the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021. “That really ramped up attention on our community,” she said.Ms. Sugihara said her group could be actively involved throughout the production process. In one example, she said she told a studio that all of the actors playing the heroes in an upcoming scripted project appeared to be light-skinned East Asian people whereas the villains were portrayed by darker-skinned East Asian actors.“That’s a red flag,” she said. “And we should talk about how those images may be harmful. Sometimes it’s just things that people aren’t even conscious about until you point it out.”Ms. Sugihara would not mention the name of the project or the studio behind it. In interviews, many cited nondisclosure agreements with the studios and a reluctance to embarrass a filmmaker as reasons they could not divulge specifics.Studios such as Paramount Pictures have been hiring consulting firms like Culture House and CAPE.Alex Welsh for The New York TimesSarah Kate Ellis, the president of GLAAD, the L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy organization, said her group had been doing consulting work informally for years with the networks and studios. Finally, she decided to start charging the studios for their labor — work that she compared to “billable hours.”“Here we were consulting with all these content creators across Hollywood and not being compensated,” said Ms. Ellis, the organization’s president since 2013. “When I started at GLAAD we couldn’t pay our bills. And meanwhile here we are with the biggest studios and networks in the world, helping them tell stories that were hits. And I said this doesn’t make sense.”In 2018, she created the GLAAD Media Institute — if the networks or studios wanted any help in the future, they’d have to become a paying member of the institute.Initially, there was some pushback but the networks and studios would eventually come around. In 2018, there were zero members of the GLAAD Media Institute. By the end of 2021, that number had swelled to 58, with nearly every major studio and network in Hollywood now a paying member.Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of GLAAD, the advocacy organization, at its office in Manhattan.Nathan Bajar for The New York TimesScott Turner Schofield, who has spent some time working as a consultant for GLAAD, has also been advising networks and studios on how to accurately depict transgender people for years. But he said the work had increased so significantly in recent years that he was brought on board as an executive producer for a forthcoming horror movie produced by Blumhouse.“I’ve gone from someone who was a part-time consultant — barely eking by — to being an executive producer,” he said.Those interviewed said that it was a win-win arrangement between the consultancies and the studios.“The studios at the end of the day, they want to produce content but they want to make money,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of the advocacy organization Color of Change. “Making money can be impeded because of poor decisions and not having the right people at the table. So the studios are going to want to seek that.”He did caution, however, that simply bringing on consultants was not an adequate substitute for the structural change that many advocates want to see in Hollywood.“This doesn’t change the rules with who gets to produce content and who gets to make the final decisions of what gets on the air,” he said. “It’s fine to bring folks in from the outside but that in the end is insufficient to the fact that across the entertainment industry there is still a problem in terms of not enough Black and brown people with power in the executive ranks.”Still, the burgeoning field of cultural consultancy work may be here to stay. Ms. Twigg, who helped found Culture House with Raeshem Nijhon and Nicole Galovski, said that the volume of requests she was getting was “illustrative of how seriously it’s being taken, and how comprehensively it’s being brought into the fabric of doing business.”“From a business standpoint, it’s a way for us to capitalize on the expertise that we have gathered as people of color who have been alive in America for 30 or 40 years,” she said. More

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    Using Film to Tell a Personal History of America and Race

    With “Who We Are,” the lecturer Jeffery Robinson and the directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler follow in the tradition of documentaries that excavate our past.For over a decade, Jeffery Robinson has been telling an unvarnished history of the United States in an ever-evolving lecture presentation. His talks, now presented as part of his organization, the Who We Are Project, delve into how racism against Black people was bound up with the country’s legacy since its founding. The new documentary, “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” captures Robinson’s eye-opening account (filmed at Town Hall in New York City) and intersperses interviews with civil rights figures and others from his travels across the country.The film, directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler, joins a lineage of documentaries that excavate race and the histories of marginalized people in America, like Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” and Ava DuVernay’s “13th.”“This is not ‘Eyes on the Prize,’” Robinson said of the new movie, which is available on major digital platforms. “But I think it is a call to us being something radically different going forward.”Reviewing “Who We Are” for The Times, Ben Kenigsberg made it a Critic’s Pick and wrote, “It’s a confrontational film, but never an alienating one.”Robinson, a criminal defense lawyer by profession, was the director of the A.C.L.U.’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality in New York, and he remembers walking past the former Cotton Exchange on the way to work. I spoke with him and the Kunstlers (whose last feature, “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” was about their father, the civil rights attorney). These are excerpts from our interview.“Who We Are” partly aims to chart the role of white supremacy in U.S. history. How did you approach that?JEFFERY ROBINSON I say it as a rhetorical question in the film: “What if I said America was founded on white supremacy? Somebody might say, ‘Jeff, that’s really extreme.’” But when you read the words of the people that founded our country and see what they did, I think it’s an inescapable conclusion. Some people have said the Constitution was a compromise between those who wanted slavery and those who didn’t want slavery. This “compromise” protected the institution of slavery, gave the South extra congressional representatives and Electoral College votes to protect the institution of slavery, and made Black attempts to be free unconstitutional. It was unconstitutional for me to try and get away from my owner!SARAH KUNSTLER And they accomplished all of that without using the word slavery. We have a history of hiding what we mean as a country. When we enact laws preserving and maintaining white supremacy, we don’t actually say what it is that we’re doing.ROBINSON There is no way you can associate white supremacy with a law that says you cannot change the name of iconic monuments in the state of Alabama — until you understand that these are all monuments to slavery, essentially, and to people that enslaved people.Robinson with Josephine Bolling McCall, the author of a book about her father’s lynching in Alabama in 1947.Jesse Wakeman/Sony Pictures ClassicsThe film also uncovers the details of lived Black experience: for example, the fingerprints that enslaved builders left behind on walls they made.EMILY KUNSTLER The facts in the abstract don’t mean anything if you can’t connect them to actual human experience. Those fingerprints are one example of a monument to a history of lived experience of enslaved Black people in Charleston, S.C., and in fact, all over this country, that despite the best efforts to erase them, persist. The same way the foundations for the houses in Tulsa, Okla., [site of the 1921 massacre], still exist where the homes were never rebuilt.ROBINSON There was a moment when we were talking with Mother Randle [a survivor of the Tulsa massacre] and she was saying, “There was a pile of bodies.” There was just a chill that went up and down my spine — this woman over 100 years old going back to that memory in her life.Jeffery, how did it feel to share your, and your family’s, experiences of racism, like the school basketball game where the hosts didn’t want you to play?ROBINSON We went to Dr. Tiffany Crutcher and asked her to talk about her feelings about her brother being killed on live television, practically, by the Tulsa police [in 2016]. And it felt like, All right, I should share something. Dick [a basketball coach who stuck up for Robinson] was 21 years old at the time this incident happened in Walls, Miss. This is just several years after civil rights workers got disappeared and murdered in Mississippi. Where he got the courage to handle that the way he did, I just don’t know. But it was clear that if I didn’t play, we were all leaving. And he wasn’t going to put that on me at 12 years old. I think he saw me as essentially his younger brother.Could you talk about including the conversation about slavery with a man you encountered at a Confederate statue who represented Flags Across the South, the pro-Confederate flag group?EMILY KUNSTLER I felt like it encompassed the thesis of the film. I asked Jeff, “Do you think that that gentleman could be reached?” And Jeff said, “I don’t know if he can be reached, but I know that if nobody tries, he certainly won’t be.” There’s value in making the effort, there’s value in laying out the facts and continuing to do so. We can’t be frightened into silence by people who think differently, speak very loudly, and come out in force and wave Confederate flags.ROBINSON The conversation didn’t go the way he perhaps thought it was going to go in terms of me getting angry at him or something. There’s a little twitch in his face as we were leaving, and I think we at least made some wheels turn in his head.How does the movie relate to the controversy around laws banning the teaching of certain American history?ROBINSON The first time we met in person to talk about this [movie] was June 20, 2017. No one was even talking about CRT [Critical Race Theory] back then. It would have been like, “What is that, a breakfast cereal or something?” So this was not done in response to those laws. But those laws coming up can tell you how afraid people are of the information that’s in this film.This goes to the concept of “the minds of the rising generation.” All the way back in 1837, John C. Calhoun, one of the most virulent racists in American history, was saying that we can’t teach children in school about the abolition of slavery, because if we teach that, slavery is done for. The day before the [Trump] administration left office, they put out something called “The 1776 Report” that talked about a return to patriotic education, and they use the exact same quote that John C. Calhoun did: “the minds of the rising generation.”SARAH KUNSTLER Before there were anti-CRT laws, there were textbook wars. So there’s an unending battle of what and how much our children are taught in school about our nation’s history. One of the most compelling things about Jeff’s talk is that he goes back to primary sources. You don’t need to just learn it in school. You can seek it out for yourself. More

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    Will Smith’s Slap Wasn’t the Only Astonishing Thing About the Oscars

    One stretch of the broadcast featured a remarkable convergence of Black celebrities, our critic writes. But in the midst of it all, Will Smith’s victory became a defeat.This pandemic is still killing us. The virus at its center is one of the body. But it’s also costing us our minds. A sacked Capitol building, an invaded and decimated sovereign nation, a raft of refugee crises, more American murders, more overdoses, more harassment — for being Asian, for being Black, for being trans, for being on the subway, for waiting to ride the subway. On Sunday, a couple of hours before the 94th Academy Awards, I watched a man drive the wrong direction down my one-way street. He wasn’t in reverse. His car moved with confidence, with joy, as if this was the way it should be. At the end of the block, he took a right. That was the wrong way, too.So I don’t know why I was shocked when Will Smith got up from his seat that night and slapped Chris Rock. I actually wasn’t at first. I assumed, like lots of other people, that it was a bit because, by reputation, Will Smith walks on water. And surely, the crack that Rock had just made about Jada Pinkett Smith’s short, sharp haircut — that it looked like Demi Moore’s in “G.I. Jane,” a 25-year-old work of crypto-feminist trash — wasn’t the sort of joke one risks his reputation for. But these are now the times of our lives. Anybody could snap, even a man who was once one of Earth’s most beloved humans, even a man who, before he left his seat and swung, was poised to enjoy one of the happiest nights of his 53 years by accepting an Oscar for his role in “King Richard.”I assumed it was a bit also because of the easy way Smith strolled up to Rock and both the compact efficiency of his swing and the physics of Rock’s absorption of it. There was some choreography in it, some second nature. Smith returned to his seat and proceeded to yell up at Rock. ABC had cut the sound. But it was clear by then that we were well beyond bit territory. Rage had pooled around Smith’s eyes. Lupita Nyong’o was seated behind Smith; the agape attention in her face was all but audible. “Keep my wife’s name out your mouth,” he could be seen saying, plus the expletive I can’t print here.So why the eventual shock? For one thing, it wasn’t Kanye West who’d lost it. It wasn’t Martin Lawrence. It wasn’t Antonio Brown, whose erratic N.F.L. antics resumed in January when, in the middle of a Buccaneers-Jets game, he removed his jersey and pads, tossed his shirt and gloves into the stands and then ran off the field flashing a peace sign (this, for Brown, was mild). The source of Sunday night’s disruption is the winner of 10 individual Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards. And the shock was its disturbance of the Oscars routine, a routine that both Smith and Rock were familiar with, as a three-time nominee and a two-time host. The show wanted to settle back into its routine after Smith seemed to calm himself. That was shocking, too. The show just … went on.And yet it didn’t, not with the same disposable exuberance. Smith’s altercation with Rock occurred with an hour to go. And it began a journey through some strange entertainment prism of the Black male experience in this country. It was dominated by ’90s hip-hop stalwarts and capped by Tyler Perry, an artist whose movies the academy had never acknowledged but who lately tends to be on hand as a kind of dignitary. He kicked off the in memoriam segment with a tribute to Sidney Poitier, who died at the beginning of the year and whose enormous symbolic appeal Smith’s most evokes.Rock had been invited to announce the winner of the documentary feature Oscar. Once he’d regained his post-slap composure, he read Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s name for “Summer of Soul” — well, what he said was, “Ahmir Thompson and four white guys,” which isn’t accurate. Questlove, like Smith, grew up making music in Philadelphia. And he, too, was overcome by where he found himself — expressing gratitude to his mother and late father, considering the canonical importance of his movie, which presents the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival as a seamless outpouring of musical rhapsody.Questlove, at microphone, accepts the award for best documentary feature for “Summer of Soul,” with Joseph Patel, left, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein.Ruth Fremson/The New York TimesThen, perhaps, the show’s second most astonishing event took place. Sean Combs arrived, wiser than I’ve ever seen him. He sensed, perhaps, that maybe we’d forgotten that Rock wasn’t the actual host and that the night had gotten away from Wanda Sykes, Regina Hall and Amy Schumer, the show’s official M.C.s, and asked the room to give it up for them. He then addressed The Incident. “I did not know that this year was going to be the most exciting Oscars ever,” he said. “OK, Will and Chris, we’re going to solve that like family at the gold party, OK? But right now we’re moving on with love.” Had anyone told me that the person who might follow an altercation between the Fresh Prince and the star and co-writer of the rap parody “CB4” with an offer of conflict resolution was the founder of Bad Boy Records, that this offer would be extended at the Academy Awards, and that this person had been invited to pay tribute to “The Godfather” for its 50th anniversary, I would’ve asked whether Combs was the last star alive. He knows from beef. And in the matter of skirmishes, he appears to be a vegetarian now.Smith leaves the stage after slapping Rock.Ruth Fremson/The New York TimesThat stretch of the broadcast said something to me about both how much farther Black people — Black men, especially — had come after centuries of American entertainment that for most of its existence had ignored their work and their existence. That stretch began in tastelessness, violence and pique, included the anointing of a divine achievement in nonfiction filmmaking and ended in a gospel-oriented celebration of the lives of the dead. Something had come full circle. A lot of odds had to be beat for these men — raised poor, lower-middle-class — to converge in this strange moment, as affluent shapers of culture. But an arc on that circle has marred the whole. And I don’t think that it’s overdoing it to identify that blemish as a tragic drama.Back in his seat, Smith waited, as per custom, for his category, best actor. The producers apparently didn’t ask him to leave. His name was called. As per custom, he took the stage and delivered a speech that has been inspected for the contrition expressed (to everyone but Rock) and identifications forged. He used it to explain that playing Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams, had awakened in him an understanding of himself as a protector and defender — of women, of Black women. A couple of weeks earlier, he’d watched Jane Campion insult the meaning of the Williams sisters’ importance and could do nothing. And last year, he reconvened the cast of his show, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and wept over his failure to save the job of Janet Hubert, who spent three seasons playing Aunt Viv. At the Oscars, as he spoke through tears and clutched his Oscar, the Williamses, up in their seats, seemed like passengers on a roller coaster.Since November, Smith’s memoir, “Will,” has been one of the most popular books in the country. Its psychological centerpiece involves his guilt over seeing his father badly beat his mother when he was 9. But its prevailing psychological metaphor is the brick wall he learns to build alongside his father, his Daddio. What seemed to break on Sunday night was a kind of cycle. He watched his wife wince and perhaps saw his mother. Snap. Trauma can’t exonerate Smith: The combined age of the three people involved in this triangle is 160. But maybe it can explain that, for a few rueful minutes, a wall had come down — or gone up. Smith might have left his body. He was no longer 53 but 9 again; and poor Chris Rock, he was Daddio.Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith in the audience at the ceremony.Ruth Fremson/The New York TimesIn the altercation’s wake, Smith said he received some wisdom from Denzel Washington, his fellow best actor nominee and a Hollywood sage now, one who’s been giving him advice since the beginning of his acting career. As Smith recounted in his speech, Washington said, “At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.” A shallow piece of me assumed the devil to be Rock. But we all understand what Rock was doing that night: his job, not well with that hair joke, but he was working. The devil is deeper than that. When something breaks, he gets loose. He got loose at the Oscars.Watching Smith up there on Sunday, burying his behavior in the Williamses’ story, I’m not sure he was entirely back in his body. I’ve never experienced a victory that feels this much like defeat. I suspect he knew this, too. He wondered whether he’d ever be invited back. That feels right. He wasn’t accepting an Oscar so much as trying to turn himself in.WHEN SOMETHING BREAKS, it’s probably best not to use your hands to pick up the pieces. But there was Smith using a hand. What happened on Sunday will be one of those live events that we’ll now spend the rest of our lives baffled by, like Justin Timberlake exposing Janet Jackson’s breast at the end of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. It’s been 55 years since anybody cared this much about a Hollywood slap. But when Poitier launched his against a haughty white moneybags in “In the Heat of the Night,” it was against racism. Sunday’s incident involved someone experiencing a private episode that we should never have seen.That’s one thing about the last two years. We’ve been made privy to all kinds of behavior we’d rather not see, witnesses of people’s worst moments. Now we’ve been made privy to one of Smith’s. Most of us don’t know any of these people. Yet we kind of do. We’ve made them part of some cultural family — that’s part of how stardom works (TV stardom, especially, which, early on, is what Smith, Pinkett Smith and Rock achieved). The reason so many of us are asking one another what just happened, the reason we’re so disturbed — a reason — is that maybe these three are like family, and it hurts to watch them feud. To witness intense emotional and psychological frailty (call it narcissism if you must) is to be left with as many questions about who we are as about who, Sunday night, Will Smith became. It’s like every other mystery of these past two years. We’ll never know. And with respect to him, why do we deserve to? More

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    ‘Help’ Review: Blindfolds (and Kid Gloves) Off. Let’s Analyze Whiteness.

    Claudia Rankine’s heady new play dares white audiences to deny the realities of their social advantages.In July 2019, The New York Times Magazine published an essay by the poet and author Claudia Rankine titled, “I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked.” A first-person investigation of white dominance and its broad range of social consequences, Rankine’s essay prompted more than 2,000 online comments, including many defensive replies from white readers.The essay, and the responses it generated, form the basis of her heady and pointed new play, “Help,” which opened on Thursday night at the Shed (which commissioned the play). Part polemic, part documentary theater, “Help” does not so much dramatize Rankine’s argument as dissect it, coolly daring white audiences to deny the live presentation of empirical evidence.The Narrator, played by April Matthis, speaks into a microphone, introducing herself as “a representative of my category,” or what she says is the 8 percent of the United States population who identify as Black women. A glass wall separates Matthis from what looks like an airport waiting area, where nine white men and two white women are arranged in business attire (costumes are by Dede Ayite). We’re in what the Narrator calls a liminal space that people move through on their way from here to there, one full of imaginative possibilities.It was in first-class cabins and airport lounges where Rankine originally conducted her social experiment, trying to loosen the blindfold she often found white men wore to the realities of their social advantages. A few of those incidents are recreated here, including the men’s predictable knee-jerk reactions (“I’ve worked hard for everything I have,” “I don’t see color”), and Rankine’s incisive dressings-down, often left partially unspoken in the moment.From left: Charlotte Bydwell, O’Keefe and Nick Wyman in the play at the Shed.Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesBut much of the play’s primary dialogue is between the narrator’s critical oration and the indignant responses Rankine received to her essay, which ensemble members recite directly to the audience. (In a 2020 interview, Rankine said that 90 percent of what’s said by white men in the play comes from these letters.)Rankine assumes the perspective of all Black women as a bold rhetorical gesture, to indict the presumed neutrality of whiteness and call out its ramifications. (“I, the Black woman, am just meant to get on with the program of accommodating white people,” Matthis tells the audience.) In doing so, the playwright also resists including herself as a character onstage, despite casting herself as its Narrator. The result is an exercise in performance more academic than it is dramatic.To illustrate and historicize her points, Rankine also includes actual remarks from public figures, from Martha Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Jeff Bezos and Donald Trump. Indeed, it’s possible to read the play exclusively as a rebuttal to incendiary rants from the former president, adding to the sense that “Help” relitigates the past more than it confronts the present.Matthis, an invaluable asset to recent Off Broadway productions exploring Black lives and histories, including “Fairview” and “Toni Stone,” is an unwavering orator, both determined and persuasive as Rankine’s stand-in. But she has little emotion to play beyond simmering frustration. Even in conversation with her husband, who is white, the Narrator speaks almost entirely in ideas, forgoing an opportunity to complicate her argument with the illogic of desire. How does it feel to challenge white men in the public square when you have one living at home? And how might the playwright’s proximity to whiteness color the reception to her case?Matthis, right, with, from left: Nick Wyman, Scholl, Barbagallo and O’Keefe.Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesDirected by Taibi Magar, the production has a clinical slickness that holds its subject — the fictions people create to distance themselves from one another — at a chilled remove. (The air travel aesthetic and metaphor eventually overstay their welcome.) Sitting in high-backed blue airplane seats, the white actors wheel themselves across the cold-gray floor and into various formations, frozen in tableau or starkly lit in jerky gesticulation (set design is by Mimi Lien and lighting by John Torres). Occasionally, they perform frenetic choreography by Shamel Pitts, curious fits of movement that make a play for expressiveness but feel disconnected from the rest of the production.“Help” was in early previews when theaters closed in March 2020, and a version of the play streamed online. Rankine has since revised the text to include references to the pandemic and the killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade and others precipitating the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s possible that white audience members who see Rankine’s play may be provoked by its tenets, on an intellectual, if not an emotional level. (More than one program note expressly states that “Help” is intended for white audiences.)But a treatise on the tyranny of white privilege and ignorance would have felt more prescient before the summer of 2020, when anti-racist books topped best seller lists — and white people at least promised to read them — as the United States witnessed one of the most widespread protest movements in its history.For audiences of any color without delusions about the fundamentals of racism and its pervasive, deadly constructs, Rankine’s lecture, however essential, may seem a redundant lesson. If theater has the potential to embody hard truths, “Help” spells them out in familiar black-and-white rather than lifting them off the page.HelpThrough April 10 at the Shed, Manhattan; theshed.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. More

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    Shaina Taub’s ‘Suffs’ Tells the Suffragist Tale in Song

    Shaina Taub’s highly anticipated musical explores women’s crusade for the vote through a movement often divided along generational, class and racial lines.On a recent afternoon, Shaina Taub was standing in a rehearsal room at the Public Theater with a group of 18 women in corsets and long skirts, paired with T-shirts and sports bras, planning a grand parade.Taub was suited up — halfway at least — as Alice Paul, a founder of the National Woman’s Party, and a main character of “Suffs,” her new musical about the women’s suffrage movement in the years leading up the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.“How will we do it when it’s never been done?” Taub sang as the performers bustled up and down the risers. “How will we find a way where there isn’t one?”The song, “Find a Way,” was about the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Procession, the first large-scale political demonstration ever held in Washington. But Taub might have been singing about “Suffs” itself, and its winding, eight-year road to the stage after multiple pandemic delays, three set redesigns and script revisions prompted by the tumultuous politics of the country — and American theater — since the racial justice protests of 2020.“It’s amazing how much the experience of making the show mirrors what they were doing,” Taub said during a break. She slipped off her period-correct high-heeled Oxfords and put on cloth slippers. Would the corsets be staying for the real show?“It’s a hot topic,” Taub said. “But — yes.”From left: Ally Bonino, Phillipa Soo, Taub, Hannah Cruz and Nadia Dandashi in the musical at the Public Theater.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesIn an age of riot grrrl playlists and “The Future Is Female” tattoos, it can be hard to see past the petticoats and big hats and recognize the “ladies” of the suffrage movement as the hard-nosed political strategists they were — and to fully appreciate the radical nature of their demands. “Suffs,” in previews now and scheduled to open April 6 at the Public, aims to release the movement from its starchy image, drawing on the sounds of Tin Pan Alley, early jazz, pop-gospel and what Taub calls “the sounds of the future the suffs were trying to create.”The highly anticipated production — whose extended run, through May 1, is already sold out — may wear its idealism on its sleeve. But it also digs into the complexities of a movement that was often sharply divided along generational, class and racial lines. That last was an aspect of the show, Taub said, that she worked to deepen after the murder of George Floyd.“I’m not trying to glorify or vilify,” Taub said. “I’m trying to humanize, and dramatize.”“SUFFS” BEGAN sprouting in 2014 when the producer Rachel Sussman (“What the Constitution Means to Me”) gave Taub a copy of “Jailed for Freedom,” Doris Stevens’s account of the militant suffragists who, in addition to organizing the parade, assembled the first picket of the White House, which led to dozens being arrested, beaten and force-fed in prison.She tore through it in a single night. “I couldn’t believe how dramatic it was,” she recalled.As an activist-minded theater kid growing up in Vermont, Taub, 33, had been fascinated by the history of the civil rights movement, ACT-UP and other social change movements. Why, she wondered after reading Stevens’s book, had she been taught virtually nothing about this one?“There’s just been this hidden treasure trove in my own backyard this whole time,” she said. “I emailed Rachel at 3 a.m. and said, ‘We have to do it!’”Making a musical just about women battling men didn’t seem very dramatic. “I thought the audience might be a bit ahead of it,” she said. But she saw potential in the internal conflicts.“How do various characters who do want the same things go about it differently?” she said. “That could help me focus on the women most of all.”Today, Taub, whose album “Songs of the Great Hill” will be released April 1, is an in-demand musical theater talent whose (many) other projects include a collaboration with Elton John on songs for a musical adaptation of “The Devil Wears Prada,” set to open in Chicago this summer.But back in 2014, she was a singer-songwriter with regular gigs at Joe’s Pub and other venues. At the recommendation of Sussman (who also teamed up with the producer Jill Furman, of “Hamilton”) the director Leigh Silverman went to see her and instantly became, in Silverman’s words, “a crazed Shaina Taub superfan.”“I was just dazzled,” said Silverman, who at the time was directing her first musical, the Broadway production of “Violet.” “I just thought, how can I get attached to Shaina Taub forever?”Over the next two years, Taub worked on the musical between projects, including “Old Hats,” with the clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner, and her original musical adaptation of “Twelfth Night,” for the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park. In late 2017, Taub played the first 20 minutes of music for Silverman.“It was thrilling,” Silverman said, before taking a long pause. “Those first 20 minutes did a thing I think the show does incredibly well, which is, it tells a story and gives you an emotional arc of character.”Jenn Colella (“Come From Away”), who plays Carrie Chapman Catt, the leader of the old-guard National American Woman Suffrage Association (who was often at odds with the more radical Paul), participated in the first workshop. She recalled an immediate “crackling of energy.”“We found ourselves sitting straight up, standing when we didn’t need to — crying,” she said. “From go, this was a moving piece.”From left, Jenn Colella, Taub and Susan Oliveras during a rehearsal.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesTaub, who did historical research at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library and read what more than one collaborator described as seemingly every book on the subject, has laced the piece with quotes and detailed references. (She even found a juicy love story in a footnote. “Every musical needs a love story!” Taub said.) But “Suffs,” Silverman emphasized, is not an “eat-your-spinach history musical.”“We’ve done a lot of work around deepening all the characters, the friendships, the betrayals,” she said. “In a way, the movement is the protagonist.”ALICE PAUL WAS a notoriously opaque figure, with a monomaniacal focus and, as the historian Susan Ware (one of many scholars Taub consulted with) has written, no personal life. “She never married, never had a partner, we don’t know about her sexuality,” Taub said.What helped unlock the character, Taub said, was Paul’s “deep, fraught, crazy-making friendships” with other suffragists, which Taub said were not so different from hers with her collaborators.“It was that stew of ‘We love each other, we’re hanging out but you’re driving me crazy, we have to do this thing, I don’t want to mess around, I want to work,’” she said, doubling the tempo on her normal mile-a-minute speech.Initially, Taub, whose acting credits also include the Off Broadway productions of “Hadestown” and “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” imagined she might play Doris, whom she described as “the writer-downer, like Mark in ‘Rent.’” But she eventually connected with what she called Paul’s “fear of failure” — and also, as anyone who has watched the 5-foot-3 Taub in action for five minutes might notice, with her intense focus and make-it-happen energy.Taub said she even briefly entertained having the suffragist and labor lawyer Inez Milholland (played by Phillipa Soo, from “Hamilton”), who led the 1913 parade, appear onstage on a real horse. “For a minute, I was like, ‘How much would it cost to shut down Lafayette Street for four hours?’” she said.By late 2019, the plan was to open at the Public in September 2020, shortly after the centennial of the 19th Amendment — and a few months before the presidential election. Then the pandemic hit. “It took a minute for it to really drop that it wouldn’t be happening,” Taub said.Then, in June 2020, came the George Floyd protests, and intense discussions about structural racism in the theater world, including at the Public, which in May 2021 announced a broad “anti-racism and cultural transformation plan.”From the beginning, the show had addressed the uglier sides of a movement that reflected — and sometimes actively bolstered — the racism of American society. It was a time when Jim Crow had solidified and Woodrow Wilson (played in “Suffs” by Grace McLean) had presided over the segregation of the federal work force.One of the first songs Taub wrote was “Wait My Turn,” sung by the suffragist and journalist Ida B. Wells (played by Nikki M. James) in response to Paul’s decree that Black women would march in a separate section at the back of the 1913 parade, to appease Southern white marchers. (Wells refused, and marched with her state delegation.)But amid the 2020 protests, Taub and Silverman realized they needed to revisit not just the show itself, but also their approach to making it. “I realized I had more to do, and deeper to go,” Taub said.They brought in two additional collaborators to the core creative team, assembling an expanded dramaturgical brain trust, nicknamed the Coven, which started meeting weekly. It included Taub and Silverman, along with the choreographer Raja Feather Kelly (who is also credited as a creative consultant) and, as dramaturg, Ayanna Thompson, a prominent Shakespeare scholar at Arizona State University.Thompson, who became a scholar-in-residence at the Public in 2020, was initially puzzled by the invitation. (“The first thing she said to me was ‘I hate musicals,’” Silverman recalled.) In a video interview, Thompson said the idea of a musical about the suffrage movement initially sounded “like a ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch.”“I just thought ‘Oh my god, that’s the worst idea ever,” she said, imagining “the earnestness, the whiteness, the tweeness.”Cast members rehearsing “Watch Out for the Suffragette,” a vaudeville-style romp in which they portray jeering men.Sara Krulwich/The New York Times“Obviously, that was all my bad preconceived ideas,” she said. “There’s a really rich story here — not just about women battling men, but a really interesting intergenerational battle” that’s “almost Shakespearean in its complexity.”Thompson, who has written extensively on race and performance, also spearheaded a rethinking of the approach to casting. Most of the prominent characters — Paul, Catt, Wells, the Black suffragist Mary Church Terrell — are played by actors of the same race. But the other, mostly white characters, including male historical figures, were cast very deliberately with women and nonbinary actors of a range of races and ethnicities — not just for the sake of a diverse company, but to challenge assumptions about who gets to be (to use a favorite Thompson word) “virtuosic.”“We wanted to give women, and particularly women of color, the same kind of mutability usually granted to white men,” she said.A downtown choreographer and director, Kelly (“Fairview,” “A Strange Loop”), whose work has often examined issues of appropriation, said that when Silverman approached him last summer, he was initially hesitant. “I was like, ‘I’m not a woman,’” he said. “Was that going to be a thing for some people?”One of the challenges, he said, was creating a movement language that would help the audience figure out how to read the bodies onstage. The opening three songs, he said, set up some of the registers.The vaudeville-style romp of “Watch Out for the Suffragette,” sung by ensemble members costumed as jeering men (and inspired by real anti-suffrage songs of the period), is followed by the stylized proper-lady tableau of “Suffrage School” and then the naturalism of “Alice and Carrie,” which establishes the dynamic between Catt and the upstart Paul.As for the diverse casting, Kelly said, “something that was important to me was, how does the musical hold space for all these characters, and allow the perspective to shift, without feeling like it’s checking boxes?”Actors also helped push beyond the boxes. James, a Tony winner for “The Book of Mormon” who has been close with Taub since they both appeared in “Twelfth Night,” had been singing Wells’s number “Wait My Turn” for years at workshops and benefits. But after the summer of 2020, she said, “I started feeling pretty conflicted, and I think Shaina did, too.”In Taub’s initial script, Wells (who actually intersected very little with Paul or the National Woman’s Party after 1913) sang the song, then largely disappeared. “I really encouraged Shaina to find ways to give Ida more of a voice,” James said.Taub added a second-act song for Wells, in which she reflects on the personal costs of her battles. She also reworked a scene between Wells and the genteel Terrell, a founder of the National Association of Colored Women, in which they debate the merits of the inside game (“dignified agitation,” as Terrell, played by Cassondra James, puts it) versus confrontation.It’s a mirror of the conflict between Paul and Catt, with its interplay of sharp disagreement and mutual respect. “Two people can have the same goal, but totally different ideas about how to get there,” James said.“Suffs” is opening in the same theater where “Hamilton” — and America’s runaway romance with the roguish “ten dollar founding father” — was born. Are audiences open to seeing Taub’s feminist founding mothers as similarly three-dimensional heroes, shaded by their flaws rather than simply damned by them?“Suffs” may be about women. But their long fight for the vote, Taub said, can stand in for any of the great social movements in American history, all of which were also messy, fractious, imperfect — and unfinished.She cited a line from the last song: “Don’t forget our failure. Don’t forget our fight.”“You can hold both truths in your hand,” she said. More

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    LeBron Fandom, and the Making of a Friendship in ‘King James’

    Rajiv Joseph’s new play, which chronicles the bond between two LeBron James fans over 12 years, is having its world premiere at Steppenwolf in Chicago.CHICAGO — When the actor Glenn Davis talks about his new play, “King James,” he gets some variation on this question: “So, are you playing LeBron James?”Not quite.“I’m 5-10,” Davis said, laughing. “He’s 6-9.”And there’s also this: James, the basketball superstar who broke hearts in Cleveland when he left to play for Miami 12 years ago, is not the protagonist of Rajiv Joseph’s “King James.” Rather, the play, which is having its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theater Company here, tracks the friendship between two young men in Cleveland, Shawn (played by Davis) and Matt (Chris Perfetti of “Abbott Elementary”), over a dozen years.Told in four quarters that span James’s rookie season to his championship season with Cleveland in 2016, “King James,” directed by Kenny Leon, explores how fandom can create a lifelong connection between two people who otherwise have little in common.“Rajiv’s first draft had a lot of basketball in it,” said Davis, 40, a longtime friend of Joseph’s and for whom the role of Shawn was written. “But as each new draft came in, the specifics about basketball began to disappear because Rajiv wanted to make sure this play was about friendship.”“Sometimes a love of the game is the only way people who have difficulty expressing their feelings are able to articulate them,” said Rajiv Joseph, the playwright.Lyndon French for The New York TimesKenny Leon is directing his first Steppenwolf production, and said he’s cherishing the opportunity to help develop Joseph’s work.Lyndon French for The New York TimesThe play, which is in previews and will open March 13, was originally slated for Steppenwolf’s 2019-20 season before the pandemic forced its postponement. It now arrives at the same time as several basketball-themed TV projects, including Adam McKay’s HBO mini-series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” about the team led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980s, and the upcoming Apple TV+ documentary mini-series “They Call Me Magic,” about Johnson’s life on and off the court.In “King James,” Joseph uses James’s career as a window to examine the emotional nature of fandom, and how it can facilitate relationships and increased openness among people, particularly young men.“At least in the sort of heteronormative world in which I grew up, it was a struggle for young American men to communicate emotion,” Joseph, 47, said over coffee at Steppenwolf’s Front Bar before a recent rehearsal. “Sometimes a love of the game is the only way people who have difficulty expressing their feelings are able to articulate them.”Growing up in Cleveland in the 1980s and ’90s, Joseph was surrounded by passionate sports fans.“We were a Cleveland family — we watched the Cavs, we watched the Indians, we watched the Browns,” he said. “And all of our moods fluctuated accordingly.”In the play, LeBron James’s infamous “Decision” announcement looms large for two fans of the Cavaliers.Lyndon French for The New York TimesHe began writing “King James” in the summer of 2017, a year after James had led the Cavaliers to the championship, making them the first Cleveland team to win a major championship in 52 years. He drew from his experience as a Cleveland native inundated with the reactions of friends and family to “The Decision” — a live prime-time special in 2010 in which James, a free agent after seven seasons with the Cavaliers, announced he was leaving his hometown team to “take my talents to South Beach,” as James infamously put it.“I thought this would be an interesting way of exploring my own relationship with LeBron,” said Joseph, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010 for his play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” (He previously collaborated with Davis on that production, which ran on Broadway in 2011.) “This play is a sort of alchemy of stories I’ve heard, conversations I’ve had with people and the general sense of being a young person in Cleveland Heights and those heightened emotions that come out when you start arguing about sports.”The cast and creative team of “King James” had widely varying basketball knowledge — and loyalties. Davis, who was a high school basketball player in the Chicago area but gave up the sport to pursue a theater career, is a lifelong Bulls fan. Leon, who grew up in Florida, has been a Los Angeles Lakers fan for 35 years. Perfetti, 33, who is from upstate New York, grew up in a home “where there was always some sports game on television,” but he didn’t begin following basketball seriously until about six months ago.They watched James’s announcement together — which was Perfetti’s first time seeing it. But, for Joseph and Davis, the special was a reminder of a milestone moment in the basketball world, one in which every fan remembers where they were and what they were doing when they found out.“It was traumatic,” Joseph said. “But when you watch LeBron from then, you realize he was such a different person than he is now — like we all are. If any of us look back at when we were 25, I bet we’d kind of wince at some of the things we did and said.”“Rajiv reminds me of August,” Leon (above left, with Joseph) said, referring to August Wilson. “Even if I’m hating a moment, he can embrace that and go down the hall and rewrite it.”Lyndon French for The New York TimesThis is Leon’s first time directing at the Steppenwolf Theater. When he was contacted last October, Leon, a Tony-winning director whose most recent Broadway production was “A Soldier’s Play” in 2020, already had about a half-dozen projects in the works, including upcoming Broadway productions of Adrienne Kennedy’s “The Ohio State Murders,” starring Audra McDonald, and a revival of “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” Melvin Van Peebles’s 1971 musical. (Leon, 66, is also the co-founder and artistic director emeritus of True Colors Theater Company, which is based in Atlanta.)But he said he jumped at the chance to oversee the production after its previous director, Anna D. Shapiro, resigned as the Steppenwolf’s artistic director in August. (Davis and Audrey Francis, both Steppenwolf ensemble members, replaced Shapiro as artistic directors.)“You don’t get a lot of opportunities to work with a living playwright on a new play that you think is beautiful and will have a great life,” Leon said as he nursed a cocktail after a rehearsal late last month. “The last time was when I worked with August Wilson on his last play, “Radio Golf,” leading up to the Broadway production [which opened in 2007].”The value of having Joseph in the room for rehearsals, Leon said, was that if he didn’t understand a character’s motivations for doing something, he could ask.“A lot of Rajiv reminds me of August,” Leon said. “I can tell him what I feel. Even if I’m hating a moment, he can embrace that and go down the hall and rewrite it.”And there were plenty of nips, tweaks and tucks to the script in the month leading up to the first performance. It was especially helpful, Joseph said, to have Perfetti’s perspective as an N.B.A. outsider in a play with some deeply insider references. (The Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s use of Comic Sans font in his letter to Cleveland fans after James’s departure, in which he lambasted James for his “disloyalty,” gets a shout.)“There’s lots of lines in the play where he was like, ‘Why am I saying this?’,” Joseph said of Perfetti. “And some of those lines were cut because of that.”“King James” plays out in four quarters, from LeBron James’s rookie year to his championship season with Cleveland in 2016. After Chicago, the play will have a run in Los Angeles.Lyndon French for The New York TimesBut audience members don’t need to be basketball fans to understand the larger points. The play’s first quarter, for instance, ends with Matt and Shawn — who to that point had been strangers — making plans to attend a season of Cavaliers games together. The action then picks up six and a half years later, when the two men are best friends.“With my best friend, the first and second quarter in our relationship feels like it went by that quickly,” Davis said. “That’s how it happens, you know?”Though Matt is white and Shawn is Black, Joseph decided not to make race a focal point of the show — at least, not right away. It eventually factors into their reactions to James’s return to Cleveland in the third quarter, but Joseph said that, having grown up in the diverse suburb of Cleveland Heights — where the play takes place — it “just made sense to me, before I even knew what the play would be about, that it would be a Black guy and a white guy.”“I didn’t anticipate any kind of racial tension in the play,” he said. “But the more I thought about what I was writing about, it just comes out and you allow for the story that wants to be told.”Following its five-week run here, “King James,” commissioned by Steppenwolf and the Center Theater Group of Los Angeles, will transfer to the Mark Taper Forum there in June, with Davis and Perfetti reprising their roles, and Leon again as director. Both Leon and Joseph are hoping for an eventual Broadway transfer, too.It will be special, everyone involved agrees, to present the show in the city where James currently plays. But Leon said it’s important to remember that “80 percent of the audience will be the same,” referring to the audience members who will not be passionate fans of the local team. “We’re going to try to strike those universal chords,” he said. “That’s what makes the play work. Somebody has to be able to say ‘Oh, that’s how I treat my friend’ or ‘That’s how it was when I didn’t see my mother for 10 years.’”Joseph, who has never met James, said he would be “thrilled” if James were to see the show during its Los Angeles run, which will coincide with the N.B.A. finals.“But, on the other hand, I hope he can’t come because he’s still playing,” he said. More

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    Dominique Morisseau Asks: ‘What Does Freedom Look Like Now?’

    Her new play, “Confederates,” straddles two eras, exploring what liberation means to a present-day academic and an enslaved woman in the 1860s.In 2016, Penumbra Theater and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned Dominique Morisseau to write a play as part of the American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle. The remit: to create a work about the Black experience of the Civil War.Morisseau had one question: “What were the Black women doing?”“Confederates,” her new play at the Signature Theater, is one answer. Toggling between the present day and the 1860s, the play — now in previews, with a premiere on March 27 — follows Sandra, a superstar academic played by Michelle Wilson, and Sara (Kristolyn Lloyd), an enslaved woman who spies for the Union Army. While the title evokes the Confederacy, it also teases a bond between the two women.“This is what it means to be at this institution,” Sandra says. “To know deep in your core that there will never be justice for you here.”From left: Andrea Patterson, Kristolyn Lloyd and Elijah Jones in “Confederates,” opening March 27 at the Signature Theater in Manhattan.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesSara echoes her: “This what it means to be in a peculiar institution. Under its boot, everybody yo’ enemy.”Even as “Confederates” evokes dramatic works as varied as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s postmodern drama “An Octoroon,” Adrienne Kennedy’s devastating tragedy “The Ohio State Murders” and David Mamet’s academic two-hander “Oleanna,” Morisseau renders each scene in her distinctive empathetic, tragicomic style.Rather than focusing on oppression, the play explores Black women’s agency and the different forms that liberation can take from one era to the next.“Getting free in the past, it’s just getting free,” Morisseau said. “Like, you’re literally in bondage. Getting free in the present is a very different thing. What does freedom look like now?”Morisseau was speaking from an apartment in Midtown Manhattan, near both the Signature and Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater, where her play “Skeleton Crew,” part of a trilogy of works set in her native Detroit, recently wrapped. Her 15-month-old son napped in the next room.During a 90-minute video call, she discussed “Confederates,” which will also be presented at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in August, as well as microaggressions, macroaggressions and what empowerment looks like for her. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.In “Confederates,” Sandra and Sara are living about 160 years apart. What joins them?They’re united in the history of Black women fighting for freedom. They’re united in being the most socially expendable.Sandra, the professor, is subject to frequent microaggressions. For Sara, the enslaved woman, the danger is physical and more overt. Do you understand these threats as related?The kind of racism that Sara experiences — you could be hanged, you could be dragged, you could be murdered — that overt racism is not most people’s experience of racism. There is the kind of racism that breaks the body, that attacks the body. Then there’s the other kind that kills the spirit. The one I engage with the most often is the latter. But the micro always leads to the macro. Microaggressions lead into aggressive actions.Eventually, all of these are harmful and deadly.In your research, did you find many examples of Black women spying for the Union?I did not find lots of examples. I would find little pieces. Those kinds of stories are under-told. But they tell me that we were not passive. We were never passive.Brandon J. Dirden and Phylicia Rashad in Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” whose run just ended at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesYou have written plays set in the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, the ’00s. Did you know that you would eventually write about the 1860s?I never thought about it, to be honest. When I was approached to specifically write about this era, I said to myself, I don’t want to just write about slavery. That’s not what I’m interested in. I am, however, interested in Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, the phrase coined by Dr. Joy DeGruy, which is the impact of being descendants of the enslaved and the traumas that have happened since, without treatment or healing.When you accepted the commission, were there certain stories or stereotypes that you wanted to avoid?I didn’t want to show defeat or agreement with the enslaved culture. There is no agreement.As an undergraduate, did you experience institutional racism?My experience at school taught me that no one’s here to protect me. There’s no agency for me here. I’m going to have to do for me in school, if I want to not be squashed, if I want to see myself as an artist.Theater can also be a racist space. I remember an essay you wrote in 2015 about white privilege, with the headline: “Why I Almost Slapped a Fellow Theater Patron, and What That Says About Our Theaters.” Has theater changed since then?I have actively worked to shift that culture at least around my own work. I have a Playwright’s Rules of Engagement insert that I put inside the program of every show that I do. Because I was policed for my own laughter. [The insert includes instructions such as, “You are allowed to laugh audibly” and “This can be church for some of us, and testifying is allowed.”]I have seen attempts to diversify boards, to have a wider outreach to donors. Then there’s the bottom-up approach: I would like to see more artists taking more agency over themselves and their art. There’s a culture of silence that has been perpetuated. There’s this feeling of expendability that artists get. Like, you cannot speak up, because you will then not have jobs anymore. And that’s crazy.“There are young artists looking at me, watching me. I’m trying to bring up those artists,” Morisseau said, referring to efforts she’s made to counter harmful behavior in the industry.Lanna Apisukh for The New York TimesLate last year, you spoke up. You pulled your play “Paradise Blue” from the Geffen Playhouse, saying that Black women who worked on the show had been “verbally abused and diminished.” What empowered you to do that?I’ve always been an activist. I just inherently have not ever been OK with things that aren’t right. What made me feel even more empowered in this moment is that I am now visible. And there are young artists looking at me, watching me. I’m trying to bring up those artists. So there is not a chance in hell that I can watch harmful behavior happen and be unaccountable. I will not write about Black women being harmed and learning to take agency for themselves — that’s what “Paradise Blue” is about — I’m not going to have that onstage and the opposite happening for them offstage.I’m not trying to create a culture of people pulling their plays. This is one of the hardest decisions you should have to make as a playwright. It was brutal. It was exhausting for me. I never want to have to do that again.Before the pandemic you made your Broadway debut, writing the book for “Ain’t Too Proud.” Did that change anything for you?“Ain’t Too Proud” happened, a MacArthur happened, quite a few things happened, right at the same time. It’s brought more faith about me as an artist from institutions. I don’t know if I’m a safe bet. I don’t think I’m a safe bet. But I’m worthy of a bet in general. I’m enough of an interesting voice. I’m definitely asked to write more musicals.And what did it mean to have “Skeleton Crew” move to Broadway?With Broadway comes more resources behind your work. I remember when I first saw “Ain’t Too Proud” staged, I was like, everybody deserves all those resources behind their imaginations, just once in their life. To be able to get it twice in my life is amazing.“Skeleton Crew” will always be one of my favorites because I know where it came from. I know where I was when I wrote it and I know who I wrote it for. The biggest thing for me, as a Detroiter, is to make Detroit visible. We had Detroit night on Broadway. It was like a family reunion up in there. It was the most Detroit behavior I’ve ever seen on Broadway. It was epic. More