More stories

  • in

    The Real Surprise of ‘Passing’: A Focus on Black Women’s Inner Lives

    By making the lesbian attraction between the main characters more explicit, the drama moves beyond mainstream Hollywood’s white gaze.Midway through the new drama “Passing,” Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), the light-brown-skinned, upper-middle-class protagonist, offers a unique insight into her psyche when she says to her friend Hugh, “We’re, all of us, passing for something or the other,” and adds, “Aren’t we?”Until now, Irene has successfully maintained her cover as both a respectable wife and proud African American woman. But when Hugh (Bill Camp) challenges her by asking why she does not pass for white like her biracial childhood friend, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), her response is a revelation, startling me almost as much as it did him.“Who’s to say I am not?” she snaps back.In that moment, I realized that what I had considered the B-plot of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, “Passing,” had risen to the surface in the writer-director Rebecca Hall’s adaptation, giving us a narrative that remains all too rare in Hollywood today: the interior world of a Black woman’s mind.When I teach Larsen’s novel to my undergraduate students, I usually start with the obvious: its racial plot and the ways in which Clare finds refuge from racism by identifying as white, only to be tragically alienated from her Black family and community.But I mainly teach “Passing” through what I think is the novel’s real central conflict: same-sex female desire and the paranoia that begins to overtake Irene, and for that matter Larsen’s story line, as a result of her unconsummated relationship with Clare. In a 1986 essay on Larsen’s novel, the critic Deborah E. McDowell explained why this longing had to appear secondary to the emphasis on race. “The idea of bringing a sexual attraction between two women to full expression,” she wrote, was “too dangerous of a move” in 1929. Instead, “Larsen enveloped the subplot of Irene’s developing if unnamed and unacknowledged desire for Clare in the safe and familiar plot of racial passing.”Rather than explore the ways that Irene comes into her sexuality, racial passing — at the height of segregation in America — was considered a far more urgent and thus more conventional theme than that of Black women’s inner lives. As a consequence, Larsen’s novel ended up passing, too, eventually taking “the form of the act it implies,” McDowell concluded.Visually, Hall compensates for the novel’s restraint through stolen glances, flirtatious phrases, and lingering touches and kisses between Clare and Irene. As Irene’s tension mounts, the film externalizes it through other symbols: a loudly ticking grandfather clock, a pot of water boiling over and even her breaking a teapot at a midday social in her home. In these hints, we see both Irene’s desire to break free from the illusion of middle-class domesticity and heterosexuality that she performs, as well as the threat that Clare’s presence poses to Irene’s sense of control.But, to externalize Irene’s internal thoughts and her sublimated identity, the movie makes what is suggested in the novel far more explicit. For example, Irene’s confession to Hugh never actually happens in the book. Hall opted to amp up that moment, she explained in a video for Vanity Fair, because she wanted “to highlight the latent homosexuality and power dynamics” underlying their shared secret.But for all that movie does so very well — its subtle swing jazz score; its beautiful black-and-white montages evocative of the photographers Gordon Parks and Carrie Mae Weems; and the delightful cat-and-mouse performances by Thompson and Negga — it deliberately limits how much access we have to Irene. Such restrictions, after having a glimpse of Irene’s full personality, further reminded me of how few stories about African American female sexuality and subjectivity have been told on the big screen.In other words, at this moment, when Black artists are being celebrated and validated as never before, what does it mean to invest in films that fully move us beyond a racist or sexist gaze and into their innermost thoughts?Five Movies to Watch This WinterCard 1 of 51. “The Power of the Dog”: More

  • in

    New Initiative Aims to Change How Movies Portray Muslims

    An advocacy group has created a worker database with help from Disney to bring more Muslims into the filmmaking process.A new initiative to promote the inclusion of Muslims in filmmaking has been created by an advocacy group with the support of the Walt Disney Company — following a report issued this year that found that Muslims are rarely depicted in popular films and that many Muslim characters are linked to violence.The project, the Pillars Muslim Artist Database, was announced on Tuesday by the Pillars Fund, an advocacy group in Chicago. It produced the earlier report on depiction along with the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and others.Kashif Shaikh, a co-founder of Pillars and its president, said that when the group discussed the findings, those in the industry often said they did not know where to find Muslim writers or actors.The database, Shaikh said, aims to give Muslim actors, directors, cinematographers, sound technicians and others, who could help create more nuanced portrayals, the chance to compose online profiles that can be reviewed by those hiring for film, television and streaming productions.That way, “Muslims around the country would be able to opt in and talk about their talents, talk about their expertise,” Shaikh said. “It was really meant to be a resource for studios, for the film industry.”The report on depiction, “Missing & Maligned,” was issued in June and analyzed 200 top-grossing movies released between 2017 and 2019 across the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.Of 8,965 speaking characters, 1.6 percent were Muslim, the report said. It added that just over 60 percent of primary and secondary Muslim characters appeared in movies set in the historical or recent past. Just under 40 percent appeared in three movies which took place in present-day Australia, the report said, and most of those characters — including “the only present-day Muslim lead” — appeared in one movie, “Ali’s Wedding,” released in 2017.Pillars, along with the Inclusion Initiative and the British actor Riz Ahmed and his production company, Left Handed Films, also released a companion report titled “The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion” that was intended to “fundamentally change the way Muslims are portrayed on screen.”Before the reports were issued, Shaikh said, Pillars had begun conversations with Disney, which supported the creation of the database with a $20,000 grant.Latondra Newton, senior vice president and chief diversity officer of Disney, said in a statement that the support was part of an ongoing effort “to amplify underrepresented voices and untold stories,” adding: “We are honored to support the new Pillars Muslim Artist Database.”This follows the announcement last week of a guide, “The Time Is Now: The Power of Native Representation in Entertainment,” that was the result of a partnership between Disney and IllumiNative, a nonprofit group that works to raise the visibility of “Native Nations and peoples in American Society.”That guide was created “to help move beyond the outdated, inaccurate and often offensive depictions of Native peoples in pop culture,” the group said in a statement. It includes sections on “Combating Negative Stereotypes,” “Avoiding Cultural Appropriation” and “Supporting Native Storytellers.”Five Movies to Watch This WinterCard 1 of 51. “The Power of the Dog”: More

  • in

    An Indigenous Canadian Director Channels Traumatic Memories Into Film

    Tracey Deer based “Beans” on her experiences as a child during the 1990 Oka crisis, a confrontation between the Mohawk people and the government.Tracey Deer can still remember the sound of rocks hitting the car, her panicked mother’s orders to “Get down!” and the loud smash as a back passenger window shattered, showering glass over her screaming little sister.Deer, an Indigenous Canadian filmmaker, was only 12 on Aug. 28, 1990, when a white mob hurled stones and racial insults at vehicles filled with Mohawk women, children and the elderly, all trying to evacuate a reservation near Montreal. The Oka crisis, a dispute between Canadian authorities and the Mohawk people over land rights, was reaching its height, and the frightened children crouched on the floor until Deer’s mother could drive on.“My sense of safety was stolen from me,” Deer said. “My sense of self-worth, as of that moment, was nonexistent.” But after spending most of her adolescence consumed by anger, she said in a video interview, “I ended up finding a way to channel that instead into my drive to prove all those people wrong.”One result is “Beans,” her first narrative feature, which was named best picture at the Canadian Screen Awards this year and has collected more than 20 prizes on the film-festival circuit. The newly released drama is a long-sought milestone for Deer, 43, a screenwriter, director, documentarian and television showrunner. (She was a creator of the comedy-drama series “Mohawk Girls,” streaming on Peacock, as well as a writer for “Anne With an E” on Netflix.)A fictionalized version of her experiences, the film focuses on a bright, ambitious Mohawk girl, nicknamed Beans (portrayed by the Mohawk actress Kiawentiio). She lives with her family on the Kahnawake reserve, as Deer did, and has applied to enter seventh grade at an elite, mostly white academy that’s similar to the school Deer went to before graduating from Dartmouth.“I wanted to be the one to tell the story,” Kiawentiio (pronounced Ghee-ah-wen-DEE-o) said via video from Canada, where she was shooting the new live-action “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series for Netflix. Thirteen while filming “Beans,” she felt a personal connection to the history, having grown up in Akwesasne, a reserve not far from the conflict. “A lot of people from my community went there and were helping,” said Kiawentiio, whose own parents were teenagers at the time.Violah Beauvais, left, and Kiawentiio in a scene from Deer’s film.Sebastien Raymond/FilmriseBeans’ journey begins when she is caught up in the real protests that unfolded after the mayor of Oka, a town near Montreal, announced plans to expand a golf course onto land containing a sacred Mohawk burial ground. Devastated by the violence that ensues — she is present when gunfire erupts at a confrontation between Mohawk demonstrators and the police, precipitating the 78-day crisis — Beans falls in with a rough crowd of Mohawk teenagers. They include a charismatic boy who tries to force her to perform oral sex; the scene is based on a sexual assault Deer experienced when she was 20.“It’s a big story,” said Anne-Marie Gélinas, founder of EMAfilms, which produced the drama. “And Tracey’s challenge was to talk about, of course, the bullies outside,” which in the film include the government and real-estate developers. But, Gélinas added in a video call, “she also wanted to talk about the bullies inside her community.”Although Beans’ struggles relate specifically to her time and place, they are likely to resonate with anyone who has raised an adolescent — or been one. When Beans practices profanity in front of her bedroom mirror, smiling proudly when she finally utters a curse, it’s impossible not to notice the doll and stuffed animals still on her bureau. And any viewer will be alarmed when a tough older girl encourages Beans to harm herself so she will be impervious to the pain inflicted by others.“It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of the Oka crisis,” Deer said, adding that the character is coming of age “in a tumultuous, unwelcoming world that is indicative of where we currently are.”An incident during filming reinforced that view. Deer shot “Beans” at several spots where the historical events occurred, including the Honoré Mercier Bridge, which Mohawk demonstrators blockaded during the crisis. It’s where the rock-throwing confrontation, recreated in the film, took place as well. When Deer began shooting in 2019, the structure was partly closed for maintenance. But some motorists, she said, assumed the movie crew had shut down the route.“They were beeping and yelling at us and revving their engines,” said Deer, who added that the occupants of one car began shouting racial slurs. Thirty years after the Oka crisis, she said, “the same kind of moment played out.”To show that she was not distorting the historical backdrop, Deer used archival footage throughout the film, in one case inserting an actor into the Mohawk protesters in a 1990 news clip. “Nobody remembered it to be so violent, so negative, so traumatic,” Gélinas said, describing audiences’ reactions in Canada, where the response to “Beans” has been overwhelmingly positive.Although the Oka conflict ended in September 1990 with the cancellation of the golf course expansion, disputes over the land rights continue. But in the Canadian cultural sphere, the concerns of Indigenous people are gaining increased attention, said Jesse Wente, chairman of the Canada Council for the Arts and executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office in Toronto. (The organization supports Native film projects but did not contribute to the financing of “Beans.”)“I think what you’re seeing is maybe an industry that is so ravenous for stories that it’s realized it has to open the gates beyond its usual suspects,” Wente, who is Anishinaabe, said in a phone interview. He added that while Indigenous representation in the Canadian film industry had been largely confined to documentaries until recent years, artists like Deer were now delving into many genres. “What that means is that Indigenous cinema is about to become commercial in a way it never was,” he said.Likening Deer’s film to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” Wente said, “‘Beans’ is exactly what happens when you empower storytellers from a community who’ve had stories told about them forever, but rarely have had the opportunity to tell them themselves.”Five Movies to Watch This WinterCard 1 of 51. “The Power of the Dog”: More

  • in

    Review: ‘The Visitor’ Lags Behind the Times

    The new musical, based on the 2008 film and delayed by the pandemic, debuts at the Public Theater. But its story of a white professor helping immigrants feels out of step with the moment.What comes to mind when you think about immigration, ICE and deportation? I’m willing to bet more than a few George Washingtons that it’s not “musical.” Perhaps it is doable to respect the politics around these issues and the immigrants trying to build a life in the United States in this format, but it’s tough. Which is why the new musical “The Visitor” feels so obtuse and helplessly dated.Dated because it is based on Tom McCarthy’s 2008 film, a well-meaning artifact of the post-9/11 years about a couple of undocumented immigrants helping a white middle-aged professor get a new lease on life. The film resonated in a time before we had a president who fiercely fought to keep immigrants out, and before calls for diversity echoed throughout our institutions.In the film, an economics professor named Walter Vale travels to New York City from Connecticut to attend a conference, but while there, he finds a young couple living in his long-neglected apartment: Tarek, a drummer originally from Syria, and Zainab, a Senegalese jewelry designer. He lets them stay, and Tarek teaches him the drums. They live there until Tarek is unfairly picked up by the police for an infraction he didn’t commit and put in a detention center for being undocumented.The musical, which opened on Thursday at the Public Theater, is directed by Daniel Sullivan and has a book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, who also wrote the lyrics. Tom Kitt (who also teamed up with Yorkey for the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal”) adds music to this story, which arrives onstage with only minor changes.Long in the works, “The Visitor” was scheduled to begin its performances in March 2020 — practically a century ago in Pandemic Time. To stage the project now without a more significant overhaul of the story was a bold choice, especially with masking and quarantining coinciding with a reckoning about how people of color and their stories are — or, more often, are not — represented in theater and the arts.That’s not to say there haven’t been any modifications. First, previews were pushed back a week last month after cast members raised issues around depictions of race and representation. Then the departure of one of the leads, Ari’el Stachel, was announced in what the theater called “a mutual decision,” and last-minute edits were made in an attempt to refigure the way whiteness was centered in the production.David Hyde Pierce stars as Walter, a widower whose career and emotional life are as stagnant as a glass of lukewarm milk. Ahmad Maksoud, who was Stachel’s understudy, takes on the charming Tarek, and Alysha Deslorieux is the firm and guarded Zainab. Jacqueline Antaramian rounds out the central cast as Mouna, Tarek’s concerned mother.Alysha Deslorieux, left, as Zainab and Jacqueline Antaramian as Mouna in the 90-minute show.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesHyde Pierce delivers the most subdued version of his usual awkward nebbish with the occasional cantankerous quip. (“Wake up, you little snot rags,” he thinks while teaching his students in an early scene.) But there isn’t much setup for Walter; perhaps intentionally, given how much the show goes on to focus on its white protagonist.Part of it is Sullivan’s brusque direction, which speeds through some character-building dialogue then lingers on scenes that have the clunkiest exposition. And it’s also partly because of the congested score. While the film is quiet and pensive, the show is overstuffed — with seemingly every second of its 90 minutes filled with music.Kitt’s music has a generic pop sound that sometimes works, as in “Drum Circle,” a Disney-esque tune chock-full of lively, layered percussion; and “Heart in Your Hands,” a rather maudlin song with angelic harmonies. (Kitt’s score, particularly “Heart,” is further enlivened by Jessica Paz and Sun Hee Kil’s ethereal sound design.) But most of the time it doesn’t work; upbeat songs or soft, slowed-down percussion feel at odds with the heavy subject matter.This is especially baffling in the energetic “World Between Two Worlds” number, in which detained immigrants perform a “Stomp”-style stepping and clapping routine that abruptly ends when a guard takes one of them away. That said, at least the show moves; Lorin Latarro’s choreography animates even the most mundane scenes, say, in a classroom or on a New York City street. (The ensemble members enter and exit via doorways and a balcony platform in David Zinn’s confined set design of oppressively gray walls that transform into various spaces and institutions that may exclude individuals — an apt metaphor.)Yorkey’s clunky lyrics are what ultimately do the songs in; some are attempts to add introspection to a deeply withdrawn protagonist with a wooden disposition. So we’re treated to obvious lines like, “Here I am in a suit at this conference,” or clichés like, “Find the rhythm within,” and, “You join the [drum] circle and it joins you.”Hyde Pierce speak-sings his way through the score, or spastically works himself up into the bravado needed for the nauseatingly cheesy “Better Angels,” which is meant to be a triumphant showstopper. As Tarek, Maksoud gives an earnest performance but never seems to plumb any emotional depths — or vocal ones either. Deslorieux has the strongest voice of the main cast, crooning with delicate rolling r’s for her character’s accent. As Mouna, Antaramian’s voice is inconsistent, and she has a loose grasp on her character’s accent.Maksoud with ensemble members in the musical. The ensemble etches “small but remarkable performance moments, even in the background and during the fleeting transitional numbers,” our critic writes.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesThe ensemble, however, often upstages the main cast members, etching small but remarkable performance moments, even in the background and during the fleeting transitional numbers.In one, Katie Terza nearly blows off the walls of the Public with a brief yet transcendent Arabic song, and the professional drummer Takafumi Nikaido (also the production’s djembe coach) could easily steal the entire production.The few attempts at nuance — a comment from Walter showing how he’s also guilty of racial stereotypes, a mention of him as a white savior, and an added back story about Zainab’s abuse-ridden immigration journey — cannot change the story that’s being told or how uncomfortably it sits in our current moment. Even with the additions, the immigrant characters still ultimately function as markers of Walter’s emotional growth and development; they have bits of personality and back stories but can’t stand on their own in a plot without him.So what does one do with a work of art that, by the time of its premiere, has already been outpaced by the moment? How can you contemporize a work whose very conceit — its whole plot, its central perspective — will land like a well-meaning but ignorant cousin’s comment in a conscientious cultural conversation?These questions, of course, are larger than what the Public has on its stage right now. “The Visitor” proves that we can’t always pick up exactly where we left off. Sometimes that’s a good thing.The VisitorThrough Dec. 5 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. More

  • in

    Tupac Shakur Touring Exhibition Opens in January

    The show, spearheaded by Shakur’s estate, will start out in Los Angeles. It’s “a story about race in America using Tupac as a proxy,” one of its producers said.A major touring exhibition centered on Tupac Shakur and spearheaded by his estate will arrive in Los Angeles in January.The exhibition, “Tupac Shakur. Wake Me When I’m Free,” opens on Jan. 21, in a newly built, temporary 20,000-square-foot space in the entertainment complex L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles.Shakur, a hip-hop artist, poet, actor and activist who released his first album in 1991 and went on to become one of the top-selling rappers in the 1990s, was killed in Las Vegas in 1996, at age 25. The case was never solved. He also acted in films including John Singleton’s “Poetic Justice,” in which he starred opposite Janet Jackson. In the decades since his death, he has inspired dozens of albums, books, movies, theater productions and even a hologram. In 2017, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.The exhibition, named after a Shakur poem included on the album “The Rose That Grew From Concrete, Volume 1” in 2000, features artifacts, contemporary art, music and multisensory elements in telling the story of Shakur’s life.“It became evident very quickly that this was way bigger than his music,” Arron Saxe, one of the exhibition’s co-producers, said in a phone interview on Monday. “You can’t talk about Tupac without talking about Afeni, his mother, and you can’t talk about Afeni without talking about her involvement in the Panther Party, and you’re then talking about the connections with the Civil Rights movement.”It’s “a story about race in America using Tupac as a proxy,” he added.Shakur’s estate worked for more than six years and has a number of partners, among them Nwaka Onwusa, the chief curator at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and Jeremy Hodges, the show’s creative director and founder of Project Art Collective. Shakur’s activism and his music will be highlighted, Saxe said. Part of the exhibition’s aim, he said, will be to demystify the legend.“There will be notebooks, song lyrics, poetry and also everyday stuff like shopping lists, and phone numbers on pieces of paper,” Saxe said. Humanizing him is a focus “because he and a lot of these other figures are mythical, larger than life.”After about six months, the exhibition will travel to other cities in the United States and internationally. More

  • in

    As Broadway Returns, Shows Rethink and Restage Depictions of Race

    “The Book of Mormon,” “The Lion King” and “Hamilton” are among those making changes as theaters reopen following the lengthy pandemic shutdown.“Hamilton” has restaged “What’d I Miss?,” the second act opener that introduces Thomas Jefferson, so that the dancer playing Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore him multiple children, can pointedly turn her back on him.In “The Lion King,” a pair of longstanding references to the shamanic Rafiki as a monkey — taxonomically correct, since the character is a mandrill — have been excised because of potential racial overtones, given that the role is played by a Black woman.“The Book of Mormon,” a musical comedy from the creators of “South Park” that gleefully teeters between outrageous and offensive, has gone even further. The show, about two wide-eyed white missionaries trying to save souls in a Ugandan village contending with AIDS and a warlord, faced calls from Black members of its own cast to take a fresh look, and wound up making a series of alterations that elevate the main Black female character and clarify the satire.Broadway is back. But as shows resume performance after the long pandemic shutdown, some of the biggest plays and musicals are making script and staging changes to reflect concerns that intensified after last year’s huge wave of protests against racism and police misconduct.At the “Mormon” workshop, actors and members of the creative team discussed the script and the staging. Here, from left to right, actor Derrick Williams talked with the musical’s director, Casey Nicholaw, while two of the show’s writers, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, conferred in the background.Darren Cox“We’re in a new world,” said Arbender J. Robinson, who was among the actors who expressed their concerns in a letter to the “Mormon” creative team. “We have a responsibility to make sure we understand what we’re doing, and how it can be perceived.”Although classic shows are often updated to reflect shifting attitudes toward race and gender when they are brought back to the stage as revivals, what is happening today is different: an assortment of hit shows reconsidering their content midrun. They are responding to pressure from artists emboldened by last year’s protests, as well as a heated social media culture in which any form of criticism can easily be amplified, while taking advantage of an unexpected window of time in which rewriting was possible, and re-rehearsing was necessary, because of the lengthy Broadway shutdown.“To me this feels like nothing ever before in theater,” said Diane Paulus, the director of “Jagged Little Pill,” which just last month won the Tony Award for best book and has revisited its book to refine the references to race. “This is different. This is saying the world has changed, and how can we embrace that?”Some of the changes are readily apparent, and others subtle, likely to be noticed only by the most detail-oriented audience members. There has been little pushback so far, either from those who might see the revisions as insufficient, or from those who might see them as an overreaction.The changes, big or small, are significant to performers — especially Black performers, who have become increasingly willing to speak up about concerns on and offstage.The letter from the “Mormon” actors, some from the original cast and some from the current roster, was sent in July of 2020, four months after the pandemic had closed Broadway and two months after George Floyd was killed by the police in Minneapolis. They warned that “when the show returns, all of our work will be viewed through a new lens.”The musical has faced criticism for years over its depiction of Africans, but some cast members were prompted to reflect again when an actor unaffiliated with the show denounced it on Facebook as “racist.”“I never felt this show was racist — never — but then I started hearing some concern from people in the show, who don’t know the intentions, and are saying, ‘Oh my God, am I doing a racist show?’” said Derrick Williams, who has been in “Mormon” since 2014 and also signed the letter. “There’s a fine line between satire and being offensive, and you have to be on the right side of that.”Trey Parker, one of the writers of “The Book of Mormon,” talked with the cast and crew. Darren CoxThe creative team was unsettled. “There was a moment where we weren’t sure — we thought, ‘Maybe this show has run its course,’” said Robert Lopez, who wrote the show with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of “South Park.” “But that’s not what anyone was asking for, so we braced for the hard work of what we would have to do.”So this summer, after a year of quiet conversations by phone and video, the original creative team gathered with the current cast — some meeting for the first time — and, for two straight weeks, went through the show scene by scene, clarifying their intent as they reviewed the plot, the comedy and the staging. The goal, Mr. Stone said: “Make sure everything works and everybody feels good.”Throughout the show, which will resume performances next month, moments were tweaked to sharpen the satire of Mormonism (already cringe-inducing for many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and to give the Ugandan villagers more agency. A gag in which the villager Nabulungi tries to send a text using a typewriter is gone; now she has an iPad, and the joke is no longer about her lack of sophistication, but about the unreliability of social media. Also: toward the end of the show, it is Nabulungi, not a white missionary, who scares away a warlord.“It’s putting Uganda at the center,” said Kim Exum, the actress playing Nabulungi, “instead of the Mormon boys.”In “The Lion King,” references to the character Rafiki, who is a shamanic mandrill, as a monkey have been dropped to avoid any possible racial overtones. Tshidi Manye played the role the night “The Lion King” reopened last month.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesDisney, which reopened “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” last month, not only replaced the references to Rafiki as a monkey (first used in the 1994 animated movie, when the character was not depicted by a live actor) but also made a few changes to “Aladdin.” Among them: the word “barbaric” has been deleted from the opening song, “Arabian Nights,” and replaced with “chaotic,” reflecting a change previously made for the 2019 live-action film.“The 18-month hiatus gave us a chance to take a fresh look at ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’ and make surgical changes to the books,” Disney Theatrical Productions said in a statement for this story, “informed by all that’s occurred since we’d last performed these shows.”At “Hamilton,” which broke ground by casting people of color to play the nation’s founders but has faced criticism for what some historians see as its misleading depiction of the title character as an abolitionist, attention during preparations for its reopening last month focused on Jefferson.Jefferson has become an increasingly controversial figure — the New York City Council earlier this month voted to remove his statue from its chambers — and “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail said the cast and creative team concentrated its revisions on Jefferson’s big number because of “the shameful distance between the liberty he wrote about, and the life he lived as a slaveholder.”There was another factor, too: the song contains the only moment in the show when an enslaved person is named — Hemings. “When you invoke the name of an enslaved person, you have to give some kind of respect,” said James Monroe Iglehart, who plays Jefferson.Hemings has no lines, but is represented through dance when Jefferson, saying “Sally be a lamb,” asks her to bring him a letter from George Washington; the choreography, Mr. Kail said, is now “quite different,” with “a different tone — one that is more respectful to Sally’s point of view.”In “Hamilton,” the second act opening number has been restaged so ensemble members representing enslaved people can express more distance from slaveholder Thomas Jefferson, currently played by James Monroe Iglehart.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesIn the prepandemic staging, Hemings would dance around Jefferson flirtatiously, performing a battement; in the new version, she still kicks her leg, but she faces away from him, arms forming a cradle as if to remind viewers of the children she bore him. “Rather than the playful, romantic energy that the previous version had, I’m now playing a person that had no claim over her own life and her own body,” said Justice Moore, who dances the Hemings role.There are changes for the ensemble, too. Gone are the white gloves and the pantomimed motions of slaves at work as Jefferson arrives at Monticello; now some members of the ensemble stand at a distance, and don’t even join in the singing. “The gloves automatically put you in a servant place, in a minstrel show sort of place, and the more we dug deeper, the more we asked why we need that weight on the story,” said Shonica Gooden, a member of the show’s ensemble.“To Kill a Mockingbird” has restaged its ending to ensure that audiences stay focused on the plight of Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of rape and then killed by prison guards. When the show opened in 2018, Robinson was played by Gbenga Akinnagbe, right, who is no longer in the cast; the role of Atticus Finch was played by Jeff Daniels, who has returned to play the role again this fall.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesAt “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a stage adaptation of the classic novel about a white lawyer’s unsuccessful effort to defend a Black man falsely accused of rape and then killed by law enforcement officers, the final scene was restaged before this month’s resumption of performances. A specter of the accused man, Tom Robinson, now returns at the end. “My goal is to not lose track of Tom’s story,” said Bartlett Sher, the director, “and to keep the impact of what happens to Tom more present.”“The Lehman Trilogy,” about the rise and fall of a financial family, added new references to the businessmen’s relationship to slavery after earlier versions of the play were criticized for playing down that connection. “Everything that was built here was built on a crime,” a character now warns.Broadway is addressing concerns about race in a variety of ways as it reopens — the current season features a record number of plays by Black writers; many shows are creating new diversity-related staff positions; and industry leaders have pledged to create more opportunities for artists of color. But race, although the primary focus of the protests last year, is not the only subject being reconsidered.“Jagged Little Pill,” a musical adapted from the blockbuster Alanis Morissette album, has simultaneously tried to deepen its discussion of race (the show centers on a white family with an adopted Black daughter) and gender identity. The show had been criticized when a character who appeared to some to be nonbinary before “Jagged” reached Broadway was more clearly portrayed as female once it arrived. In response, the producers said last month that they had hired a new dramaturgical team, including nonbinary and transgender members, “to revisit and deepen the script.”The writer of the musical’s book, Diablo Cody, said that she welcomed the opportunity to take another look at the material: She works primarily as a screenwriter, and of course once a movie is done, it’s done. But during the shutdown, she was able to update the musical’s family argument about transracial adoption. “When I wrote this, it was 2017 to 2018,” Ms. Cody said, “and it just feels like there has been such a cultural sea change since then.”Are the changes enough? Maybe not — although “Lehman” opened this month to raves, some critics once again faulted the play’s treatment of slavery.And are the alterations finished? Again, maybe not, at least for long-running shows.“We used to say a show was frozen, but the show is never frozen now,” said Mr. Iglehart, the “Hamilton” actor. “The shows are evolving, and they will evolve as the world evolves.” More

  • in

    The Secret Toll of Racial Ambiguity

    When Rebecca Hall read Nella Larsen’s groundbreaking 1929 novel, “Passing,” over a decade ago, she felt an intense, immediate attachment to it. The story seemed to clarify so much that was mysterious about her own identity — the unnameable gaps in her family history that shaped her life in their very absence, the way a sinkhole in the road distorts the path of traffic blocks away.The novel follows Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, two light-skinned Black women who grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood and shared a friendship complicated by differences in class and social status. When Clare’s father died, she was sent off to live with white relatives, while Irene went on to become firmly ensconced in the vibrant Black artistic and cultural community of 1920s Harlem, wife to a Black doctor and mother to two dark-skinned young boys. One day, while passing for convenience on the rooftop restaurant of a whites-only hotel, Irene is recognized by a beautiful blond woman, who turns out to be Clare — who now not only lives her life as a white woman but is also mother to a white-passing daughter and married to a bigoted man who has no clue about her mixed-race heritage. The friends’ reunion crackles with tension, charged with curiosity, envy and longing.When Clare asks Irene if she has ever thought about passing in a more permanent way herself, Irene responds disdainfully: “No. Why should I?” She adds, “You see, Clare, I’ve everything I want.” And maybe it’s true that the respectable, high-status life Irene has built in Harlem encompasses everything a serious woman, committed to lifting up her race, should want. But Clare’s sudden presence begins to raise a sense of dangerous possibility within Irene — one of unacknowledged desires and dissatisfactions. When she sees the ease with which Clare re-enters and ingratiates herself within Black society, it threatens Irene’s feeling of real, authentic belonging.Raised in England within the elite circles of classical theater, Hall, who is 39, had her first introduction to the concept of racial “passing” in the pages of Larsen’s novel. “I was spending time in America, and I knew that there had been vague, but I mean really vague, talk about my mother’s ethnicity,” Hall explained over the phone this spring. Her voice is calm and poised, with a warm polish to it, and she tends to speak in composed paragraphs. Over the year that we had corresponded, Hall hadn’t been acting much and had instead spent time writing screenplays from the Hudson Valley home that she shares with her daughter and her husband, the actor Morgan Spector. “Sometimes she would intimate that maybe there was African American ancestry, or sometimes she would intimate that there was Indigenous ancestry. But she didn’t really know; it wasn’t available to her.”Hall grew up steeped in performance: Her father, Sir Peter Hall, was known for founding the Royal Shakespeare Company and serving as the director of the Royal National Theater for many years, and possessed what she describes as a preternatural ability to know when and how an actor could be gently pushed into an even better performance. Her mother, Maria Ewing, an American raised in Detroit, is one of opera’s most celebrated sopranos, famous for her daring portrayal of Salome in Richard Strauss’s production, in which she followed the Oscar Wilde-penned stage directions to the letter and went nude onstage.After her parents divorced in 1990, Hall lived for many years with her mother in a manor in the English countryside, where she remembers rooms filled with the sound of jazz on vinyl, her mother making herself at home in the relative isolation and remoteness of an adopted country. “I was sort of brought up to believe that I was this — all of which is true, by the way — privileged, upper-middle-class, sort of bohemian well-educated white girl from a very prestigious family background,” Hall said. “And that was sort of where it stopped. And when I asked questions to my mother about her background in Detroit and her family,” Hall said, her voice low and firm, “she left it with an ‘I don’t want to dwell on the past.’”Until a friend pointed her to Nella Larsen’s “Passing,” Hall had no way of naming her intuition that these gaps in her family history were narratively charged — but reading it was a “gut punch.” “I felt deeply challenged and confused,” Hall recalled. “And the only way I could actually process it, for me, was to sit down and adapt it. I didn’t, at the time, think, I’m going to adapt it, because I know it’s going to make a killer film and I’m going to direct it. I really didn’t. It was sort of personal and quiet, and I did it in 10 days.” Then she stowed it away in a drawer for the better part of a decade.Margot Hand, a friend and a producer of “Passing,” the film that was eventually made from that screenplay and that opens theatrically in the United States on Oct. 27 and streams on Netflix beginning on Nov. 10, remembers watching Hall on the set of “Permission,” a film they were both involved in, and noticing how knowledgeable she was about the setup and composition of the shots. When she asked Hall whether she had ever considered directing, she replied that there was only one movie she could imagine herself making as her first film: an adaptation of a novel from the 1920s, based on a screenplay she wrote years earlier. Hand told me that the version of the screenplay that was used in filming is essentially identical to the one Hall showed her years ago — one of those rare artistic impulses that emerges whole and intact, like an egg.As Hall began to consider turning the script into her first directed feature, she knew that much of her vision for the film was nonnegotiable: It had to be shot in black and white, an unpopular choice from the perspective of studios, because black and white can be a harder sell in foreign markets. It had to be shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio that was the default for celluloid film in the 1920s and ’30s but that has since been replaced by wider proportions. And it had to have Black women cast in the lead roles of Irene and Clare — another sticking point in a moment when white actors still command the most star power and box-office revenue. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga signed on early and stayed attached through the years it took to gather the financing for the film, an unusual vote of confidence that Hall credits with the film’s eventually being made.“It’s a big undertaking to have this be your debut, and it’s still so hard as a female filmmaker to get something made,” Thompson explained to me over the phone. “To know that she would trust me with that, because so much would hinge on my performance, really was such a gift to me.”Hall was insistent: To film in black and white was a way of honoring the films that she was raised on, which starred strong female leads like Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Myrna Loy. And casting Black actors allowed her to conjure the fantasy of a “lost noir film” that might have had a Black actress in a leading role, while nodding to a lineage of films like “Imitation of Life” (1934). Starring the Black actress Fredi Washington, the film is the story of a daughter who breaks her mother’s heart by deciding to pass as white. Some Southern audiences were scandalized by it because Washington’s light skin, combined with the ambiguity of the black-and-white cinematography, made it impossible for them to discern whether the actress was truly Black or truly white.Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in ‘‘Passing.’’NetflixBut each of these compositional choices also functions to amplify the internal tension of the narrative, to pressurize the pull of Irene and Clare’s relationship. In black and white, the viewer becomes hyperattuned to the shades of gray that form the bulk of the visual image, an anxious gatekeeper perceiving similarity and difference at the same time. In the unconventionally narrowed screen, the two women’s bodies are continually in relation, one occluding, the other hidden, the distance between them always palpable. As Hall says, the framing “forces the face literally into the center of the frame, constantly. And so it constantly says, loud and clear, that this is a movie about faces and how we see them and watch them being seen.” In this aspect ratio, she adds, “there’s no room for escape.” For her, the project has been one of self-discovery and self-reckoning: “I’d say that the whole journey from that day when I sat down to write this to now has been a way of me processing and understanding my family better,” Hall says. “It was a bit of an exploration and also something I felt compelled to do for reasons I had no language for.”For the first half of my own life, I had no language for the sensation of precarious contingency that went along with my multiracial face, a product of a Taiwanese mother who immigrated in the 1980s and an American father with German ancestry. My childhood spanned the 1990s, when multicultural was an aesthetic, a party free of bad vibes. On TV, in the video for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White,” faces of different races morphed into one another, smiling hugely as they lip-synced the words. In elementary school in central New Jersey, I was asked once a year to bring in a “favorite recipe that shows your heritage” to add to a gradewide cookbook — I turned in the same recipe every time, for pork-and-cabbage dumplings — and on Veterans Day to wear some traditional Taiwanese apparel while sitting on a float that rolled through the park behind my house. Culture was to be celebrated, and as with a good buffet, you could have as much as you wanted, all piled together.If culture was additive, race was a place for optimism, insofar as its projected irrelevance would free the nation of the problems it had caused. Multiracial people were one mechanism through which that liberation would be accomplished: Their existence, and their acceptance and success in America, would be evidence that the country had left behind the violence and inequity of its past. If the nation couldn’t achieve racial equality through the political process, then citizens could do it themselves by creating a new kind of person.Being a symbol of racial and cultural optimism is a strange sign to live under. Your beauty signifies the rightness of the coming transition, its aesthetic balance; your flexibility, empathy and intermingled whiteness comfort those who fear the loss of place or privilege in the coming demographic shift. You are a bridge between the genes of your mother and the genes of your father, a bridge between their cultures — a bridge being a structure that others can use to cross something hazardous. You are a link between past and present that somehow carries forward none of the old grudges.But in the classroom and on the playground, my racial ambiguity didn’t feel like something to celebrate. At some times, I felt illegible and unseen; at others, I felt that my inharmonious features — the unusual shape of my eyes, my odd accent and the gaps in my knowledge of either culture — were bizarrely visible. Other children and some adults asked about me, speculated about me, tried to puzzle through my racial and cultural identity. And in the estrangement I felt in the towns we moved to, surrounded mostly by white people and sensing my mother’s own melancholia at being stranded far from her home country and the languages she was most comfortable living in, I found little in my racial identity that I could use as an anchor.One day when I was 16, alone in the school library during lunch hour, I came upon “Passing” and, like Hall, found it strangely, alarmingly moving. It gave shape and language to the racial ambivalence I experienced that was difficult to place within the optimistic rhetoric that surrounded me. The precarity that Clare and Irene live with, one walking a tightrope between two worlds designated as incommensurable and the other clutching at the apparent safety of a singular, grounded identity, spoke to my own fear of a catastrophic mobility, the feeling that if I didn’t find some way to root myself firmly to one world or the other, I might never find a way to belong anywhere. Texts are always haunted by the unseen — in basic terms, they work to conjure in the mind what they can only point at in words — but this entire book was fueled by invisible, scarcely apprehended drives that seemed to come from society, that spectral presence that moves us all in difficult-to-identify ways.As I read George Hutchinson’s “In Search of Nella Larsen,” the most comprehensive biography of the writer, I found a life that encompassed, at different times, the public-facing dutifulness of Irene Redfield and the lonesome, destructive freedom of Clare Kendry. A mysterious and remote figure who left inconsistent traces in the public record, Larsen struggled all her life to find her place among the categories available to her. The daughter of a white Danish seamstress and a Black cook from the Danish West Indies, Larsen spent her early years in an interracial sliver of Chicago where all kinds of people commingled in saloons and brothels, far from the buttoned-up neighborhoods of elite white and elite Black society. When her mother married another white immigrant from Denmark and gave birth to her second daughter, Larsen’s skin tone prevented the family from establishing themselves in one of the newer, less precarious neighborhoods dominated by working-class white immigrants. After years of tension navigating an increasingly segregated city, her mother sent her to study at an elite, all-Black teacher-training program in Tennessee, where she was expelled after a year, probably for violating the dress code. She returned to Denmark, where she lived for a time as a child.With her Scandinavian roots and little direct connection to the legacy of slavery that defined much of the African American experience, and because she came from a poor background, Larsen never felt fully at home in elite all-Black social circles. After she went to nursing school and became the first Black librarian to attend the New York Public Library’s prestigious library school, her first publications were selections of Danish children’s games and songs. The novelist Walter White, part of the literary community she had begun to associate with, encouraged her to write a novel, and eventually, she wrote two: the quasi-autobiographical “Quicksand” and her second and last published novel, “Passing.” She became one of the most celebrated — and maligned — writers of the Harlem Renaissance, insisting on a social circle that included the controversial white author Carl Van Vechten, whose writings had been deemed exploitative by many Black critics.In her work, Larsen complicated traditional notions of morality or race loyalty. She sometimes wrote about white people, as in the unpublished domestic thriller set in Boston that she wrote and rewrote in her last years as a working writer, as if trying to prove that colored people could enter the minds and lives of white people. After years of disappointments — her physicist husband was having an affair with a white co-worker, and one after another the manuscripts she submitted were rejected by publishers — Larsen retreated. Without telling the remnants of her literary circle, she moved to a different apartment down the block and became unreachable to her friends and colleagues. She quietly returned to nursing and died in the company of colleagues who had little idea that she had been a writer at all.The unusual shape of Larsen’s story, riddled with holes and obscurities, has led many to misread her. When her work was rediscovered in the 1980s and 1990s and began to appear on syllabuses, biographers claimed she had embellished her Danish heritage in order to distance herself from African American culture and present herself as European, and therefore more sophisticated. Other critics suggested that she left her literary life in order to begin passing as white. In reality, the proof of her connection to Denmark only required more care and effort to unearth, and though she once boasted in a letter to friends of having managed to have lunch in an upscale whites-only Southern restaurant, Hutchinson argues that she never tried to pass in any deeper, more deliberate way. But the misinterpretations of Larsen and her work point to her predicament: Even as she attained significant success as a writer, she left too few traces on paper to ensure that she would be read accurately. She remained enigmatic, illegible to most.In early August, I took a ride share, a ferry and a public bus to a quiet corner of Martha’s Vineyard to meet Hall at the first in-person festival event she had attended in over a year and a half. Though “Passing” had found distribution and been featured at the Sundance Film Festival, the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival would be the first place where an audience gathered to watch and discuss it together. It was the weekend of Barack Obama’s much-publicized 60th-birthday party, a celebration that would have brought hundreds of guests to the Vineyard, before it was scaled down amid right-wing criticism and Covid concerns. I walked past rows of newly painted and neatly hedged houses that looked out onto a still, grassy bay where over 400 years earlier an English explorer from Bristol anchored, traded with the native Wampanoag people and “enjoyed terrifying them with the sound of his cannon,” according to a 1923 book on the history of the island.Hall appeared on the wraparound porch of her bayside hotel in a dark button-up shirt and slim pants — casual, but in a different way from the bright whites and pale colors that covered much of the island. Hall had recently taken part in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS series, “Finding Your Roots” (the episode will air next year), and filled in some of the lacunas in her family history that had made elements of her own life feel incomplete or difficult to comprehend. She had shown a version of her film to her mother, sparking conversations that they weren’t able to have in the decades preceding. And “Passing” had been sold to Netflix for almost $17 million, a deal that would guarantee the film the sort of broad audience and promotional support rarely given to intricate, demanding art foregrounding Black women.The process of funding the film had been long and difficult — multiple studios offered Hall funding if she agreed to film in color, but she turned those offers down. Many months ago, Hall felt resigned to the idea that the film would always be a niche artifact, telling herself: “If I have to make it for nothing and it sells for nothing and nobody ever sees it, then so be it. This is the film that I want to make.” She now felt “a bit smug,” and a bit shocked, at the idea that art had won out.Hall’s adaptation cuts to the quick of the novel and transfers the shifting, unsettling quality of Larsen’s text back onto the viewer’s shoulders. The film delves into the gray zone of seeing, priming the viewer to become aware of the way his or her own perception is positioned and constructed. Under the intensive, focused gaze of the film’s long shots, Thompson and Negga deliver performances dense with desire and repulsion. Thompson plays Irene with turbulent restraint, her silences heavy and her speech shaped and structured by unseen constraints, while Negga’s Clare is dazzling and appetitive — her mobility, and the zest with which she transgresses boundaries of race and class, expose the falseness of the racial categories upheld by white and Black alike.The film feels timeless, closer kin to the moody, claustrophobic psychological landscape of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” or the taut, covert romance of Todd Haynes’s “Carol” than to other films that depict the same period. In this way, though set with care and historical fidelity in the 1920s, it’s not a film about the past or even about the social conditions of Larsen’s America, but about the way choices made during Larsen’s time reverberate through succeeding generations. It highlights the psychic afterlife of racial trauma — the quiet holes pressed into the psyche by self-denial.Like some long-limbed people, Hall has a tendency to fold herself up on the furniture in a disarming way, tucking her feet beneath her on the wicker sofa as she held a cup of green tea that I never saw her drink from. The researchers on “Finding Your Roots,” she told me, traced her mother’s side of the family tree as far back as her great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. She learned that her great-grandfather, whose name was John William Ewing, was born into slavery but found government work post-abolition in Washington, and even gave the toast for Frederick Douglass at a banquet in his honor. Her great-grandmother was a free woman of color, descended from one of only 5,000 Black men who fought on the side of the rebels during the Revolutionary War. But against the background of so much lineage lost and recovered was the discovery of the exact point at which the narrative had broken. “The revelation,” she said, “was that it was just my grandfather who passed — just that one act that erased a huge amount of history, including some stuff that’s really extraordinary.” She spoke carefully, pausing often. “The irony is his father was a race man. His father was someone who wanted to uplift.”I pointed out how rare it was for a person to have the chance to make a decision that so rapidly shifts the path of his descendants, a complex, psychological decision that erased anyone’s ability to find out why he made it. Hall nodded. “And if you know that it happened, it passes on a legacy that’s” — she trailed off, searching for the right term — “so confused, you know? Because if you’re the child of the parent, and you believe them to be doing the right thing, or hiding something by living in secret, then your obligation to the parent is to do what they do.” When I asked if her mother ever told stories about her own father that might shed light on why he chose to pass, or what his experience was like afterward, she told me that her grandfather was an artist and a musician, and this is part of what made them close — her mother learned to sing from imitating records in the basement of the family house. She left home soon after he died when she was 16, Hall said, gaining admission to the Cleveland Institute of Music against the odds and later moving to the Barbizon Hotel in New York, and eventually to Europe, where she sang in Salzburg, in Milan, in London.Hall didn’t know if her grandfather was a sort of anchor for her mother, whether his death caused her to leave home. But her mother did talk, Hall said, about an event that was very disturbing for her. “Her father was driving her home from somewhere. And they got out of the car, and there was a neighbor who my mom described as having a long yellow braid on one side. She was a white lady who had always been very nice to them. But as they were getting out of the car, this woman just turned around and said, ‘Why don’t you die?’” The woman added a toxic racial epithet. “And worse, that was not long before he died.” Her mother was very confused. She would tell this story, Hall said, but mostly avoided speaking about that time. I find myself haunted by it. I include it here even though I’m not sure what exactly the story signifies. What had happened to transform the neighbor’s view of her grandfather? Had her grandfather’s history of passing come to the surface, however carefully he hid it? In the end, it’s a narrative with a deep hole at its center, one that mirrors others in Hall’s family, a break in the telling that can’t be filled in through any amount of genealogical research or archival work.At the start of the golden hour, I made my way across the island to a reception on the deck of a waterfront restaurant, a celebration of the screening that would happen in a couple of short hours. Guests were already there, piling plates with beet salad and seafood. The atmosphere was warm and easy. When Hall and Spector appeared, a line formed in front of them, and I listened from nearby as they traded thanks with producers and attendees. A woman with straightened black hair, who appeared to be in her 50s or 60s, approached. She thanked them for coming and then added that the film was meaningful to her because her aunts lived their lives passing as white. “Because they passed and we didn’t, they didn’t want to be seen with us,” she explained.Hall’s film has cracked open a public conversation about colorism, privilege and secrets. On Twitter, people are sharing stories and black-and-white photographs of a grandmother’s cousins who moved out of state, great-aunts who sneaked back to see their family in secret, relatives who lost their jobs when co-workers informed management about their identities: a public airing of what in Hall’s family was once closely held. Recently one of her mother’s sisters reached out: She said that they never really had language to understand the hidden context that shaped their family, and she thanked her for giving it to them.Other responses pointed to the ways that racial categories continue to shape our collective thinking. When the trailer for the film debuted on social media, it prompted a deluge of tweets. Some shared memes featuring the movie title alongside photos of multiracial celebrities like Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph and Thandiwe Newton — the implication being that these lighter-skinned actresses would be a better fit for the roles or that they were continuing to benefit from the ability to pass as white in Hollywood and beyond. That so much of the discussion circulated around Thompson’s and Negga’s ability to successfully pass as white felt surreal, a return to a type of racial scrutiny that seems antithetical to the project of both the book and its adaptation. One Twitter user explained that in Larsen’s day, passing did not necessarily mean persuading others that you were white, only persuading them that you were “not-Black.” Another suggested that the director was trying to heighten tensions with the casting, reminding the viewers at all times of the possibility that the characters would be found out.From right: Rebecca Hall, Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson on the set of “Passing.”Emily V. Aragones/Netflix“There’s a real irony in this, in that the people who can really pass like me are challenged sometimes about whether they’re really, truly Black,” Mat Johnson, an African American novelist of mixed descent, told me over the phone. “So we have this paradox where some of the same people who would be like ‘Well, he’s not really Black,’ or ‘She’s not really Black,’ also feel real ownership about the idea of passing being a part of the African American experience. It’s interesting because even that discussion is about who owns the story of passing.”“Passing” is re-entering the culture at a moment when being multiracial is viewed in a more sober, realistic light than it was when I was growing up. In recent works like Johnson’s graphic novel “Incognegro,” Danzy Senna’s “New People” and Brit Bennett’s best-selling “The Vanishing Half,” authors have rewritten the literary tropes of Black passing to probe its blind spots and challenge the notion that the color line has been erased within American society. If earlier notions of a cohesive “mixed race” identity failed to materialize, who could be surprised? No grand unifying theory of multiraciality can account for the multiple, highly specific ways in which individuals reconcile their own hybrid backgrounds, or for the particular way in which Blackness resists assimilation into both whiteness and the middle ground of the mixed.“I’ve seen Black people around me getting interested in their family history start to do their research and realize that to be Black in America necessarily means having some non-Black ancestry,” Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of the novel “Libertie,” told me in a recent conversation. “Genetically, many of us have about 25 percent white DNA within us. To be Black, this thing that we say is readable and defined as necessarily separate from whiteness, literally usually means for most of us that we are, in fact, intertwined with it,” she said. “Hopefully what that will do is force people to have more complicated discussions about what it means to share all of this DNA when we still have this system set up to reward those who are closest or closer to whiteness.”Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve noticed more people bypassing the conundrum of what it means to be racially mixed in order to define themselves in terms of who they feel themselves to be, how they lay claim to their cultures, how they themselves conceptualize racial boundaries. Many choose to identify as wholly Asian, or wholly Black, or to identify as multiple full identities rather than fractions of a diminishing whole. You could say that there are potentially as many racial identities as there are racial stories, and the more fulfilling work is to dwell in these stories rather than in their categorization. In the end, narrative may the best tool we have for binding together the disparate elements that make up the self.Alexandra Kleeman is a professor at the New School and the author of two novels, “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine” and “Something New Under the Sun.” Carly Zavala is a photographer who was born in Venezuela and is based in Brooklyn. She was a nurse for 15 years and is known for her play with light and shadow to create emotive and moody images. More

  • in

    A Blackface ‘Othello’ Shocks, and a Professor Steps Back From Class

    Students objected after the composer Bright Sheng showed the 1965 film of Laurence Olivier’s “Othello” to his class at the University of Michigan.It was supposed to be an opportunity for music students at the University of Michigan to learn about the process of adapting a classic literary text into an opera from one of the music school’s most celebrated professors, the composer Bright Sheng.But at the first class meeting of this fall’s undergraduate composition seminar, when Professor Sheng hit play on the 1965 film of Shakespeare’s “Othello” starring Laurence Olivier, it quickly became a lesson in something else entirely.Students said they sat in stunned silence as Olivier appeared onscreen in thickly painted blackface makeup. Even before class ended 90 minutes later, group chat messages were flying, along with at least one email of complaint to the department reporting that many students were “incredibly offended both by this video and by the lack of explanation as to why this was selected for our class.”Within hours, Professor Sheng had sent a terse email issuing the first of what would be two apologies. Then, after weeks of emails, open letters and canceled classes, it was announced on Oct. 1 that Professor Sheng — a two-time Pulitzer finalist and winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant — was voluntarily stepping back from the class entirely, in order to allow for a “positive learning environment.”The incident might have remained just the latest flash point at a music program that has been roiled in recent years by a series of charges of misconduct by star professors. But a day before Professor Sheng stepped down, a long, scathing Medium post by a student in the class rippled across Twitter before getting picked up in Newsweek, Fox News, The Daily Mail and beyond, entangling one of the nation’s leading music schools in the supercharged national debate over race, academic freedom and free speech.To some observers, it’s a case of campus “cancel culture” run amok, with overzealous students refusing to accept an apology — with the added twist that the Chinese-born Professor Sheng was a survivor of the Cultural Revolution, during which the Red Guards had seized the family piano.To others, the incident is symbolic of an arrogant academic and artistic old guard and of the deeply embedded anti-Black racism in classical music, a field that has been slow to abandon performance traditions featuring blackface and other racialized makeup.The Olivier “Othello,” from 1965, was controversial even when it was new; the critic Bosley Crowther expressed shock in The New York Times that the actor “plays Othello in blackface.” Warner BrothersIn an email to The New York Times, Professor Sheng, 66, reiterated his apology. “From the bottom of my heart, I would like to say that I am terribly sorry,” he said.“Of course, facing criticism for my misjudgment as a professor here is nothing like the experience that many Chinese professors faced during the Cultural Revolution,” he wrote. “But it feels uncomfortable that we live in an era where people can attempt to destroy the career and reputation of others with public denunciation. I am not too old to learn, and this mistake has taught me much.”Professor Sheng, who joined the Michigan faculty in 1995 and holds the title Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor, the highest rank on the faculty, was born in 1955 in Shanghai. As a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, to avoid being sent to a farm to be “re-educated,” he auditioned for an officially sanctioned folk music ensemble, and was sent to Qinghai province, a remote area near the Tibetan border, according to a university biography.After the universities reopened in 1976, he got a degree in composition from Shanghai University, and in 1982, he moved to the United States, eventually earning a doctorate at Columbia University.His work, which includes an acclaimed 2016 opera based on the 18th-century Chinese literary classic “Dream of the Red Chamber,” blends elements of Eastern and Western music. “When someone asks me if I consider myself a Chinese or American composer, I say, in the most humble way, ‘100 percent both,’” he said earlier this year.The Olivier film was controversial even when it was new. Writing in The New York Times, the critic Bosley Crowther expressed shock that Olivier “plays Othello in blackface,” noting his “wig of kinky black hair,” his lips “smeared and thickened with a startling raspberry red” and his exaggerated accent, which he described as reminiscent of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” (To “the sensitive American viewer,” Crowther wrote, Olivier looked like someone in a “minstrel show.”)Professor Sheng, in his emailed response to questions from The Times, said that the purpose of the class had been to show how Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera, and that he had chosen the Olivier film simply because it was “one of the most faithful to Shakespeare.” He also said that he had not seen the makeup as an attempt to mock Black people, but as part of a long tradition — one that has persisted in opera — which he said valued the “music quality of the singers” over physical resemblance.“Of course, times have changed, and I made a mistake in showing this film,” he said. “That was insensitive of me, and I am very sorry.”But to the students — for some, it was their very first class at the university — it was simply a shock. “I was stunned,” Olivia Cook, a freshman, told The Michigan Daily, adding that the classroom was “supposed to be a safe space.”Bright Sheng’s work includes an acclaimed 2016 opera based on the 18th-century Chinese literary classic “Dream of the Red Chamber,” which was performed at the San Francisco Opera in 2016.Jason Henry for The New York TimesA week after the video was shown, Professor Sheng signed on to a letter from six of the composition department’s seven professors, which described the incident as “disappointing and harmful to individual students in many different ways, and destructive to our community.” He also sent another, longer, apology, saying that since the incident, “I did more research and learning on the issue and realized that the depth of racism was, and still is, a dangerous part of American culture.”Professor Sheng also cited discrimination he had faced as an Asian American and listed various Black musicians he had mentored or supported, as well as his daughter’s experience performing with Kanye West. “I hope you can accept my apology and see that I do not discriminate,” he wrote.That apology provoked fresh outrage. In an open letter to the dean, a group of 33 undergraduate and graduate students and nine staff and faculty members (whose names were not made public) called on the school to remove Professor Sheng from the class, calling his apology “inflammatory” and referring to an unspecified “pattern of harmful behavior in the classroom” which had left students feeling “unsafe and uncomfortable.”(“In retrospect,” Professor Sheng wrote in his email to The Times, “I should have apologized for my mistake without qualification.”).css-1xzcza9{list-style-type:disc;padding-inline-start:1em;}.css-3btd0c{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.375rem;color:#333;margin-bottom:0.78125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-3btd0c{font-size:1.0625rem;line-height:1.5rem;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}}.css-3btd0c strong{font-weight:600;}.css-3btd0c em{font-style:italic;}.css-w739ur{margin:0 auto 5px;font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.125rem;line-height:1.3125rem;color:#121212;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-w739ur{font-family:nyt-cheltenham,georgia,’times new roman’,times,serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.375rem;line-height:1.625rem;}@media (min-width:740px){#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-w739ur{font-size:1.6875rem;line-height:1.875rem;}}@media (min-width:740px){.css-w739ur{font-size:1.25rem;line-height:1.4375rem;}}.css-9s9ecg{margin-bottom:15px;}.css-16ed7iq{width:100%;display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-align-items:center;-webkit-box-align:center;-ms-flex-align:center;align-items:center;-webkit-box-pack:center;-webkit-justify-content:center;-ms-flex-pack:center;justify-content:center;padding:10px 0;background-color:white;}.css-pmm6ed{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-align-items:center;-webkit-box-align:center;-ms-flex-align:center;align-items:center;}.css-pmm6ed > :not(:first-child){margin-left:5px;}.css-5gimkt{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:0.8125rem;font-weight:700;-webkit-letter-spacing:0.03em;-moz-letter-spacing:0.03em;-ms-letter-spacing:0.03em;letter-spacing:0.03em;text-transform:uppercase;color:#333;}.css-5gimkt:after{content:’Collapse’;}.css-rdoyk0{-webkit-transition:all 0.5s ease;transition:all 0.5s ease;-webkit-transform:rotate(180deg);-ms-transform:rotate(180deg);transform:rotate(180deg);}.css-eb027h{max-height:5000px;-webkit-transition:max-height 0.5s ease;transition:max-height 0.5s ease;}.css-6mllg9{-webkit-transition:all 0.5s ease;transition:all 0.5s ease;position:relative;opacity:0;}.css-6mllg9:before{content:”;background-image:linear-gradient(180deg,transparent,#ffffff);background-image:-webkit-linear-gradient(270deg,rgba(255,255,255,0),#ffffff);height:80px;width:100%;position:absolute;bottom:0px;pointer-events:none;}.css-1jiwgt1{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-box-pack:justify;-webkit-justify-content:space-between;-ms-flex-pack:justify;justify-content:space-between;margin-bottom:1.25rem;}.css-8o2i8v{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-flex-direction:column;-ms-flex-direction:column;flex-direction:column;-webkit-align-self:flex-end;-ms-flex-item-align:end;align-self:flex-end;}.css-8o2i8v p{margin-bottom:0;}.css-12vbvwq{background-color:white;border:1px solid #e2e2e2;width:calc(100% – 40px);max-width:600px;margin:1.5rem auto 1.9rem;padding:15px;box-sizing:border-box;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-12vbvwq{padding:20px;width:100%;}}.css-12vbvwq:focus{outline:1px solid #e2e2e2;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-12vbvwq{border:none;padding:10px 0 0;border-top:2px solid #121212;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-rdoyk0{-webkit-transform:rotate(0deg);-ms-transform:rotate(0deg);transform:rotate(0deg);}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-eb027h{max-height:300px;overflow:hidden;-webkit-transition:none;transition:none;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-5gimkt:after{content:’See more’;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-6mllg9{opacity:1;}.css-1rh1sk1{margin:0 auto;overflow:hidden;}.css-1rh1sk1 strong{font-weight:700;}.css-1rh1sk1 em{font-style:italic;}.css-1rh1sk1 a{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration:underline;text-decoration:underline;text-underline-offset:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-thickness:1px;text-decoration-thickness:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#ccd9e3;text-decoration-color:#ccd9e3;}.css-1rh1sk1 a:visited{color:#333;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#ccc;text-decoration-color:#ccc;}.css-1rh1sk1 a:hover{-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;}On Sept. 30, a senior in the class, Sammy Sussman, posted the long Medium essay, outlining what he saw as Professor Sheng’s “disregard for students” (which, he wrote, included walking out in the middle of Mr. Sussman’s audition for the program several years earlier). Mr. Sussman, who in 2018 was the first to report allegations of sexual misconduct against another music faculty member, Stephen Shipps, also linked the case to what he said was a broader failure of the university and the classical music industry to hold prominent figures to account.After Mr. Sussman posted a link to the essay on Twitter, it was retweeted by another composition professor, Kristin Kuster, who cited the need for “conversations about pedagogical racism and pedagogical abuse,” and tagged a number of musicians, as well as the Pulitzer Prize board and the MacArthur Foundation. (Both Mr. Sussman and Professor Kuster declined to comment on the record.)Some accused the students, and the school, of overreacting. In an article in Reason, Robby Soave, an editor at the magazine, argued that Professor Sheng’s apology “ought to have been more than sufficient” and argued that he now deserves an apology himself.“The University of Michigan is a public institution at which students and professors deserve free speech and expression rights,” he wrote. “It is a violation of the university’s cherished principles of academic freedom to punish Sheng for the choices he makes in the classroom. Screening a racially problematic film in an educational setting is neither a racist act nor an endorsement of racism.”A spokesman for the university, Kim Broekhuizen, confirmed that the incident had been referred to the university’s Office of Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX for investigation, but emphasized that Professor Sheng had stepped down from the class voluntarily, was still teaching individual studios, and was scheduled to teach next semester.“We do not shy away from addressing racism or any other difficult topic with our students,” Ms. Broekhuizen said in an email to The Times. But “in this particular instance, the appropriate context or historical perspective was not provided and the professor has acknowledged that.”Some scholars who teach blackface traditions questioned the quickness of some to denounce the students, or to mock their insistence on contextualization as a demand for “trigger warnings.”“Gen Z is unbelievably right on when they say, ‘If you’re not going to give us the context, we shouldn’t have to watch it,’” said Ayanna Thompson, a Shakespeare scholar at Arizona State University who has written extensively on Shakespeare and race.Professor Thompson, the author of the recent book “Blackface” and a trustee of the Royal Shakespeare Company, declined to comment on the details of Professor Sheng’s case. But she said that when it comes to “Othello” and blackface minstrelsy, the connections aren’t incidental, but absolutely fundamental.Contrary to widespread belief, she said, blackface wasn’t an American invention, but sprang from older European performance traditions going back to the Middle Ages. And it was at an 1833 performance of “Othello” featuring a blacked-up actor that T.D. Rice, the white American performer seen as the father of minstrelsy, claimed to have been inspired to get up at intermission and put on blackface to perform “Jump Jim Crow” for the first time.“Whenever you’re teaching Shakespeare, period, the history of performing race should be part of the discussion,” Professor Thompson said. “Everyone has a responsibility to give the full history.” More