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The savage god

Art that scares us—or doesn’t get a chance to

In Tulsa’s current theater season, Mark Frank’s play, “He is She,” came under fire even before rehearsals. The play was accepted by the Echo Theatre’s Reverb Play Festival (the festival was subtitled, with no small irony now, “Dangerous Works for a Dangerous World”) on April 3, after a national call for scripts that began in February.

When Joe Watts, the director of the script, sent the play out to the theater community for casting purposes, a barrage of public Facebook posts and phone calls to Mark Frank immediately followed.

These are samples of public posts on Frank’s page: “Fuck you! You’re (sic) play is a piece of shit!”; “Your play isn’t worth anyone hearing it as it is pure garbage!”; “I read your script and you should be ashamed how you treat women.” One disturbing post read: “I know where you live.”

Who gets to determine what Tulsa theater audiences see? Is there a censor lurking? Surprisingly, the local theater community itself has been responsible at least twice for what can only be described as a form of censorship.

Strong reactions to challenging work have a long history. For example, a play by Alfred Jarry, “Ubu Roi”—scatological, infantile, and intentionally provocative—enflamed a Paris audience, both pro and con, and became a sensation overnight in the 1890s. 

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats, praising the play’s disobedience of social and religious norms, wrote of the groundbreaking work: “[W]hat more is possible? After us the Savage God.” 

Jarry’s play is now considered to have engendered the Theater of the Absurd, a form still widely practiced around the globe. One can easily draw a direct line from “Ubu Roi” to Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” among other absurdist works, and continue through plays by Sam Shepard and even Tulsa’s Tracy Letts, including “Bug” and the violently amoral (therefore rarely produced) “Killer Joe.”

Some of these works have caused political or public outcry and have even been, for a time, banned. 

But what if the work of art is, in effect, pre-censored—never permitted to be seen, never given any public exposure?

In Tulsa, in 2014, a production of four plays from Christopher Durang’s collection of short works, “Durang Durang,” was cancelled. The producing organization, Heller Theatre, was at that time under the wing of the City of Tulsa Recreation Department and cited concerns over one of the plays, “A Stye in the Eye,” which contained references to a bloody and maggot-covered American flag in the published text.

The trouble began when one member of the cast suddenly objected to the flag content—eight days before opening, even after attending several weeks of rehearsals. (The play is an overt satire of a Sam Shepard play, “A Lie of the Mind,” which deals unflinchingly with spousal abuse and family dysfunction.)

A suggested solution by Heller was to perform the show once in its entirety for an invited audience and then complete the run performing only the three remaining plays for the public. The decision of the company of actors and the directors was to reject this attempt at censorship and walk out. In follow-up discussions it was revealed that the plays had not been fully vetted before being approved for production. Heller didn’t know what it had accepted, in otherwords.

Fearing for his personal safety and continued employment, Frank withdrew “He is She” on April 7.

According to Frank, “He is She” was intentionally written to be offensive. The playwright says that the play is a direct response to current politics and social realities in our country. 

“The play tackles very hot issues in today’s ‘Trump World,’ such as Russian-US collusion, illegal immigration, Keystone-Dakota Pipeline, transgender rights, and the Mexican border wall,” he said.

The play is unquestionably an assault on traditional theater, as well as traditional values. The language is very strong throughout, and various people, not just women, are subjected to violent treatment. 

“It’s based in part on a real character,” said Frank. “It’s a very topical, political play. I wanted people to take action about the political situation in the country. I wanted an emotional response.”

Machele Dill, artistic director of Echo Theatre, said she knew the play was provocative but wanted to do it anyway, in spite of the reactions. 

“That made me more determined,” she said. “Nobody’s going to tell me what I can and can’t put on stage.” 

“It boggled my mind that someone can’t separate the playwright from the work,” Dill said, “and [think] they have the ‘right’ to say ‘no one can see this.’”

Yet, the reactions managed to do exactly that: no one will ever see the Heller production of “A Stye in the Eye” nor Echo Theatre’s reading of “He is She.” 

A savage god, indeed.

For more from Michael, read his piece on StudioTulsa’s Rich Fisher.