Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On Race and RENT in Jerusalem

So, encountering RENT at different points in my life is always a complex processing experience.  It's also interesting to see a show on the amateur level for the first time that you previously saw on Broadway (or in this case two Broadway tours) and to see how a smaller company solves issues of staging. I went into tonight's production RENT in Jerusalem with both intrigue and trepidation.

If you squint, you can see the
 one person of color in the cast in the lower left
I was pleased to see this production illustrate that you don't need a huge budget to make stage magic.  One of the things I dread about seeing non-professional theatre is cringing at sloppy, unnecessary set elements.  The best small productions are those that don't try to be Broadway, but instead use what they have thoughtfully.  One of wittiest moments in tonight's show was during Angel and Collins' first meeting and when Collins' said "nice tree," we realize he is referring to a pine-tree shaped air freshener around Angel's neck.  There is something really refreshing about seeing immature, hormone-crazed characters in their early 20s played by actors the same age, as opposed to people pushing 40.  In the case of RENT, having younger actors made their impulsive life decisions much more believable and the characters easier to empathize with.

However, this production also highlighted RENT's inherent flaws in terms of how it deals (or doesn't deal) with the subject of race.

On the one hand, the racial diversity of the Broadway production of RENT has always been a given and one of its most characteristic and important elements.  In particular in the original cast and movie, you have characters of color representing a wide range of class experiences, sexual identities, and body types.  That coupled with show's universal messages of love and freedom definitely offer a hopeful vision of society that has led to its appeal among young people.  On the flip side, by ignoring the issue of race completely in the script, it also ignores many of the very real systematic obstacles and issues that prevent that utopian world from becoming a reality.  From a casting point of view, it means that a show about economic inequality can get away with having virtually no actors of color in the cast.

Is this necessarily a problem?  I think it is in a place like Jerusalem, in which racial tensions and inequality color the fundamental conflicts facing this society.  There's conflict with the Palestinians, who routinely face eviction from their homes and water shortages based on their background.  And within the Israeli Jewish society, you have Jews from Ethiopia and North African countries as well as those from the former Soviet Union who suffer from a huge income and opportunity gap compared to those of central and Western Europe.   One of the reasons the ultra-Orthodox party Shas has continued to endure it is it's one of the only parties that has made income inequality among (Jewish) minorities a central part of its platform.   Sure, it was an English-language speaking production whose main audience is the Anglo community.  But seeing the all-white audience of well-meaning liberals watch an almost completely white cast (with the excerption of the black actor playing greedy mogul Benny, which raises other issues) sing about how oppressed their lives were in their little artistic bubble, I felt like something fundamental was missing.  One American girl in the cast had been a roommate of mine, and at one point I heard her bitch about how it was ridiculous to say that there is anything controversial about Israel occupying the West Bank because they won that territory fair and square.  And how many of those actors, who probably consider themselves left-wing, have had any meaningful contact with the real issues of inequality here in Israeli society?

By not dealing with any of these issues directly, RENT was able to find broad universal appeal, and yet this also makes it prone to shallowness and superficiality, just another exploration of myopic white people problems.

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