Scene: Opening Night at the Brown Derby
production of R
. “Handy If You’ve Been Stung by a Stingray” Kelly
’s Trapped in the Closet
For the out-of-towners, the kids at Brown Derby specialize in taking the hokey extremes of Hollywood screenplays and twisting them all to hell. They don’t spend a lot of time preparing for a show (usually a production is slapped together during the week before it goes up), and the time promised, and often delivered, is a booze-fueled and hilarious gender/sexuality mind-fuck of the typical Tinteltown tripe, filled with horrible puns, slapsticky bawdiness, and off-the-cuff adlibs.
Usually content with sending up nostalgic detritus like Dirty Dancing
or Rosemary’s Baby
, they decided to step a little outside their norm and attack R. “Helpful in Fighting Athlete’s Foot, Also” Kelly’s ongoing “hip-hopera.” To say that they delivered on their promise to make a train-wreck even more train-wreck-y would be an understatement. The night was a rowdy success.
(For a slightly more in-depth discussion of the Trapped in the Closet
phenomenon, check out this Rushkoff-lite write up
A couple of things to get straight: 1) TitC
’s description as a hip-hopera is apt, especially in the sense that it’s about as overwrought as your typical soap. In the 13 episodes (of a theoretical 32) thus far released, R. Kelly has presented a tale of his thug-lite persona who finds himself, in the first episode, hiding in a closet from a recently cuckolded husband; as the tale is woven, it very quickly spins out to include situations of homosexuality, police interrogations, interracial marriage, a midget (who is trapped in a cupboard, no joke), and blah blah blah, you’ve doubtlessly either read or heard about all of this already (or seen it. And if not, here’s the almost mandatory Wikipedia entry
, and You Tube
link. Completely worth your time). Trust me, in ways both intentional and not, the damn thing is hilarious.
2) I’m just gonna say it: The Brown Derby Kids? Mostly melanin-challenged (this is Seattle after all). This production had about 10 – 12 cast members; of these, only two, maybe three, could have feasibly been cast in major roles for the original production. To stack the deck even further, one actor simply read quotes from R. Kelly’s DVD commentary, which really doesn’t paint him in the best light. The various R. Kelly’s in the production just wore corn-row wigs and goatees.
So, opening night, the place is almost, but not quite, packed with your usual Seattle theater-going types, and the place was roaring. In the midst of all this, back at the box office, a little tempest in a wee teapot had started to brew. About five audience members were trying to get a refund. Why? Because they felt it was a racist treatment of the material.
Let’s talk about these people for a second…Firstly, they admitted to owning every piece of R. Kelly merchandising out there. They also admitted that they took the material seriously, and had never seen a Brown Derby before. Needless to say, they were hoping for a more faithful interpretation. They were all young women in their early 20s.
The last detail is simply that these women were white.
This reminds me of the apocryphal Seattle story about the letter to the editor of the Times asking if it was racist to laugh at Blazing Saddles
Now, I’m as fond of instigating white liberal guilt as the next ethno (enough to go as far as writing a sketch about how much I like perpetuating it), but this raises more than a few issues with me.
Look, I appreciate the concern, but how about you let minorities dictate amongst themselves what is or isn’t racist? This most definitely isn’t an easy process for any ethno-group, and there will be instances of a group being far too sensitive; by and large, though, people have a sense of humor, as evidenced by the black people in the opening night audience who were laughing loudly.
In fact, because they were stepping outside their comfort zone, this production was about as reserved as Brown Derby gets; they simply presented the material for what it was, and made more fun of the fact that these were all white folks with some rhythm problems than anyone’s color in the video. The tone was a lot more reverential than this Wonder Showzen
At the same time, as reflexive as I believe their actions to have been, the women at least stuck to their overly-sensitive guns. If the material had actually been thoroughly offensive, I’d be praising these young white women for doing the right thing.
That said, would they react as strongly to Little Man
, White Girlz
or Date Movie
? I’m not saying they should, but those movies have their own flavor of racist humor going on, and the racism is about their own demographic…
Hell, what did they think of the subtle racism, mysoginy and homophobia in the original TitC
? What of the story's treatment of the Bridget character (she's the white wife)? The rote answer to this question, usually delivered by the artists, is that they are simply representing how these people behave, speak, and believe. A semi successful argument can be made that these topics are treated in a winking and humorous manner to try to create new ways of thinking of these topics...just the same, those charges could be leveled against their fave artists' work.
Ultimately, the question is: Where does the line begin? We still don’t have the complete answer to this question, and it’s doubtful that we ever will. What we do have in place is a system that errs on the side of safety a little too much.
I mean, would Blazing Saddles
be made and released today? I don’t think so, and that’s a problem. That movie pushed buttons and pushed them well; if it were to be remade, all you’d get would be variations on the camping scene over and over again. The movie is a primary example of how to be intelligently offensive.
I’d prefer it if, instead of hiding this type of humor from past media (the Warner Bros. Cartoons of the 40s and 50s come to mind), these pieces were kept unsullied. They’re a part of our past, and it shows us where we are coming from. It’s something we can point to and say “there, that’s an example of going too far.” *
I think it’s probably best for us to expect to stumble into the toes of others every once in a while, just as our toes will be stepped on from time to time. And that’s fine with me; this stance encourages discussion and interaction, which I prefer a hell of a lot more than reflexively assuming something may or may not be offensive.*It’s no secret that I find the WB cartoons from that era, racial implications and violence included, pretty fuckin’ funny.