I don't know about you, but if I hear either of the phrases "politically correct" or "politically incorrect" one more time, I'm gonna commit a hate crime. It's now quite fashionable to be rude to any and every minority group in America, save one -- African-Americans. This is the void into which playwright Jonathan Reynolds steps with his scathing satire of theatrical condescension, Stonewall Jackson's House. In it, he skewers Anglo expectations of black victimhood as well as black tendencies to cash in culturally and politically on that victim status. We don't want to discuss too much about the plot, because it has more twists than a pig's tail, but suffice to say it involves a young black female playwright whose unorthodox opinions strand her in a frustrating nirvana between white guilt and black opportunism.
Reynolds' comedy was a Pulitzer finalist, but that distinction wasn't enough to overcome its volatile dialogue about race and ruse in America -- as far as research can uncover, Dallas' New Theatre Company is only the second or third troupe in America to produce it. In a recent conversation between former New York Times drama critic Frank "Butcher of Broadway" Rich and New Republic critic Robert Brustein, Rich cited the general wussiness of American theater producers to explain why something as bold as Stonewall Jackson's House will not be seen widely on national stages.
Sheriden Thomas, SMU assistant professor of acting, steers the production by the New Theatre Company, making its first appearance at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary while construction is under way for a second stage. She's pretty damn sick of the notion of "political correctness" too, and prefers another phrase.
"I call it 'political politeness,'" says the voluble Thomas. "There are three tiers to this play: You think you're watching one play, and then it switches. This is a language play, an argument, a Shavian diatribe about the relationship between blacks and whites in America, told from the point of view of a black woman who's having the worst day of her life. Frankly, when I first read this script, I threw it down a couple of times. But then, as a gay woman, I realized I don't mind getting poked in the eye as long as everybody else gets poked in the eye. And with all the targets here -- nationalism, gender-blind and race-blind casting, the British invasion of American theater -- I feel that everybody gets their due."
Stonewall Jackson's House was one hot potato on the Dallas theater scene -- numerous talented actors requested auditions, read the script, and then cowardly refused to participate. New Theatre Company co-director Charlotte Akin even claims she received a threatening, anonymous message on her voice mail, warning the troupe not to mount this most controversial production. Such hurdles make New Theatre, the MAC, and Thomas all the more eager to bring this play to Dallas audiences.
"It's all about tribes," Thomas says. "In order to belong to the black tribe, the gay tribe, the woman tribe, the theater tribe, you have to sacrifice your individuality. Hate happens very quickly, and that needs to be ridden out, but feeling like a victim begets victimhood. There was a recent New York Times piece by a black writer called 'Writing About Race and Walking on Eggshells" that asked: 'How do you write about black progress without encouraging complacency?' Stonewall Jackson's House is an argument against too many absolutes, against the rules of the tribe."
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.