In Support of the Author's Voice
The Lark stands in solidarity with playwrights everywhere in ensuring that their plays are produced in ways that respect their intentions and show the truth of the world as seen through their eyes.
Two playwrights in our community were embroiled this fall in a national furor about race, representation, and copyright protection as a consequence of university productions of their plays. At Kent State University, a white man was cast as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop and, at around the same time, white students were cast in two Asian roles in Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India at Pennsylvania’s Clarion University. In both cases, this casting was against the authors’ wishes.
These incidents illustrate a breakdown in the public’s understanding of the legal and ethical rights of authors to own and guide the works they’ve written. Even more troubling is the phenomenon of a school or theater company producing a contemporary play without a sense of responsibility for upholding the author’s vision or sense of the world, as if the words on the page were divorced from core concepts and values. The fact that Katori and Lloyd have built their careers on reframing the American narrative around equity and ethnicity is inseparable from their work.
With respect to authors’ intellectual property rights, legal precedent is quite clear in this country. And it also makes sense in ordinary life that we don’t take or change things that belong to other people. If you own a house and rent it to someone, you’d expect the renter to ask for permission to break through a wall to add a door. That’s American capitalism pure and simple. Similarly, authors own what they write while their copyright is in force. Their property rights include selling and leasing their work as well as dictating where, when, and how their work will be distributed, produced, published, adapted, or used in any way.
Many articles and posts have already been published that describe these two incidents in detail, so I won’t present this information all over again. I encourage people to learn more by exploring the links to some of those articles, pasted below.
However, I must express my anguish in reading a host of angry and mean-spirited posts on social media that attack Katori and Lloyd for standing up for their beliefs. While a good and vibrant conversation is also taking place around issues of intellectual property and cultural representation, a significant number of people do not seem interested in engaging in constructive dialogue.
I am pleading for civil conversation, better listening, the willingness to learn from one another, and a commitment to taking the time to do so. Specifically, I encourage us to seize every opportunity to open up dialogues around very difficult realities facing our nation today. Front and center are many unresolved questions about race, entrenched power structures, social equity, wealth disparity, unconscious bias, and so much more.
Theater’s greatest contribution to civilization is that it brings people from different backgrounds together under intimate circumstances to generate discussion and debate through which we recognize one another’s humanity and learn to see through the prism of another’s experience of the world. Let’s build a better society together, not separately, through the vision and hope that result from artistic collaboration. This is a learning moment for us all. Let’s regard each other with interest and respect and see what happens when we do.