Can a play that deals with racist themes be racist itself? Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s work A Behanding in Spokane is raising a storm around that very question because of its gritty portrayal of American life.
McDonagh has a reputation for unblinking takes on society that are brutish, usually bloody, and laced with dark humor.
His play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a dark, gore-flecked take on Irish Republicanism cause an uproar on Broadway for making light of abject violence. Many theatergoers walked out, yet others gave the show a standing ovation.
Could McDonagh’s first attempt to probe the American psyche expect to be anything less provacative?
The show’s producers must have expected some controversy, but not the kind that has surfaced nor the vehemence of the attack.
Hilton Als, the theater critic for The New Yorker, slammed the play for what he calls overt racism.
“I don’t know a single self-respecting black actor who wouldn’t feel shame and fury while sitting through Martin McDonagh’s new play,” he wrote in the magazine, which is known for tepid criticism.
The play, whose all-star cast includes Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Zoe Kazan, and Anthony Mackie, is about a murderer, played by Walken, who is desperate to find a severed hand.
In the netherworld he traverses, he meets two con artists in a dingy hotel room who claim they have the hand.
Als, who is African American, was repelled by the Walken’s character, who is openly and proudly prejudiced and has no problem throwing around the unspeakable (at least in polite company) n-word.
“A Behanding… isn’t in the least palatable; it’s vile, particularly in its repeated use of the word ‘nigger’,” Als wrote.
Hopefully, Als finds rap and hip hop equally appalling.
But what really irked him was the character Toby, drawn by Mackie, who also is black, and recently starred in the Academy Award winning movie “The Hurt Locker.”
Als likened the role to the racist caricatures of blacks in 1920s and 1930s era movies. “The young black male, as a shucking, jiving thief can’t be excused,” he asserted.
Finally, he takes a broad slap at the movie and theater industries.
“The sad fact is that, in order to cross over, most black actors of Mackie’s generation must act black before they’re allowed to act human,” Als wrote.
Forget the fact that Mackie’s role in the Kathryn Bigelow-directed “Hurt Locker” seems to refute his latter point.
The uproar seems to be more pronounced in the UK than America at the moment. The London Daily Mail devoted a long piece on the topic that yielded a sharp reaction from the show’s producer Robert Fox.
“It was absolutely vindictive,” he said. “I think his remarks were entirely inappropriate and irresponsible.”
Fox said he thought Als’s criticism was racist itself, “in that it was racially intolerant.”
“He doesn’t identify himself [in the review] as a black writer. I think it is extraordinary. I know people who have written to the New Yorker about it already. It is completely out of order,” Fox said.
Certainly the characters in the play are odious, and even reprehensible. But weren’t they meant to be? That’s what provides the premise for they play.
While Toby may be an uncomfortable stereotype, what drama doesn’t dwell on stereotypes to illuminate society’s uneasy truths.
The play may have some shortcomings. Other reviews have been less than enthusiastic. But is it racist? Hardly.
McDonagh’s take on the American condition may be clumsy, or fall outside the bounds of political correctness, but he’s doing exactly what theater is meant to do.
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street
New York, NY
Opening: March 4
Closing: June 6
Showtimes: Tuesday, 7pm
Wednesday – Saturday, 8pm
Wednesday & Saturday, 2pm
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.