A centuries-old racial term has created a modern-day ruckus at the Ames Center — a city-owned theatrical venue in Burnsville — raising questions of government censorship, artistic integrity and who gets to determine what language goes too far.
The controversy centers around Minneapolis-based playwright Derek “Duck” Washington’s play, “Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales.”
It’s the word “Mulatto” that’s raising eyebrows.
“I feel it’s a derogatory term and it’s extremely offensive,” said Brian Luther, who runs the Ames Center under a contract with Venue Works, a management company. “It’s not appropriate and that’s the position we’re taking.”
Backed by Burnsville’s mayor, city attorney and other officials, the Ames Center told the Chameleon Theatre Circle, which wanted to produce the play, that it could only do so if they dropped Mulatto from the title; they had no quarrel with the play’s content, Luther said.
Chameleon is the Ames Center’s resident theater company and had proposed the play as part of its 2017-18 season. Andrew Troth, Chameleon’s executive producer, said he believes that the title should stand because it represented Washington’s experience and he didn’t want to change it.
“I think the decision to disallow a play based on simply one word in the title is censorship,” Troth said. “I think a fair response … would have been to investigate the content of the play and talk with the author about it.”
Jane Kirtley a First Amendment attorney and interim director of the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said the city’s actions amount to censorship unless there are stipulations in Chameleon’s contract with Ames or other documents granting the city the right to restrict the plays.
“If somebody in the city of Burnsville authority can just arbitrarily say ‘That’s offensive, you can’t do that,’ that’s a huge First Amendment problem,” Kirtley said. “I don’t see any justification here for the exercise of that kind of censorship by a government entity.”
Chameleon board members said there is nothing about objectionable language, topics, or themes in their contract, or specifications on how plays should be selected. They are supposed to “pursue a balanced season schedule” including 50 percent of shows that “have an opportunity to sell tickets.”
There’s no specific policy that dictates how shows should be chosen, Luther said .
Ames and Chameleon were unable to agree on contract terms for next year, Troth said, so by late February, Chameleon decided to break with the Burnsville venue after nine seasons. The dust-up about the play’s title was “a major element” of the decision, along with scheduling issues, he said.
“We’ve always prized artistic goals over financial goals,” Troth said. “That will be it for us at the Ames Center.”
Troth said the company has no plans to sue Burnsville. He said Chameleon is closing in on new venues for next year.
Filling a void
Washington said he wrote “Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas” to fill a void for people like him with mixed-race backgrounds.
“I don’t see a lot of stories that specifically represented my story,” Washington said. “[It] was going to deal with my struggles of identity and acceptance and figuring out who I am and where I’m situated in the world.”
Washington said the show, comprised of several tales and vignettes, explores racial issues through comedy. The title refers a sketch involving two “hyper-intelligent” pandas that escape from a research lab and develop a hatred of white people because their captors were white. The pandas must decide whether Washington is white or black, and put him through various tests to determine his race, including convincing him to recite rap lyrics.
“These trials are not abnormal things that I would actually experience in real life when people are trying to judge, well, is he black or is he white?” Washington said.
Washington said he was excited to bring the show to Burnsville, adding that he found the Ames Center’s decision “really tragic.”
Although the title has prompted discussion — but not controversies — in other venues, the play’s opening scenes address his word choice, Washington said.
The play, written in 2015, debuted at the Bryant Lake Bowl and played at last year’s Fringe Festival.
The word “mulatto” comes from a Spanish or Portuguese word for mule, an animal created by crossing a horse and a donkey. It is outdated, Washington said, but he still hears it and chose it for the play deliberately.
Mulatto has been used by state censuses to categorize people, along with terms like quadroon and octoroon, said Keith Mayes, a professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Minnesota.
“The word is replete in all forms of black art,” Mayes said. “What we have to be careful of is to have white people be the judge and jury of black artistic endeavors.”
Mayes said Burnsville’s decision gave short shrift to the play’s author.
“If we don’t trust him to do right by the words and the titles he chooses to talk about race and injustice, then who do we trust?” Mayes said.
Washington, who will direct a different play at Ames this summer, said he has no plans to produce “Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas” elsewhere.
“I think it’s a loss for their city, ” Washington said. “I think a lot of people missed out.”