Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2012
While Delta Air Lines and Bank of America have dropped their sponsorships of New York’s Public Theater over a President Trump-inspired staging of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” corporate sponsors at the Guthrie Theater had no public reaction to a 2012 staging that featured a black actor in the role of Caesar.
That production, part of a national tour done in collaboration with the Acting Company of New York, starred Bjorn DuPaty, a tall basketball aficionado who resembles then-President Barack Obama (pictured above).
Caesar is stabbed to death in the middle of the play.
The New York production, staged by Twin Cities-born director Oskar Eustis, was questioned in a tweet by the president's son, Donald J. Trump, Jr.
"I wonder how much of this ‘art’ is funded by taxpayers?” he asked. “Serious question, when does ‘art’ become political speech & does that change things?”
The reaction from corporate sponsors was swift.
“No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ at this summer’s free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values,” Delta said Sunday in a statement.
Delta and, before it, Twin Cities-based Northwest Airlines, which merged with Delta in 2009, is a longstanding supporter of the Guthrie. It is the theater's official airline, and the title sponsor of the Guthrie’s summer musical, “Sunday in the Park with George.”
“I haven’t seen the Public’s production of the play, but I know the conversation is not about whether it’s a good production or not, or whether Caesar is a hero or villain,” said Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj. “I feel for Oskar [Eustis] and the Public, because it’s complicated. Corporate sponsors have been vitally important to the health of the American theater — they’ve been extraordinary partners over many decades. But there’s also been a firewall there. I’ve never had a conversation with a sponsor that has been around the art-making itself.”
Haj worries that the retreat of the sponsors in the face of a tweet by the president’s namesake son will have a chilling effect on the field.
“The idea of supporting a theater can’t be limited to an idea that I only support he work I like most,” said Haj. “It has been based on that organization’s values, commitment, vision and mission as we serve our community.”
Advertisers sometimes abandon hot-potato TV programs, as evidenced recently with Fox shows hosted by Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. But it’s unusual for a corporate sponsor, let alone two, to bail on a performing arts institution over a show.
Haj recently directed Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in modern dress. That tragedy, about a mad ruler surrounded by fawning sycophants, did not make any overt nods to contemporary American politics although audiences reacted audibly at lines that spoke to the moment.
But Full Circle Theater’s recent Twin Cities production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “365 Days/365 Plays” did feature an insecure character in a blond wig who spoke like Trump and wanted to be famous just to be famous. His mother yells at him to get off the stage, drawing approving laughter from the audience.
“The job of art is to speak truth to power and stand up to authoritarianism,” said director and theater scholar Stephanie Lein Walseth, who staged the Parks playlet, written 15 years ago.” In this moment, things are happening on so many fronts, it’s overwhelming. Doing something through art to preserve our democracy — that’s what I’m called to do.”
Haj said that he’s not sure if there will be a residual effect for this episode. But he hopes that artists will continue to be brave and courageous.
“Arts funding is always, in one way or another, under assault," he said. “It’s the easiest political football in the world. When Donald Trump called for the defunding of the NEA and the NEH, that’s not a budget decision. The funding is pennies per every American every year. But we don’t get to line-item veto things we don’t like or don’t use. I don’t get to say, 'I don’t want to fund schools or roads we don’t use.' We, as a nation, value art and culture. We value the protected space, the freedom of thought and expression.”