It started with nostalgia. My husband and I grew up with “Saturday Night Live” and goofy movies of the 1980s. When we saw that Bill Murray would be in town touring “New Worlds,” a show billed as an evening of American literature and music, we thought humor interwoven with culture would offer a few hours of escapism.
As I reviewed the program, I jabbed my husband. “Does this seem odd that all the featured writers and composers are men? How can this be a new world?” It struck me as unlikely that a white man from Hollywood would star in such a show in our era of #MeToo, #weneeddiversebooks and diversity riders. I imagine sophisticated white male entertainers know to at least pretend to be sensitive to social movements even if they roll their eyes with their buddies on the golf course.
As the show began, I was eager to see how he would frame the selected literature with context or commentary. Four performers walked onto the stage — Murray and three musicians. One musician was a man and two were women. Confused, I flipped over the program. The cover picture was of Murray and the male musician, and yet from what I was witnessing, the women on stage, Vanessa Perez and Mira Wang, were key to every song. In fact, the female violinist was positioned as a star — center stage in a glittering gown.
Soon Murray started reading excerpts from Ernest Hemingway, George Plimpton, Billy Collins, James Thurber and Mark Twain. I enjoy these authors, but many of the segments Murray read were chosen as if to offend, as if Murray were snickering at us, saying, “I can say this stuff because I’m reading great literature!” With Murray’s skilled recitation, we were transported to a Parisian cafe with an older artist pressuring a young model to dine with him and then come back to his studio, followed by a trip to the Mississippi with Huck and Jim. Murray read not just any selection in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” but the most painful section in which Huck lightheartedly diverts the slave hunters away from Jim (submerged in the river at this point) with his tall tale. The scene that includes the N-word 10 or 12 times and portrays the child, Huck, coming across as the clever savior of his elder, Jim. As Murray read the passage to the 99.9 percent white audience, he seemed to relish the potential of offense. And then, to salt the wound, he used the verbal equivalent of blackface as he voiced Jim’s lines. I oppose censorship, but there is a reason why some cities have removed “Huck Finn” from the mandatory curriculum. Young black people do not need a schooling on the evils of racism and certainly don’t need to hear their white schoolmates casually tossing around the N-word as they discuss literary techniques.
I was craving fresh air, but a glance down the long row showed there was no escape without disrupting 14 people to my left. The next act was a musical interlude, so I could relax for a moment, or could I? The violinist, Wang, started to play a solo from Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion.” After a few moments of rapt focus, Murray walked across the stage and whispered in Wang’s ear. He had asked her to dance. Aghast, I watched as a re-enactment of “Miss Saigon” took place. Wang put down her violin, interrupted from her center-stage moment to dance with the star. In the choreographed scene, they waltzed and then he pushed her away. She stood rejected on the side of the stage until she returned to him and bowed, subserviently waiting until he invited her to resume the dance. Really! Wang couldn’t just shine as a musician but had to be reduced to a toss-away sex object during her solo?
During the encore, we found the nerve to “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me …” and flee. All the way home we speculated whether Murray was clueless, racist/sexist, or exhibiting such subtle dry and ironic humor that the message got lost to us in translation. Nostalgia had lured us to the theater and nostalgia as in — “Make America(n literature) Great Again” — is what we got.
Jocelyn Hale lives in Minneapolis.