Sunday, February 10, 2008

Naked white men and others


You can see this onstage . . . . but why not this? . . . . . . or that?

I know, I know, "Tom, stop picking on Louise, the girl can't help it!" But really, Louise Kennedy's such an accurate middlebrow barometer that what she can't help is to take cultural readings by mistake, as it were . . . Consider, for instance, her latest piece, "Three plays, no clothes, no problem," in which she ponders how liberated Boston has become, based on the recent "gay three-way" at the BCA. Apparently in Chicago, a theatre company balked at the nudity in The Little Dog Laughed, which Speakeasy presented in half-hearted fashion (I mean the nudity, not the whole play). Author Douglas Carter Beane protested the Chicago version, but approved Speakeasy's compromise - "I was so fine with that (one actor's back being turned to the audience)" he said, because "there's a bigger vision involved."

Indeed - and hooray for us, I suppose, even if the Speakeasy version of that gay connection wasn't all that believable - at least it happened. But then Kennedy moves on to the next local actor to appear in the altogether: local stalwart Diego Arcinegas, who's appearing nude in Speakeasy's next outing, Some Men.

I know, you're yawning already - another nude dude in a gay play (again by Speakeasy)! But of course what's interesting about Diego is that he's Latino. Which reminds one immediately of precisely whom you can see naked onstage in Boston - basically, gay white men. Or straight white men pretending to be gay. Kennedy, of course, never makes these connections - which made me wonder, suddenly, if she would be quite so philosophical about three concurrent plays featuring naked women. Something tells me she might have penned a rather different article about that.

But why? Obviously, as Arciniegas says in Kennedy's piece, nudity is "actually about vulnerability and identity." Indeed. Not to mention politics. A naked woman onstage is immediately politically loaded - at least, I think, to Kennedy - in a way that a naked white man is not (Kennedy even freaks out when she hears the "c-word" onstage). And as for a naked black man - good luck, casting directors! (I think Speakeasy had to go national to find a black man willing to strip for Take Me Out.)

Yet it's hard to find any rhyme or reason to these new mores. A woman who strips in "new burlesque" is somehow perceived as empowering herself. And no one seems to be able to criticize rappers like Snoop Dogg, who actually makes hardcore porn videos (left), yet still appears in mainstream movies and sitcoms. Does racism trump sexism, or something like that?

Perhaps the key lies in the fact that, unlike Snoop Dogg, most theatrical producers try to honor the idea that stage nudity serves some theatrical purpose - a position that's hard to maintain when the people with their clothes off aren't perceived as empowered. (Rap meanwhile seems to have no problem simultaneously railing against the exploitation of black men while openly exploiting black women.) But are gay men really more empowered than other groups? A decade or so ago a production of Steaming went up in Boston that featured a dozen or so naked actresses - certainly women haven't become less empowered since then, but aside from a glimpse at the Huntington last year, I haven't seen a lady's garden on stage in a queen's age. One has to wonder at a culture that is so hasty to approve of gay sex scenes, but seems to freak out at straight ones. Is our comfort level with nude gay sex due to the fact that the gay men involved are still perceived as men, or is it that the gays in the audience are themselves perceived as powerless, so the nudity doesn't matter? I sometimes wonder. But what's obvious is that the body politic still controls what we can show of the body, and yes, plenty of nudity is still "banned in Boston."

4 comments:

  1. Hey Thomas,

    To your point, wasn't there a female dancer about two years ago whose dance piece ran afoul of the city?

    Maybe she was performing at BU?

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  2. I do remember some fracas over at BU - I think a small firestorm about it erupted on the WBUR arts blog (which is now moribund). As I recall, a dancer who wanted to perform topless was prevented from doing so by a university administration fretting that it didn't have an "adult entertainment" license! I seem to recall that most of the women posting to the blog were outraged that the performance was "censored" - they perceived the nudity as a form of empowerment. In years gone by, of course, Mark Morris and Bill T. Jones also occasionally featured nudity, even mixed-race, mixed-gender nudity, in their works - I wonder why I feel that would be more controversial now than it used to be?

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  3. I'm assuming that your generalizations based around our culture's comfort with gay sex vs. straight sex is based on the theater of recent years. Last year's MPAA-centric documentary "This Film is Not Yet Rated" would have its viewers believe that the MPAA, which may or may not reflect the film-going public, is still very hesitant about same sex tomfoolery. I also wonder if the type of nudity and sex we are seeing has more to do with the source (i.e. the playwrights) and less to do with the audience. All of the examples that Kennedy rounds up (as well as "Take Me Out", the much-toted example in the About Face Chi-town scandal)occur in plays written by gay men. I question whether we see more gay male nudity because there are gay male playwrights who feel comfortable including it in their work, and not because the play-going public rejects anything else. I know any heterosexual male playwright could too easily be labeled as sexist or a objectifying if female parts were a component of his work, but could (and do) add any male nudity without hesitation. I also can't think of any female playwrights who pepper their writing with naked ladies, but I bet if they did no one would have a problem with it. To me, our comfort level has a lot to do with the authors that are crafting these nude scenes, and less to do with the content itself.

    ps- Even as I write this, I vaguely recall hearing about Adam Rapp's "Red Light Winter" being presented in the area (maybe the Wellfleet Harbor Actor's Theatre?)two or three years back, which I'm pretty sure contains a naked Amsterdam hooker. Dare I suggest we start a statistical database of naughty bits on the Boston stage for later analysis?

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  4. I think the problem lies in the part of your comment in which you say,

    I question whether we see more gay male nudity because there are gay male playwrights who feel comfortable including it in their work, and not because the play-going public rejects anything else. I know any heterosexual male playwright could too easily be labeled as sexist or a objectifying if female parts were a component of his work, but could (and do) add any male nudity without hesitation.

    But whether the censorship occurs on the stage or on the page doesn't really matter that much, does it? The political pressure is still there - indeed, I think it comes from people much like Ms. Kennedy.

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