Essay – In comedy, timing is everything and now is not the time for “The Foreigner”
One week ago, as Nazis and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was in the Cloverdale Performing Arts Center watching a production of Larry Shue’s The Foreigner. It’s an award-winning, two-act comedy first produced in 1984 that’s become a staple of community theatre. I saw Contra Costa Civic Theatre’s production back in 2015 and enjoyed it.
For those who don’t know the show, here’s a plot summation:
British Staff Sergeant “Froggy” LeSeur is a regular visitor to Betty Meek’s Fishing Lodge Resort, located near a U.S. Military base in Tilghman County, Georgia. On his latest trip, he brings along Charlie Baker, a good friend who needs to get away from the harsh realities of a consistently unfaithful wife and a life quite boring. Seeking to protect his friend from the inquisitive ways of the locals, Froggy informs Betty that Charlie is a foreigner and neither speaks nor understands a word of English. Charlie is at first hesitant about the arrangement but soon finds himself a fly-on-the-wall to the goings on around him. As everyone thinks Charlie doesn’t understand a word that’s being said around him, all sorts of secrets and devious plots are revealed in his presence, leaving Charlie to ponder just how involved he wants to become. Life becomes infinitely more interesting to him as his foreigner is taken in under the wings of the more genteel residents and becomes a thorn in the side of those who have nefarious plans. The “nefarious plans” involve some of the locals acquiring the lodge and turning it into a headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan. The climax of the show occurs when Klan members invade the lodge and threaten the residents into vacating. They are outwitted by the inventive Charlie and his new friends.
Having seen the show, I knew full well where it would go in Act II and yet I found my stomach churning at the sight of hooded and robed Klansmen filling the stage. At that moment, the play and its humor completely evaporated for me as images of what had happened earlier in our country filled my mind. My discomfort in simply being in a room with men in full Klan regalia – even though I knew full well they were just actors – grew to the point where by the curtain call I couldn’t wait to get out of there. The Artistic Director of the company approached me as I exited to thank me for attending. The best I could respond at that moment was that he had a good group of people in there.
I spent the rest of the evening thinking about what I had experienced, trying to figure out why I had the visceral reaction I did. It was late, but I felt the need to express something about what I was feeling so I made the following post on a social media check-in I had done earlier at the theater:
This is in no way a criticism of this production or the talented artists involved, but I gotta say that events of the last day make a major component of this play a lot less funny.
The following day I engaged in conversations with colleagues and friends about what I had seen and experienced. One reminded me that another production of the play was scheduled to open in a couple of weeks. My immediate and sharp response was “I don’t want to see it.” He asked if I might feel differently in a couple of weeks on the off-chance that things would “blow over”. My response was that things weren’t going to blow over, that it would be futile for me to attend and try to review a production to which (again, through no fault of any of the artists involved) I now fully expected to have a negative reaction.
On Monday, I received a call from Sheri Lee Miller, the new Artistic Director of the Spreckels Theatre Company, where that production of The Foreigner was scheduled to open in a couple of weeks. As is wont in a theatre community, word had gotten back to her about my reaction to the Cloverdale production and she asked if we could discuss it. We spent about 45 minutes talking about the play, my reaction to it, and my perspective on it as a critic, as a theatre artist, and as an audience member. She asked me the hypothetical of what I would do if I were in her position – would I pull the show? I simply did not know. I knew the arguments for and against it. At that point, I had not formulated a position as to whether “the show must go on” or not. What I did know was that I didn’t want to see it, and I would be clear to anyone who asked why I didn’t want to see it.
Sheri let me know that she had received phone calls from members of the community asking for the show not to be done. She had also been engaging in conversations with other local theatre leadership about the situation and that a meeting was being held by the director and cast of the Spreckels production to discuss the show’s future. No decision had been made at the time of our conversation.
I didn’t know what decision had been made until I saw that a member of the cast had posted a meme to a Facebook Actors group announcing that the show had been cancelled. In that meme, he attributed its cancellation to a small group of “grievists” who had nothing better to do than to seek out things about which to complain. He also let it be known that local theatre critics – who shall remain nameless – (his emphasis, not mine) were refusing to see the show and he bemoaned that the show was a victim of political correctness. Note – I’m paraphrasing here as he has since deleted the post.
Reasonable people can have disagreements about this decision without resorting to finger-pointing and conspiracy-mongering. I’ve heard from both sides. Reactions have varied from this:
“It would shrivel my soul to have to sew or, worse, wear one of those costumes. And to have to explain to my child what they represent.”
“I disagree with Spreckels decision. Right now is absolutely time to laugh at ignorant and superstitious racists. And ironically Foreigner is about white people standing up to other white people. Why is it insensitive to do a play about white people calling each other out on their shit?”
In a secondary post, the cast member asked if I was proud to be part of a group that bullied the Artistic Director into cancelling the show. As that post has also been deleted, I did not have the chance to make the following reply – If you think Sheri Lee Miller can be bullied into doing ANYTHING by ANYONE, you don’t know Sheri Lee Miller.
The Sheri Lee Miller I know issued the following statement on Thursday:
Over the past few days our nation has been in pain and turmoil. Due to the horrific events in Charlottesville (and elsewhere) over the weekend, we are pulling The Foreigner from our season. The Foreigner, though a comedy, has a very dark element in it that involves the appearance of KKK members, onstage, in full “white sheet” regalia. While The Foreigner is a satirical farce that exposes and condemns bigotry and extremism, we believe this is not the right time to treat such subjects with a light hand. Satire can be a positive force for change, but at present we can find nothing funny about the Ku Klux Klan and what is happening across our country.
This has been a very difficult decision that was not entered into lightly. We believe artistic freedom is vital and should be protected. However, we are also part of a larger society and have a responsibility not only to our art and artists, but to our friends and neighbors as well. Sometimes we make meaningful statements in producing our art. Sometimes the statement is in not producing it.
Spreckels is grateful for the outpouring of support we have experienced, and the kind understanding of the director, cast and crew of The Foreigner. The artists who have been working so hard on this play: the actors, director and designers, will all be paid in full for their contracted fees.
Sheri Lee Miller
Spreckels Theatre Company
I think it’s the correct decision, for all the reasons she’s stated and more.
Theatre isn’t done in a vacuum. These are turbulent times and our local community isn’t immune. I was greeted by two bits of information yesterday that made it crystal clear to me that now is not the time for this particular production – a swastika had been scrawled on the grounds of a local high school and a member of the local performing arts community arrived at his home in Santa Rosa after a rehearsal to find the following:
After what happened last week 2,000 miles away and what is happening in our community now, I respectfully disagree with the individual I quoted above. Now is not the time to laugh at ignorant and superstitious racists.
The behavior exhibited above and represented on stage in this production by the ‘costumes’ worn wounds me. That laughter could be elicited in any way, shape or form by making individuals of this ilk buffoons and targets of ridicule just seems wrong. People are being murdered in the streets and our neighbors are being terrorized.
It’s just not funny.