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The 'House Arrest' Agenda Is Showing

May 17, 1999|RALPH TROPF | Ralph Tropf, a resident of Los Angeles, has written seven full-length plays and four screenplays. "Shadow Hour" opens at Conejo Players on June 18

Anna Deavere Smith's "House Arrest" was recently produced at the Mark Taper Forum. I say produced in spite of Smith's disclaimer that this piece is "a work in progress." Any play presented with the actors paid, choreography staged and the theater's publicity machine in high

gear is produced, and should be open for review and criticism.

The publicity included two feature articles in the Los Angeles Times, which read more like press releases than true criticism. The Taper requested that this "work in progress" not be reviewed until the final performances. The Times, like a puppy eager for a tidbit from its master, complied.

Why did The Times give this production special treatment? More importantly, why was this play produced at all?

I myself am a playwright. I hold an MFA in theater arts and have my own production company. One of my plays is in rehearsal at Conejo Players in Thousand Oaks, another is scheduled for a reading at the Met Theater in Hollywood.

Now suppose I sent a play to the Taper and included this note: "The first act is sort of unfocused, and I'm not sure what I'm trying to say. I don't have a second act, but we could have a discussion with the audience instead."

The Taper would never consider producing such a submission. Yet they produced "House Arrest," which, according to The Times' Michael Phillips ("Building an Arresting 'House,' " April 19), is "like 17 Smith projects jammed into one tentatively deconstructed package." Plays at this stage are usually developed in workshop, far from the eyes of the public and the press.

Was the piece really that good? Did it deserve, in this unfinished version, so much effort and attention? We'll never know from The Times. Phillips says, "Much of it is provocative, but less sticks than you'd like" and "(it's) an overstuffed political spree, dressed up with a post-show discussion." These little spankings aside, the overall tone of his article is lionizing. I doubt The Times would be so kind to a script in a similar stage of development by an unknown playwright and produced on Theatre Row.

Which begs my second question: Why was this piece produced at all? I have an answer, which is politically incorrect at best. At worst, I am leaving myself open to be called a racist, a misogynist and a conservative. I deny all those accusations in advance, yet still must say what I believe.

"House Arrest" was produced and The Times supported it, not because it was a vital piece of theater ready to be staged, but because Anna Deavere Smith is a woman of an ethnic minority.

Thirty years ago, few American theaters (and virtually no television shows or movies) produced pieces by or about minorities or women. The Mark Taper Forum became the leader of a new movement, finding and staging the unheard voices of ethnic, female and gay playwrights. They have a right to be proud of their accomplishments; as a nation we are richer for the Taper's support of cultural diversity.

But today the theaters of America produce such plays to exclusion. I use the word exclusion precisely, for more and more plays produced these days are exclusive of the larger community (one theater billed its production as an "interracial lesbian holocaust drama"). And now the Taper has excluded the most important element of any production--a well-crafted script--in order to advance a political agenda.

And The Times has applauded them for doing it.


Having been raised in a liberal family, I was taught that it was wrong to discriminate against someone because of race or gender. It was wrong to give someone special treatment because of race or gender. To do so was immoral and just not fair.

Both the Taper and The Times, each in their respective zeal to "do the right thing," have done the wrong thing. The Taper has staged a play that was not ready for production. They have not done it for betterment of the community or the world of theater, but because Anna Deavere Smith is a woman and a member of an ethnic minority. The Times has handled both "House Arrest" and the Taper with kid gloves for the same reason. And that's just not fair.

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