Thursday, February 27, 2020

Artistic Dilemma – When No Stories Have Been Told, Who Tells Some?

The cast of XY, Festival of New Musicals 2019 (Sam Freeman)

We’re awash, these days, in commentaries about cultural appropriation and who gets to tell stories about marginalized populations. The book American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, sparked controversy as it was revealed that Cummins is not of Latinx heritage, though her book “tells the story of a Mexican mother whose husband is murdered by cartels and who flees to America with her son, “says an article in Daily Beast.

The article continues, “Despite the sky-high sales, the book has been dogged by claims of cultural appropriation for its representation of Latinos and the migrant experience. Author Jeanine Cummins is not Latina... Cummins, who is Irish-American, said she did hundreds of hours of research and interviews for the book but critics have said it simplifies and glosses over the reality of immigration.” (

But what exactly is cultural appropriation? A Huffington Post article states, “Cultural appropriation is defined as ‘the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.’ While this sounds simple enough, … the lines between something that's obviously offensive (blackface) and something that might be considered as embracing another culture (exotic cuisine) can be blurry.” (

Continuing the example of American Dirt, the author’s work to do these hundreds of hours of research definitely helped her understand and respect the culture of the migrants from Mexico so that she could write about them. People certainly disagree that she should have. Indeed, if the publisher were interested in books from migrants about their experiences contemporaneously, it might be possible to find them or to cultivate them. However, Cummins wrote a book, she shopped it around, and it was compelling enough to interest a publisher and gain all kinds of accolades, including from Oprah.

Theater has had its share of plays and musicals that butt up against this kind of issue. An argument has been made that the classic Gershwin operetta Porgy and Bess, clearly written by white men, is cultural appropriation. In this case, though, it was written in a time when Black theater artists were not getting their work – if there was work to find, or if producers would “allow” them to – on Broadway, and the Gershwins required the work to be done with an all-Black cast, which gave Black performers a solid creative foothold. (

During a time when prejudice was rigidly enforced with racist structures, it might be said that only a Gershwin musical could have explored the lives of these poor Black characters and found a receptive audience. Could the fact that white men wrote it help open the way for changes to the greater society to be interested in and accept more stories from Black artists directly?

Seattle Repertory Theatre staged David Byrne’s “concept album”-turned-musical Here Lies Love in 2017. In it, Byrne and Fatboy Slim (two white men with no known Filipino background) wrote about Imelda Marcos and the Philippine society of her early years. I had a terrible response to the musical, feeling like they reduced Marcos, for all her complicated history still today a powerful political force in that country, down to that she was pretty, liked shoes, and had a drug problem!

Yes, there were terrific Fil-Am performers in the production. But the story, to me, was a racist and problematic representation of that history. This would be one musical I would condemn, rather than support the idea that it educates audiences about the Philippines. (

Village Theatre had such a dilemma in front of it with its first presentation in last summer’s Festival of New Musicals with the musical XY. The musical is about an adult born with “intersex” characteristics, circa about 1990.

Historically, similar to most intersex babies, the musical has us understand that the main character had surgery soon after birth and they were raised as a female. The character struggles with feeling different and eventually realizes that he identifies as a male.

The author and his director/collaborator, Oliver Houser and Hunter Bird, are not intersex individuals. It became a “passion project” for them when they were informed about this community and they spent some years writing the musical and researching the issue. They contacted InterACT, an organization that advocates for intersex youth, in order to make sure they had all the correct information about this unique human state.

Village chose to move forward with this musical from the Festival into the Beta Series where they just recently wrapped up a “developmental production”. The musical was presented by actors who memorized the script and music, on a set with lights and sound and costuming. So, a reasonable question for them is “why” do this particular work?

Village has recently been working to increase the artistic efforts of marginalized populations and suggested that this was one such effort. In addition to also connecting with InterACT, Village committed to making sure that non-cisgendered folks were part of the production in various capacities. They also hired a gender consultant to advise the production.

Writing a musical is hard work, often taking years to develop, and uses specific artistic skills such as writing music, understanding how to write lyrics and to what effect on the story, and writing the story and dialogue. Not everyone can write a musical!

The population of intersex individuals is very tiny, percentage-wise. Who knows if any of that group of people also writes musicals? The artistic impulse came from a man writing about an area that is not directly his story to tell. Still, he wrote a musical about it, he submitted it places, and gained acknowledgment of the quality of his work. It’s an intriguing and educational subject matter. Audiences and the intersex community itself may benefit from being exposed through this musical to the subject area.

A lot of opinions spasm through our society these days in very instant and polarizing ways. So American Dirt is now to be boycotted – or not. There is little nuance and very little contemplation. This piece of writing is an attempt at broaching the subject to discuss and explore, rather than to feed the polemics. Ok? Let’s discuss…


  1. You know everyone's genital makeup without them explicitly telling you? I'm sure this article will age well. Two steps forward, one step back, I guess.

  2. I get the idea here, but it paints race and gender experiences too similarly. White people are white people, yes. There is no assumption required if that's what you're aiming to point out. But you cannot assume gender or sexual orientation, even if you're trying to make a point like this.


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