The Globe

Richard Rodriguez

Before the house lights dim at a production of Romeo and Juliet, I look for myself and I am delighted to find myself as I was many years ago: A teenaged boy sitting by himself. I recognize him because he keeps checking the number on his ticket against the number on the armrest. All in all, he is pleased with his seat. He wears a sweater and tie. He reads his program with the intensity I used similarly to scrutinize the actors’ biographies, the director’s notes, and the advertisements for after-theater dining.

When I was a boy, eager for improving “culture,” I pursued any number of worthy experiences; I went to the opera, I went to the symphony, to plays, to lectures—only to find, in middle age, that the defining culture of my era had been blaring on the radio at home. I mean the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Supremes. Should I have stayed home?

When I saw in the paper that morning long ago that the Kirov Ballet from Leningrad was going to appear at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, I sent away for a ticket. I had never been to a ballet. The advertisements in the paper and the lobby posters displayed photographs of bodies suspended in midair; I imagined levitation on a tide of music.

The squeaking and hammering of toe shoes on the wooden stage surprised me. The strained, whitened faces, the painfully distorted bodies, the moribund physicality of the dancers surprised me. Arcs of sweat thrown into the air by an elevated arm reminded me of wrestling, of which I was already an aficionado. I did notice that, despite a narrative thread (the program was Cinderella), the ballet was organized like a track meet, and the form itself taught me to appreciate the emotive capability of bodies. Even love was a competition. Especially love.

It would never have occurred to me to notice my exception at a theater in those days. Most likely mine was the only brown face among the spectators at the Kirov Ballet that afternoon, but my eye was on the stage. Anyway, I assumed my exception. Indeed, the impulse to make of myself an exception was what prompted me to buy a ticket in the first place. Only in that regard was I remotely like Romeo.

As you see, I am now a man with grey hair, attending a play about heedless children. I am well versed in plays. I am an American, born in the forties; my eye has been crudely trained by the conventional American grammar of otherness to look for color when I seek the exception among audiences. Though I recoil from the phrase “people of color,” that is—they are—precisely who I am looking for. At my present age, I am always aware of my exception in the hall.

At the time I attended the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad, America arranged itself along a dichromatic color line—black at one end, white at the other, nothing in between (though I was keenly aware of growing up in between). For the last fifty years, fluctuating US immigration laws that no longer favor Europe have combined with what sociologists refer to as the “fertility” of immigrant populations, to create something magnificent: a global America. (I often noticed, during the recent Olympics in Beijing, that whereas Japanese teams looked Japanese, Jamaican teams looked Jamaican, Finnish teams looked Finnish, etc., American teams looked like the world.) America is now a circle, a globe.

We do not yet have a vocabulary adequate to what we have created, except those words of no sex or curiosity—“diversity” and “multiculturalism”—words that ought to suggest seductions but to me only suggest school board meetings, cafeteria tables, folding chairs. We do not yet have a way of imagining ourselves as a city entire—which is, traditionally, the function of art.

Shakespeare wrote plays that needed to appeal at once to courtly patrons and to the groundlings, who were playgoers too poor to afford a seat—who stood, who even leaned upon the stage—who were willing to pay with their legs and their backs for the frights and the consolations of a marvelous story. The crisis for the opera, the symphony, the ballet, the theater in the contemporary American city is that performing arts no longer assume the groundlings in the audience.

The generosity of philanthropists has allowed the construction of large performing arts centers—marble temples set apart from the street—with tickets too high for more than the upper middle class to afford. It is true that the opera and the ballet provide “standing room” for the young and the resolute, and standees are literally if not precisely groundlings. But anyone who administers a theater company or a symphony orchestra or an opera company knows and regrets that audiences look very little like the faces one sees in the new American city.

Where are the groundlings?

The house lights dim. Enter Samson and Gregory—two minor relations attached to the House of Capulet. It was Shakespeare’s task to move his audience of groundlings and nobles toward tragic awe or comic restoration. Shakespeare would never have resorted to a notion like “universality” to justify his play to his audience. Nor did Shakespeare accomplish his task by producing two plays—one high, one low. Shakespeare wrote a single play for two audiences at once.

The chorus intones:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene …

Not even Shakespeare imagined Los Angeles. In the last fifty years, in Los Angeles, as in Jersey City or Chicago, people from all the continents of the earth have met and chafed in the schoolyard and in the assembly line and at the checkout counter at Costco. There has been conflict, of course. How could there not be? And even similarity has sought difference. Norteño and Sureño attempt to divide neighborhoods under separate and equally absurd bandanas. But there is also, everywhere in the American city, a routine acceptance of the confusion of voices and faces.

One of the happiest achievements of the performing arts in America has been the mixed-race cast. Pakistani Emily in Our Town and African-American cowboys in the chorus of Oklahoma are more than affirmative action hires. It is true and it is wonderful that race no longer signifies on the American stage. Of course there are Asians in Our Town. Of course there are Mexicans in Verona. It is our conception of Verona that has changed. How can a city be of only one kind?

Although Americans have come to assume our plurality, we nevertheless do not relinquish the category of “minority.” America continues to sort according to fictional islands. During the administration of President Richard Nixon, America created “Hispanics” and “Asians” and “Pacific Islanders”—each from a fabric isle, each fabrication conferring minority status.

The category of the minority allowed for collectivization. The newcomer was grouped with the native born; the middle class was grouped with the immigrant poor. So useful and compelling a political category did the minority become that soon other Americans wanted a share in the noun. Senior citizens became minorities, as did women, as did homosexuals, as did the physically handicapped.

One can reasonably argue that the segmentation of America was a political necessity—each group seeking its share of governmental notice, each group thus finding its way into the majority from the strategy of subdivision. But the language of our political fragmentation has achieved utter nonsense. Demographers predict that America will become a “majority minority” society.

But something else is happening in America. Because humans are curious and practical as well as envious creatures, we begin to borrow from one another. And something else: Mr. and Mrs. Albert Wong request the honor of your presence at the wedding of their daughter, Juliet, to Romeo Gonzalez.

I have elsewhere described the blending of American lives, American categories, as a browning. We have arrived at a point in our history when millions of citizens claim no single race on census forms and other government forms, when Americans gladly pay five hundred dollars to discover the racial anomalies among the tendrils of their DNA.

A question for philanthropy and the arts therefore is how to keep pace with the emerging brown city at a time when the city is not aware of itself as a city entire.

Shakespeare’s patrons were of the nobility. Nobility was not a virtuous attribute but a hereditary entitlement conferred by the monarch. Nobility was a fiction with privileges. It was in the interest of the nobility to support the play because the play upheld the hierarchical order of the world. But the playhouse upheld more than a political status quo. Shakespeare’s plays insisted upon the rightful administration of power. And, appealing to both high and low audiences, the Shakespearian play taught the audience in common what it meant to be alive in 1599, in the city of London. What was funny was funny in common; and what was fearful. The triumph or failure of a king or a fool implicated all.

Philanthropists of our day inherit a task comparable to that of the Renaissance patron—that is, to instill a sense of what it might mean to belong to the city of Los Angeles in 2009. That old Greek prefix, phil, from philos—love—the same prefix that describes brotherly feeling among the citizens of Philadelphia, should remind us that philanthropy flows from benevolence towards humanity and entails a willingness to endow a stranger as a brother. The most profound expression of fellow feeling must be that extended to someone unlike oneself in some way. The example of philanthropy that Jews extended to the gentile city is a model for what I have in mind now for the brown American city.

I have looked through several published appraisals of philanthropic trends among minority populations, and I have found only bland generalities that could be applied to all Americans of the working class and the middle class, not just to Americans of statistical color. (Minority donors tend to want to improve the quality of life in communities with needs.) I remind you it was the contribution of one dime a month by immigrant Irish cleaning women in nineteenth-century New York that built St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. The institutions of time and eternity—school and church—always take precedence for those who are besieged by necessity.

It is distressing, however, that many wealthy, powerful men and women of my generation still define themselves within the grammar of the 1960s. For example, a Mexican-American lawyer: He is a partner at a major southern California law firm; he calls senators by first names, he drives a good car, wears a good suit, talks a good game. He has worked tirelessly for his community. This man, more than anyone I know, assumes the reality of Latino Los Angeles—assumes Mexican restaurants every two or three blocks, assumes Spanish-language media, assumes instructions in Spanish on all packaging, in all government buildings, at airports, hospitals, in telephone prompts. And yet he persists in calling himself a minority.

How do you pick this man’s pocket? How do you persuade him to a cosmopolitan benevolence when his conception of the city is parochial?

To achieve a brown philanthropy on a city-center scale, a generation of Americans will need to wean themselves from the grammar and logic of the last fifty years. The non-white upper middle class must give up the romance of being outsiders and assume the responsibility of the majority. Minority majority means majority.

For the moment we are stuck. The other day I read about the artistic director of a large regional theater company—not himself Hispanic—who has announced his determination to devote large resources at his disposal to searching out “Latino playwrights”. What is wrong with such a goal is not the intention to encourage new playwrights, but to confuse that goal by chasing a demographic. Is it really true that the only way to lure Hispanic audiences into a theater is by providing Latino playwrights? And likewise and likewise?

Is it not a demoralizing experience to go to plays and to find that American audiences have segregated themselves in the name of integration? Tonight: David Henry Hwang. The audience is mainly young, predominantly Asian American. Tonight: August Wilson. The audience is middle-aged, African American. Tonight: Octavio Solis. Tonight: Terrence McNally. Tonight: Caryl Churchill. And tomorrow night? What I dream of is a night at the theater when Mexican Americans form a majority for an August Wilson play. A night when a play about them becomes a play about us.

I was in Ashland, Oregon, for a conference and I had an afternoon off. I bought a ticket for the matinee performance of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of The Man Who Came to Dinner—the hit of Festival that year, as everyone told me. Fifteen minutes before curtain, five hundred middle school children flowed into the theater. I regret to say I glowered like an old cat whose treat has been snatched away. This was to be a kiddy matinee. Really, someone should have posted that fact. I cursed the festival directors. What were they thinking? What could these children possibly make of George S. Kaufman’s parody of Alexander Woollcott? (I have never been all that fond of the play myself.)

The children screamed with laughter when the actress got locked in the mummy case. For all you could tell, it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. The children were delighted with the escaped convicts and the unseen roomful of penguins. One actor did a dead-on take-off of Noel Coward, and they enjoyed him, too.

I had forgotten that children are accustomed to figuring out the adult world—it is what children do; I had forgotten the depths of appreciation children are capable of. How brilliant of the festival directors, I thought, as I walked out into the benevolent afternoon light.

Richard Rodriguez is the author of Hunger of Memory; Days of Obligation; and Brown—memoirs that form a trilogy concerned (respectively) with social class, ethnicity, and race in America.
This essay was commissioned by the Music Center of Los Angeles County.