Is It Real or Is It Racist?; Columbia's Science Institute Under Fire; It Worked So Well for Them | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Is It Real or Is It Racist?; Columbia's Science Institute Under Fire; It Worked So Well for Them 

Two novice playwrights defend their work against charges of racism and insensitivity--coming from their own actors.

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Is It Real or Is It Racist?

Most actors don't have the luxury of being finicky about scripts; if they don't have to eat live rats or set their hair on fire, they're likely to grab any chance to show what they can do onstage. So when actor Robert Cornelius backed out of the first reading of White Hot Black Comedy--a play by Cate Plys and Carly Figliulo--because he found the script offensive, it got the authors' attention. "We had anticipated some controversy," Plys says, "two straight white chicks writing a script like this. But we didn't expect it this quickly. The morning of the reading my writing partner checked her answering machine and there was a diatribe from [Cornelius] saying the play was horrible, racist, what he'd been struggling against his whole life in the theater, and he would not participate."

Cornelius, who also teaches theater workshops, says he knew Figliulo and was excited about helping her develop a script, but was startled and offended when he read it. As he recalls it, "Every one of the major African-American male characters was either a drug dealer or a wife beater; one of them killed a dog at the beginning of the play. I didn't feel it would be responsible of me to condone something I felt was perpetuating negative stereotypes and presenting us in the worst light. I educate young black men; I didn't feel like I could do that and then look them in the face the next day."

White Hot Black Comedy is the first attempt at playwriting for Plys, a former Reader staff writer (her City Council watch column, which originated in the Reader, went on to run in the Sun-Times and the Tribune). Figliulo, a former executive with E! Entertainment Television and Plys's cousin, has tried her hand at screenwriting but is a playwriting novice. They're promoting White Hot Black Comedy as a cross between Sex and the City and Pulp Fiction that offers a "heartfelt, often hysterically funny look at five diverse Chicago girlfriends" who gather for a weekend in Michigan each summer, "an eclectic group in race, sexual orientation and socio-economic background." The play's main characters--three white and two biracial--are "loosely" based on a group of the authors' friends. According to Figliulo, "a lot of people will see something they've rarely experienced, which is friendship between people of different backgrounds deep enough that no one has to pull any punches." Plys says their friends are all enthusiastic about the play; when Cornelius dropped out, one of them read his part at the reading.

But it turned out he wasn't the only one with reservations. After the first reading, Plys says, the actor taking the lead role of Melissa, a biracial woman with a drug-addicted husband, "made it clear she was unhappy with [the] character, that it 'wasn't a good role model.'" Explanations that the characters were based on real people--the inspiration for Melissa was even at the reading--didn't sway her. In a later e-mail she told the authors it seemed to her that "all the black characters are bad and all the white characters are good." The fact that "the [black] guy who gets the girl in the end is a respectable, doting father" didn't seem to make a difference, Plys says.

The play was recast for a staged reading and a full production that opens March 2 at the Athenaeum, mounted by the authors with agent Ken Levin. It seemed like their casting woes were over. "The black actors had come to an understanding of their characters," Plys says. "They weren't looking at them as stereotypes." Then a problem emerged from another quarter. An actor cast as a white lesbian--a part the two women based on performance artist Nicole Garneau, with her approval--said she was backing out because she didn't like some of the character's bawdy lines. "She thought they might be offensive to lesbians," Plys says. "I thought, oh my God, why is it OK for straight women to tell bawdy stories, but not for a gay woman?" The part was recast, and the show will run weekends through April 23. "The play is about the real world," Plys says. "Some people are going to be unhappy no matter what."

Columbia's Science Institute Under Fire

Last Friday, just two weeks after word got around that Columbia College had fired an employee of its Science Institute for working on a Web site that parodied the school's president, Columbia announced that it would "refocus the mission and activities of the Institute." An e-mail from provost Steven Kapelke to the entire Columbia community Friday afternoon said that beginning this fall, "the undergraduate instructional function of the Institute of Science Education and Science Communication will be united with . . . the Department of Science and Mathematics." Kapelke said the change will eliminate "program duplication" while allowing the Science Institute to "continue its work in research, educational outreach, advocacy, teacher training, and instructional innovation." In a related press release, Kapelke noted that "the Institute's history of significant outside funding positions it well to continue to provide important, innovative leadership that will influence science and math education throughout the country."

The Institute was spun off from the Science and Math Department in 1991 after a nasty polarization of the faculty. It was headed up by Zafra Lerman, the incendiary and charismatic professor who'd built Columbia's Science Department from scratch after arriving there in 1976. At the Science Institute she continued to develop innovative ways to teach that brought funding from sources like the National Science Foundation (with learning opportunities for students in Chicago public schools) and an international reputation. Two years ago, Columbia president Warrick Carter nominated the Institute for the Council of Independent Colleges' award for "Outstanding Achievement in Undergraduate Science Education," and it won.

The merger shouldn't have been a surprise: last spring the two departments were ordered to prepare "white papers" describing their programs in order to identify possible redundancy. But Lerman says this decision, made without input and discussion, will remove all undergraduate instruction from the Institute, apparently leaving it to continue its work "with no faculty and no students." She says she doesn't understand the rush, or why a celebrated entity would be folded into one more ordinary: "It's clear to me it's not an academic decision. It's a political decision and, maybe, a personal vendetta." Administration spokesman Mark Lloyd notes that this is "not the first, nor the only such programmatic consolidation that the college has undertaken in recent months."

It Worked So Well for Them

Chicago Humanities Festival board chairman Richard Franke says he'll function as the organization's executive director for the time being, overseeing the work of its new quartet of managers, including New York-based artistic director Lawrence Weschler, who'll log just four or five days a month in Chicago. The model for that, Franke says, is CSO's Daniel Barenboim.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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