WHEN NEWS COLLIDES

by Kitty Felde

I have an orphan play that keeps getting readings, but no production. I’m sure you have one, too. Mine is a play for young audiences with a controversial topic – a character in blackface – and revolves around a holiday festival most Americans know nothing about. (And I wonder why nobody’s produced it yet!)

I’ve discovered the reality of the marketplace in children’s theatres these days: lots of new plays are being produced, but nearly all of them are based on favorite children’s books or Disney movies. Like Hollywood, these theatres are surviving by offering audiences the familiar and the famous.

So I decided to adapt my play to a chapter book. I even found an agent who is shopping it around to children’s book publishers.

But now, news about the topic of my play is breaking out worldwide. I just wish I knew how to capitalize on it.

And so I appeal to you, the great brain trust of LAFPI.

The Netherlands celebrates Christmas as a religious holiday on December 25th – though I found the churches sadly empty of anyone under the age of 100 when I lived there. Instead, Holland celebrates December 6th, the feast of St. Nicholas – or, as he is known in Holland, Sinterklaas.

Most Americans know Sinterklaas from one thing: the scene in “Miracle on 34th Street” where Edmund Gwenn as Santa speaks to the little Dutch war orphan and sings the Sinterklaas song.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNpijhg3KN4

What most Americans don’t know is that when Sinterklaas arrives in Holland by boat from Spain (don’t ask), he’s accompanied by his buddy Zwarte Piet. That’s literally translated as Black Pete. And yes, it’s a Dutch person in blackface, complete with a bad Afro, overly large red lips, hoop earrings, and a clown-like costume.

The first time I saw Piet, I was appalled. My Dutch friends brushed off my reaction, insisting Pete was a Moor, or perhaps that dark from sliding down chimneys. They said he was a friend to Sinterklaas, not a slave. And that his crazy antics were amusing, not meant to ridicule people of color. Yeah, right.

I found it particularly interesting that there were now many people of color living in The Netherlands – from Suriname and Turkey and Africa – but none of them were called upon to play Pete.

In The Hague, where I was covering war crimes trials, I talked to the only American judge at the Tribunal, Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, an African-American former federal judge who became the Tribunal president. I asked her about Pete. She said every year, there was a debate in her group of African-American ex-pats about whether to make a big stink about Zwarte Piet or ignore him.

Judge McDonald became the inspiration for the adult character in my play THE LUCKIEST GIRL, the story of a ten year old African-American girl who moves to Holland with her grandmother, a lawyer at the Tribunal. Tahira is homesick. The last straw is when she discovers that Santa doesn’t come to Holland; instead, it’s Sinterklaas, and his politically incorrect buddy Zwarte Piet. Much to the horror of her grandmother, Tahira likes Piet.

This fall, UNESCO considered taking The Netherlands to task over Pete. And the Dutch reacted with a Facebook page devoted to Zwarte Piet that got a million likes in a DAY!

https://www.facebook.com/pietitie

Everybody and their brother has been writing about the controversy: New Yorker, Huffington Post, the Economist, and tons of newspapers in Great Britain.

https://www.google.com/url?q=http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/11/is-a-dutch-holiday-tradition-racist.html&ct=ga&cd=MTA3NDcxMTQ1MTc5OTg4MDk3ODY&cad=CAEYAA&usg=AFQjCNGgyKlg3dkXVljaoVqSTblGZqWuqg

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tag/zwarte-piet

http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21588960-debate-holiday-tradition-exposes-racial-attitudes-zwarte-piet-racism

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/tensions-mount-in-the-netherlands-as-un-questions-black-pete-christmas-tradition-8909531.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2474693/Zwarte-Piet-abolished-Outrage-Netherlands-Black-Pete-Christmas-tradition.html

A bonanza, yes? Maybe.

So here’s my question for you playwrights smarter than me: what would you do to capitalize on this kind of publicity? Does it help or hurt the chances of a theatre doing the play? Should I be sending it to British children’s theatres? What should I be doing???

Meanwhile, I’m excited that THE LUCKIEST GIRL is getting another workshop reading at 11 AM, Sunday December 1st at Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles as part of their fESTivity/LA 2013 series. (3269 Casitas Avenue, LA 90039)

It’s directed by Susie Tanner, who loves the script, and starring the two actors who should be playing Tahira and her Dutch friend Jan: Tamika Katon-Donegal and Whit Spurgeon.

http://ensemblestudiotheatrela.org/about/programs/festivityla-2013/

Please, please, please post ideas about marketing. And come on down for the reading at EST. Zwarte Piet might even have pepernoten and suikergoed (gingerbread cookies and sweets) to toss to the audience.

 

3 Comments

  • By Robin Byrd, November 25, 2013 @ 10:29 am

    I think you should try to get it produced especially in Holland and Germany as those seem to be the two places I have heard of that use actual blackface…different reasons same effect… Your small synopsis does not clue me in as to whether or not your piece is against or for blackface which put a red flag up for me (what frame of mind must I be in to see this?), however, since reading your article, I am more at ease and glad to understand what drove you to write the piece. The words “politically incorrect” do not do it for me but that’s just me (I’ve run into too much “politically incorrect things/words/conversations based on someone else’s ignorance/bias/perception” which taints the situation) but, because I know you and your work I would still be curious enough to go see it. Something that the Fratti-Newman Political Playwriting Contest asks for is a “Statement of the political/social/cultural questions that the playwright is engaging with the script.” I found that a help when creating a logline that included my story and the question I was addressing. Places that do political plays may not be scared off my your subject matter. Adrienne Kennedy’s plays are read more often than produced; I find that politically incorrect. Just because the subject matter is hard does not mean it should be something to be feared even if you have to check your frame of mind before you go see it. I just don’t like to be blindsided too often at the theater — just me.

  • By TiffanyAntone, November 25, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

    I second Robin’s suggestions – especially regarding submitting to to those locales where the subject is most ripe!

  • By Diane Grant, November 28, 2013 @ 10:20 am

    Kitty,

    This is so fascinating. Is one of your characters in blackface?

    And what about the Mario Fratti/Fred Newman contest? You might submit it there?

    Diane

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