On one level, Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar satirizes the class with the mean, witty, highly critical, entertaining, terrifying professor and his mix of articulate students of ambition. Audiences won’t leave with any deeper insight or unique perspective on what the play purports to depict: the insider’s view of breaking into the New York literary world. However, they will be entertained. The play provides a witty tour, juggling ideas of the subjectivity in writing, the existence of true talent, and the reality, power struggles and compromises in selling one’s work. After the play, several writers to whom I spoke, referenced lines, jokingly admitting that they would rather have a “whorish piece” in The New Yorker than end up a “talented nobody”.
Yet on a very subjective level, as an Asian American woman, one aspect of the play made me feel uncomfortable and queasy, with the reminder that words and laughter matter and have consequences.
Rebeck enjoys a strong reputation for talent in a field traditionally dominated by men. She ardently advocates for the need for greater gender equality in theatre. In a convincing September 9, 2008 blog posted in The Guardian, entitled “Broadway’s Glass Ceiling“, Rebeck criticized the dominance of plays written about men and by men. She noted that in 2008-2009, the number of women authored plays on New York stages comprised 12.6% of the total, and in 1908-1909, that statistic was 12.8%.
Rebeck drove home a legitimate point with sarcasm: “One might put this trend down to something like, hmm, discrimination. … [W]omen should just back off, because putting plays written by women into production because maybe audiences might like a really well-written play that was well-written by a woman would be pandering to ideas of political correctness. And art doesn’t do that. What art does is celebrate the lives and struggles of men.” She also criticized the negative characterization of women on Broadway in “Gypsy” and “August: Osage County”.
Within this context, Seminar made me wonder what the diversity of voices in mainstream entertainment can socially achieve or otherwise fail to accomplish? While no one advocates for politically correct propaganda or censorship, what are the responsibilities, if any, in writing for or attending the theatre?
Rebeck is a highly accomplished writer, with an M.A. in English, an M.F.A. in dramatic writing and a Ph.D. in Victorian literature, all from Brandeis University. She is a contributing editor to the Harvard Review. Seminar is her second Broadway show, having debuted with Mauritius in 2007, and having garnered a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her play, Omnium Gatherum. She is currently executive producer of the NBC show Smash, and previously wrote for NYPD Blue.
Critics have praised Rebeck’s success in injecting the female voice into contemporary culture. Reviewing her novel, Three Girls and their Brother for Entertainment Weekly on March 8, 2008, Melissa Rose Bernardo wrote “Playwright Theresa Rebeck is known for black comedy and hyper-intelligent heroines.” Bernardo described the story as “a fizzy satire of celeb-obsessed NYC.”
Many people will like to see Rebeck’s latest play in a similar light. Yet, Rebeck fails to achieve a gold star for her depiction of women this time around. In Seminar, Leonard (Alan Rickman), the experienced, jaded, intimidating professor, once an accomplished novelist, gives private writing lessons ($5,000 for ten weeks) to students whom he selects as having talent or potential.
Four students meet each week to endure Leonard’s blistering criticism to hone their craft of writing. They also work on figuring out their relationships with one another — and Leonard. Kate (Lily Rabe), a well-educated, affluent, young, studious woman, hosts the classes at her family’s sprawling, luxurious (rent stabilized) nine-bedroom Upper West Side apartment. Bespeckled, thin, and with a flat, blonde pony-tail, she mixes insecurity with principled assertiveness, and talent with a willingness to compromise.
Kate is romantically interested in her friend from high school, the bookish, insecure, earnest, awkward, and it turns out exceedingly talented Martin (Hamish Linklater). Douglas (Jerry O’Connell), the handsome, well-connected preppy brings to each class a hilarious performance of name-dropping, pseudo-intellectualism. He yammers away about the MacDowell artists’ colony and his experience with the “interiority” and “exteriority” of Yaddo. Rebeck holds back no punches in her parody of the glitterati of literary New York.
Izzy (Hettienne Park), a young Asian American student, quickly defines her role in the group and the play, by pulling up her shirt and sticking out her bare breasts in full frontal view, for an exceedingly long period of time. She plans to appear topless on her book cover to gain a feature in “New York” magazine.
The dialogue and plot moves with quick, biting humor. Armed only with their distinct personalities, the students weave and bob, surviving the slings and arrows of Leonard’s critiques and barbed “suggestions”. Yet for all the awareness that Rebeck has shown for women’s roles in her plays, Izzy poses a troubling insensitivity toward racial stereotypes.
Izzy arrives at each scene sprightly dressed, often swinging a childlike ponytail on top of her head. Wearing Jean-Michel Cazabat like high heels, she definitely does not fit into the shoes of a “hyper-intelligent heroine”. Izzy’s only talent seems to be her sexual appeal to men and her comedic appeal lies in cynicism. Voraciously having sex with Martin, all over Kate’s apartment, she finally confesses to Martin that she was unfaithful — also having sex with Leonard to further her opportunities: “It’s not like it was a big lie. You’re the only one who believed it.”
Although this is meant in “good fun”, I bristled against the negative and all too familiar image of Izzy. American entertainment still seems addicted to certain Asian stereotypes: the exotic, over-sexed being, whose primary attribute is physically pleasing men; the socially clueless, math and science nerd; or the “Yan Can Cook” servile house servant, speaking with a thick accent, in broken English.
An oblivious insensitivity to negative depictions of Asians in television carries on as M*A*S*H still tops the “50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time” by TV Guide. (Its final episode was the most watched television show in U.S. history.) M*A*S*H was a clever, entertaining program, but the blatant racial insensitivities in depicting Asians in derogatory ways, are never, even today, even noticed or acknowledged.
Izzy, a convenient myth of “the hot Asian chick,” who is “just really into sex” has consequences. The ABA Commission on Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse cites the U.S. State Department 2005 report on human trafficking, which includes sexual slavery. The report notes that approximately 30,000 victims come to the U.S. from Asia, with primary source countries: China, Thailand and Vietnam. Popular news stories report on the growth of large-scale child prostitution with Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines, which serve as popular travel destinations for “sex tourists” including pedophiles.
On a far more mundane level, the Izzy message affects who we are as a society. Several Asian Americans have shared stories of uncomfortable experiences, for example with on-line dating, with educated men who check the box with racial preference for “Asian”. I, too, even encountered an extremely creepy man, who, while sucking in air, told me his strange notions of Asian women based on stereotypes. (That was a situation which I immediately left, lest agreeing to meet someone for coffee be misconstrued as invitation to date rape.) Where do these stereotypes come from?
Izzy was not a minor and I “got” the irony. Leonard’s toying with Izzy’s hair and referring to her “oriental exoticism” comically parodied this kind of racism. However, with Izzy’s whole-hearted embracing of a stereotype, the “joke” became distracting. While Izzy, of course, is not responsible for the sex slave industry or for every bad date Asian women experience in New York City, she markets a message. Her persona supports an agenda. It suits some people in society to refuse to fully invite others to the table as equals. It suits some people to hyper-sexualize others, to dismiss their intelligence and humanity, to think of them as a group to conveniently use for less than human purposes.
I am not asking that playwrights, like Rebeck, censor themselves. All characters of Asian women should not be role models. But Izzy’s role in Seminar prodded me to ask only that playwrights think about what they write and that audiences critically evaluate what they watch — the messages, overtly, subliminally and even jokingly, being told.
Seminar by Theresa Rebeck. Director Sam Gold. Set and Costume Designer David Zinn. The Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street; New York, NY. For tickets (212) 239.6200 or www.telecharge.com.
Betsy Kim is a writer, living in New York City.