Meanwhile, Back on the Couch – enjoyable community theatre comedy with one glaring flaw

The Camrose Morning News is a small printed folder of announcements, ads, and pastimes.  Something interesting caught my eye as I leafed through it at work, an invitation to a play.  The Beaverhill Players, based in Holden AB, were putting on Meanwhile, Back on the Couch, by Jack Sharkey, and touring to Ryley and to the Bailey Theatre in Camrose (Nov 16th) as well as playing in Holden (Nov 2-3).

The tour opened in Ryley last night, as part of a celebration of local businesses.  Nearly 200 people attended and enjoyed a delicious overflowing buffet provided by local caterer Grethe’s Kitchen.  I don’t usually attend dinner theatre by myself (still haven’t made it to the Mayfield) but I enjoyed sitting at a table full of friendly people from all over the region, and I took moderate advantage of the cheapest theatre bar in Central Alberta.  Door prizes, an ice-breaking game, and various business awards added to the fun.

Director Julianne Foster introduced the play, and the traditional stage drapes drew apart to reveal an art-deco-styled office suite with a cleverly-lit New York City skyline out the window.  The skyline art was credited to Inez White.  The main character, psychoanalyst Victor Karleen (Ernie Rudy) wants to publish a memoir of his cases so he can afford a Caribbean honeymoon with his fiancée (Debbie Perkins).  But we soon see that he also wants to be a more successful author than his rival colleague (Ray Leiren).  Add in a sassy nurse-receptionist (Laura Rudy), two quirky patients (Dave Maruszeczka and Inez White), a pompous publisher (Gary Kelly), and a college student neighbour on a scavenger hunt (Crystal Hedeman), and madcap hijinks begin to follow, because it’s that kind of farce.  Hijinks include an eavesdropper falling into the room, someone undressing while someone else is turned away pouring drinks, and an awful lot of kissing.  Jokes about predictable psychotherapists, single people, married people, and Reader’s Digest might have worked a bit better when the play was first performed in the early 1970s, but the audience still enjoyed them.  I laughed a lot, as did the people around me.

Dave Maruszeczka was especially good, portraying Albert with an endearing consistent mixture of bewilderment and insistence.  The pacing was good except for a few places where the script belabours things a bit.  The blocking worked well for the small proscenium stage and everyone was easy to hear.  There were three acts (two intermissions), and there was too much information about the plot in the act synopses in the program.

I would be recommending this whole-heartedly to anyone who likes community theatre and comedy, except for one jarring directorial choice.  Laura Rudy’s nurse-receptionist character Miss Charlotte Hennebon was played in blackface makeup, with red lips, Afro wig, and eye-rolling, and with the exaggerated gestures of a stereotyped sassy African-American woman over 30.  The actor’s impeccable delivery and timing would have made her scenes a lot of fun to watch, except that I was figuratively wincing in embarrassment every time I saw her.  The Samuel French website listing casting requirements for each play they own says that this one has colourblind casting, and there is nothing in the text suggesting that a character of unmarked ethnicity or different ethnicity wouldn’t work.  I believe that gratuitous blackface is inappropriate in 21st century Canada.  The director and actor should rethink this choice before the remainder of the run.

After that warning and disclaimer, I will tell you that more information about acquiring tickets is at the Beaverhill Players website.

16 thoughts on “Meanwhile, Back on the Couch – enjoyable community theatre comedy with one glaring flaw

  1. The Beaverhill Players

    Dear Ms. Mallory;

    Thank you for attending our performance of Meanwhile, Back on the Couch on Saturday October 19th, where you will no doubt remember that we received a standing ovation for our production.

    Any and all comments from the audience are always welcome. We have a comment box at each performance and found nothing but positive responses in it that evening, and in fact have been asked to return with a play for the same occasion next year.

    Your comments about Mrs. Laura Rudy’s portrayal of Nurse Charlotte Hennebon in what you interpreted as ‘blackface’ are therefore also welcome. We do thank you for your comments, and this potential reaction was taken into account.

    We would like to gently suggest the following in edification:

    Firstly, we must ask if there was anything derogatory or insulting towards black people in her portrayal of her character which would identify the character as ‘blackface’. If the answer to this question is yes, then that would lend validity to your comments. However, we saw nothing during rehearsals or performance that would lead an audience member to believe that her portrayal of Charlotte as a black woman was anything other than a choice that an actor makes when constructing a character for a role. If anything, the portrayal of a black nurse on Park Avenue in the early ‘70s would normally be taken as somewhat of a positive model. The script does indeed call for colorblind casting, which means that if she had portrayed an Asian, an Indian, or anyone else, we should be asking the same question. No one race has a monopoly on stereotypes, or on being stereotyped.

    Secondly, if we had cast an Asian in the role of Charlotte who decided to play a black woman, would that be equally unacceptable, or perhaps it is only white people in what you call ‘blackface’ that offends you. Michael Douglas’s portrayal of Liberace may therefore be equally repugnant, given that Douglas was portraying someone of a sexual preference other than his own. If we expand this logic, we find problems with the adoption of accents as well, given that those who are not, for example, German, might be interpreted as negatively stereotyping Germanic peoples when imitating common attributes of English speech by native German speakers.

    Clearly there must be a distinction drawn by rational individuals between the promotion of derogatory stereotypes and the approach by an actor to his or her character in a unique and interesting way. Blackface performance, though a large and mostly distasteful part of performance history, is only one example of actors portraying themselves as a race or ethnicity which they are not.

    Thirdly, there were at least three individuals of visibly African descent present on the night in question; a couple, who were family members of friends of Mrs. Rudy’s (and who bet each other fifty dollars whether Mrs. Rudy was actually black or not), and the ‘real black woman’ you are likely referring to in your message. It might interest you to know that this woman waited for over twenty minutes after the production for the opportunity to congratulate Mrs. Rudy on her work and to suggest that we take our show farther afield than central Alberta. All received the play in good spirits and loved Charlotte.

    Perhaps the easiest thing for you to have done in order to find out what the ‘real black lady’ thought was to simply ask her yourself. However, I’m sure you’ll agree that in the interests of complete equality, her response shouldn’t be predicated on the colour of her skin.

    In the history of blackface performance, in which a trademark makeup technique became the painting of the area around the lips white in order to make them seem enlarged and to remind the audience that the performer was actually white – and is something Mrs. Rudy did not do – it is true that some very ignorant racial stereotypes were perpetrated.

    It is also true that one would hope that we have moved beyond assumptions based on race and that we could, in a theatre setting if nowhere else, respect our choices in character portrayal not through the eyes of politically correct racist assumptions after losing our own ability to apply critical analysis but through the eyes of appreciation for an actor making the best choice for their character, given their own skills and knowledge of their own acting style.

    It was our appraisal of Mrs. Rudy’s intentions in characterization and our knowledge of theatre as a whole, from the very beginning, that Charlotte Hennebon is not a ‘blackface’ character in the slightest, and does not fit the definition.

    Mrs. Rudy did not make the decision to play Charlotte as a coloured woman lightly. She is a graduate of Grant MacEwan’s Theatre Arts program and also President of the Beaverhill Players, and is educated and aware of potential obstacles and possibilities when playing characters of different cultures and ethnicities whether through adoption of accents, clothing styles, or in this case, makeup in addition to the above.

    It may interest you to know that if it were not for blackface performances, largely those of Al Jolson, African-Americans may have waited many more years to gain acceptance on stage, screen, and radio. We offer the following quote from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Jolson, “… he was later credited with single-handedly introducing African-American music to white audiences. As early as 1911 he became known for fighting against anti-black discrimination on Broadway.” In this respect there are parallels to black music gaining acceptance on radio initially through performance by white artists. We also endorse http://kmschultz.hubpages.com/hub/Why-is-blackface-racially–socially-and-politically-incorrect in quoting the following: “It is quite easy to find blackface offensive due to it’s (sic) roots, but we have moved past the era when it is offensive and into an era where those who use it for professional reasons do so with sensitivity and those who misuse it are in need of education on the topic.”

    In closing, we will refrain from taking your comments to mean that you believe everyone in the Beaverhill Players is a racist, and instead thank you for attending our show and providing your opinion. It is unfortunate that you took offense at anything to do with the play, and we thank you for the positive comments that you did have.

    Yours sincerely,

    The Beaverhill Players

    Reply
    1. Max

      This is a fairly rude response, to a contentious social subject. I hope the smug smile you clearly had as you pressed “Enter” fades into guilt, as you realize that sarcasm isn’t a substitute for an intelligent response.

      Maddeningly justifying your choice in a terribly illogical way, (Google “Denying the Antecedent” if you don’t understand the basic logical flaw) in such statements as “Michael Douglas’s portrayal of Liberace may therefore be equally repugnant, given that Douglas was portraying someone of a sexual preference other than his own. If we expand this logic, we find problems with the adoption of accents as well, given that those who are not, for example, German, might be interpreted as negatively stereotyping Germanic peoples when imitating common attributes of English speech by native German speakers.”

      By that so-called “logic”….

      You believe that something most people find culturally repugnant is ok to perform, and Adolf Hitler thought that killing jewish people (Also culturally repugnant) was ok. Therefore, one might liken you to Hitler.

      I’m sure you justified the choice to yourselves before you performed to an audience, but what you’re clearly too dense to understand is that most of your audience was made uncomfortable because of it. Citing the support of African-Americans in no way makes it acceptable. In the same way that most people find it offensive for someone to mimic another culture in costume for halloween, I’m sure most people don’t change their opinion based on the season.

      Your final quote is also logically flawed, as you were clearly using the character for comedic purposes, and ended up casting a white actress. Please enlighten me as to how that is a “professional reason to do with sensitivity” or an “education on the topic.”

      Finally, your closing statement is downright rude and deplorable, as you take to mocking the author of the blog post, whose post was polite, and approximately 80% positive. You suddenly make the assumption that the author thinks that you’re all racist, (an idea you clearly fabricated) and mocked her for it.

      In closing, I think you should be ashamed to be so clearly intelligent and well-spoken, and use your skills in such a deplorable manner. For someone who thinks that they are dealing with “professional” issues, and helping “educate” the public on the topic of racial stigma, you should give your head a firm shake as to what respect is.

      I dare say that you wouldn’t be half as rude to the authors face, and you ought to apologise for your tone, and clearly intentional misuse of logic to shame the author for her opinion.

      Reply
  2. CL Jahn

    Ted Danson made a lot of lame excuses for his inexpiable lapse in taste, too. Nobody bought his load of crap, and it wasn’t half as offensive as the puerile excuses offered by the Beaverhill Players. Would you put an oversized nose on a Jewish character? How about buck-teeth on a Japanese character?

    These stereotypes were not intended for any beneficial purpose; they were meant to de-humanize their subjects, to show them as objects of ridicule. Nobody today aspires to be Stepin’ Fetchit.

    What great artistic point were you trying to make with this character who wasn’t written to make any point about racism? That she could “play black?”

    I’m a third generation performer of thirty years experience, and I don’t care what backwater she graduated from. Her choice reveals her as she is: a rank amateur, posing as an artiste.

    Reply
  3. Max Meyer

    This is a fairly rude response, to a contentious social subject. I hope the smug smile you clearly had as you pressed “Enter” fades into guilt, as you realize that sarcasm isn’t a substitute for an intelligent response.

    Maddeningly justifying your choice in a terribly illogical way, (Google “Denying the Antecedent” if you don’t understand the basic logical flaw) in such statements as “Michael Douglas’s portrayal of Liberace may therefore be equally repugnant, given that Douglas was portraying someone of a sexual preference other than his own. If we expand this logic, we find problems with the adoption of accents as well, given that those who are not, for example, German, might be interpreted as negatively stereotyping Germanic peoples when imitating common attributes of English speech by native German speakers.”

    By that so-called “logic”….

    You believe that something most people find culturally repugnant is ok to perform, and Adolf Hitler thought that killing jewish people (Also culturally repugnant) was ok. Therefore, one might liken you to Hitler.

    I’m sure you justified the choice to yourselves before you performed to an audience, but what you’re clearly too dense to understand is that most of your audience was made uncomfortable because of it. Citing the support of African-Americans in no way makes it acceptable. In the same way that most people find it offensive for someone to mimic another culture in costume for halloween, I’m sure most people don’t change their opinion based on the season.

    Your final quote is also logically flawed, as you were clearly using the character for comedic purposes, and ended up casting a white actress. Please enlighten me as to how that is a “professional reason to do with sensitivity” or an “education on the topic.”

    Finally, your closing statement is downright rude and deplorable, as you take to mocking the author of the blog post, whose post was polite, and approximately 80% positive. You suddenly make the assumption that the author thinks that you’re all racist, (an idea you clearly fabricated) and mocked her for it.

    In closing, I think you should be ashamed to be so clearly intelligent and well-spoken, and use your skills in such a deplorable manner. For someone who thinks that they are dealing with “professional” issues, and helping “educate” the public on the topic of racial stigma, you should give your head a firm shake as to what respect is.

    I dare say that you wouldn’t be half as rude to the authors face, and you ought to apologise for your tone, and clearly intentional misuse of logic to shame the author for her opinion.

    Reply
  4. znepj

    “It may interest you to know that if it were not for blackface performances, largely those of Al Jolson, African-Americans may have waited many more years to gain acceptance on stage, screen, and radio.”

    And if there hadn’t been slavery, we might have had to wait another century for jazz.

    What *is* your point?

    Reply
  5. melpriestley

    Beaverhill Players, your white privilege is showing. There are absolutely no instances in which blackface is acceptable. It has always been racist and it always will be – you can’t “take it back” as you seem to be suggesting. From the writer’s description of the performance, the actor played a classic blackface character, which makes your response all the more damning – you don’t even realize that there’s a problem here, and that’s the most offensive thing about this entire debacle.

    The fact that your response is almost twice the length of the actual blog post suggests to me that some small part of you knows that you’re in the wrong. The best thing you can do is read up on these issues (go beyond Wikipedia, please) and admit that you made a mistake. And don’t dress up in blackface. Ever.

    Reply
    1. shoutitquiet

      I saw robert downey in tropic thunder and maybe should have left the theater angry about it instead of liking it after what im reading here, despite he got an oscar nomination for playing a black man but the response from beavrhill players isnt emotional which makes me think theyre the rational ones here, did anybody who left a comment actually see the play

      Reply
  6. jpickering

    “…the ‘real black woman’ you are likely referring to in your message…” What message? I would reserve judgment not knowing the tone of whatever message they are referring to. No offense to Louise Mallory but reviewers can be pretty condescending, obviously the Beaverhill Players received a message maybe fitting that description

    Reply
    1. Ephemeral Pleasures Post author

      Ah, the confusion is because whoever is writing on behalf of the BHP is referring to an email I sent them privately as well as to this post. In that email, I reported some of the comments made by people I don’t know who were sitting at my table. One of them had wondered what the non-white members of the audience were thinking about that portrayal.

      Reply
  7. Jonathan Brindza

    FOR YOUR INFORMATION… this topic of conversation has gone on too long and far, for such educated people, i find these comments and discussion to be nothing but ignorant and pathetic to say the least. I have not encountered someone so judgmental in quite a while. To state a FACT… two of the three “BLACK” people in the audience at the performance in Ryley where my relatives and the third was a special guest of mine as well… ALL THREE thought the performance was delightful and hysterical and are excited for next years show! So unless you have spoken to these three people yourself do not make such hasty opinions. If you would like to take this up in person e-mail me and i will set the record straight, as I am the Marketing & Promotions Manager of the organization who put this event on! brindza.jon@gmail.com The comments at the end of the evening where AMAZING, and CONGRATULATIONS on an EXCELLENT performance!

    Reply
    1. Max Meyer

      I’m surprised that you were hired to be the Marketing and Promotions Manager, given your 8th grade (at best…) grasp of english. It’s hard for us to take you seriously when your spelling, grammar, and syntax are clearly in need of some work.

      Also, given that you were a part of the play, you don’t think it’s possible that your “BLACK” friend and relatives were being polite, and not wanting to insult you by bringing up your play’s awkward and racist flaw?

      Reply
  8. jpickering

    I applaud Mr. Brindza for trying to bring less sarcasm and more honest assessment to this shambles of a comment thread.
    I live in Camrose and attended the show in Ryley. I want to thank Mr. Brindza for going to great lengths to put on a wonderful evening.
    I had wanted to see a Beaverhill Players performance for a long time. I had heard they were quite good, especially an English one I heard about last year.
    While I agree that I don’t understand why Charlotte had to be played as a coloured woman, I thought it was well done, nothing disrespectful about it. It certainly didn’t warrant snide and self-righteous remarks from people who obviously weren’t there themselves.
    It is true as one commenter noted that Robert Downey, Jr was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Tropic Thunder. The nomination committee that year had people of colour on it who may actually understand this issue.
    The reviewer doesn’t need defending, her review is quite balanced and even complimentary, but again I refer to the message I asked about in my previous comment. I doubt such a review on its own would have warranted such a response from a community theatre organization.
    I will attend next year’s show for sure.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Edmonton Theatre 2013 – what I remember | Ephemeral Pleasures

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