Hey, playwrights: have you met this wonderful human being yet? (I’m being sarcastic.)
TJ Davis is a young white male playwright who performs a character he created called “Juanito Bandito.” His work is pretty racist, as others have detailed in great depth. (Go read the links, if you like. I’ll be here when you get back.)
Speaking as an artist, I want to say a few things.
I happen to think it’s very important to protect the rights of artists to create whatever work they feel called to create. If we don’t protect those rights, we run the risk of losing them when, say, a totalitarian state comes along. So there’s that. But…
…at the same time, I also believe that with rights come, as the saying goes, responsibilities. And I believe that artists have a responsibility to the communities in which they live and make art.
How would I define that responsibility? I believe it’s our job to create art that promotes the well-being of the people who interact with it.
That’s just me. You might think, as an artist, that you’re only responsible to yourself and your own vision. I find that view well, a little too Trumpian for my tastes, or maybe I mean Libertarian.
Anyway, it seems pretty clear to me that TJ Davis’ work does not promote the well-being of his audiences. How do I know? I listened to people of color when they told me his work was racist. (It’s pretty simple.)
Is there art in the world for which the question of its benefit to audiences is unclear? Of course, plenty of it. Might our ideas change, over the years, about what’s ethically appropriate or not? Of course; culture evolves.
Do either of those facts excuse us from having to try to judge art, in the moment, as best we can? Not a chance, if you ask me. History might call us fools, one day, for our judgments. We still have to try.
My judgment of “Juanito Bandito?” By propagating racist stereotypes, TJ Davis is impoverishing the imaginations of his audience members, causing local culture to stagnate, and bringing genuine harm to the Latinx members of his community.
“Juanito Bandito” is not an ethical use of the craft of playwriting. (Side note: is anyone teaching “Ethical Playwriting?” If not, why not? Better yet: who’s going to start?) It ought to be stopped at once.
So, what do I mean when I say “It ought to be stopped?” My most sincere wish would be that TJ Davis would realize how harmful his work is and stop making it on his own. I’d also love for the theaters that produce his work to start producing authentic work by Latinx artists instead, and for his largely Utah-based audience to get wise to his act and stop buying tickets.
(Farther than that I am not willing to go… because of that pesky free speech thing.)
But none of those changes is likely to happen unless people speak out (as a few theater makers have begun to do). And I happen to think it’s incumbent on playwrights to speak out particularly loudly. (I’ve heard from far too few of you.)
If we don’t speak out, we’re like responsible gun-owners who don’t fight the NRA’s terrorism with regard to gun laws. We know how playwriting is supposed to be used; he’s using it dangerously.
If we don’t speak out, we’re like members of the GOP who refuse to stand up and oppose Trump.
Those are not people I want to be. Do you?