Mary Zimmerman and Jamil Khoury Get Into A Scrape Over Cultural Appropriation

Last month, Mary Zimmerman  gave an interview to Chicago Magazine in which she discussed the work of adapting Disney’s The Jungle Book.  Zimmerman is resident director at the Goodman Theatre and most famous for her adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  In addition to commenting on the toxic politics of the her newest project’s original author, Rudyard Kipling, she responded to questions about the well-known “I Wanna Be Like You” number, performed in the Disney film by the ape King Louis and often suspected of racist subtext.

Just a few weeks ago, Jamil Khoury, the Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising — a Chicago theatre dedicated to works of Asian-American and Middle-Eastern artists — took Zimmerman to task for insensitivities, accusing her at best with a kind of naive Orientalism and at worst with deliberately perpetuating hurtful stereotypes.

Shortly afterward, the two met for an unrecorded discussion, during which they apparently resolved some of their differences.  On June 14, Khoury posted a follow-up e-mail interview with Zimmerman, allowing her to respond to several of his accusations and general concerns about the way she approaches works of Eastern provenance.

The original interview, along with Khoury’s post and the final follow-up interview, is linked below.  I particularly recommend reading Khoury’s post and the second interview.

Chicago Magazine Interview With Mary Zimmerman

Jamil Khoury’s Post

Second Post With Follow-Up Interview

The issue of cultural appropriation is highly relevant to Undermain and to any theatre or artist attempting to work in a tradition broader than autobiography.  This past season, Undermain performed two works based on Homeric epics, An Iliad and Penelope.  In both cases we (and the playwrights) have claimed a strong bond to the original work, and yet it is undeniable that the Greek world that gendered these stories is quite foreign to our own.

Standing in far closer relation to the Zimmerman/Khoury fracas is our Undermain Reads series at the Dallas Museum Of Art.  This year we presented two Asian works, Conference Of The Birds and Sacrifice.  Though in both cases we pursued the involvement of diverse artists and sought a meaningful connection with the traditions of the work, ultimately each reading was directed by an American and featured actors whose backgrounds are not those of the authors.

I proposed both of these plays for the series in my capacity as Literary Manager.  In the case of Conference Of The Birds, I also directed the final reading.  The adaptation of Conference Of The Birds that we performed was actually written by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière — an Englishman and a Frenchman with, so far as I am aware, no biographical connection to the Persian culture in which the great original poem was created.  Those two artists, and Brook in particular, have also been accused of Orientalism, mostly surrounding Brook’s borrowing of Asian imagery and techniques in his 70s and 80s theatre work (including the Chinese acrobatics of his famous Midsummer and their joint colossal adaptation of the Mahabharata).

I am sympathetic, then, to Zimmerman’s argument that world classics belong to the world.  I am also, as an artist, inclined to believe that artists must have the right to tell and participate in the stories of their choosing (and then the telling must be judged on its own merit).

On the other hand, cultural awareness and respect must certainly be the standard.  If I failed to understand and properly countenance a work held dear by a group to which I do not belong, then I need to learn from that failure and do better.  Ideally, I need to embrace and participate more fully in the life of the other group rather than withdrawing into myself.  That means more research and much more collaboration with artists of that group.  While I remain enormously proud of my work on Undermain’s presentation of Conference Of The Birds, I have to do better.

The alternative, it seems to me, is a theatre of separation rather than union.

The other topic addressed in Khoury and Zimmerman’s interview is what to do with a received work marked by the author’s prejudice.  In this case, they mean Kipling’s imperialism and related racism. This, too, is a topic relevant to Undermain’s work.

This season we produced The Ghost Sonata by August Strindberg, an artist whose reputation for misogyny exceeds the circle of those actually familiar with his work.  The Ghost Sonata has been accused, in its 100-year history, of misogyny, classism, and anti-semitism, as well as of drawing a nasty link between physical abnormality and moral perversion.

I never spoke to Patrick Kelly, who directed Undermain’s production, about Strindberg’s distasteful personal views.  It seems apparent, however, from his many comments on the play, that he does not find them to be manifest in the final work.  Certainly his directorial choices did nothing to emphasize latent problems with the female or servant characters, nor to paint the Old Man as a Shylock.

But this, also, is an area in which great awareness and sensitivity must be the standard.  Theatre artists believe that plays — their words and their images — have great power.  We have to.  Otherwise what would be the point?  And if they have power to unify us, they certainly have the power to separate us.

Zimmerman and Khoury’s argument tells us to pay attention.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager