A performing arts center in Burnsville, Minnesota has refused to allow their resident theatre company to stage a play because its title contains the word “mulatto” — a derogatory term to refer to someone of mixed racial ancestry.
“Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales”, written and directed by biracial playwright Derek’ Washington, is a humorous exploration of the experience of growing up mixed race.
Through a mix of story telling and sketch comedy, Washington retraces some of the key events that have shaped his own life as a “mulatto”, the child of one white parent and one black parent. Several definitions of “mulatto” label it as a dated and sometimes offensive word which derives from “mule”, the hybrid cross between a donkey and a horse.
The show was nonetheless a success the 2016 Minnesota Fringe Festival and received critical acclaim for its witty treatment of the topic of race.
But, the Ames Center, deeming the term too offensive for its audience, insisted that their resident theatre company Chameleon Theatre Company remove it from the title altogether.
That wasn’t sufficient ground for Washington, who refused and sent an open letter to the director of the arts center as well as the mayor and the city council. It read in part:
Pandas is a play inspired by my experiences as someone who is a mixed race African American and Caucasian man. It is a humorous but heartfelt look at my struggles with identity, prejudice and intolerance told with a focus on representing people in an “other” category on stage while bringing education and understanding to those who fit more comfortably into a demographic box […]
I’m told that members of the city took concern with the word “mulatto” being in the play’s title […]
The show does not ignore the word’s derogatory origins and in fact addresses them in the first few minutes of the show. In a large way discussing those origins is a lot of what the show is about. As a person who is both black and white it is a word I still hear even if it isn’t quite as present in the modern vernacular. I put a lot of thought behind this word when writing this show. Could I have changed it “Mixed Race Tales”? Possibly, but it is a show specifically about my experiences of being both black and white. I felt like saying “Mixed Race Tales’ included a much larger subset of people whose experiences may or may not have represented my own….
Chameleon, too, issued a public statement in support of Washington. But, careful to avoid offending anyone, the Ames Center stood their ground and after months of negotiations with the theatre company over their programming for the 2017-18 season, both parties failed to reach a compromise.
As a result of the dispute over Washington’s play, Chameleon, a company which has been resident at Ames Center since 2009 decided to end its relationship with the venue and find a new space.
Contacted by the New School Arts Integrity initiative about the impasse, the Ames Center’s executive director Brian Luther said it was never their intention to “censor the show, or stop it from being performed”, but because their facility is owned by a public entity, they needed to be particularly mindful of what goes up on their marquees and displays.
“As you can imagine, it’s a challenge to balance the rights of members of our community (who may not wish to be subjected to language they find offensive), with artistic license. We made what we thought was the most appropriate decision for our facility” he added.