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Day of the Kings

a Historical Drama
CATEGORY : DRAMA
by Daphne Greaves

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 1185

SHOWING : January 21, 2005 - February 27, 2005

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

Cuban Society in the 1820's is put under the microscope as three "Day of the Kings" reveals the strata and pressures on three characters. Winner of the First Graduate Playwrights' Competition


CAST & CREW LIST
Fight Choreographer Jason Armit
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REVIEWS

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Cultural Smugness
by Dedalus
Thursday, March 3, 2005
4.0
Let me say right off the bat that I thoroughly enjoyed Daphne Greaves’ “DAY OF THE KINGS,” which recently completed its run at the Alliance’s Hertz Stage. It was a colorful “slice-of-ethnicity” which didn’t reduce its characters to cultural stereotypes. It showed us characters I cared about performed well. I also liked the design with its primary-color lights and Triptych Arch composition – very adaptable to let scenes flow into each other. The dialogue was smart and interesting, and (I assume) the background was well-researched and used.

What I want to talk about here are just a few thoughts that occurred to me after the play, and I’m curious how they’ll fly with the denizens of this site.

Whenever a writer produces an historical work, or a work set in a culture not there own, there is a danger of what I’ll call “Cultural Smugness.” This can take several forms.

“Day of Kings” is almost guilty of the “Aren’t we much better than they are” syndrome. The hallmark of this is characters who suffer under whatever Cultural/Societal pressures influence them. The farther removed from the present day, the better. The subtext here is “Isn’t it awful what this society does” with the presumed Smug Side “Aren’t we lucky we don’t live there/then!” In DOK, in fact, Hector Nunez more than once comments that’s “He’s a product of his society,” especially when he feels guilty about something he’s done.

This symptom is, in fact, a good story source. It gives us characters we can empathize with (or at least understand), and subjects them to situations that are more informed by some cultural paradigm than by a character choice or option; it in fact, tells us that the character has few (if any) options.

The danger here is in trivializing that culture, of ignoring facets of it that don’t jibe with what the playwright wants to subject the characters to. For better or worse, writers have cultural paradigms, unspoken assumptions that can influence and inform their work. But writing “outside the paradigm.” That is, by imagining an historical or foreign culture, the writer risks ignoring the paradigms that influence that culture and contaminating the fictional culture with her own paradigms.

In DOK, Ms. Greaves avoids this trap very nicely. Yes, we see generic cultural tropes (the dancing celebrants, for example), and the rigid stratification of Cuban Society is the primary villain. But, Ms. Greaves goes to great lengths to show that the characters’ problems and sorrows and joys are as much a product of their own choices as they are of the “Villain Society.”

This form, of course, isn’t nearly as egregious as what I call the “cowardly writer” syndrome. This is when a writer with a “politically incorrect” (or at least unpopular) point of view will use another culture to wallow in his or her own shallowness. A good example of this would be the anti-gay sub-plot of the movie “Braveheart.” When brought to task for this, the writer said “well, that’s what the attitude was then,” as if its placement by a modern writer in a modern work in which it contributes little or nothing plotwise can be thereby justified. The fact that it wasn’t exactly the attitude then never occurred to the writer.

Another example came from a well-known fantasy writer (who, for legal reasons, shall remain nameless here). I saw him at a convention describing how he was starting work on a fantasy set in Maori culture so he could have a macho hero immune from attacks from “politically-correct feminazis.” When I pointed out to him that the macho aspects of Maori culture were a Western stereotype (suggesting he rent the movie “Once Were Warriors” to show an “insider’s” point of view), he frankly told me I had been brainwashed by the liberal media (and aren’t we all tired of hearing that one). The fact that his next book published was a Star Trek book, and no “Maori Fantasy” ever appeared from him I consider a personal victory.

In any case, “Day of the Kings” was a well-done production of a well-written play that, unfortunately, I didn’t see until the last day of the run. I found it moving and enlightening, and detected just the faintest hint of “Cultural Smugness.” Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into this long and dreary essay.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


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