The Playgoer: Soyinka @ TCG

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Soyinka @ TCG

Readers: Sorry for the light posting last few days. Been in Chicago, where I was hoping to blog on the road, but too busy enjoying it. So stay tuned for delayed Chicago dispatches in the days to come reporting on the latest from Mary Zimmerman, Steppenwolf, and the US premiere of Jerry Springer: The Opera!

Ok, so I can finally post something on what went down at the TCG (Theatre Communications Group) conference a few weeks ago. Apparently Wole Soyinka, the keynoter, dropped Louis Farrakhan's name in a way that was or was not controversial/offensive, depending on whom you ask. And apparently I wasn't the only one getting emails the next day from one particularly angry Artistic Director present. But now that he also was blasting the Voice's Michael Clancy, I can link to something more legit.

According to Clancy's reporting, here's what happened:

In his keynote address about the importance of ritual in healing communities (or something squishy like that; it’s all above our pay grade), Soyinka talked about three people who have used pageantry to soothe misery and anger. First, you got Aeschylus; no problems there. Then you got Sartre; a bit of a stretch, but whatever.
Then you got Farrakhan, and the Universal Day of Atonement he proposed a few years back. Whatever you think of Farrakhan’s nastier side, Soyinka said, he was on to something there. If we could only return to the notion of humanity apologizing together on one day, the world could begin to turn away from war and greed.

That led Tuvia Tanenbom (of the Jewish Theatre of New York) to challenge Soyinka in the Q & A, accusing him of lionizing the Jewish-unfriendly Nation of Islam preacherman.
Soyinka replied that Farrakhan may be a schmuck, but that shouldn’t preclude us from using him as a metaphor. And then he made his second mistake: he deployed
an oblique reference to people who consider themselves victims. According to one attendee, the audience understood him to be referring to self-important theater professionals, including himself. But to Tanenbom, that could only mean one thing: those mouthy Jews.

Among the many recipients of Tanenbom's subsequent email blast (go ahead and read it here for his side of the story) was the ADL. It got their attention enough to get a quick press-release/denunciation out of them. Until...
Ah, but then the staff at the ADL went and actually read Soyinka’s speech. And promptly learned that Soyinka’s point was considerably more complex, and that he had clearly denounced Farrakhan for, among other things, defending brutal African dictators. The ADL scrubbed the release from its web site and began the time-honored process of hoping this would all just go away.

And so now Tanenbom's still pissed (at both Wole and ADL's Abe Foxman) and still nobody else can read the text of Soyinka's speech itself because TCG claims they're not authorized to publish or release it. And looks like the Nigerian Nobelist doesn't quite see it in his interest to fan any more flames.

Anyone actually there who'd care to tell it yet another way...?


parabasis said...

I wasn't there. I will just comment generally to say that, as someone with a pretty finely tuned (some would say "Alvie Singer-esque") anti-semetism radar, based on the reporting of the incident, the claim seems totally specious. And that (as a Jew) Jews who use specious claims of anti-semetism to shut down people they don't like make it harder for others to fight real anti-semetism. Oddly enough, Abe Foxman of ADL is one of the chief perpetrators of this, so I'm frankly surprised that ADL took the press release off their site. If it had been about Israel, I think it would've been a different story.

Anonymous said...

You're in Chicago? Where will you be after the show?

Anonymous said...

Doesn's sound as if Soyinka was lionizing Farrakhan at all and was clear about that. If anything, the affront to Jews imho was Farrakhan's pilfering (and Soyinka's apparent failure to notice) a very longstanding Jewish practice of everybody getting together to ask forgiveness. I mean, where did he get the idea Day of Atonement from? Yom Kippur, anyone? Not that this is worth rousing Abe Foxman's easily rousable fury (or anyone else's); imitation is flattery, and all that, and rituals have a way of being absorbed into syncretic practices. Tanenbom is being hysterical.

Anonymous said...

and yet another jew says:

if it's all so kosher and Wole didn't say what he's accused of saying, why is it that nobody's willing to release the records? tcg always publishes keynote addresses--except for this case. sounds to me like a nice cover-up...

parabasis said...

Really? A cover up? You think TCG is involved in a conspiracy with Wole Soyinka to cover up the remarks he made at their conference?

I don't think anyone's denying what Soyinka said, but rather that taken in context, it's not anti-semetic.

Soyinka might not want to let the speech into the public sphere for all sorts of reasons (including his intent to give the speech elsewhere for money or publish it). Let's not jump to any hasty conclusions.

Anonymous said...

Hi folks. Found this link from TheatreForte. I was at the conference and imagine TCG wants to keep the remarks private because... it is a conservative institution in my experience and seems to thrive by not pissing anyone off if at all possible.

I don't think that Soyinka's comments or his intellectual "endorsement" of Farrakhan's proposals of grand world-atonement-day indicated that he is anti-Semitic in any way. I disagreed entirely with the AD who stood up and accused Wole. THEN-- it seemed like Wole's response to the AD was emotional -- he basically said "you are not the only victims" which I think clearly was meant to imply "you, Jews, are not the only victims". This may have been baiting the baiter, as it were, since the questioner's original question was basically totally off base. But I do think it was meant as a retort and as a blunt (and politically provocative) way of discouraging the questioner's motives and intentions. Wole then went out of his way to point out that several of his friends had been persecuted (and killed) by African governments supported by Farrakhan. If that doesn't distance him from the man, I don't know what would.

Soyinka's was an intellectual proposal, not a political one. A beautiful speech, and I wish TCG would have the courage to publish it.

Anonymous said...

Looking at some old posts here...I actually wrote an essay about Soyinka's talk. You can read it at I do think that Soyikna's remarks were, at best, tone deaf, and his response to Tuvia's comments right after the talk (which was only to point out Farrakhan's anit-semtism) were shocking and disappointing to me. It is unfortunate that Tuvia's later written comments were so vitriolic, however. It took the conversation to a more irrational emotional level.

Playgoer said...

Thanks, Mr. E, for the link and your eyewitness account. All these months later, I'm still shocked there's no available transcript of the speech.