Hey, Toronto audiences! Why are we laughing at white supremacy?

I hadn’t heard the surname “Trump” uttered publicly in a while — that is until last month, in the Crow’s Studio Theatre, where it was followed by a loaded burst of laughter. 

The play was Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, directed by Philip Akin and co-produced by Crow’s Theatre and The Howland Company; the conceit, a young band of conservative intellectuals reuniting at their Catholic college in rural Wyoming for a night of active discourse. Its general tone is dramatic and doomish, with the stage set as a casual backyard forum for religious and political debate. Still, surrounded by a majority white audience of presumed progressives, I found myself laughing along at the Trumpian rhetoric — until I stopped to ask myself why. 

This production of Heroes was far from the first time I’d been part of an audience of white liberals chuckling through uncomfortable political talk. After all, I too have been complicit. I also laughed at my perceived short-sightedness of the white female protagonist in Redbone Coonhound last season at Tarragon, and at the display of oblivious white denial in Coal Mine Theatre’s Appropriate. I’ve signalled my place as one of “the good” white people, indicating my awareness of racist macro- and micro- aggressions through emphatic nods and vocalizations (not to mention social media infographic shares), often leveraging my queerness and leftist politics as evidence of my respectability. 

But through being in audiences of other white folks performing similar tactics — the infographic activism, and the gestural showboating — this phenomenon of white liberal laughter, specifically in response to critiques of whiteness on our stages, has become a subject of increased interest and fascination to me.

It seems that this specific genre of plays — those showcasing, critiquing, and/or satirizing white power — has risen in popularity in the post-lockdown theatre economy, perhaps mirrored by the commercial successes of HBO’s Succession (which, ironically enough, recruited Arbery as a writer following the commercial success of Heroes) and The White Lotus. Promising to provide audiences with windows into upper-class privilege and corruption, these works often humourize (and dare I say indulge?) white ignorance and entitlement, sometimes framed as compelling and empathetic character studies of the one per cent. I must add that my massive generalisation here isn’t to erode the specificities of these works and their approaches to the subject; to equate, for instance, Moscovitch’s Post-Democracy and Santalucia’s Prodigal to Sibblies Drury’s Fairview would be careless at least, and problematic at most. While several of these plays (Appropriate and Fairview, notably, two works by Black American playwrights) endeavour to hold a mirror up to white supremacy for a largely white, middle-to-upper class audience, others (Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Post-Democracy, and Prodigal, all by white writers) seem to work against sweeping generalizations on either end of the political spectrum. This difference in approach, considering the identities of the playwrights, is non-accidental.

In each of these works, humour is deployed and evoked through various tactics — whether by the texts themselves, the directors, and/or the actors. Some of these playwrights (Moscovitch, Jacobs-Jenkins, Newton and Lavoie) craft intentional jokes to invoke involuntary complicity, or to allow their audiences to come to some form of shared revelation or understanding. Other directors (Santalucia, directing a Dora-winning Dan Mousseau in Prodigal; Ted Dykstra’s actor direction in Appropriate) prompt and encourage laughter from their audiences by and through their interpretations of the text. In Coal Mine’s Appropriate, for example, a borderline melodramatic fight between warring white family members elicited a thunderous burst of audience laughter when interrupted by one of their young sons — ignorantly, and innocently — walking downstairs wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. To that particular joke, there is an intentional setup and payoff that posits the absurdity of white denial as the subject of its humour. 

Now, there is undoubtable credence to the benefits of shared laughter as a form of disruption to hegemonic systems, and there may also be advantages of feeling humanely connected through laughter and seeing eye-to-eye with characters that we recognize as proximal to ourselves. But when these characters are violent white supremacists, I’m left wondering if laughter is enough of a conversation starter, or of a disruption in and of itself. When the laughter is over, where and how does this conversation progress?

I have no interest in waxing poetic about the function of theatre, which has always served to reflect a liberal humanist subject in the Vitruvian Man’s image: male, cisgender, able-bodied, and heterosexual. In the contemporary theatre, some would posit “to entertain” or “to educate” as simultaneous, even conflicting, approaches to theatre as a kind of public pedagogy. The question of “what do these plays do, politically?” is itself reductive — as a playwright myself, I think of the writing process as led by dramatic structure, emphasizing action, character, and plot, to which sociopolitical questions aren’t always tethered. 

But — and I’m catching myself here as I type these words — perhaps that in itself is a product of my own whiteness. I’m not saying that theatre’s fixed function is to educate or to entertain, but I am saying that it inherently does both of those things, even if unintended. As theatre artists, we have responsibility over the way we are representing, mediating, and telling our stories.

And in today’s climate, there exists an undeniable general fascination with dramatizing the intimate workings of white supremacist logic — and humanizing it for public consumption. But what effect does this trend have in a wider conversational economy around theatre and whiteness? What are we — and by “we,” I’m speaking specifically to the white folks reading this article and engaging with these plays — gaining by seeing conservative characters act out conservative desires, values, and actions onstage? And more importantly: How are we, as white theatregoing patrons, ethically consuming critiques of white violence on our stages?

After all, Toronto’s theatre scene is far from a utopian, post-racial oasis. With Mirvish’s corporate-capital monopoly on theatre tourism, large-scale musical theatre productions (many imported, and the vast majority by white creators) draw the biggest audiences and profits in the region. The implementation of “Black Out Nights” — the phenomenon of reserving select performances exclusively for Black audiences, created by American Slave Play playwright Jeremy O. Harris — has sparked widespread outrage and news coverage in and beyond the city. Just this year, the National Arts Centre drew viral criticism over plans to host their first-ever “Black Out Night” for a scheduled performance of Is God Is (co-presented by Obsidian Theatre, Necessary Angel, and Canadian Stage) as a part of their Black History Month programming. Similar “Black Out Nights” have been adopted by Theatre Passe Muraille, Cahoots Theatre, Canadian Stage, Obsidian Theatre, the Musical Stage Company, and Tarragon Theatre, generating commercial success as well as online controversy. And lest we forget the public backlash to Yolanda Bonnell and Manidoons Collective’s request for racialized reviewers only to review Bonnell’s 2020 production of bug. These occurrences alone have exposed infrastructures of white rage and fragility bubbling in the underbelly of the Toronto theatre scene.

By laughing at the mention of Trump, whose ethnic nationalist and white supremacist ideologies still reverberate through global policies and politics, what precisely are we signalling? 

That we, as a largely white liberal-leaning audience, are “with” the critiques of whiteness being presented through the play’s action? 

That we recognize the flaws and wrongdoings of the characters, and that we align ourselves with the critiquing class? 

Or, to take a less generous reading for a moment — to be visible in our progressive politics at a time of increased white anxiety and discomfort?

In “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Unangax̂ scholar Eve Tuck coins the term “settler moves to innocence.” This is described as “an attempt to deflect a settler identity, while continuing to enjoy settler privilege and occupying stolen land.” I wonder to what extent laughter can be deflective — and how our collective reactions to these plays can commodify, and feed back into an economy of, white guilt that can ultimately bypass our accountability as white settler audiences. After all, as white spectators, we still benefit from enjoying plays made for, and often by, other white folks. Whether we’re consuming plays by white writers about other white characters, or by racialized playwrights talking to white audiences about their subject position, we are the intended audience for these stories. And where does that leave everyone else?

So here’s my final question: What would it take to move beyond these types of audience responses — or, more widely, these types of narratives? So long as the theatre remains inaccessible, financially and otherwise, so long as systemic racism and other inequities pervade the field, a move “beyond” the sociopolitical necessity for these narratives would warrant a full structural overhaul of the industry. In the interim, my hope is that this article acts as a conversation starter between white theatregoing patrons in and beyond the city of Toronto, giving new impetus to critical conversations about the material we’re all collectively consuming. 

So the next time you take a seat in one of our revered theatres, wholly ready and willing to laugh at whatever critique of white power is thrust your way, take a moment to ask yourself who your laughter might benefit — and whose comfort it reinforces.

2 Responses to “Hey, Toronto audiences! Why are we laughing at white supremacy?”

  1. This is a really well-articulated essay. I’ve often wondered about this myself, both as someone who has written this kind of thing and someone who has enjoyed many of the works mentioned. I think the laughter in these plays and shows can be as much about discomfort or surprise as trying to signal anything. I don’t think people are necessarily trying to align themselves or be visible about anything — they’re having a spontaneous reaction to the breaking of a taboo. It might be ugly, but I’m not sure it’s controllable. I also wholly understand why non-white audiences would not find this stuff funny or interesting. Ultimately I think the best of these works are trying to reflect a grotesque element of our society in a way that is entertaining. I think that friction, between the reprehensible and the enjoyable, is both the most exciting and productive thing about art, and also potentially what can be harmful about it. To your final question, I think you answer it! Shows that interrogate the evil of white supremacy are usually primarily for white audiences. I think there’s a place for these works, given that Canada’s current theatre audiences are largely white. But more artistic production, from a more varied group of people, will better serve those who don’t need to hear these messages.

  2. A: So I was doin the rounds on the usual theatre blogs I check out to see if there’s any recommendations and what not, and I came across a specific article which left me so irritated for some reason.

    B: Oh?

    A: well.. It just brought up feelings that had been brewing for a little while now, and for reasons I don’t actually understand or uh care to investigate fully, it just sent me into a whole tailspin, like a tipping –

    B: Wait, what was it about?

    A: Oh, well first of all, the article was called – or was it an opinion piece? Probably that – anyway it was called Why are we laughing at white supremacy?

    B: Ooof!

    A: yeah I know, or something to that effect. In any case, it mentioned a few shows which have recently played in Toronto in the last coupla years – some of which I’ve seen – plays that dealt with race, maybe directly or even indirectly. Remember that play I told you about a few months ago? It was about those Catholic intellectuals out in the country…

    B: Oh yeah?

    A: And that other show was mentioned too, the one where all the white audience members were singled out and asked to stand on the stage, after viewing a cringey-in-a-good-way-depiction-of-white-people-doing-a-blackface-routine-but-without-the-makeup? Remember that?

    B: Yeah you were in your head for like a week.

    A: Yeah so you remember. Anyway the article mentioned a few others too which I don’t recall. The gist of it was – um how do I put this – to encourage audience members, specifically white audience members, to reflect on their position within the racial hierarchy and – wait for it – to admonish these same white people for their laughter, for their “uncritical enjoyment” of difficult themes presented in an entertaining fashion. I mean I don’t think they used those words, but you get the idea. It had that academic-y sounding language: “Perpetuating systems of injustice,” you know. Obviously this is just my takeaway…

    B: okaaaay….

    A: I mean I shouldn’t say that the writer was implying that these works should not be enjoyed. Um.. it’s more, the implication was that these works should only be enjoyed by white audience members in a veeeeerrry specific way, a sanctioned socially-correct way. And of course it was larded with the usual uh… self-flagellation about the writer’s own privilege. It’s just so cringey and pious.

    B: Wait, remind me again what the shows –

    A: Right! Well the one about the conservative Catholics – Heroes of the Fourth Turning! That’s it! I remember now because the “Fourth Turning” was some sort of crackpot idea espoused by the far right related to cosmological “ages” or generations, and Steve Bannon is in the mix somehow –

    B: Hazzah!

    A: Hehe, anyway the suggestion was, by the article I mean, uh.. was that the “funny,” more human parts of the play were problematic because these Trump-supporters are evil, and that laughing and or enjoying these parts made certain audience members – of the white variety –

    B: uh huh…

    A: …Somehow complicit in systems of oppression (does air-quotes). Can I just say how annoying and tedious this type of language is.

    B: And this annoys you because… ?

    A: Well, aside from the entirely-divorced-from-reality-jargon, it’s the uh… well I’m still trying to figure that part out. Like, why am I so annoyed? Further down the article, they talk about how theatre is overwhelmingly made by white people and that audience members are overwhelmingly white and affluent, which is true, but they also say – I would dispute this, and I think you would too, as an artist – or rather they deduce from the first two observations, that theatre is made FOR white people.

    B: I don’t know that I’d agree with tha –

    A: Exactly! Like don’t you think that all artists aspire to something like a universalism. Now the question of whose works get to carry that mantle is a separate issue, but you know what I mean.

    B: So that’s what –

    A: Mmmm, I don’t even think that’s it. Can I just say? This probably isn’t work-appropriate.

    B: Not sure that’s ever stopped you…

    A: Have you noticed recently, I would say in the last… oh I don’t know, five years or so, and you would be better positioned to tell me if this observation is correct, as a… well fuck it, as a white person I mean, I’m not even sure how to articu –
    B: Huh?… okay now you have to –

    A: Am I crazy? Or… um… are white people being encouraged by other white people – I should say liberal or left-leaning white people, or by the culture in general? – to constantly examine their own privilege? Like to carry around with them a hyper-awareness of their position within a society that for better or worse still has racism, and inequality? Or like within a hierarchy that positions them at the top. And that the way to dismantle this is to be constantly thinking about this all their inter –

    B: I would say there’s definitely some of…

    A: Well what do you think about this? Do you think this is healthy? Do you think this is actually how we’re going to overcome inequities? Do you think white people getting into their heads about how their skin colour gets to be “default” while condescendingly welcoming disadvantaged minorities – uh, do you think that’s the solution? That it’s helping? That the solution to real inequalities resides in our hearts? That if only we could increase “awareness?” Isn’t all this just more land acknowledgment bull – uh, performativity? I feel like I’ve seen this movie –

    B: Tell me how you really feel.

    A: You don’t have to answer, you needn’t opine. I’m putting you in an impossible position. My ideas are my own. I’m just thinking aloud. Like the other day, a certain person who works here and who shall remain nameless was asking me about my upbringing and they mentioned, entirely unrelated to the conversation, that many of their friends growing up in school were East Asian.

    B: Oh dear.

    A: Yeah exactly. I mean obviously nothing untoward was intended, and yet here, I thought, here is somebody who is seeing me through a prism of disadvantage. Of course I didn’t think much of it initially and I’m naturally inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, but….. But I did notice over a period of time that their interest in, quote unquote, my culture seemed, uh I dunno, unidirectional.

    B: How so?

    A: Like there wasn’t any real sense of exchange where I’m learning about you, and you’re learning about me. More like being an object of fascination. Is there such a thing as sneering interest?

    B: Ha!

    A: I’m being unkind. Although, something I have noticed – I think I’ve said many times during our peppery chats –

    B: What’s that?

    A: That I’ve never not felt Canadian, even though I wasn’t born in this country. Just the fact of being mixed race, always seemed to me like the embodiment of the Canadian ideal. I know it’s so cheesy, and self-absorbed. But it’s this idea I had as a child – and don’t laugh, oh fuck it, laugh as much as you like – that being multi-racial could itself be the healthy equivalent of the decidedly unhealthy ethnic nationalism of other countries like in Europe or Asia. That being ethnically heterogeneous could somehow embody true Canadianess.

    B: Huh…

    A: I know. It’s dumb. Just to circle back, I’ve never not felt like I belonged in this country until this new generation started coming up. And it’s so weird because this generation, or I should say, people who’ve adopted this sort of thinking, profess to be all about inclusion and diversity. Does this make any sense? I’ve never been treated like a “minority” until I started interacting with this lot. And I’ve never thought about leaving until now.

    B: What were we talking about again?

    A: Oh, sorry. About people, white people being encouraged to identify with their… oh my god ,that’s it! That’s what it is!

    B: What?

    A: It’s being encouraged to identify with your privilege!

    B: As opposed to?’

    A: Your culture! Like is there anything wrong with someone being proud of their family’s haggis recipe, or their family tartan? Or their cottage properties and endless discussions about pulling in the dock and winterizing for the season?

    B: Hehe. You little bitch!

    A: Okay. But you know what I mean.

    B: Yes I do. I will say that it’s harder for certain people to show pride in their, you know, ethnic, because… well white pride doesn’t –

    A: Yeah I know. Maybe cultural pride? It seems like Eastern Europeans manage this pretty well. And what’s the alternative? I don’t have the answers. It just sent me, like I said, into a bit of a tailspin. What’s wrong with Irish pride? Or Danish pride? You know? What I loathe is this idea that some groups are allowed – and encouraged! – to show cultural pride – I would argue, in an incredibly condescending way – while the dominant groups have to efface their cultural identities while…

    A: I see this really annoys you.

    B: Well it’s because performatively moaning about your own privilege doesn’t do anything to level the playing field. Am I allowed to say? I’ve often suspected that this sort of behaviour has more to do with, um, more to do with gaining status among other white peer groups, than it does with listening to marginalised voices. How many times have I been the only person – uh, only person of colour, I hate these phrases by the way – in the room where a discussion about whether or not something is offensive to a particular group is happening. You’d think the voice of a quote unquote POC would be prioritised!

    B: You would think…

    A: Completely steamrolled. So only the dominant groups get to decide what’s virtuous. Or rather the good ones within the dominant group. Or rather the self-selected good ones within the dominant group. Those are the ones who get to anoint by consensus a cherry-picked view amongst the multiplicity of voices. This – we decree – shall be the voice of the marginalised. I see how it works.

    B: You’re in deep.

    A: I know.

    B: I don’t think you’re crazy.

    A: Should we get back to work?

    B: Probably.

    A: Thanks for listening to my rant.

    B: Anytime. I hadn’t thought about it, or this, in this way before.

    A: Merry Christmas.

    B: Happy Holidays.

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Written By

Camille is a multi-hyphenate artist, writer, and researcher. When not writing plays and making queer folk-pop music, she can be found teaching and procrastinating her PhD work at the University of Toronto. More at camilleintson.com or @thecamiliad.