I really, really didn’t want to get too involved in this fracas. Lots of passionate opinions on both sides. But a comedian said something on stage that Will Smith felt insulted his wife. He felt the insult was so heinous, he needed to physically assault Chris Rock to make up for it. And the audience of fellow performers at the Oscars felt he deserved a standing O. And I’m terrified. By not facing any sort of punishment for this, Smith has declared open season on performers who say things an audience member disagrees with. You don’t like what I’ve said about US nuclear Policy? You think I’m lying about the coverup of 9/11? Don’t just go home and grumble to the family–come on up and take a swing!
If you’re reading this and you don’t know about me, I’m a monologuist and solo performer. I do plays about controversial subjects. I did an early play about 9/11 conspiracies in Orlando a couple years ago. I probably shouldn’t feel any sense of entitlement about the background of my play, but as I say (almost as often as hair-dye maven Rudy Giuliani) I WAS ACROSS THE STREET FROM THE TOWERS ON 9/11. I thought that gave me some cred on talking about the attack and what I thought about the conspiracy theories. But at Orlando Fringe, an angry theater goer said he wished I had died on 9/11 so I wouldn’t be around to talk about conspiracies (I should note the a*hole was himself a performer). I’ve toured a play about global warming and I’ve feared that someone would interrupt me and tell the audience it’s a hoax and I’m lying. To the point where (after a long and disruptive interruption at a reading), I added the following statement:
So if you disagree with my theory of anthropogenic climate change, we can talk privately afterwards and I can give you an Amazon dot com discount number for purchase of clown white and strap-on nose and you can write your own damned presentation and invite YOUR friends. I don’t do debates when I’m in clown drag. Life is short.
Performers are vulnerable, even in a venue as monied as the Oscars (which presumably has the money to hire people to prevent such events as transpired last Sunday). A famous story about the storied actress Katherine Hepburn is instructive. She was doing a show on Broadway toward her twilight years and an audience member in the front row had decided to stretch out his legs onto the lip of the stage. Hepburn interrupted her opening monologue to say YOUNG MAN! MOVE YOUR LEGS!! And at curtain call, she renewed her criticism “don’t set foot on my stage. We’re sitting ducks up here!”
And I understand the arguments made about the implicit racism of an attack on Jada Pickett Smith’s malady. I also understand that if those are the standards we now apply to comedians, we would never have seen a performance by Don Rickles or Foster Brooks (who was after all making for of addicts and alcoholics). And Smith’s actions mean that people have a destructive role model of how to behave with ideas they don’t agree with. I think Trump has been an inspiration for this (remember him telling his audiences to ‘beat the crap’ out of protesters?), but it isn’t just Trump now–the ‘liberal bastion’ that is H’wood now applauded and awarded someone for hitting a performer (who was doing his ‘day job’ after all). What were they thinking? Do they not remember the 80’s, when Farrah Fawcett was appearing in EXTREMITIES? a crazed fan upset that she hadn’t given him an autographed picture stormed the stage and threatened her? The performance community understood what it meant when people attacked performers, and nobody defended the young man’s actions.
Smith did have to resign from the Academy, though it seems all that does is prevent him from voting on future awards.
Big fat furry. The fact that Smith walked back to his seat and stayed for the entire show tells me that live performers are at risk. And this has been growing for years, since Kanye’s dustup with Taylor Swift went unpunished. I perform work that’s controversial and if people have the notion they can mount the stage to confront me, I’m outa here.