“The lady doth protests too much, methinks.”
So says Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, during the play within a play scene toward the end of Hamlet. Shakespeare’s Danish prince has constructed the play so he could show his mother and his uncle/stepfather that he knows they killed his father.
Gertrude is reacting with annoyance to the character that plays her. And Hamlet knows then that she recognizes the character as her. And therefore she is guilty.
That line kept going through my head May 20th, as I watched the latest performance of my favorite theatre company – the Clark County School District Board of Trustees meeting.
But it wasn’t the actors who were revealing their true feelings by protesting too much. It was the bit players. In this performance they are called the Publicus Commentorati.
The Publicus Commentorati are the people I told you about last time who were taking on the role of the Banish’d Unmasked. The Publicus Commentorati take on many roles. Usually having to do with anger.
I have often thought that perhaps these performances could incorporate something related to Commedia Del’Arte – where the performers wear full face masks that depict stock emotions – anger, love, happiness, etc.
My thinking here is a member of the Publicus Commentorati can walk in, choose their specific mask, and then wouldn’t even have to speak. The actors would know the Commentorati were angry, and they would know what they were angry about. Just by their masks. A teacher’s mask, for instance, would be melting around an implacable, immovable smile. The Actors would be able to recognize the Banish’d Unmasked because… Oh, that’s not going to work is it.
Anyway, for reasons that confused me about the given circumstances of this night’s performance, half of the Publicus Commentorati were not wearing masks at all. And no one said anything to them! They were not banish’d. They were sitting behind me, muttering. And I was sitting in front of them, thinking I should really take my jacket to the cleaners after this performance.
How much spit is generated by muttering?
This night, the Publicus Commentorati, now officially unmasked, took up another stock angry trope: racism. Specifically they were there to protest that they are not racist, that they are nice people, and that the teaching of anti-racism was hurting their children. Specifically. Like The Man and his Court of Advisors was looking at demographic data and choosing their children – out of some 320,000 total students – to harm. “Memo to Dr. Belltinkle: Please target Sarah Hoosinfoos’ daughter, Thelma, and teach her about systemic racism.”
Now, I’ve attended a lot of performances over my lifetime. Some are completely exhilarating, like “August: Osage County,” keeping you laughing and crying, and giving you a deeper understanding of humanity. Some, like “Interminable Days Journey Into Night,” make you grateful you don’t snore. Loudly.
It’s a hit and miss thing. If you love theatre, you love the snooze fests as much as the witty repartee and life changing stories. Because even the snooze fests have meaning.
I love theatre. I have dedicated most of my life to it. But this night… oof… This night was a snooze fest.
Like when the actors were talking about trying to hire a new Counselor to advise them on such matters as how to say things indirectly so they are as obtuse as possible and do not communicate clearly to the audience.
This discussion – which I believe started three performances ago – went something like this:
Actor 1: I’d like to propose that we start processing a proposal to start the process so we may proceed with the matrix that our Counselor has developed for us, with specific attributes related to scores, or maybe decades or millennia, that would be valuable for this ensemble to dig deeper and crystalize the matrix.
Actor 2: But we’ve already dug and crystalised the matrix. In fact, we’ve dug so deep that we’ve hit a hot springs and steam is enveloping the stage as we speak. Let me read you in detail the proposed proposals we were propositioned to proceed with.
This conversation* took an hour and a half! And I am only partly parodying it.
There were two highlights to this discussion. One was when Patience – the ensemble director and actor – said that she would like to hire an attorney while they were still alive to take the job.
The other was when Cassandra, momentarily taking on the role of Sisyphus, was reading the specific proposals. This is the second meeting in a row she did this. One of the requirements the actors had requested of a new counselor – or team of counselors – was that they be diverse, reflective of the population of students in the school district. When Cassandra read the counselor candidates’ declarations of diversity, one of the Publicus Commentorati yelled, “We don’t care about equity.”
That, of course, was why this particular group of Publicus Commentorati were attending the performance in the first place. They wanted to declare they were not racists, that they were nice people who just wanted Black and Brown people to stay in their places and not make so much of a fuss about being told they can’t compete in a sport unless they cut their braids, or that their mother should be taken away from their family because she wasn’t born here.
I mean, these are just rules. If people can’t follow the rules, then they should suffer the consequences. And to these Commentorati, crossing the border to escape violence and poverty merits the punishment of separating children and parents.
The motto of this particular group of Publicus Commentorati is: “If everyone just acts like white people, then there’s not a problem.”
This reflects two different understandings about how racism works. Remember, these people are angry, and to them, racism is about individual anger and actions. They do not burn crosses in peoples yards, nor do they use the N word. In public, anyway. Therefore they are not racist. And saying they are is an affront to their views of themselves as good people.
Then there’s the wider view. The view that points to redlining and notes that Black families were unable to build wealth in the 20th century like white families were, through housing equity. It points to the fact that after World War II, Black soldiers were not allowed to participate in the GI Bill, which provided low-interest loans for housing, and allowed white vets to go to school for free, or at low cost. It points to the fact that there are far more police cruisers in Black neighborhoods than there are in white suburbs, and yet, white teens are more likely to have drug problems than black teens.
This wider view asks us to look at the systems and how they’re set up. But the Publicus Commentorati doesn’t see systems. It is steeped in the fiction of personal responsibility. And to them, the idea of systemic racism is personally insulting.
As the Publicus Commentorati spoke, after the discussion about a new Counselor, I couldn’t help but admire their dedication. How much of a racist do you have to be to sit through interminable soporific discussion just so you can get up hours later and tell people you’re not a racist? Seriously? We live in Las Vegas. There are literally millions of more entertaining and satisfying things people could have been doing. Going to a casino. Hanging at Fremont Street. Hiking Red Rock with their children. Scraping blood out of their toenails.
But they chose to come to the Room of the Passive Aggressive to run the gauntlet of extreme boredom so they could make sure the actors knew they weren’t racist.
I sat there thinking of poor Gertrude, inadvertently revealing her guilt to her son. Methinks the Publicus Commentorati doth protest too much.
*The discussion about hiring a counselor starts at 1:10 on the linked video.