Jac Alder

Learning to be Civil

In his January column, Jac Alder looks at the legacy of Civil Rights and how far we've come, and thanks theater for its role in educating audiences.

published Sunday, January 18, 2015


Dallas — Coming up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my thoughts turn to this extraordinary man’s inspired efforts to make America genuinely democratic and our government morally responsible to all its citizens. “Civil Rights” is the accepted generic term for the movement he so brilliantly led for so tragically short a time. I respect the term: it references laws as a needed guide of decent and democratic civic behavior. But the true brilliance of his leadership was his campaign for HUMAN rights, meaning the decent and democratic concepts aren’t followed just because the country’s laws enforce the concepts, but because we all of us—diverse in religion, color, language, politics—possess, at our core (in our DNA, so to speak), the basic comprehension of our common humanity and the glorious community it is possible to dream of and to obtain.

I know, I know—the world’s full of evidence that this deep comprehension about our common humanity is soooo deep that it has not yet come to the surface of universal awareness. Much of the Middle East and Africa (well, everywhere) has not yet shaken off tribalism, let alone racism. And in this country, we’re clearly imperfect. My gawd, some of the rhetoric directed at our biracial president is hate speech at its most sickening, and racism isn’t just about black folks, it spills over to all people of color.

One of the many things I love about theatre is the ability to inspire our community of both artists and attendees toward visions of common humanity. Earlier this month, the production of In the Heights at the City Arts Performance Hall by the Junior Players (with Theatre Three assisting) was profoundly inspirational. The stage was full of people of color—in this case from 11 area high schools—who, though expertly directed by professionals showed sensational natural talent and played the story of ethnic struggles in a New York neighborhood with contemporary insight fully aware of the metaphorical relevance to Dallas. This is Art in Action and it made my heart soar.

Race is perhaps the most dramatic subject of American life: little wonder, then, that dramatists—both black and white—have been inspired to write splendid and meaningful works exploring the American struggle with the legacy of slavery and, like In the Heights, other aspects of racial prejudices. Likewise, little wonder that Theatre Three, which began in 1961 (when King’s oratory and his leadership was in full, fertile flower) successfully recruited black artists to our stage to illustrate both the obvious truths and the subtle implications of racism in America.

The announcement this week that the Supreme Court will take up the question of same sex marriage (as a Civil Rights issue) is heartening as is the amazingly swift conversion of national sentiment in favor of marriage equality. It interests me to observe that despite so many of the important 20th century playwrights (and theatre artists) being gay, they produced precious few works directly addressing discrimination against homosexuals. The contrast with how vividly they led their gay lives with what they wrote about is understandable, perhaps. Even today, gay characters on television, in the movies and on stage rarely are seen as “normal” but rather as abnormally funny or even abnormally miserable. The real breakthrough in our culture will come not when the Supreme Court makes same sex marriage universally legal—it will be when someone being gay is as “normal” as someone being heterosexual. 

Jaston Williams’ brilliant portrayal of Truman Capote in Tru (at Theatre Three thru Feb. 8—get your tickets now!) shows one celebrity of the ‘50s (and beyond) who was never shamed by his homosexuality, who accepted it from the beginning as his “normal,” and who giggingly brags about his affairs with supposedly straight men. I can remember a time when, in Dallas, such dialogue—well, monologue in this case as Tru is a one-man tour-de-force—caused a stern, tight-faced Sunday matinee-goer to get up and leave.

When Larry O’Dwyer in Albee’s The Zoo Story (which we produced in 1963) declared he was a “H-O-M-O-S-E-X-U-A-L” (the playwright has the character spell out the word), one woman rose from her seat, crossed the stage and stomped out. She stopped by the box office desk and flushed with righteous indignation loudly announced to the attendant, who happened to be Norma Young, my late wife and the person who directed the production: “Margo Jones would turn over in her grave!” Clearly the woman, attempting to summon theatrical authority, didn’t remotely appreciate who Margo was. Margo knew, was sympathetic with, and loved many homosexuals including her profound relationship with Tennessee Williams.

The capper to this story is that the woman left her white gloves behind, and phoned in the next day to ask if we’d found them. Norma figured out who she was and sweetly said, “Yes, the queer sitting next to you at the performance turned them in after the show. When can you come by to pick them up?” 

I think we lost that customer forever; she never came back for the gloves, which we thumbtacked to the office wall as a reminder to beware of white-gloved Sunday matinee customers.


» Jac Alder is the Executive Director-Producer of Theatre Three in Dallas. Look for his monthly musings in Bit by Bit, which run on the second Sunday of the month. Here is a list of previous columns:

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Learning to be Civil
In his January column, Jac Alder looks at the legacy of Civil Rights and how far we've come, and thanks theater for its role in educating audiences.
by Jac Alder

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