Racist and Sexist Epithets in Theatre

At my writing group, a playwright posed this question: “How offensive or acceptable do people find on-stage racist and sexist name-calling?

Racist and sexist name-calling appear in disparate (and award-winning) plays as CLYBOURNE PARK (by Bruce Norris, a Pulitzer Prize winner), Caryl Churchill’s SERIOUS MONEY,  THE SUBMISSION (Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award), THIS IS HOW IT GOES by Neil LaBute, THE INDIAN WANTS THE BRONX (Israel Horowitz, Obie Award winner), SPRING AWAKENING (Tony Award winner), and RACE by David Mamet. And many more.

It appears using sexist and racist epithets is almost surefire award bait.

Kidding aside, my own opinion is that the context is everything. It is offensive? Of course.
Is it racist or sexist? Yes, epithets based on race and gender are objectively racist and sexist.

The question is, is the use of that language gratuitous and sensationalistic — or is it intrinsic to the essence of the character and/or making a larger point? Too many times I see this tactic used, it is a way for the audience members to feel superior to the character, and it absolves themselves of any self-examination. By that I mean the audience says, “Look at those awful racists/sexists. I’m glad I’m not like them.”

This last outcome is not a good one, in my opinion. I find that subtler forms of sexism and racism are more effective, theatrically, in making points about sexism and racism in real life. This is an essay I found intriguing: this playwright talks about “what is the meta-narrative that is being presented in this play? Ultimately at root, thematically, does this play further our understanding of race, or does it play into our already-held assumptions?” Really great questions (says the playwright writing a play in which race plays a part).

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