Sandra Bernhard at Theater J(8 cents)

Sandra Bernhard is performing at Theater J for three weeks.  The show opened Tuesday.  We went to see her last night.  She was reviewed in the Post by Peter Marks this morning.

The theater was pretty full.  For a Thursday night, this portends strong financial results for the theater.

The audience was mixed.  Regular Theater J theater-goers, and visible members of the city’s most visible gay community.  The audience was almost all white (of the 200+ in the audience, I would be surprised if there were ten African Americans).  As to religious affiliation, I of course cannot tell, but I would assume that the vast majorities of the Jews and the Christians in the audience were not religious in any normal sense.  That is just an assumption.

There are some things about Bernhard that you have to admire.  She has indefatigable amounts of energy (her only shared trait with Sarah Palin, perhaps), she has a powerful and not unpleasant singing voice, and she certainly knows how to work an audience.

Her faults vastly outnumber her assets.  In terms of insulting others, she makes Don Rickles seem absolutely tame.  She turns her most venomous venom on Sarah Palin and therefore on all Republicans, but she also rants about Jews, Christians, African Americans, and everyone else.

Now, I am not a fan of bad language.  I just don’t think it is necessary.  I certainly can express my feelings without reverting to language that will make some people cringe.  But bad language in talking about Sarah Palin, Orthodox Jews, right wing Christians is Sandra Bernhard’s m.o., and audiences love it.  Yet bad language is not enough for Bernhard (a lot of comedians use bad language); she needs to have routines that themselves shock by virtue of content, more than they shock by language.  The language becomes only one ingredient in this awful mix.  Talking about what she would do to Palin if she had a chance would (in most countries) have her jailed or stoned, but here, audiences love it.

So, I can’t fully blame Bernhard although she has been taking advantage of it for decades.  I have to blame most of all the audiences for permitting this sort of disgusting dialogue to be repeated again and again and again.

Is Bernhard funny?  Sometimes, yes, she is, and sometimes she is funniest when she is being the nastiest.  But what trumps what?  Do you avoid the humor so as not to encourage hate, or do you ignore the hate because funny is all important.  There is no question as to how I would like to see this resolved.

And I should make it clear that, with regard to her opinions in the most general aspects, I agree with her.  I don’t like the position of the Republicans, I don’t like bad actors hiding under the guise of religious orders.  If I were a Republican, or if I were of a mind to think that you can’t make fun of religion, I would be apoplectic now, I believe.

And if Bernhard weren’t Jewish, and was a Christian or a Moslem who made fun of Democrats and Jews, I (along with all those laughers in the audience) would be up in arms.

I mentioned the very few African Americans.  How did they take the show?  Bernhard sings in “blackvoice” (my phrase).  She makes fun of black divas.  (Yes, she idolizes Nina Simone and some others, but even there it is with a tinge of mocking.)  So, I conclude that the show is not only politically incorrect, it is also racist.  And it is very anti-religious (although Bernhard apparently hob nobs with Chabad and keeps a kosher home).

By any objective the show is disgusting.  Which leads me to the next question.  Why does Theater J allow this type of show on its stage?  I know, the standard answer is because it wants to be on the edge, wants to provoke.  But this show is not an edgy show.  An edge is just that, an edge, on the cusp, a little over the top.  That is not Sandra Bernhard.

So, where is the Theater J staff and council?  Where is the DCJCC administration?  Isn’t it clear that, as a Jewish insitution, which this theater purports to be, it must maintain some standards?  And doesn’t the JCC itself have to have some limits to the tripe it allows on its stage?


2 thoughts on “Sandra Bernhard at Theater J(8 cents)

  1. Art,
    Your write-up is, for the most part and certainly at the outset, rather fair and well-reported and careful to present itself as a rational parsing of Sandra Bernhard’s performance and its reception at Theater J. But your last three paragraphs don’t make sense, as a piece of writing. In impersonating two different female black singers at different points during the show, Sandra deploys dialect in the service of sympathetic portraits of talented, exhausted, heart-broken black women. Your conclusion that the “show is not only politically correct, it is also racist” because Sandra sings of the plight of forgotten African-American cities (“Baltimore”) and exploited African-American ex-patriot performers (Nina Simone crying “I want my Porgy [and Bess] money!”) does not follow. In fact, the play wears its politically VERY correct heart on its sleeve with its indictment of America as “A Man’s World, It’s a White Man’s World, It’s a Fucked Up White Man’s Racist World” and can only be suggested to be racist in its content if one is hell-bent on protecting White Folk for Sandra’s blistering indictment.

    When Sandra warns Sarah Palin not to come into Manhattan lest she get gang-raped by some of Sandra’s big black brothers, she’s being provocative, combative, humorous, and yes, let’s allow, disgusting. The fact that the show has a few riffs like this does not — to my mind — make it a “disgusting show.” there’s too much beauty, variety, vitality, and intelligence to label the entire show as “disgusting.” I’ll agree with you that we produced this show because we did find it to be edgy — because we wanted to give right wing conservative Jews a good run for their money by being on the receiving end of some blistering indictments from Sandra. Does it go over the edge sometimes? On the gang-rape joke, yes. Sure. Not much else. It goes over the edge and then comes right back to the cutting edge.

    Finally you ask, “where is the Theater J staff and council? Where is the DCJCC administration?” They were all there on opening night, one night before you came. We partied together after. There were three members of Theater J staff at the show last night, and there’ll be more of us this weekend when we present three shows — soon to be all sold out. I was teaching a political theater class last night, but I’ll be back for everything this weekend.

    We’re proud of our producing – proud of Sandra’s sense of timing – taking the fight out to the house and to the street beyond, channeling so much of our rage and frustration at the bizarre recent twists of fortune since Karl Rove trotted out Sarah Palin for John McCain to briefly meet and then get in bed with.

    Sandra’s face is hanging 10 feet tall in a banner over the DCJCC steps and we’re proud that she’s a new emblem and ambassador for our theater and our center. She’s not the only one who represents us. But her large heart, her generous talent, and her big mouth are all a big part of who we are.

  2. Pingback: First Footage of Sandra, Live on Stage - And First Debate About Show « The Theater J Blog

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