It’s never easy when my opinion is contrary to everyone else’s. It makes me wonder whether I’m being over-sensitive or over-reacting but I figure if I have a persistent feeling about something I should address it, after all my opinion matters. This is about entertainment and the critiquing of it. I’m not talking about needlessly criticizing of course, but being able to notice when something seems off. With that little disclaimer, I will continue.
My friend and I received free tickets to watch Cavalia Odysseo the other day. I didn’t know much about the show beforehand, only that a few people I know had been raving about it. It was basically a horse and acrobat show, sort of like Cirque de Soleil but with horses. The show turned out to be very aesthetically beautiful and the horses were incredibly well-trained. The theme seemed to me to be for the most part very reminiscent of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, in fact a couple of the horse riders looked very elven. Everything was going okay until after one of the “Middle Earth” acts a troupe of African acrobats came out, African acrobats who entertained the crowd with somersaults, African drums and songs, and who got the crowd to participate in singing an African chant (I’m not sure what language it was in, it might have been a West African one.)
At this point I’m sure some people are saying, “Rowena, not again with the race talks. What’s wrong with African acrobats performing?” Well, that’s definitely not the issue. As homesick as I get sometimes, seeing African culture really makes me happy. The acrobats were great, had lots of energy and actually kept me alert after the slower parts of the show. My problem was with trying to understand why they were included in the show in the first place.
Firstly, the acrobats had absolutely no interaction with the horses, which made me wonder: where they there as an afterthought? They just seemed so anachronistic. I racked my brain trying to figure out a connection between Middle Earth and the African savannah and I could find none. Not that I’m a purist when it comes to entertainment; I can definitely see the appeal of fusing different styles of things together. The oddest mixes often work. Thinking back on my experiences eating Jamaican-inspired pasta dishes in the Bahamas, or listening to the Celtic and Indian Vancouver fusion band, Delhi 2 Dublin, reminds me of that.
However, the acrobats in this show did not fit in. If I were to be really critical I would say this is an instance of selling (exploiting?) culture. I just felt that this was a dichotomy of the savage and the civilized, one that I’ve seen again and again. Perhaps people miss it because it’s so commonplace but it sticks out like a sore thumb to me and I’m getting so tired of it.
People often say “It’s just entertainment.” Well, how can it “just be” entertainment? No matter how innocent something appears to be the imagery and symbolism impact us. As I’ve heard said countless times, everything is symbolic. You can’t deny the symbols, what they mean and what they have been taken to mean outside of their original context.
People already know how I feel about stereotypes and representation/misrepresentation. Weirdly juxtaposing African entertainment in such a setting speaks volumes to me. How blacks, Africans in particular, are portrayed in popular entertainment is probably one of the reasons that when I’m in a group, people expect me to entertain them (and I honestly wish I was joking); after all I’m the one who is supposed to have “soul” and “sass” (both terms people have used to describe me and other black people). Well, the media and other entertainment definitely perpetuates this. The “exotic” sells, does it not? I for one am quite fed up with the way Africans are portrayed, so uni-dimensionally. It definitely comes of as tokenism, something I hope to address in a future post.