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The Wooster Group's Route 1 and 9 (The Last Act)

The Wooster Group, a New York City performance company, comes together in the mid-1970s under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte and actors Willem Dafoe, Spalding Gray, Peyton Smith, Kate Valk, and Ron Vawter. As Dafoe later describes it, the experimental group aims to create a theater disconnected from absolutes of text and psychology, theater that speaks to an age "where we can talk on the phone, look out the window, watch TV, and be typing a letter at the same time..." LeCompte and the company use a collage of audio, video, and spoken word to re-invent well-known plays, at times speaking the dialogue at music-driven, machine-gun speed.

In 1981, the company presents Route 1 and 9 (The Last Act) based on Thornton Wilder's 1938 classic Our Town, a play frequently presented by amateur theater groups and schools. The Wooster Group smashes this piece with a vaudeville routine by African American comedian, "Pigmeat" Markham.

While videotaped excerpts of Our Town play on overhead monitors, the white male actors don exaggerated blackface and play the roles of stagehands who must build a house on stage. Loudspeakers broadcast a real phone conversation of two women as they try to order fried chicken from a series of uptown take-out restaurants. The onstage scene devolves into a Markham routine, using scatological humor, set at a party in which the men and the two women, also in blackface, have to leave the party to "send a telegram" (a euphemism for defecating in your pants) because Pigmeat (Vawter) has slipped castor oil into the punch.

Some critics understand the piece as an effort to expose the racist assumptions contained under the prim surface of Our Town, because Wilder's idealized world is not common to everyone. In LeCompte's view, Markham's use of blackface as "both a...painful representation of blacks and also wild, joyous, and nihilistic and, therefore, freeing."

The extreme racial images on stage scandalize some audiences and critics, including many in the progressive press who have long been defenders of the company. "I couldn't bear being implicated in something so asocial and mean," the Village Voice critic Erika Munk complains. In 1982, the New York State Council on the Arts rescinds the company's funding by 43 percent, more than the production of Route 1 and 9 has cost. It judges the blackface sequences to be "harsh and caricatured portrayals of a racial minority."

The Wooster Group goes on to produce acclaimed deconstructions of plays by Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov, and Gertrude Stein. In 1991, the Village Voice awards Elizabeth LeCompte its OBIE Award for 15 years of sustained excellence. The National Endowment for the Arts gives her its Distinguished Artists Fellowship for Lifetime Achievement. In 1995, she wins a MacArthur Fellowship. That same year, the Wooster Group's version of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones stars a cross-dressing Kate Valk in blackface. It sparks no controversy.

The image is a black and white production photograph showing a man in blackface lifting one leg in front of his face and holding his arms out. Ron Vawter in Route 1 and 9 (The Last Act), The Wooster Group, 1981, New York. Photo by: Nancy Campbell.

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