On June 11, ten days before the first performances of Mary Zimmerman's much-anticipated new show, The Jungle Book, at the Goodman Theatre, Silk Road Rising artistic director Jamil Khoury fired a missive into the blogosphere that got the attention of the local theater community by blasting the writer-director.
Khoury, whose theater in the Chicago Temple is just down the street from the Goodman, had run across a Chicago magazine interview with Zimmerman that touched a nerve. The essay he penned in response accused the Tony Award winner and MacArthur Foundation "genius" of "reckless, unexamined Orientalism" in her work and "shocking" insensitivity in her comments, which, he implied, must have sprung from a well of "white" and "American" privilege.
Within hours Khoury found himself engulfed in the fallout.
At that point, of course, he hadn't seen the show, a musical based more on Disney's 1967 animated film than on Rudyard Kipling's late-19th-century stories. His problem with Zimmerman stemmed from his previous experience with her work. One incident in particular stood out.
In 2007, when Khoury's company was hosting a conference of south Asian theater professionals, he'd taken a couple dozen attendees to a performance of a Zimmerman play at the Goodman. The piece was Mirror of the Invisible World, an adaptation of the Haft Paykar, a 12th-century Persian romance, which seemed like a felicitous choice for the group. But, Khoury wrote in his essay, "Minutes into the play, my heart sank. Before our eyes was 'Orientalism Live on Stage and With a Vengeance!' Or 'How to Take Every Stereotype of Asian and Middle Eastern People and Cram Them Into One Play.'" At intermission, "we conference organizers faced a near mutiny."
That was excruciating, Khoury says, but it provided fodder for discussion at the conference. In his own mind, he filed it away, as he did some of Zimmerman's other work (2005's Silk, for example) as "irritating" and "unsophisticated" if "well intended." But when he saw the magazine interview, "all these ideas I'd had about her work crystallized," he says, and it hit him: "She actually owns this stuff," he said to himself. "She boasts about it."
Interviewer Catey Sullivan had asked Zimmerman how she was handling Kipling's "racism and misogyny." Kipling's politics were "pretty terrible," Zimmerman replied, but he "came by them honestly." She also said that her travels in India (her team went there to research the play) revealed that no one is "sitting around moping about the Raj," which, anyway, was "so short in the history of the country."
In answer to a question about the most contentious aspect of the Disney film, the portrayal of orangutan leader King Louie, which, Sullivan noted, "has been criticized as playing into racial stereotypes," Zimmerman replied, "I've decided to make it not a concern."
"Look at the original—it's sung by Louis Prima," Zimmerman added. "He's the King of the Swingers. It's something I think where the racism is in the eye of the beholder, you know? If you look at that as racist, doesn't that say more about what you're projecting on to the character?"
She also opined that there might be a surplus of righteous indignation around.
All of which sent Khoury—whose father grew up in French-occupied Syria and whose theater company has a mission of social activism—into his own righteous frenzy, comparing her logic to "how our judicial system has historically protected rapists."
"I am calling Zimmerman out," he wrote, "in the hopes that Chicago theatre makers and theatre goers can begin a conversation."
The day after his essay was posted, Khoury says, he got a message that Zimmerman wanted to get together with him. A day after that, Khoury and his partner, Silk Road executive director Malik Gillani, met her over a cup of coffee, and found themselves, Khoury wrote, "to put it mildly, enormously impressed."
Zimmerman, whose MO includes not beginning her scripts until rehearsals are under way, reportedly doesn't follow social media or read reviews. She hadn't looked at his essay or the Chicago magazine interview, and didn't want to. But, he says, she listened, and responded with "integrity" and "honesty." In a follow-up post, Khoury did something of an about-face, noting that their "approaches to storytelling and cultural representation are markedly different. . . . But after meeting with Mary it became abundantly clear that the bridge between our worlds is a shared humanism and a shared love of stories."
To set the record straight, Khoury included Zimmerman's e-mailed answers to a list of questions he'd given her. While she didn't deny saying it, she "disavowed" the phrase "racism is in the eye of the beholder." What she'd meant, she wrote, was that the attribution of one race or another to the Disney film's King Louie—an animated drawing of an animal—was something that happened in the mind of the person looking at it. She maintained that the character "was in fact conceived for and voiced by Louis Prima," a white man. And she wrote that her comments were part of "a much longer conversation," which, according to her "understanding," had been excised in the published interview.
But Chicago magazine executive editor Cassie Walker Burke says the piece got a minimal edit for clarity, and the content is intact. "We did not take any context out," Walker Burke says.
And Richard M. Sherman, who with his brother Robert wrote the songs for the film (and scads of other Disney projects), recently told the New York Times that King Louie's showstopper of a song, "I Wanna Be Like You," was written specifically for Louis Armstrong. Prima only got the part because Disney was worried about the racial implications of casting a black man in the role. So film audiences who have understood the character to be Satchmo were not mistaken.
Last week, as the dust began to settle, Khoury said that if he had known Zimmerman before he wrote the essay, "it would have been a different piece." But he doesn't regret it. He says the most troubling thing to come of it were the many e-mails he got from people who said they've wanted to speak up about similar situations but were afraid of the consequences. "That's sad," he says. "Now, at least, we've started a conversation."
He was looking forward to a congenial Saturday dinner with Gillani and their new friend Mary Zimmerman.