Eclectic local theater splits with Ames Center

‘Mulatto’ controversy
a factor in split

After nine seasons and nearly 50 productions at Burnsville’s Ames Center, an chameleon-webeclectic south metro theater company is ending its relationship with the venue after its current season.

In announcing the separation last week, Chameleon Theatre Circle cited Ames Center management’s decision to “disallow” a play with the word “mulatto” in the title.

The play — “Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales” by mixed-race actor, director and playwright Duck Washington — is one of six shows Chameleon proposed for its 2017-18 season in the center’s 150-seat black box theater.

Chameleon has been a staple in the black box since the center opened in 2009 — its “anchor tenant” or “resident company,” said Andrew Troth, the company’s executive producer.

The dispute over the play title is one of multiple reasons Chameleon and center management were unable to agree on a slate and schedule of shows next season, Troth said. The company’s board acted in February to end the relationship.

“We have seen our job at Chameleon as choosing which titles we want to do and then deciding how they fit into the slots that are available,” he said. “Chameleon repeated that process as usual with the expectation that we would present something that the Ames Center would sign off on. That simply turned out not to be the case this time.”

While scheduling differences between the two sides contributed to the dissolution, management does object to “mulatto” and asked Chameleon to remove it from the title, Ames Center Executive Director Brian Luther said.

“Mulatto” is a derogatory term considered offensive, said Luther, who manages the center for the city-contracted VenuWorks company. Luther said he consulted with city staff.

“The intent was not to censor or disallow them from doing the production,” he said. “I have no concern with the content of it. It instead just comes down to one word in the title. We have to be aware of that because that word in the title is going to be on our marquee and our publications and can be deemed offensive by people who are going to see that.”

In an open letter on Facebook, the playwright acknowledged that “mulatto” — a label for someone with a white and a black parent — “is deemed by many to be a derogatory word as its origins stem from a Spanish or Portugese word for mule, which is the cross between a horse and a donkey.”

“This show does not ignore the word’s derogatory origins and in fact addresses them in the first few minutes of the show,” wrote Washington, of Minneapolis. “In a large way discussing those origins is a lot of what the show is about. As a person who is both black and white, it is a word I still hear even if it isn’t quite as present in modern vernacular.”

Chameleon recruited him to mount the “humorous but heartfelt” play, in which he stars, as part of its 2017-18 season, Washington wrote. Productions at the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater in Minneapolis in 2015 and at last summer’s Minnesota Fringe Festival were successful critically and financially, he wrote.

“What I can tell you with certainty is I think it’s a great show, and I really wanted Chameleon to be able to produce it,” Troth said. “I don’t join in any way discomfort over the use of the word in the title.”

Growing demand for the black box — including from dance-competition promoters who have begun migrating from the venue’s 1,000-seat main theater — made it difficult for management and Chameleon to agree on the 2017-18 schedule, Luther said.

“We have a high demand from our dance-competition promoters, who are essentially almost outgrowing the facility and need space and are willing to rent that space from us,” Luther said.

He also suggested that Chameleon could sell more tickets by presenting more plays with broad appeal. The center’s recent seasonal agreements with the 19-year-old company stipulate that half the shows have recognizable titles with strong sales potential, Luther said.

“I want the strong sales for any user of the space,” he said.

Losing Chameleon won’t have a significant impact on the center’s revenue, Luther said.

In the 2015-16 season, the company paid management about $35,000 in rent and reimbursement for staff expenses, according to Jim Vogel, Chameleon’s treasurer. About half of that is expenses the center probably won’t incur anymore, he said.

What’s next for Chameleon?

“We’re not disbanding,” Troth said. “I’m looking for a reduced number of shows (in 2017-18) at what will probably be two or three different venues, not in Burnsville. There’s really nowhere else to go in Burnsville.”

Before coming to the Ames Center, Chameleon had a vagabond existence in venues ranging from the basement of the old Benchwarmer Bob’s on Burnsville Parkway to churches, schools and the Lakeville Area Arts Center.

“Chameleon was borne out of a desire to do theater in the suburbs that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in the suburbs,” Troth said. “We have carried through on those two components of our identity ever since — that we exist in the south metro and we do the shows we choose to do.”

The company has three left in its current season: “Side Show” March 31 through April 23, “Arcadia” June 2-11 and “Mom! The Musical” May 11-14.