Kimmel and Kanye’s Theatre of Oppression

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As if it were possible to keep up with the endless newscycle of the day, one particular story caught my eye tonight in the endless stream of Syria-Cyrus-and-Shutdowns. Late-night show host Jimmy Kimmel executed a flawless critique of rap impresario Kanye West’s pleasantly absurd BBC interview by reading back the exact transcript, acted out with children playing Kanye and the interviewer.

It’s reminiscent of Tina Fey’s impersonation of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, where in lampooning the Maverick, she employed direct quotes and costuming that were right on the money.

The absurdity of Kimmel’s bit invoked an all too expected outlash from Mr. West, with the hip hop mogul tweeting threats and admonishing the comedian’s on-point commentary. A word of advice I heard somewhere: never heckle a comedian. You’re playing with fire.

Watching this unfold on social media brought up an old lesson from college, from my very first quarter at UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures. In the class, we were studying Augusto Boal’s methodology, “Theatre of the Oppressed,” in which the author/teacher/politician/advocate describes  ways of activating the world around you into a stage show for truth and justice.

“Brazilian director and dramatist who believed theatre should be a force for radical change” – The Guardian, Obituary of Augusto Boal

One method is called “Newspaper Theatre” and entails a variety of ways to take a news story and flip it on its head. From acting it out in person, to reading two contradictory stories back to back, all of the games are a way to bring some humanity to the mediums which so gracefully pull out any sort of emotion or realism.

My Freshman year, I took on the task of performing the former Chancellor of UCLA’s ludicrous and out-of-touch letter to the student body following the horrific and blatantly racist tazing of a graduate student at Powell Library. In the response, Chancellor Norm Abrams does his best to temper the drama unfolding, but sounds childish and lacking assurance. In the performance for my peers, I took my blanket and pillow from my dorm room, plopped down on the floor and read his written statement as if I was writing it in my childhood diary.

It was an exercise in a simple reading of Newspaper Theatre, which Boal describes below:

   1.    “Simple reading: the news item is read detaching it from the context of the newspaper, from the format which makes it false or tendentious.”

When Kanye’s words are taken out of context, when they are stripped from the swagger and opulence with which the cultural luminary sees himself, it truly is absurd, and it does poorly to address the bigger socio-racial implications. Kanye West wants to be respected in the larger cultural sphere; Yeezus is making an argument for his impact on the world-at-large, but his examples of leather running pants and Maybachs further amplify the rest of the world’s opinion of an ego-driven pop star with a guilt behind his incredible wealth and success.

Kimmel’s portrayal chops Kanye off at the knees, and it must be infuriating to go on and on fightingcritics who won’t take your art seriously. And Kanye produces some of the best hip hop in the game. I wanted to hate Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and I scoffed at the 22 minute music video that accompanied the release. But every time I watch the Runaway video — with Kanye standing atop the white piano, the wounded birds, the truly innovative ballet choreography being broadcast into the mainstream — I have to admit it’s brilliant.

So the problem remains that Kanye fails to have a sense of humor about himself. With the fame and fortune he’s amassed, he surely must have learned the lesson that the world has him in their crosshairs. And he can make himself into a pariah, a self-loathing martyr to the cause of style and hip-hop, casting himself upon the cross with custom Nikes at his feet… But the world knows the truth about Yeezus. And we’re reminded each time he opens his mouth. As it was written by a man much smarter than I in a year many years ago:

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

William Shakespeare, As You Like It

So what should we do with Kanye West? Should we give him the attention he wants? Shun him with our silence? I think Jimmy Kimmel’s writing staff has it correct in using his edifice as a canvas with which to make derivative art. In watching the Kimmel sketch, it’s clear that it isn’t mean-hearted at its soul. Kanye’s gonna keep doin’ what Kanye does.

There’ll always be somebody that shoots down any dream/There’ll always be haters, that’s the way it is…

Kanye West, Bring Me Down

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