“New Worlds: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends,” or, White Privilege Ruins the Party Again

The Chicago Theatre.

There should be a shorthand word for the loss of fidelity you feel when you’re sure that someone you’ve always considered a hero doesn’t speak for you any longer. There should be another word for trying to watch your old favorite movies, then cringing after seeing the face of a once beloved figure who conducted themselves poorly in the public eye. Language hasn’t caught up with our many disappointments, so until we can zero in on something for my specific form of disillusionment, I’m going to name mine after the guy who inspired it:

Bill Murray (verb)

  1. To perform literary works that contain considerable racial slurs & silencing of women for an unwitting audience.
  1. To insist on reading dialog spoken by characters of color in what could be described as an

offensive, cartoonish accent.  

  1. To make the call on behalf of audience members that the value of the literature performed far outweighs the way insensitive language may make you feel.

I’ll use it in a sentence: “The performance of ‘New Worlds’ I attended had so much Bill Murraying, I got disgusted and left.” This statement is both true in my case, and grammatically sound. “New Worlds: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends” which ran at the Chicago Theater, and will soon tour international shores, is a master class on alienating your audience with a bait and switch. We’re first dazzled with the promise of an evening of fine music and literature, then left scratching our heads about what would prompt Bill Murray to read selections that feature prominent misogyny and plentiful racial slurs. Murray’s chosen pieces were from Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, presumably because they are the titans of American literature. But as for what prompted him to choose the polarizing selections he read … your guess is as good as mine.

As acting curator, Murray chooses to divulge very little about what he and his collaborators (musicians Jan Vogler, Mira Wang and Vanessa Perez) will be performing. Near the top of the show, he assumed Chicago audience members “must be wondering if they’ve come to the right show.” And that is one way to be irreverent about what fans may be expecting from a comedy icon, but it’s also a way to avoid accountability for the design and reception of an evening not really considered from an audience perspective. It’s as if he’d like to pin any fan disappointment on differing tastes, which would be impossible for him to navigate. But I’m a disappointed fan, and my disappointment doesn’t stem from taste; on the contrary, I can’t get enough of essayists and deep cuts from American songbooks. No, it’s not that.

Where Bill Murray and I differ is what we consider appropriate to be staged. We differ in our definitions on what is racially insensitive. We differ on what casual sexism and racism should be construed as poignant and not troubling in 2018. We differ in our definitions on what is art worth revisiting right now, especially when someone could be treated to a late 19th century slur on a Tuesday this week. If Murray had the capacity to understand the embarrassment and anger his choice of words provoked, would he have chosen them?

Don’t worry, ye advocates of the devil, who may choose to read this piece as a call to silence artists, or censor the artistic choices at your disposal. Think of this less as a matter or censorship, and more as a matter of  empathy. For instance, would Murray have chosen to read from Hemingway’s “A Movable Feast” if he had known it had the capacity to make me, a female audience member, feel angry and embarrassed?  The context and the history I should be appreciating is moot if I am distracted completely by the knowledge that somewhere, to this day, an author can still reduce me to a pair of breasts and demand my silence, just like Hemingway’s Pascin does of his female consorts. And if you were wondering if Hemingway takes any time to stereotype people of Asian descent in this piece? He does, and Murray considers it worth a mention. It’s a luxury to have the remove that Murray does from this material. It doesn’t have any power to hurt him.

Likewise, I can’t begin to fathom what it is like for a person of color to sit through a reading from Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” Sure, the piece gets to its abolitionist point, but only after a lot of slurs. The n-word that dots Twain’s pages has dropped any illusion of 1880’s gentility, and blossomed into full vileness no matter how it may exit the mouth of a white person. Murray’s style of narration for the character Jim in particular was the sort of broad, imbecilic read that would have made Al Jolson proud.

The only valid criticism I can levy is my own,  and I’ve never come away from anything as dejected as I did from this. By the time we got to Twain, my eyes were superglued to my shoes as I waited for him to get it over with. I haven’t left a performance mid-way through like that in over a decade.

Maybe our discomfort is the point, but there’s no history of Murray acting as a provocateur to suggest that. It’s far more likely that he hasn’t given his selections thought beyond what would be fun to read. But he’s asking a great deal of his patrons of color and female patrons, when he asks us to find our poignancy buried somewhere in the mountain of the white male gaze. I just have one question for him: why?

Far be it from me to try and tell actor, comedy great, and self-proclaimed American folk hero Bill Murray what to do with with his limitless creative options. The devotion he instills in fans across the globe ensures that whatever project he fancies will get off the ground. I have counted myself among his most die-hard fans for many years, but “New Worlds” is hard to forget, harder to forgive, and probably will leave an awful taste in my mouth long after his next stint at the multiplex.