On Wednesday of last week, an unexpected press release sent shock waves through the Chicago theater community: Greg Allen, creator of the Chicago staple Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, had decided not to extend the (Chicago) Neo-Futurists’ license to perform the show, letting the forthcoming New Year’s Eve performance mark the end of the shows 28-year run by the Neo-Futurists, a company Allen himself helped found.
The press release cites as Allen’s motive a plan to create a new ensemble that will use Too Much Light “to combat the Trump administration and all of its cohorts.”
And while Allen’s press release mentions the irony that the artists of Italian Futurism (of which the Neo-Futurist aesthetic is based) eventually supported Mussolini, it fails to recognize the much greater irony of the announcement itself: a white, cisgender male is declaring that only he can do Too Much Light justice in combating fascism and Donald J. Trump’s presidency—he alone can Make Too Much Light Great Again!
I have had the pleasure of seeing over 20 performances of Too Much Light by the Neo-Futurists in the past five years, and they have never ceased to be socially relevant and culturally critical, and I have no doubt that, given the opportunity, they would have continued to use Too Much Light to combat all the forces Allen proclaims he is seeking to upend.
The idea that Allen would need to discontinue the Neo-Futurists’ ability to perform Too Much Light in order to move forward in his (stated) mission speaks loudly of a scarcity mentality, a stalwart of white people thinking. The proliferation of first-person storytelling in Chicago, with dozens, if not hundreds, of outlets across the city for individuals to share their stories and ideas, would serve as a great example of how a format like Too Much Light could serve as a vehicle for multiple ensembles to speak truth to power using the Neo-Futurist aesthetic. Instead, Allen had decided that he (like our President-elect) is the one and only (man) who can save us, and that his Baby, with none other Allen himself at the helm, is the way to do it.
Allen’s decision and plan to create an ensemble “comprised entirely of people of color, LBTQ+ [sic], artist/activist women, and other disenfranchised voices” is also patronizing to the very same “disenfranchised voices” he claims a desire to empower. Allen implies that these voices are incapable of using their own theatrical methods and outlets to impact change and need Allen to “[give them] space and voice” in the “predominantly white, patriarchal Chicago theater community,” of which Allen would seem to be a shining example. (Update: even if Allen says he will not be in the show or distance himself creatively from it, his need to pull the plug on the Neo-Futurists’ production is simply an exertion of white, male power at its best/worst.)
Megan Mercier, a former Neo-Futurist Artistic Director and ensemble member, in a scathing blog post (which was later verified by current Artistic Director Kurt Chiang), noted additional ironic, if not fully hypocritical, aspects of Allen’s announcement. Mercier notes that the current, active Neo-Futurist ensemble consists “almost entirely” of individuals with the identities with which Allen plans to fill his new ensemble. Additionally, Allen’s press release cites a desire “to combat the tyranny of censorship and oppression,” yet Mercier cites a specific example of Allen’s attempt at censorship as the reason Allen received a one-year suspension from the Neo-Futurists in 2012.
Mercier notes the incident that led to his suspension consisted of Allen trying to subvert the ensemble’s established policy to eject a piece of work “about child abuse, written by a survivor of child abuse” that he found “personally offensive,” walking out of rehearsal and refusing to perform if the piece, which had already been publicly performed, was included. While he could have petitioned to rejoin the ensemble, he never did and has remained estranged from the group since. (Update: as articles below note, this was simply an example of a cycle of domineering and oppressive behavior.)
As the press release also notes, “this change in Chicago” will not affect groups in New York City and San Francisco, who will continue to perform Too Much Light. Both of those ensembles showcase similar demographics to the current Neo-Futurists, yet they hold one key distinction: Allen still holds a sway in the productions happening there, making Allen’s revocation of TML rights from Chicago’s Neo-Futurists appear all the more disingenuous.
Theater has always been at its best when it can shine light on the realities of the world around us. In this case, it was not on-stage theatrics but rather behind-the-scenes antics which will hopefully teach us that the fight against tyranny starts within ourselves. We must recognize the great abundance that exists when we join as one to cry out against injustice and oppression, wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head.
And you can read about this story in more depth and context at the links below, including this Chicago Tribune article which quotes a lot of people and provides, I think, the most comprehensive information on this event and the history that brought it about.
“End of ‘Too Much Light’ brings a longtime schism in the Neos out into the open”