Derek “Duck” Washington is a local theater artist and fellow geek. He moved to the Minneapolis area in 1995 and has been doing theater here ever since, working in a variety of roles with Blackout Improv, Fearless Comedy, Vilification Tennis, and more. Besides theater, Duck geeks out over Star Wars (so much so that he says he keeps it in an IV in his arm so he can take it anywhere he goes) and Dungeons & Dragons (he was one of the stars of Thac0, a film all about D&D).
Earlier this spring, a play that Duck wrote unintentionally stirred up some big controversy in the city of Burnsville. Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales had already had two previous successful runs, the first put on by Fearless Comedy Productions in 2015 and the second at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, where it became the 10th highest-grossing show. The play is a series of sketches inspired by Duck’s experiences growing up as half black and half white; some are autobiographical while others are more fictional.
The title skit is one of the more fictionalized ones. It centers on two highly intelligent pandas who have escaped from a testing lab where all the scientists were white; the pandas have developed a hatred for “Whitey” and are killing every white person they come across. When they meet Duck, however, they don’t quite know whether to eat him or not, and they ask him to perform various tests to prove his blackness. While in real life Duck has never met superintelligent pandas with a thirst for white blood, being asked to prove his blackness was nothing new to him.
When the Chameleon Theatre Circle asked Duck if the group could coproduce his show as part of its 2017–2018 season, he was happy to say yes—that is, until the Ames Center, which had been Chameleon’s home for many years, and the city of Burnsville stepped in to veto the show.
It wasn’t the content of the show that they had issue with, but the title. Specifically, one word of the title: mulatto. Duck admits that it isn’t a very nice word, noting, “It derives from the Portuguese word for mule, which is an animal that is half horse and half donkey. It has been used to describe people who are half black and half white.” (He says he’s never been on the receiving end of it himself, which is more than he can say for the n-word.) When asked whether he would change the title for the Ames Center performance, however, he said no.
“I gave the term a lot of thought, and it was not advantageous to change it,” he explained. “Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas is about my identity and being mixed race or biracial, and it speaks about other people’s identities. The word mulatto is connected to the show for a reason, and it gets addressed in the first couple minutes of the show. Besides, I didn’t get any complaints from my previous runs.”
Duck wrote many letters attempting to explain this: to the director of the Ames Center, the Burnsville City Council, the city attorney, and the mayor. When he got no response, he posted to Facebook. He got a lot of support, and soon organizations started asking for interviews about this act of censorship, which is how Duck describes it. He said, “I had a story to tell that was important to the people of the city of Burnsville. Because they were uncomfortable with the word mulatto, I was denied the right to tell my story, thoughts, and ideas to the city of Burnsville.” He went on to say that “there’s not a lot of diversity on that stage, and they shut down the voice of a person color for voices that were more comfortable.”
Thankfully, this story ends on a couple of positive notes. One is that Duck had great support throughout this whole ordeal from both Fearless Comedy and Chameleon Theatre Circle, which has left the Ames Center partially due to its decision. The second is that Burnsville’s loss is another city’s gain: on May 4, the Chameleon Theatre Circle announced that as part of its 20th season, it will be bringing Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas to Bloomington together with Fearless Comedy. You can catch the show at the Bloomington Center for the Arts in June 2018. In the meantime, Duck is directing Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia for Chameleon, running June 2–11, 2017. Click here for more information.