The Audience’s Role in Theater

In class on Tuesday, we read the beginning of Susan-Lori Parks’ play, Imperceptible Mutabilities. Parks sets up a situation that forces the audience to think about their role as observers in theater, literature, or other forms of art. Mona, Chona, and Verona are watching  Wild Kingdom which is a documentary series where the host “Marlin Perkins explores various animals in their natural habitats.” The naturalist/Dr. Lutsky is observing them as they watch Perkins. We are then witnessing all of these interactions on the page (or on stage). In my reading of this play, Parks is commenting on the relationship between the viewer and the performer and the inevitable involvement of the audience in the show simply by having seen it.

I noticed this when Molly/Mona said “the-cock-roach-is-watching-us,-look-Chona-look! Once there was uh me named Mona who wondered what she’d talk like if no one was listenin.” Here Molly/Mona is acknowledging that the cockroach is watching her which is a reference to the ‘fly on the wall’ that we discussed in class. Maybe she only thinks the cockroach is watching or maybe she is aware of the naturalist/Dr. Lutsky observing them too. In my reading, this was Parks’ way of breaking the fourth wall and forcing us to think about our role as the “one[s] watching.” Molly/Mona also comments that when she went to hit the cockroach, it “diduhnt move uh muscle even. Dont even have no muscles. Only eyes.” To me, this is again referencing the audience’s role in what they see, even if it seems like they are just watching.

So what role does the audience play? I think viewers can be active or passive. Active viewers think about what is being presented to them through a critical lens. Passive viewers absorb what they see and incorporate what they are “learning” about into their world views. People can perpetuate stereotypes that they have heard/seen over and over. Repetition without revision leads to a single story, which as Chimamanda Adichie points out, can be very dangerous. This can be especially dangerous when the viewers of a piece are passive. When I was thinking over these ideas, my mind drifted to The Lion King whose viewers are mostly children and therefore tend to be more impressionable.

In Disney’s attempt to be more diverse, they made movies to represent a wide array of countries (Mulan, Pocahontas, The Lion King…). The Lion King is the only depiction of Africa that Disney has presented to children, and it only shows animals. The implications of this “single story” are that Africa is an uncivilized grassland, possibly even relating Africans to being primitive and animalistic. There are many other problematic aspects to this movie which I have thought about quite a bit as an active viewer. I remember when I was a kid, though, and I loved this movie. Back then, I didn’t think much at all about the representation of an entire continent in one film. While there are grasslands and animals in Africa, this was the only story I was told (along with the endless photos of Africa which all seem to be the same).

I definitely agree with Emily Tsoi about The Necessity for Diversity in Children’s Literature and I think this aligns with children’s movies as well. We cannot rely on everyone to be an active viewer so perhaps we just need active producers. Dr. McCoy said in class that Imperceptible Mutabilities was a direct response to A Raisin in the Sun. The characters in this play have a single view of what Africans are like based on the one African man they meet. Perhaps Parks is responding to this idea and making us (the viewers) aware of the impact that we have even when it seems like we are just watching.


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