Uptighty Whiteys - Cleetus Friedman
THE CULTURE CLUB
When Cleetus Friedman let the N word
drop on his Lake Forest High School
audience. they drop-kicked him right off
Author: Deanna Isaacs Date: April 26, 2002 Appeared
in Section 2Word count: 1137
Cleetus Friedman got to talking with a
stranger at a Chicago restaurant last year and
wound up with an invitation to perform at
Lake Forest High School's annual Dimensions program--a two-day showcase that brings
people in from all walks of life to share their work with students. Friedman, who is white,
practices something he calls hip-hop theater--a combination of rap and humorous
character sketches laced with strong language. He says he discussed the language thing
with his Dimensions contact and dropped anything gratuitous from "Crackers," his latest
one-man-and-a-DJ show, before taking it to Lake Forest. A Baltimore transplant who'd
never ventured to the far reaches of the North Shore, Friedman was impressed: "I thought
we were pulling up to a country club," he says. "It was the high school."
Friedman had been hired to do two 45-minute performances back-to-back. He had
planned a 30-minute show (including bits like "Jewpac & Dr. Dreidel" and "Here Comes
the Cracker") followed by 15 minutes of Q and A, and the first performance seemed to go
off without a hitch. But halfway through the second, just after his "W.I.T.E. Radio"
sketch, a couple of faculty heavies showed up to tell him he was through. "W.I.T.E.
Radio" consists of an exchange between a white disc jockey and a black caller concerned
about the DJ's pronunciation of "nigger." "That's n-i-g-g-a," the caller says.
"The point [of the sketch] is that it's wrong no matter how you say it," says Friedman.
"But the students heard the word 'nigger' and just flipped out and [complained to
teachers]. I had passed out a mailing list, and somebody on the faculty thought I was
starting a white supremacist group. So they confiscated my list and ripped the pages out-failing to even understand that I'm Jewish. I was floored. I walked back out and said I
wanted to talk about it, and it sparked a 15- or 20-minute debate, which was a good
thing." But in the end, Friedman says, things were unresolved; some people there still
think his social satire is racist. When he volunteered to return for more discussion he says
his contact on the parent-run program suggested "to make things better I could send them
a donation to pay somebody to come in and talk about racial profiling. My ass. Lake
Forest asking me to send them money? That's a joke right there."
Friedman got the hook because "the language and themes didn't fit our program," says
Lake Forest's assistant principal, Jay Hoffmann. "A lot of the younger kids jumped to
some wrong conclusions. Several black students were offended. I had quite a few calls
the next day, including one man who said he was affiliated with the NAACP and was
keeping track of what we're doing."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon
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