Playwright Bruce Norris calls for boycott of German theatres which use blackface

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Olivier award-winning playwright Bruce Norris has removed the rights for his play Clybourne Park from a Berlin theatre, claiming the theatre intended to 'black up' a white actress to play one of the lead roles.

After learning of the Deutsches Theatre's intentions to "experiment with make-up" , Norris retracted the rights for its planned production and has written an open letter, published by the Dramatists Guild of America, calling on fellow playwrights to boycott all theatres in Germany which practice blackface, which he described as an "asinine tradition".

Norris, who won an Olivier award for best new play in 2011 for Clybourne Park, which is a satire on race relations in the US, said: "Normally I don’t meddle in the cultural politics of other countries, but when my work and the work of my colleagues – other playwrights – is misrepresented, I do. When we write plays, among other things, we are creating employment for working actors, and often we intend to employ a specific diverse body. Whatever rationale the German theatre establishment might offer for their brazenly discriminatory practice is of no interest to me. For, as little power as we playwrights have, we always retain one small power and that is the power to say no. To say, no thank you, I’d rather not have my work performed in Germany, today, under those conditions."

Meanwhile, he also encouraged other writers to sign an online petition condemning the practice and to boycott productions of their work at German theatres that employ blackface.

He added: "A zero-tolerance position is the only position to take, in my opinion, and if we are united then perhaps a few German theatres may take notice and, hopefully, in time, a better course of action."

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  1. There is currently an ongoing debate on the RSC’s facebook page about whether it’s acceptable to cast a classic Chinese play – The Orphan of Zhao – with none of the principle characters played by actors of East Asian descent.

    Can we really condemn the Germans when we’re doing the same thing?

    Food for thought….

  2. We have black people playing characters in periods when they were not in Western Europe, so why not have a White person play a black person sans black paint….

  3. Hello,

    I am from Germany. Black german-speaking actors are very scarce, since most immegrants in Germany come from other european coutries, the Middle-East or East Asia.

    In the past there were hardly any black persons in Germany, since Germany had only some african colonies for a short time. Hence, black characters, as well as other non-european characters – infact as any characters, were played by german people. There was no other was to perform plays like Othello, nativity play, or plays involving black saints.

  4. There is a massive difference in having “blacken” up to play another race and hiring an actor of a particular to play a character.

    To have to paint one’s face to portray another race is completely unacceptable. Hire a black actor to racially play a black character or change the character completely. To change a character completely is not the same action of “blacken” up. Get educated.

  5. Can anyone actually qualify what the problem here is. I’m sure myself and half the theatre would be stunned if I went to see Othello and the title character was a white actor blacked up. But so what?
    The obvious revolution is the chilling fear that it might be racist, but I don’t see where we are picking up that clue from. Blacking up and wanting to defame people born a certain colour may have historic associations, but that’s only a problem if we are willing for it to be one.
    Say if, when we sit in the theatre and wait for the first person to say “that’s racist” at the reveal of the blackened Othello, when he breaks his monologue to reply “no it’s not” then what are we left with? Where are we at that moment?

    Blacking up is not racist just as dressing as a woman is not sexist and a straight actor playing a gay role is not homophobic.

    Let’s all be honest here, if we learned that in in Malaysia they were staging My Fair Lady and it emerged that a Pacific Islander were playing Eliza Doolittle and whiting up to get the appropriate flower-girl complexion, no one would cry racist.

  6. Surley not allowing the role, written for black actors,

    “When we write plays, among other things, we are creating employment for working actors, and often we intend to employ a specific diverse body.”

    to be played by white actors is in breach of colour-blind casting?

    Whilst German theatre may not employ this mandate, if this issue were to arise in British theatre, would Norris not be seen to be in breach of this rule striving for ethnic equality and end up in an ironic paradox?

    Evidently issues concerning cultural context do arise, but then is a reevaluation of the ideology behind the production and its desired reception is waranted?

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