Let’s not knee-jerk our way through the ‘blacking up’ debate

Lorna Brown, Lucian Msamati, Martin Freeman and Sophie Thompson in the 2010 production of Clybourne Park at the Royal Court, London
Andrew Haydon
Andrew Haydon is a freelance theatre critic based in Manchester. He has written for the Guardian, Nachtkritik.de, Frakcija, Kultrpunkt.hr, Szinhaz.hu and Exeunt, among others. He blogs at Postcards from the Gods.
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So, earlier this month, provocative white US playwright Bruce Norris withdrew the rights to perform his play about racial tension, Clybourne Park, from Berlin’s Deutsches Theater. He did so because he was concerned that the director had cast a white actor in one of two parts where the character is specifically black.

Norris said: “After much evasion, justification and rationalising of their reasons, they finally informed me that the colour of the actress’ skin would ultimately be irrelevant, since they intended to ‘experiment with make-up’. At this point, I retracted the rights to the production.”

An open and shut case, you might think, but I would argue that this obscures several issues which are worth trying to understand.

We might first note that there’s nothing to indicate that the Deutsches Theater director, so far as we’ve been told, did actually intend to use ‘blackface’ at all. “Experiment with make-up” could just as well have meant precisely that. The actor in question could have ended up naked and painted blue to signify the ‘otherness’ that the white playwright’s script demands. Equally, having “experimented with make-up” the production team might have concluded that none should be used, and that the actor would have gone on stage white, and his character’s properties of ‘blackness’ would have had to have been imagined by the audience. I have seen both things done – an Asian actor at the West Yorkshire Playhouse playing Ariel to Sir Ian McKellan’s Prospero was painted blue, while two white Germans – one male, one female – played Othello (at the Schaubuhne and Deutsches Theater respectively) without any make-up at all.

[pullquote]For the German directors that I know, naturalistic theatre is regarded in the same bracket and with the same contempt as torchlit parades and book-burning[/pullquote]

But what if he had intended to use ‘blackface’? It is worth making a few clarifications. When Bruce Norris says ‘blackface’ he specifically invokes memories of the US and Britain’s recent, racist past. A vaudeville act in which white performers would ‘black-up’ specifically in order to present burlesques of ‘blackness’. When a German theatre director says ‘make-up’ they might intend any number of non-naturalistic devices.

It is worth noting that, for historical reasons, Germany has no such tradition of ‘blackface’. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Germany had few colonies in Africa, and played an all but non-existent role in the slave trade. As a result, Germany has a small black population compared with the UK and US. Also, while Germany committed racist mass murders in the 20th century, the Nazi genocide was directed against Jews and gypsies, not black people.

The second crucial point is theatrical: German theatre tends not to be naturalistic. The basis of this is also historical. Partly it is due to the enormous influence of Brecht, but also to history and the fact that Hitler’s favourite playwright – and Brecht’s teacher, against whom his plays were a reaction – Hanns Johst, was a committed naturalistic playwright (and the man who originally wrote the line “Whenever I hear of culture... I release the safety catch of my Browning”). For the German directors that I know, naturalistic theatre is regarded in the same bracket and with the same contempt as torchlit parades and book-burning. This isn’t an artistic choice, it is the burden of serious history.

As such, with no history of racist entertainment based on white people painting their faces black, with an anti-Nazi theatrical tradition eschewing realism, and with precious few black actors, the German position at least becomes more clear.

Indeed, at this point, Bruce Norris’ insistence that every theatre in the world that ever performs his play does so in the exact manner he has prescribed starts to look like the worst sort of tactless cultural imperialism. It also strikes me as regrettably short-sighted.

Let’s imagine briefly that the boot is on the other foot. Let’s imagine that for some reason Germany has a rule against telling racist jokes on stage and that Clybourne Park (which includes such a joke) had just been banned, or at least censored. We’d be up in arms in support of Norris’ artistic freedoms.

And let’s consider Mark Lawson’s piece in The Guardian last week in which he blithely asserts:

[blackface] would be unthinkable in Britain and America, at least in straight theatre. (It is still common in opera, where Verdi’s Otello is frequently sung by white tenors – perhaps because operatic drama continues to be regarded as a more artificial form).

At a stroke Lawson destroys any notion that this is about race and makes clear this is entirely to do with how we imagine theatre works.

Germany suffers from the same problematic casting issues as other Western nations – see the current furore over the casting of the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao (News, page 5, October 25) or the production by La Jolla Playhouse, California, of a new musical based upon Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale; both of which have been criticised for putting white actors in some of the relatively few parts written for east Asian characters. This is the problem that we need to address. There is still a tendency to unconsciously view white actors as the norm and neutral, while non-white actors are often seen as ‘other’.

It might also be worth observing in passing that Norris doesn’t appear to be half as touchy on the subject of the casting for the deaf character who appears only in the first scene, and who, thanks to having to double as a hearing character in Act II – and a lack of directorial imagination – has hitherto always been played by hearing actors.

It is now impossible to know whether the Deutsches Theater production was going to use make-up to intelligently deconstruct the problem of a white playwright writing a white play about racism (mostly for white audiences); and making black actors say his words to demonstrate his single-viewpoint, white, perspective on the world; or whether it would have transpired to be some baffling, literal-minded representation, along the same lines as a child painting their face grey and drawing whiskers on in order to symbolically represent a cat.

The furore does, however, usefully give us pause to reflect on the state of the industry at large. What does Norris dictating the terms by which his naturalistic comedies about racism are produced really tell us about the uncomfortable facts around casting? And is a naturalistic comedy written by a successful white playwright, and sold on the names of famous white actors appearing in it, really challenging anything at all?

In an interview with the Evening Standard when Clybourne Park opened in the UK, Norris said: “There’s nothing better than coming into a room and feeling that something dangerous is happening”. Unless, it seems, the dangerous thing happening is someone staging his play in a way that draws attention to the inconsistent means through which it operates.

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