Blackface/black faces ~ theatre notes

Friday, June 22, 2007

Blackface/black faces

Serendipity rules. Hot on the heels of a debate in the comments on my review of Bell Shakespeare's Othello, in which Anon outlined his objections to an Aboriginal Othello and his regret at the passing of blackfaced, classically-trained white actors, Mr Excitement alerts me to a Los Angeles Times article by US playwright Neil LaBute in which he calls for "colourblind" casting. "In these troubled times," opines Mr LaBute, "the man [Olivier] would never be allowed to put on blackface and play that role. Hell, he wouldn't be allowed to perform it if he went out in a strawberry-blond wig and clown makeup."

LaBute finishes up appealing to the imaginative autonomy of theatre, an argument with which I have some sympathy.

This is not an argument about opportunity or imbalance; all I'm asking is that you let the theater, that last bastion of illusion — a place of magic and hope and imagination — remain exactly that. The stuff that dreams are made of.

But the fact remains that theatre is an impure art, deeply embedded in its time and place, and LaBute's appeal reflects - as several others point out - his own privileged time, place and social position, and not the transcendent and universalist notion of Art that he seems to claim. As you might imagine, his article stirred up a nest of hornets, one of the stingiest being Asian-American blogger Bamboo Nation.

LaBute seems to think that one of the creative community's greatest travesties of justice is that Brad Pitt can't paint his face black and star in A Raisin in the Sun. Is this what we're really concerned about in the arts? In reference to Laurence Olivier playing Othello in blackface in the 1960s, LaBute laments, "In these troubled times, the man would never be allowed to put on blackface and play that role." I know, Neil, and while we're at it I might add that, in these troubled times, we would also never be allowed to have racial segregation and have people use different drinking fountains.

It also sparked a bunch of angry letters to the LA Times, including this doozy from LA actor/writer Ken Narasaki:

Neil LaBute's made a living as a misogynist (and misanthropic) playwright, skewering "political correctness" by asserting his right, as an angry male, to be a jerk. I suppose it was simply a matter of time before he decided to stand up for white actors against their colored oppressors. After all, who can argue that "when great actors are denied great roles on the stage because of their skin color, there's a problem"?...

White people have played people of color for generations, and look what they've done: For every Olivier, there are dozens of Mickey Rooneys; for every Othello, there are hundreds of minstrel shows, Charlie Chans, Mikados.

I too wish for a day when our stages could be truly colorblind. Maybe that'll be commonplace in American theater in our lifetimes, and maybe then American theater truly could be called American theater. But for now, I'd have to say that the "caste system" in American theater is still very firmly in place, and white actors are most definitely not on the bottom.

Which all-in-all gives a pretty fascinating glimpse into racial politics in US theatre. I'm quite certain there are parallels here, while at the same time I can't help thinking that there are crucial differences. One being, for example, the specificity of Indigenous experience in contemporary Australia.

However, to get back to theatre: it got me thinking about whether it would be at all possible now to cast a white actor as Othello. I hesitate to claim it would be impossible - art has a way of instantly disproving sweeping statements - but it would be, to say the least, very difficult. Quite apart from the question of so-called PC sensitivities, it couldn't but look ridiculous to contemporary audiences - something the RSC seemed to recognise, for instance, by not performing the play on its main stage between 1985 and 1999, because it wasn't prepared to black up a white actor. Social mores change, and theatre conventions change with them.

And thinking back, the only time I've seen blackface on stage recently was in Russell Dykstra's outrageously offensive piss-take of Australian racism in Michael Watts' Not Like Beckett. And in that performance, blackface was instantly recognisable as the code of an outmoded racism (I'm not saying that racism is outmoded, sadly; simply that the cossies change). It's hard to see it working in any serious performance. I'm curious to hear further thoughts...


Abe Pogos said...

"it got me thinking about whether it would be at all possible now to cast a white actor as Othello"

Patrick Stewart played Othello in Washington DC. in 1997. He did it without blackface, but instead basically reversed the casting so he was virtually the only white actor in a mostly black cast. There was no change to the language so the stage convention was that his character was still a black man, and the black performers were playing white people.

One wonders whether this muddied the racial subtext in the play, or revealed it with greater clarity.

A review of it can be found here (though it says very little about the racial themes in the play):

Anonymous said...

Dear Blue Stocking.
I stopped the my contributions when you seemed to have misread my comments about the Aboriginal Othello.
What I don't think I made clear was that in my mind an Aboriginal (i.e. native Australian) making to the exalted rank that Othello enjoyed didn't wax it with me. Sure Aboriginals served in the armed forces just like they serve in every part of our society. But historically they get sold short, they might get promised a few quid like the black trackers that helped the police catch Ned Kelly or a medal or an honourable mention somewhere for service during the first and second World Scrurmishes but not promoted to posts of command. That was part of the audience chatter pre, during and post the performance I attended and I thought it odd.

And I do not 'regret at the passing of blackfaced, classically-trained white actors'. I regret at the passing of classically trained actors.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Abe - I was idly musing about various castings - Othello and Iago as both black, for instance, or a white Othello in a black cast - and wondering what they might do. So it's interesting to hear that it's been done. You could imagine both - muddying the racial subtext, or clarifying it - depending on the production.

And hi Anon - I do wish I had a name to call you by. Welcome back. I'm sorry if I misrepresented your comments. (There's a link so people can check for themselves what you did say). To be fair, you did mention several blackface productions of Othello that you admired.

For my part, the question of whether an Aboriginal man could be commander of a Venetian navy didn't occur to me at all. Quite patently, it's historically impossible. But I was watching the play Othello, not a documentary, and as I said, for me Blair's Aboriginality was a fascinating and subtle sub-text that illuminated the play. Yes, sometimes one could wish for a more polished technical proficiency among some Australian actors - though I'd argue there's some very accomplished actors on these sea-girt shores - but the fact remains that Olivier's style, great as his achivement is, looks old-fashioned and often a bit quaint to the contemporary eye.

(Blue Stocking? I suppose I should realise that over-education leads to ugliness, premature aging and beard growth...

Anonymous said...

Sorry to have called you blue stocking, it was at best a back-handed compliment and, although I am aware of all of the negative stuff that was associated with Blue Stockings, I did not infer any of it.

Just to finally clarify my thoughts on that Othello. I was not questioning as such who and why a Koorie could be in middle ages Venice. Audience members and myself were musing about the paralell you just can't help making about the attitude towards Aboriginals and I just simply thought that one could never get to that rank in the first place.

I dug out my very old and worn video of Olivier's Othello and watched it and, yes, what was the greatest acting of the time looks very stagy and mannered (Derek Jacobi* once said that acting styles are a product of each decade).
I was still mightily impressed and the tragedy is all the greater because the great man is such a tower of strength and so well adapted to the ways of his Western/Christian society and yet is brought down so utterly and terribly by Iago.

* who acted Cassio in Olivier's version

My name is Mikael

Anonymous said...

Leaving aside important issues about racism, one problem with casting a white actor in black roles using phony contrivances like blackface is that in my limited experience, it is patently obvious that you are watching a white actor with a blackened face. The white actor might as well be wearing a label on his forehead that states "I'm supposed to be black." By contrast, there have been males playing female roles where you wouldn't know that it was a male playing the role unless you were told. And vice versa--females have played male roles where you wouldn't know it was a female playing the role unless you were told. Watching a white actor with blackface or other similar contrivances is a bit like watching a man who puts on a skirt--it's just not that convincing even when you're watching someone who is a good actor.

Anonymous said...

Mikael here.

I wish someone had put a label on Amanda Muggleton's forehead telling us which English regional dialect her character was supposed to have when she was
played Kath in "Entertaining Mr Sloan".

Alison Croggon said...

I can take a little ribbing, Mikael. It does me good. Aside from that, it's vitally important to have differing points of view. It gives us all something to talk about, for a start, and keeps things lively.

(Actually, as far as Mr Sloane goes, for me the real mystery was what Richard Piper was doing.)

Other Anon: there can be times where the artifice of costume or makeup or whatever have great power, in the right cirucmstances. I can't imagine where a blackface Othello would work, but that doesn't mean, if someone had really interesting reasons for doing it, that it would be impossible. For example, Peter Carroll played Girlie Pogson in the STC's A Season At Sarsaparilla (which I hear is heading down this way next year) and it was simply incredible, a piece of genius casting. I guess it all depends...

Statler said...

Personally I think I would have a problem with an Othello played by a white actor "blacked up" both for reasons of inappropriateness and for it's general ineffectiveness. However I don't see that this would prevent a white actor playing a white Othello. There are plenty of ways of relocating the piece to facilitate this - the one that comes to mind would be to have Othello as a German Jew who had served to a high level during after WWI finding himself discriminated against in the 1930s, and I'm sure there is enormous potential for various states/nations who have been partitioned. Indeed only this week I watched a humourous but actually quite frightening TV show on predjudice against ginger haired people and you could easily put Othello in a See-You-Jimmy hat and have the desired impact. Bottom line - Othello needen't be black, but if you're having a "black" Othello don't get a white actor to do it.

Anonymous said...

On "the artifice of costume or makeup having great power", I certainly agree that it can in some circumstances, e.g., involving caricature or comedy or satire or in making an important political/social point. In fact wearing a label on your forehead saying "I'm supposed to be black." could work in such circumstances, as could a man wearing a skirt or a woman pasting a beard on her chin. I didn't have my mind on such cases, being focussed on white actors playing Othello and the like.

Anonymous said...

Two examples - this German production of Othello - - one of the best productions I've ever seen - and this Wooster Group production from last year with a blacked up Kate Valk:

It can be done, and brilliantly.

Kim W. said...

Angelina Jolie recently blacked herself up to play Marianne Pearl, dark skinned wife of Daniel Pearl, an American journalist murdered in Iraq. Jolie's husband, Brad Pitt, produced the movie and they've received a lot of flack for the casting. You can read about it in an article by Margaret Kimberley called "The Whitening of Marianne Pearl":

st genesius said...

Lee Lewis (as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald today) criticises the use of aboriginal actors in Neil Armfield's "Stuff Happens" as "near enough is good enough" casting, playing African Americans. But surely she would have been even more incenced if white actors had been used to play Colin Powell and Condi Rice. We seem to be getting into a "no win" situation here once we start laying down rules as to who is "allowed" to play characters. In a perfect world, it should simply be the best actor.

One Man said...

If audiences are concerned that Indigenous Australians never achieved command rank in the armed services, they should also be concerned that neither has a white man pretending to be black. Australian theatre, television and films are replete with roles for white actors (and white actors almost always fill those roles). That audiences object to a non-White actor playing the protagonist in one of the few classics where being different from the rest of the cast matters says a lot about Australian theatre audiences.

Alison Croggon said...

Actually, what always confused me most about the play, if we're being historically picky, was that "the Moor" was black, since I thought that the Moors were the Ottoman Empire, ie, Turkish. Though I suppose there's that old-fashioned word "blackamoor".

"Colourblind" casting almost never is. Peter Brook's company seems to be genuinely colourblind, and Mnouchkine's is also very interracial, but they are exceptions. I have sometimes wondered, given the excellent immigrant and indigenous actors we have here, why there isn't such a company in Melbourne...

Otherwise it's an incredibly complex and difficult area. I guess what has to be admitted first is that white bread is generally the order of the day, and you mostly see non-Caucasian actors on stage in ethnically specific roles. Yes, the best actor for the best role is an ideal, but it seldom straddles colour.