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Black- and yellowface

Posted by: Rohan Preston under Theater, People Updated: October 26, 2012 - 1:11 PM

 

The Broadway cast of Clybourne Park. Photo by Joan Marcus.

 

The controversy over blackface, a controversial and, to many, offensive theater practice where actors use cork to darken their visages to play black characters, is catching fire internationally.

Playwright Bruce Norris, whose Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Clybourne Park” will be staged at the Guthrie in January, has pulled the rights for a German production of said play at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.

In an Oct. 16 letter to the Dramatist Guild, Norris explained that he had heard from an Afro-German actor friend who had been in a previous production of his play that the current producers intended to use an all-white cast for “Clybourne Park.” Norris’ play, a fictive 50-year update of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” is about race, class and gentrification.

On hearing what might be afoot, Norris contacted the theater. He reported that he was told “that the color of the actress’s skin would ultimately be irrelevant, since they intended to ‘experiment with makeup,’” he wrote. “At this point, I retracted the rights to the production.”

 

 

The use of blackface is evidently not unusual in Germany. Earlier this year, a Schlosspark Theatre production of Herb Gardner’s “I’m Not Rappaport,” about two cantankerous old friends -- one Jewish, the other black -- was cast with two white actors (above). The director, Thomas Schendel, explained that he could not find a black actor for the part. The play has been staged at the same theater dozens of times over the years in the similar manner.

Over in England, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “The Orphan of Zhao,” a new adaptation of the classic, has come under withering criticism for having only three Asian-extracted actors in its cast of 17.

Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) Tweeted that the theater markets the show with an “Asian kid on poster, but casts Asian actors only as dogs & a maid.”

In the U.S., blackface and yellowface continue to draw opprobrium. “Scottsboro Boys,” which had a pre-Broadway run at the Guthrie and which also used blackface, was picketed when it landed in New York in fall 2010.  

This past July, a La Jolla Playhouse production of “The Nightingale,” by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater of “Spring Awakening” fame, kicked up controversy because this story set in ancient China had only two Asian-Americans in its cast of 12.

In the last two years in the Twin Cities, Mixed Blood Theatre produced “Neighbors,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ controversial play that deploys disturbing stereotypes, including the use of blackface. The Children’s Theatre Company also came in for some criticism after it cast a non-Asian lead in its production of “Disney’s Mulan Jr.”

Playwright Norris, whose "Clybourne Park" closed on Broadway in September after a limited run, has asked fellow playwrights to sign a petition, initiated by Afro-German actors.

“Blackface has been and continues to be a widespread practice on the German stage,” he said. “German actors of African descent are routinely passed over for roles explicitly designated for them in some of the largest theatres in the country. This is weakly defended as either a director’s prerogative or a matter of ‘artistic choice’ – and yet, when questioned, no one could offer me an equivalent example of a white German actor having lost a role to a black actor in whiteface.”

 

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