The Politics of Representation

It's been a fascinating few weeks for the representation of race on stage.

The American playwright Bruce Norris withdrew his very fine play Clybourne Park from Berlin's Deutsches Theater, one of the the top line German-speaking theatres, when he discovered that the theatre intended to cast a white actress in a black role and 'experiment with make-up'. What made matters even worse is that the play, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and London's Olivier Award for Best Play, deals centrally with race relations. It's not often that we hear of 'blacking up' in the theatre anymore, although the practice is still current in the world's opera houses. Most singers who sing the title role in Verdi's Otello are white and employ make-up. That will happen next year here in Brisbane, for example, when the Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt plays the Moor for Opera Queensland. He will, presumably, 'black up' a little and no one will remark on it.

Norris wrote an open letter, published by the Dramatists Guild of America, calling on fellow playwrights to boycott theatres in Germany which practice blackface, and encouraged other writers to sign an online petition condemning the practice. He has a point. Earlier this year, Berlin's Schlosspark Theatre hit controversy when it blacked up a white actor for its production of the American play I'm Not Rappaport. And in September 2011, a billboard featuring a German comedian with blackface containing the words 'I am an Obama' caused outrage worldwide.

Then, just a few days after the Clybourne Park controversy, the RSC was widely condemned for casting only three Asian actors in the 17-strong cast of the Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao, which is attributed to the thirteenth-century dramatist Ji Junxiang (紀君祥). It was the first Chinese play to be translated in the West and is known to the Euro-centric as the 'Chinese Hamlet'. Even Voltaire wrote an adaptation. Greg Doran, the play's director and the RSC's new Artistic Director, defended the casting by pointing out that The Orphan of Zhao is part of a three-play season. A single company of actors will also perform Pushkin's Boris Godunov and Brecht's Life of Galileo. Says Doran: 'The RSC have led the way in non-culturally specific casting, but there was no way I was going to do this with an exclusively Chinese cast that would then go through to those other plays.' The RSC issued a statement which read in part: 'We intend to present The Orphan of Zhao in our own way, just as a theatre company in China might explore Shakespeare. Having absorbed something of Chinese conventions and dramatic idioms, we want to approach the play with a diverse cast and develop our own ways of telling this ancient story and thus explore its universality.' A spokesman for the RSC said that "there will definitely be no 'yellowing up’ or eyelids being taped back – that was for another time."

What is the connection between these two events? Is it that British Asian actors in London and black actors in Germany occupy much the same position in the journey towards a post-racial theatre?

It is true that there are very few black actors in Germany. While there is a relatively high level of immigration, particularly from Turkey (a labour recruitment agreement between Germany and Turkey in 1961 saw huge immigration of 'guest workers' - today the Turkish population in Germany has grown to about 3.5 million, and Turks now constitute the largest ethnic minority group in the country), there isn't great movement from nations with black populations. It is estimated that 2% of Berlin's population are Afro-German. London's population is about 10% black. The cultural history is different, too, particularly when it comes to the history of blackface. In the USA, the memory of the Black & White Minstrel Shows provides a horrible history from which to recoil. There is no such history in Germany, nor of a slave trade. Germany, of course, is very sensitive to race - because of the WWII genocide, the German census does not ask the race of its populace - but still seems to have a way to travel when it comes to the representation of blacks on stage. Banning blackface in Germany, as Norris argues, might provide theatre companies and training institutions with the stimulus they need to address the issue.

In England, though, there are many fine black actors and the battle is beginning to be won. The RSC recently staged an all-black Julius Caesar, and I (or anyone) could provide hundreds of examples of black actors filling roles from right across the repertoire. It's been a long road, though I'm sure with more distance to travel. However, while there has been much work down is progressing the presence of British Asian actors - think of the efforts, for example, of Tamasha Theatre Company led by Kristine Landon-Smith, who is soon to join the acting department at NIDA - there is clearly much more to do in creating an environment where British Asian actors can genuinely flourish and effortlessly pick up roles in Boris Godunov and Life of Galileo as well as The Orphan of Zhao.

Theatre longs to reflect both social reality and social dreaming. We want the actors on our stages to resemble the people on our streets. We want humanity over race. But the post-racial theatre is still far away, just like the post-racial society. Whites believe they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America, according to a 2011 study from Tufts University's School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School. The findings, say the authors, show that America has not achieved the 'post-racial society' that some predicted in the wake of Barack Obama's election. That was always a dream, just as it remains in Germany, in England, and in our own white land. 


  1. I remember being forced to watch a boring production of Othello in high school (because Shakespeare is always boring in high school, obviously), with Laurence Olivier or Peter O'Toole or one of those actors being blacked up to play Othello. The weird thing was that the VHS copy wasn't the best in the world, and so Othello ended up looking a dark shade of green throughout the movie...

    Have you heard about the new film, Cloud Atlas? It's got an ensemble that plays up to six roles each, which involves, for example, Hugo Weaving turned Korean, Hugh Grant into a black native (I think), Halle Berry as a Jewish heiress, and the list goes on. (Genders are swapped as well, I believe.) But it's equal-opportunity makeup-experimentation, so all above board!


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