Playwright Bruce Norris worked quick this week to pull the plug on a German production of his Clybourne Park, which was planning on using a woman in blackface to portray one of the African American characters. Today, the Dramatists Guild published an open letter by Norris, explaining what happened when he learned about the German casting:
Disbelievingly, I contacted my agent who put me in touch with the management of Deutsches Theatre. Yes, they confirmed, it is true, we have cast a white ensemble member in this role, and we see no logical reason why we should cast an “Afro-German”. (If you are familiar with my play at all, the reasons are self-evident.) After much evasion, justification and rationalizing of their reasons, they finally informed me that the color of the actress’s skin would ultimately be irrelevant, since they intended to “experiment with makeup”. At this point, I retracted the rights to the production.
As it turns out, blackface has been and continues to be a widespread practice on the German stage. 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."
While this kind of thing makes American skin crawl, I wonder what's going on in the heads of these German producers. Do they think blackface is okay? Is it something they grew up with and never questioned? Do they see that kind of racism as an American problem, and not something to worry about in the cozy confines of Central Europe? Or are they uncomfortable with using blackface, but feel that a lack of black actors has forced them into it?
(If that last is the answer, I suggest either looking harder or doing a different play. The Producers, for instance, has an all-white cast.)
Not being German, and not having the time to finish my International Theater Producer Telepathy Ray this afternoon, I can't answer those questions. But I can present, as corroborating evidence for the fact that Europeans are goddamned racist, this clip from The Black and White Minstrel Show, a bit of BBC light entertainment that ran from 1958 to 1978.
That's a clip from the final episode, which aired when complaints about the blackface became overwhelming. (Oddly, they had tried to do a non-blackface version earlier in the decade, but it was so unpopular that they switched back immediately.) Again, this was 1978. Americans hadn't thought that kind of thing was okay for a long time—maybe since the '30s. So if a European ever gives you lip about racism in America, remember The Black and White Minstrel Show, and remember Clybourne Park.