(The article linked below appeared in the Washington Post this week. In it, author Rhae Lynn Barnes dissects the events and revelations of the last few weeks and calls out the blackface minstrel show as, “American as the ruling class.”
Following here is an article I wrote on the same subject twenty years ago and published in The Chronicle for Higher Education. Sorry to observe that we haven’t progressed all that much in over two decades. RB)
The thorny roles of race in North American theatre
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Nov 13, 1998, Vol. 45, Iss. 12, pg. B6
By Robin Breon
THE IMAGE of the entertainer in blackface is central to the iconography of North American popular culture. From the 19th century minstrel shows, through vaudeville and burlesque, to countless films featuring Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, and others, entertainers in blackface were a fixture on the cultural landscape.
Yet the great African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-67) chose to live in Europe – where he became famous as a tragedian (notably in the roles of Lear, Macbeth, Shylock, and Othello -rather than submit himself to the humiliation of performing in minstrel shows in the United States. Aldridge’s precedent of pushing back the color line in the legitimate theater of his day now is recognized as “non-traditional” or “cross-cultural” casting.
In the past several years, a spate of books has examined the obstinate practice of blackface, which continues to be present and problematic on the stage as well as on the page. Mel Watkins gave us a comprehensive overview of African-American humor on stage, radio, television, and film in his On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying-the Underground Tradition of African-American Humor That Transformed American Culture, From Slavery to Richard Pryor (Simon & Schuster, 1994). Watkins devoted several chapters to the history of blackface, from its origins with white minstrel performers to its later permutation into a vehicle for black entertainers.
Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford University Press, 1993) provided a scholarly investigation of blackface in pre-Civil War America. It examined minstrelsy as a complicated, class based exchange founded on a mix of sincere appreciation combined with equal doses of racism, caricature, opportunism, and outright larceny. Lott’s close reading of contesting dramatic adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin revivified some well-trod boards.
Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy, edited by Annemarie Bean, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara (Wesleyan University Press, 1996), is a collection of essays that includes intriguing primary documents – firsthand accounts, minstrel guides, jokes, gender-bending sketches, and sheet music – that shows how blackface evolved in the mid-19th century, when it reigned supreme as popular entertainment. And the fragile relationship between Jews and African Americans is explored in Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot by Michael Rogin (University of California Press, 1996), a specialized study of blackface in motion pictures since its origins in films such as The Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer.
Blackface originated on the stage and, curiously, it is the stage to which it has recently returned-or not returned, as the case may be. Over the past few years, the creators of productions in New York, London, and Toronto have had to choose whether “to do or not to do” blackface. Their solutions have been as different as black and white.
Show Boat, the critically acclaimed production from Livent Inc. that is now touring the United States, was the subject of protests before it opened in Toronto, in 1992. Organizations from Toronto’s black community pointed out that the musical, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, originally had contained scenes and musical numbers demeaning to people of African descent; the protesters wanted assurances that those scenes would be cut. The director, Harold Prince, eventually agreed, excising the blackface scenes that had appeared in earlier versions of the musical.
More recently, Ragtime, another Broadway bound Livent production, faced the same problem when the playwright, Terrence McNally, and the director, Frank Galati, adapted E. L. Doctorow’s novel for the stage. The book describes the character Younger Brother’s use of blackface as a disguise when he joins up with the band of urban guerrillas led by Coalhouse Walker, Jr. Doctorow puts it this way: “He shaved his blond moustache and he shaved his head. He blackened his face and hands with burnt cork, outlined exaggerated lips, put on a derby and rolled his eyes. Having in this way suggested his good faith to Coalhouse’s other young followers by appealing to their sense of irony.”
Wisely, the creators of the play decided that this kind of shaded irony is apprehended better on the page than it is on the stage. As was the case with Show Boat, they opted to cut the blackface.
In contrast, two recent productions in Toronto attempted to put the complex use of blackface by both white and black performers into historical perspective. Both the musical Jolson, a joyful celebration of the life of Al Jolson, imported last year from London’s West End, and Harlem Duet, a new play by Djanet Sears, make effective use of blackface. Sears’ play, originally produced by Nightwood Productions, a feminist theater company, won a Dora Award (Toronto’s equivalent of the Tony) and was remounted in an expanded version last season by the Canadian Stage Company. (Editor’s note: also remounted recently as part of Tarragon Theatre’s 2018-2019 season).
Jolson contains a scene in which the vaudeville star “corks up” to go on stage for one of his signature minstrel routines. He is at his peak, and his blackface renditions bring ovations and adulation.
Harlem Duet has a dressing-room scene that turns the one in Jolson on its ear. The year is 1928, the place a theater in Harlem. We see an African-American actor applying black greasepaint and preparing to go on stage. As he makes up, he recites lines from Othello. The audience naturally assumes that he is about to take the stage in the role of Shakespeare’s ill-fated Moor. Then, one final stroke of greasepaint adds a grotesque white mouth. As he leaves his dressing room, we realize in that moment that the actor was readying himself not for Othello, but for a minstrel show.
For the black actor in a Harlem theater circa 1928, the use of blackface represented a curtailment of opportunity and a diminution of his aspirations. For Jolson, at the height of his career in the 1920s, the use of blackface represented an expansion of the actor’s talent and a chance to emulate what he called the “new rhythm” and “primitive appeal” of Negro voices.
One other theatrical production opened in Toronto last year that featured the minstrelsy of white youths singing black songs and carefully emulating the black vernacular: The Elvis Story, which had a short run. It has been common knowledge in the music industry that Elvis Presley was influenced greatly by a black singer and songwriter named Otis Blackwell, who not only wrote “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” “Return to Sender,” and other songs, but also sold Elvis demonstration tapes so that he could hear the songs as Blackwell intended them.
The King would listen to the demo and then mimic Blackwell’s phrasing note for note in his performances and on his records. Elvis never corked up, but in all other respects he expropriated an AfricanAmerican style of performance. The fact that Otis Blackwell’s name does not appear on some of his own songs is indicative only of the dirty dealings in the music industry during the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll. Ironically, he and Presley never met.
What about the contemporary manifestations of this history of cross-racial impersonation?
One of the most compelling dialogues of the past few years is the debate centered on cross-cultural and cross-racial casting in North American theater. The subject filled the pages of several issues of American Theatre magazine and spilled over to The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, and other publications in the fall of 1996. It culminated in a public debate in January 1997 at Lincoln Center’s Town Hall, between Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University and theater critic for The New Republic, and August Wilson, one of the foremost playwrights in the United States. As the argument unfolded, it encompassed the larger question of who takes center stage in the theater, playing what role, representing whose culture, and using whose voice.
Mr. Wilson began the exchange with a keynote address at a meeting of the Theatre Communications Group held at Princeton University. He decried the present state of the American theater, the lack of corporate and foundation support for the African-American theater movement, and the generally limited number of opportunities that exist for members of racial minority groups in the theater. He also denounced the trend toward non-traditional casting, saying it obfuscated real grievances and capitulated to Eurocentrism and “imperialism” of the dominant white culture.
Non-traditional, or “colorblind,” casting is basically an equal-opportunity movement in North American theater that grew directly out of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and the notion that racial integration is good and segregation bad. In the theater, repertory companies such as Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival and Margrit Roma’s New Shakespeare Company of San Francisco (a touring company that played mostly on the university circuit, from 1968 to 1988) were committed to the idea that classical theater in a multiracial society must endeavor to reflect that society’s racial composition on the stage. Following what Ira Aldridge had done intuitively 100 years earlier, this movement began to codify itself in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It became especially important for educators who faced issues of multiculturalism in their high-school drama clubs and university theater departments.
Gradually, producers and directors in the professional regional theaters began to come around to the concept of casting the best actor for a particular role, regardless of race: a black Prospero father to a white Miranda in The Tempest, or a multiracial combination of siblings in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, for example.
In an article in American Theatre (October 1996), Professor Brustein, who is generally supportive of non-traditional casting, dismissed Wilson’s charges of persistent, systemic racism. He suggested that the current economic climate in the arts is characterized by “confused standards and sociological rather than aesthetic criteria.” Brustein added: “Isn’t there some sort of statute of limitations on white guilt and white reparations?”
The debate eventually broadened to include a host of voices-with thrusts, parries, retreats, advances, and refinements of the argument occurring over several months and well beyond the original two positions. As issues in the arts often do, this one serves as a barometer of society at large. Whether involved in high culture or low, actors and playwrights have always wanted to create challenging roles, which express the full range of their abilities and humanity. This might involve digging into their own ethnic heritage, or it might involve moving outside it.
The creative tension engendered by the debate continues to pull us together and then push us apart as we try to decide whether trading races is entertainment or insult, homage or heist. When Ted Danson appeared in blackface minstrel garb at a roast for his then-companion Whoopi Goldberg five years ago, the gesture was met with general disapproval, even though Goldberg approved the high jinks and wrote Danson’s lines.
Unlike Danson, the comedian Darrell Hammond doesn’t exactly “black up”perhaps “beiges up” is more precise when he regularly impersonates the Reverend Jesse Jackson on Saturday Night Live. Is this modern-day minstrelsy nonetheless? The black comedian Chris Rock, called the “smartest young comic in the country” for his riffs on race in America, recently appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in one of those eye-catching, signifying photographs by Annie Leibovitz. The defiant-looking Rock, in circus-like costume and makeup, seems trapped in a frame somewhere on the border between clown and minstrel-a perfect pictorial mixed metaphor for this conundrum.
So it is that as the 20th century comes to a close, this knotty problem of cross-racial impersonation remains a sensitive issue, part of the inescapable legacy of a society founded on racialism. Masquerade or mockery? Exclusion or inclusion? It is the cultural freight of a society that has yet to fully cross the racial divide.