October 23, 2012

Blackface in Berlin

It's always fun to keep up with the adventures of Bruce Norris, Angry White Playwright. He's the author of the best Chicago real estate play since Glengarry Glen Ross, Clybourne Park, which I reviewed for Taki's here. (And here's a real life version of just how far nice liberal white gentrifiers in Chicago will go to clear blacks from Lincoln Park.)

Clybourne Park isn't terribly politically correct, but only a few people have noticed so far.
Playwright Challenges Racial Casting Practices 
By ADAM W. KEPLER 
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris has called for a boycott in Germany of theater productions in which white actors are cast in roles explicitly written for black performers. In a letter addressed to fellow members of the Dramatists Guild, a trade association for writers, Mr. Norris condemned such casting, which he described as widespread in Germany. 
Mr. Norris wrote the letter after his experience with a production of his Tony Award-winning play, “Clybourne Park” at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, in which a white actress had been cast to play a black character.

Remember those two black German guys in Milli Vanilli? They're probably not busy. Bruce should give them a call, see if one of them will play Bruce's African-American lady in drag.
In the letter, which has been posted on the Dramatists Guild’s Web site, Mr. Norris said that it was his final correspondence with the management of the Deutsches Theater that caused him decide to withdraw the rights to the production.

It's worth noting how much power playwrights have relative to screenwriters. Can you imagine Chris Terrio, screenwriter of Argo, ordering Ben Affleck not to play CIA agent Tony Mendez in Argo because Ben's not Hispanic? It's close to unthinkable in Hollywood for a screenwriter to call off a production because he's unhappy with the casting of his script, but playwrights have had this legal right since 1919. Legally, American playwrights are Ayn Rand heroes who can blow up any production of their work they find displeasing.

Indeed, I have this wacky theory that when New York playwrights flooded out to Hollywood after the invention of the talkies, a reason that so many became Communists was because the movies turned out to be a collaborative enterprise where they didn't have all the power they had had back in New York. All we need, they reasoned, is to collectivize all property to restore me to my rightful property rights as sole arbiter of what happens to productions based on my writing.
“After much evasion, justification and rationalizing of their reasons,” he wrote, “they finally informed me that the color of the actress’s skin would ultimately be irrelevant, since they intended to ‘experiment with makeup.’ ”

"Colorblind casting" has been the approved norm in American theater for a long time. For example, I saw a production of Bertolt Brecht's Galileo at the Goodman Theater in Chicago around 1986 in which a black actor played a 17th Century Italian cardinal. But, it doesn't work the other way. White guys can't play Othello anymore. This isn't much of a burden, though, because there are more black actors than there are roles for blacks in all the plays in the repertory.

In regard to mounting Clybourne Park in Berlin in German, the whole enterprise seems pretty hopeless to me. I get what Clybourne Park is about because, just like Norris, I've stood on Clybourn with other white gentrifiers and tried to puzzle out just how fast The Powers That Be will get around to tearing down the Cabrini Green housing projects and sending the residents away to pester less privileged white people. Will we get rich before we get mugged? But, from reading reviews, I don't think that many other white Americans really get the play. I doubt if Berliners will have much of a clue at all, no matter who is cast.
... An online petition has also started at Avaaz.org to stop this practice in German theaters in reaction to a recent production of Herb Gardner’s “I’m Not Rappaport” at Schlosspark Theater in Berlin, where a white actor played Midge, a black character.

In other words, German theaters sometimes use blackface when putting on American or English plays with black characters. This was tolerated in the English-speaking world until not that long ago: Sir Laurence Olivier directed himself in blackface in his movie version of Othello as recently as 1965. 

On the other hand, Fred Armisen, who is 3/4th white and 1/4th Japanese, played Barack Obama in blackface on Saturday Night Live for several years. Of course, the blackface was a version of offering up a hostage, just to prove that SNL would never, ever make fun of Obama.

50 comments:

Gilbert Ratchet said...

"Remember those two black German guys in Milli Vanilli? They're probably not busy."

One is really not busy... of course, he's also dead:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rob_Pilatus

Dahlia said...

Speaking of Barack Obama...
Trump's reveal. Played around on the computer with it, after it was alleged that it had to do with divorce papers...
Went to FreeRepublic where they are very good at getting to the bottom of things...

My guess is that Trump is scooping Jerome Corsi.

On the 15th, Corsi said:
“I have another article prepared that we ought to publish pretty soon” Corsi said Monday. “People don’t realize it but Michelle was preparing, and I actually found divorce papers, to divorce Obama at one point in their marriage”. he said. He goes on to say, “When he was in the State Legislature before he became a U.S. Senator, Obama was smoking all the time, gone, having homosexual relationships, no money…Michelle was tired of it.”

In early October, Corsi had published an article saying Obama had been on the down low, and one of his lovers was murdered and it is unsolved. Another alleged lover wrote a book about Obama and the murdered lover two years ago.
http://www.wnd.com/2012/10/trinity-church-members-reveal-obama-shocker/


Anonymous said...

Armisen is actually half-Latino. His mother is Venezuelan.

Jason said...

Simply substitute Turks for African-Americans in the play, and Germans will understanding the meaning of it just fine.

Thomas O. Meehan said...

Olivier did it again in 1966 in the film Khartoum. He plays the Mahdi in blackface, a lisp and what one reviewer called a distinctly Jamaican accent.

Thomas O. Meehan said...

Olivier did it again in 1966 in the film Khartoum. He plays the Mahdi in blackface, a lisp and what one reviewer called a distinctly Jamaican accent.

Anonymous said...

The character Othello is not black. Not sure why this needs to be pointed out, but for some reason it does. Shakespeare's Othello was a Moor - in other words, an Arab.

eah said...

Blackface Clybourne Park Production Cancelled in Berlin

Per this article, the same play was produced before in Mainz. Here is a foto of one of the actresses in that production. Apparently she was not going to be in the Berlin version. She does not look very black to me. I think most Whites prefer black people to be not all that black. Maybe a more or less unknown, very dark-haired White with a fake tan would pass muster next time. After all, there aren't that many Blacks in Germany (zum Gl├╝ck!), so a bit of resourcefulness is called for. Or maybe offer the role to Collien Fernandes next time.

Don't know the story behind it. But the Germans are -- publicly at least -- as politically correct and racially sensitive as any other people. Recall the near-hysterical reaction to Sarrazin's book.

Anonymous said...

a Moor - in other words, an Arab.

More particularly, a North African Arab. They aren't exactly the same as Arabian peninsular or Levantine Arabs.

Anonymous said...

So this playwright is playing a clever game. Parading his full PC credentials because not using black actors will undermine the race realism of his play?

Thus if the good thinkers understood what was going down they would actually rather the black roles were played by whites and thus he can attack them on that basis.

I take my hat off to him - if that is what is happening.

Matthew said...

If you have to cast these productions with black actors then in a lot of cases they won't be produced, period. It's not jut a matter of a city/town having a black population - it's a matter of them having blacks in that population who can act, who can sing (no, not all of them can), and who are, in the case of community theatre, willing to do it for love rather than money. I've seen many a community theatre production where they would've preferred to cast blacks but couldn't find any acceptable actor to fill the role(s).

Anonymous said...

You pays your money and you take your choice.

Othello might have been il moro as the symbol of one of the Italian families was the
strawberry. <- Hoping someone is loving the delicious irony.

Matthew said...

"Simply substitute Turks for African-Americans in the play, and Germans will understanding the meaning of it just fine."

^ This. Any Turks in Berlin who can act and speak German?

beowulf said...

"And here's a real life version of just how far nice liberal white gentrifiers in Chicago will go to clear blacks from Lincoln Park."

Which reminds me, the estimable Jamie Galbraith wrote something rather Saileresque.
But why should the wealthy in (say) Connecticut (or California) tend to be Democrats while those in Mississippi (or Texas) so rarely are? We suggest a possible explanation: It’s not where the wealth is that matters — it’s how insulated it is from where it isn’t.
http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2012/10/22/the-rich-the-poor-and-the-presidency/

beowulf said...

"In other words, German theaters sometimes use blackface when putting on American or English plays with black characters."

Also in English language Swedish parodies of every John Grisham novel you've ever read.
http://youtu.be/QyU2p4l5iUA?t=2m30s

Steve Sailer said...

Shakespeare's Othello was a Moor - in other words, an Arab."

That's what I figured until I looked into it about a decade ago. As I vaguely recall, the evidence appeared to be maybe 70-30 in favor of Shakespeare thinking of Othello as sub-Saharan.

DaveinHackensack said...

"White guys can't play Othello anymore."

A more recent example from Broadway was the Elton John / Tim Rice musical version of Aida. Aida was always played by a black actress, even, I think, in the national touring versions of the show.

Dutch reader said...

"Any Turks in Berlin who can act and speak German?"

Sure there are. Famous example: Sibel Kekilli, a former pornstar who became an award-winning mainstream actress in Germany, playing both Turkish and non-Turkish (including Jewish) characters, and also has a role in Game of Thrones.

http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Sibel_Kekilli

Mr X said...

Were there Moors in England at the time? Maybe for Shakespeare Moors and Africans would be about the same. He describes him as dark skinned.

I saw some German women with mulatto kids in Berlin some years ago. Offspring of American GIs I guess. But yes, Turks are more present, specially in Neukolln.
However, my impression is that parts of the neighborhood were in the process of being gentrified by "artistic" or alternative types, kind of like Williamsburg in NY.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuk%C3%B6lln

Dutch reader said...

The reverse seems to be quite accepted. See, for instance, I Am Legend (based on the book by Richard Mathesonp; the detective working with the Sean Connery character in Rising Sun; one of the scientist minor characters in The Hunt for Red October, who is explicitly described in the novel as a preppy blond guy but cast as black in the movie. The Wizard of Oz was remade in an all-black version as the Wizz starring Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Lena Horne. And of course there's Bosley of the new diversified Charlie's Angels.

Nanonymous said...

Remember those two black German guys in Milli Vanilli? They're probably not busy.

Depends on whether one views dead people as probably not busy.

theo the kraut said...

As mentioned before, presumably an actress who didn't get the role did snitch to Mr Norris, atlantablackstar.com:

Bruce Norris: "I heard nothing, and some time later I received a disturbing email from an actress named Lara-Sophie Milagro, (who happens to be black, and whom I much enjoyed in the Mainz production of Clybourne) informing me of the fact that the actress who had been cast in the same role at the theatre in Berlin, was white."

> Schlossparktheater
Berliner here. The director is an old Social-Democrat workhorse of German Comedy, 77 years old; he couldn't understand for the life of him the accusations of racism put forward by some female gender/cultural studies crazies. The scandal hurt his theater badly, (an old West-Berlin institution that went bankrupt) that he re-opened some years ago with mostly his own money. Now the star of a new play died some days before opening night--the theater might face bankruptcy again.

LemmusLemmus said...

I guess to understand this, you have to understand a cultural difference between the U.S. and Germany. Due to the way it was used, blackface is widely considered racist in the U.S. Germany has no tradition of blackface theatre, so it is not readily apparent to us why it should be more of an issue when a white man plays a black man than when, say, a forty-year-old plays a sixty-year-old. After all, it's all make believe.

A while back, I was surprised to learn that many Americans consider Breakfast at Tiffany's to be a racist movie because Mickey Rooney plays a Chinese guy.

Anonymous said...

I seem to remember hearing one of the producers of the movie version of Bonfire of the Vanities on NPR complaining about studio interference during the shooting. The way I remember it, the studio guys were looking at the dailies when one piped up with hey, I haven't seen any black actors in this film! A huddle ensued, and the decision was made to scrap the court scenes already shot and redo them them with a black judge. I also recall him saying that getting Freeman to play the role cost them almost as much as the principles.

Black Death said...

This type of thing used to be common:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYWmBaVcNYg&feature=relmfu

elvisd said...

"The character Othello is not black. Not sure why this needs to be pointed out, but for some reason it does. Shakespeare's Othello was a Moor - in other words, an Arab."

Pretty much along the lines of the myth that the ancient Egyptians were black.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, I have this wacky theory that when New York playwrights flooded out to Hollywood after the invention of the talkies, a reason that so many became Communists was because the movies turned out to be a collaborative enterprise where they didn't have all the power they had had back in New York.

Jesus H Christ, when are we going to stop making excuses for Scots-Irish perfidy?

To paraphrase a famous Scots-Irish nihilist, "Sometimes a cigar really is a cigar".

El Supremo said...

Opera is pleasantly exempt from this commotion - "Black" characters like Aida and Otello are regularly played by people of all races (Asian Aidas are not uncommon) and sometimes they darken their skin; Asian characters (Butterfly, Turandot) are regularly played by white people.

Black singers also play any roles (The best current singer of the evil dwarf Alberich in Wagner's Ring is black) without controversy. However there are many fewer black singers than White or Asian (as Europe and Asia produce many more opera singers)

Matthew said...

Anytime you see a black actor playing the role of a competent leader, doctor, scientific genius, computer hacker (e.g., "Mission Impossible"), special forces soldier, or faithful husband and father, he is playing a white role. It happens all the time.

Anonymous said...

I doubt if people in 16th century England though of race as we do. To Will Shakespeare, all those Arabs and Berbers and Ethiopians and so on were probably an interchangeable mass of dark-skinned African people.

Steve Sailer said...

Probably not.

I don't recall all the internal evidence in the play that suggests Othello was a genuine sub-Saharan black (or mulatto) rather than a North African Caucasian, but there were some blacks in the port city of London in 1600, and they were, as you'd expect, the object of curiosity.

Anonymous said...

there were some blacks in the port city of London in 1600

There were some of what we would call "blacks" in London in 1600. I know of no evidence that anyone in England at the time thought that way.

suggests Othello was a genuine sub-Saharan black (or mulatto) rather than a North African Caucasian


That distinction, which looms to gigantic size in the minds of 21st century Americans (we elected a man President almost entirely on the basis that he is partly sub-Saharan black) is one of rather recent origin. Northern Europeans in the 1500's just didn't think in terms of "North African Caucasians" vs "Sub-Saharan blacks".

It's a mistake to project the attitudes of one historical era onto another.

Udolpho.com said...

To be honest, if screenwriters did have that much power, we'd probably get better movies.

DPG said...

I caught Clybourne Park. I think it was too much of a comedy to get people to reflect deeply on the underlying drama that's going on in cities across the country.

The scene change alone is meanignful. We go from a kempt home to a shithole covered in graffiti. But no one in the play stops to say, "Why did this happen over the last 50 years?"

Truth said...

"The character Othello is not black. Not sure why this needs to be pointed out, but for some reason it does. Shakespeare's Othello was a Moor - in other words, an Arab."

Pretty much along the lines of the myth that the ancient Egyptians were black."

Do either of you have evidence to support your opinions?

Steve Sailer said...

""Northern Europeans in the 1500's just didn't think in terms of "North African Caucasians" vs "Sub-Saharan blacks"."

Correct in terms of terminology -- "Moor" was employed both for Moroccans, but also for sub-Saharan West Africans, whom the Portuguese had been importing back to Europe for about 150 years when Shakespeare wrote. Shakespeare, I suspect, would have noticed a difference.

Anonymous said...

Do either of you have evidence to support your opinions?



You mean, other than the fact that the play is called "The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice"? And that the Moors were not what we could today call "black"? And that Shakespeare would have known the difference between "blacks" and "Moors"? The fact that it was not until the 19th century that a black man first played Othello on stage? That it was not until 1995 that a black man first played Othello in a movie? You mean other than that evidence?

Anonymous said...

"Moor" was employed both for Moroccans, but also for sub-Saharan West Africans, whom the Portuguese had been importing back to Europe for about 150 years when Shakespeare wrote. Shakespeare, I suspect, would have noticed a difference.


One of those notions must be incorrect. It seems highly unlikely to be the case that (1) Shakespeare understood there to be a difference between blacks and Moors, that (2) he wrote a play about a Moor, and that (3) notwithstanding (1), within that play he meant "Moor" to be the same thing as "black".

Maya said...

Great name for a band.

Steve Sailer said...

Othello is a Christian, which is hard to reconcile with the North African assumption. There is other textual evidence, as well.

Perhaps Othello is a fictional forerunner of famous blacks or mulattos who wound up fairly powerful men in Europe, such as Pushkin's grandfather and Dumas's father?

Nanonymous said...

Anon:
You mean, other than the fact that the play is called "The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice"? And that the Moors were not what we could today call "black"? And that Shakespeare would have known the difference between "blacks" and "Moors"?

Ever heard the word "blackamoor"? Look it up in Wikipedia. It says that Venice is where the word originates. It even provides you with a picture of the sculpture called "Moor with Emerald Cluster".

Anonymous said...

It's pretty clear from clues in the text that what Shakespeare meant by 'Moor' was what we would classify as 'sub-Sahraran African'. Repeated references to wooly hair and thick lips, for example, do not put one in the mind of thinking of Berbers or other Maghrebis.

Cross-reference with textual clues about Shakespeare's other 'Moorish' character (Aaron in Titus Andronicus) and it all becomes even more clear. Even a mulatto baby scene!

Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother!
Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother.

pat said...

In last year's Pesaro Rossini Festival they mounted Otello with Gregory Kunde in the title role. Mr. Kunde is a blond. He played Otello (Othello) without makeup. He also has blue eyes. He looks a bit like the guy who played Thor in the movie (but shorter).

I don't quite understand any of this. Is this part of some universal rejection of blackface?

Albertosaurus

Steve Sailer said...

Yes, the "blackamoor" baby scene in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is pretty funny, like the last scene in the Naked Gun trilogy where Leslie Nielsen, following Priscilla Presley to the maternity ward, stumbles into the wrong delivery room and is handed a newborn black child, and the movie ends with Nielsen trying to kill OJ Simpson.

Anonymous said...

The Moroccans I have known were adamant about the fact that they were Moors ("moros" in Spanish - I met them in Spain) and not Arabs. I am sure the suggestion that they were "blacks" would not have gone over well with them.

"Repeated references to wooly hair and thick lips, for example, do not put one in the mind of thinking of Berbers or other Maghrebis."

In comparison to most Europeans, especially northern Europeans, Berbers most certainly do have wooly hair and thicker-than-average lips.

Porsche XL said...

"Mr. Norris..."

Speaking of guys named Mr. Norris, did you see this one?

http://www.twirlit.com/2012/10/23/scientists-reconstruct-neanderthal-that-looks-pretty-much-like-chuck-norris-photos/

Truth said...

Oh Forcrying out loud.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/22984501@N06/2961175776/

Matthew said...

"The way I remember it, the studio guys were looking at the dailies when one piped up with hey, I haven't seen any black actors in this film!"

How could there not have been any black actors in the film? The premise is a rich Wall Streeter commits a hit-and-run against a black thug rying to rob him, and then an Al Sharpton-type gets involved.

I think you mean no good black guys.

Galactic Overlord said...

As for the Milli Vanilli guys, the one who's still alive (Fab Morvan) isn't German, but rather French.

David said...

Othello was black. Not only "thick-lips" (Roderigo's slur in Act 1, Scene 1 is like the modern US "the splib") but "sooty bosom." Shakespeare was precise in his figures, usually; and soot isn't brown, cinnamon, or cafe au lait. Soot's black.

Iago goads Desdemona's father Brabantio with, "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe."

Here is Ben Arogundade:

"Before 1814 all productions featured the Moor as a black African, suggesting that somewhere along the line this precedent was set, perhaps as early as the first performance in London's Whitehall Palace in November 1604, in which Richard Burbage, principle actor within Shakespeare's troupe, The King's men, appeared in blackface in the lead."

I saw a production here in Knoxville recently, in which Mr. O was quite black of epidermis. When he started killing Desdemona by first slapping her around action-movie-style for a while, the audience gasped in palpable extra-literary discomfort.