Monday, 22 October 2012

Black or White

Let’s start with the fact that a playwright has actually had to ask for people to boycott theatres that allow the use of ‘blacking up.’ Let’s begin there. No, no, get out of your time machine. We’re not going back to the 1920s. In fact, you don’t even have to turn your calendar back to last week. Oh no. This is happening right now. At this very moment, theatres are getting the greasepaint out and waving it in front of actors’ faces like with a cheeky grin like it’s the most normal thing in the world.

But what’s worse is that people seem to agree.  A poll run by The Stage today has shown that 29% of respondents agreed that the use of ‘blackface’ in the theatre was completely acceptable. According to these people, it’s perfectly fine to ask a white actor to play a black role by applying black paint to their face. Apparently there’s nothing wrong with this. Apparently it’s not offensive. Apparently we’re supposed to be totally OK with all of this.

It seems that the people who allow this to happen don’t see just how insulting this is. By getting a white actor to ‘black up’ you’re basically saying to all black actors that they’re not good enough. You’d far rather get someone to PAINT THEIR FACE BLACK than find a suitable actor from the vast wealth of black actors out there. And I’m sorry but even if the amount of black actors in Germany (where this story originated) is so low that you’re finding it almost impossible to cast then I suggest you choose a different play.  And the issue isn’t just reserved to this particular piece of miscasting. It’s happening all over the bloody place. Look at the cross-gender casting at the RSC at the moment. I’ve ranted and raved about this in several blogs already so I don’t want to cover intensely well-trodden ground. However, this type of casting is just as insulting. I know that the RSC are doing it as they want to put on plays how they used to be staged but instead it’s just a big ol’ Shakespearean slap in the face to us ladyfolk. Female roles are hard enough to come by as it is so when box office smashing blokes are cast in those scant parts, it’s pretty damning. Despite what the RSC says it just feels like they’re telling us women that we’re not good enough to sell tickets or play female roles on stage.

And I appreciate the work that other companies are doing by either getting casts who are all female or all black or all Asian or all who prefer tea to coffee. But I'm not entirely convinced that it's really helping the problem. The issue should be encouraging more people from ethnic minorities to enter the profession (apart from youngish Middle Eastern actresses, that area is FULL…) and also into supporting new writing that is far more representative of the real world out there. This silly little planet of ours is far more diverse than all women playing mothers or prostitutes, all black men playing criminals and all Asian women playing those in arranged marriages. However, if you lived your life just believing everything that the world of acting tells you then, 1) get outside you fool and 2) you'd believe that those stereotypes make up this Daily Mail-esque apocalyptic world.

The German theatre in question has since denied any intentions to use the archaic technique of blacking up, saying they had learnt from previous productions that this is now unacceptable. Whether or not this is true, we may never know. However, it doesn’t excuse the fact that people out there still think it’s OK to do it. Oh how we like to think in 2012 that we are thoroughly modern and forward-thinking but, unfortunately, it seems like we’re being desperately held back too.

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