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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: March ::
Re: Black Characters on Sh's Stage and Blackface
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0189.  Thursday, 9 March 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Melissa Aaron <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 8 Mar 1995 14:00:26 +0200
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0184 Qs: Black Characters on Sh's Stage
 
(2)     From:   Gabriel Egan <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 8 Mar 1995 23:03:19 GMT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0184  Qs: Black Characters on Sh's Stage
 
(3)     From:   Scott Shepherd <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 8 Mar 1995 17:57:07 -0500
        Subj:   blackface
 
(4)     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 8 Mar 1995 23:02:03 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0184 Qs: Black Characters on Sh's Stage
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Melissa Aaron <
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Date:           Wednesday, 8 Mar 1995 14:00:26 +0200
Subject: 6.0184 Qs: Black Characters on Sh's Stage
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0184 Qs: Black Characters on Sh's Stage
 
Eldred Jones has some good material on the portrayal of black characters on the
Renaissance stage. In the reign of Edward VI, there's a Revels Account listing
that suggests the use of all-over body masking of lawn or velvet. Black, thus,
literally black.  The Masque of Queens, 1604, used black makeup.  The drawing
of *Titus* that we have shows a very black Aaron the Moor.  On the other hand,
what do we mean by "black" here?  Turks were portrayed as "black."  There seems
to be a conflation of African, dark color & infidel. Had anyone seen any real
Moors?  Well, there were enough for Elizabeth to deport. In broad strokes, it
seems as though there was a tradition of portraying Othello as very very dark,
until the nineteenth-century.  Suddenly, Othello blossoms out into full Arabic
rig, Moorish, of course, but lightly suntanned (thus getting Orientalized and
sidestepping nasty issues of miscegation and slavery at one blow.)  Paul
Robeson said in the 1930's, when he played the role in London, that he wasn't
sure the role could be done by a black actor in America safely.  When he did in
1943, it was a watershed. Now in America at least the role is reserved for
African-Americans.  Zadek in Germany relatively recently had a white actor
playing the role in very very obvious blackface and Emperor Jones getup  (when
he kissed Desdemona, some of the stuff came off.)
 
Sorry for the long post.  It's a fascinating subject.
 
Melissa Aaron
University of Wisconsin-Madison
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Gabriel Egan <
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Date:           Wednesday, 8 Mar 1995 23:03:19 GMT
Subject: 6.0184  Qs: Black Characters on Sh's Stage
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0184  Qs: Black Characters on Sh's Stage
 
Caroline Gebhard asks about Aaron in Titus Andronicus and how he was made
black. In the drawing by Henry Peacham, from the Harley papers, of a
performance of TA in 1594 (I'm looking at the reproduction in the Revels
History of English Drama, Vol.3 (London: Methuen)), one of the players has a
black face, legs, and hands. Assuming there were no black players (I'm
confident on that one), this suggests body make-up was used. BUT only suggests,
since I suppose the drawer could be realizing all-over an effect he only saw on
the player's face. On the question of colour-blind casting I suggest that some
metatheatrical significance is lost when a black actor plays the part of
Othello because the character's references to his colour as a coating overlaid
on his skin have no referent (as they do for a white player blacked-up). A
similar effect holds true for women actors playing parts written for boys.
Given the institutional racism and sexism that abounds in theatre-biz as much
as anywhere women actors and black actors have more than enough trouble getting
parts without anyone suggesting that the few roles that have been allowed them
should be given to young white men, just to realize the potential significance
of certain lines. But neither is there a comfortable liberal 'blindness'
available to anyone who thinks about it. Active choices about casting can
engage intertextually with literary works, however, and produce valuable
meanings about modern and pre-modern racism and sexism.
 
Gabriel Egan
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Scott Shepherd <
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Date:           Wednesday, 8 Mar 1995 17:57:07 -0500
Subject:        blackface
 
You can find Willem Dafoe and a host of other white men wearing blackface in
the Wooster Group's version of Eugene O'Neill's *The Hairy Ape* (at the
Performing Garage, NYC). As the show proceeds you find out that they're not
black at all but covered in coal grime, so maybe it doesn't count (or maybe
it's worse!), but the Wooster Group has used blackface before, in O'Neill's
*Emperor Jones* (and other shows I think; see David Savran's *The Wooster
Group: 1975-1985: Breaking the Rules* for the in-depth info). My inside sources
quote Wooster Group director Liz LeCompte calling blackface "such a great
mask", and having little else to say about it (ie, in political terms). I think
their earlier experiments in blackface _did_ involve taking on its problematic
implications, and then later they felt licensed to use it without dealing
directly with its controversial status every time.
 
The idea of _mask_ in the theater is a mysterious and powerful one that goes
beyond disguise or costume or indicating sociohistorical data (eg, period,
ethnicity). The use of a mask to give a performer access to some sort of
transformed state supposedly derives from the ritual and mystic mask practices
of certain "primitive" cultures. For a thorough discussion of this see the last
chapter of Keith Johnstone's great great book *Impro*.
 
The tabooness of _blackface_, which I think has mostly to do with how it was
used in the old days as racist caricature, is a big ugly debatable thing. Some
people condemn it unconditionally. But pretending to be something you aren't is
what acting is. Dialects and voices, makeup and prosthetics, etc, there's
nothing inherently dispicable in these things--they're used used all the time
without objection when the very very very very touchy question of race isn't
involved.
 
As for Othello, Anthony Hopkins played him in blackface as late as 1982 in the
BBC production directed by Jonathan Miller (Bob Hoskins as Iago).
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Wednesday, 8 Mar 1995 23:02:03 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 6.0184 Qs: Black Characters on Sh's Stage
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0184 Qs: Black Characters on Sh's Stage
 
Regarding Caroline Gebhard's query, has anyone ever seen a reverse cask
*Othello*, where all the characters were black except Othello himself?
 
It could provide an interesting twist.  A Shakespeare audience tends to be
about as white as a school of aryan studies, so it might be worthwhile to see
how the racism is perceived when directed differently.
 
I heard a rumour (here, I think) about Shakespeare in the Park doing something
like that.  Did they?
 
Cheerio,
Sean.
 

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