Blackface fail



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Blackface fail #2:

A few things I left out when writing the original post/want to clarify now.

My biggest criticisms of Baumgarten’s usage rest on his defense of it. My one criticism within the piece itself is that a representation of racial stereotypes through broadly drawn caricatures (blackfacing, yellow facing) is mixed with a portrayal of a Mexican character from a Latin-American actress. The use of two methods for representing race on stage makes the usage of the stereotypes unclear. Are they intended to earnestly represent a certain race? Or are they intended to winkingly represent an entire tradition of racial stereotyping through caricature which continues today, in which case why use a Latin American actress in the same context?

According to his defense, Baumgarten does not see the portrayals as caricatures, which is a clear misunderstanding of the portrayal of racial characteristics through the visual medium of the caricature over the span of art history.

He then uses the freedom of art argument to justify the usage of blackfacing, which he admits makes people uncomfortable. I can get behind this argument up to this point, I like a lot of art that makes me uncomfortable, even nauseous. But I only go from being to disturbed to liking it if I can see a point behind it. And the reasoning behind using this technique appears to have been to actually represent “Africans,” which not only ignores the diversity within this category, it also ignores the entire history of the use of this technique.

Blackfacing itself does have a long tradition, eloquently explained by Holger Syme in his post on the production and it’s not always one of opression. But it also shouldn’t be misunderstood as a tool for authentic representation.

The best commentary I know on this debate centers around portrayals of the title character in Shakespeare’s Othello. In her article on the subject, Elise Marks uses the term “racial drag” to describe the practice of an actor playing characters of another race, similar to the way drag performers perform characters of another gender. It also helps us understand why the reactions to “drag” performances are so different from “authentic” performances of the same role – i.e. pants roles in operas, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan, the opportunities for comparison are endless. We can also appreciate both for what they are. We don’t expect drag performers to authentically represent gender, so we also shouldn’t expect black facing to authentically represent race.

I know I’m using the word authentic a lot without defining it. But that’s a subject for another blog post/dissertation.

Summer more than 7 years ago

Bühnenwatch response to the production

a quick translation of an excerpt of a Bühnenwatch open letter into English. full letter here:

We are writing to criticize the production of the play “Saint Joan of the Stockyards” for its (re) production and support of racist images.

The intention to re-read Brecht’s text and to respond with theatrical means to historical, political and social changes in the world, is counteracted by the use of defamatory, discriminatory and stereotypical characters. Through his assertion that capitalism had previously not had such global dimensions, it is clear that, among other things, Mr. Baumgarten is not aware of the historical significance of colonialism and its current impact.
As those responsible for this political and, ultimately, artistic blunder, you had several opportunities to rethink your conceptual, directorial and cultural policy decisions and to change them. These options are not perceived and criticism is dismissed as unfounded.
The characters used in the production contain enormous potential for violence. Racial stereotypes and stylistic devices are used without being criticized, discussed or contextualized within the framework of the piece. The representation of an African woman through the stylistic device of blackfacing, which has been discussed in detail and continually criticized by black people over the past months, is not the only racist device used in this production. Other colonial fantasies come back to life: Mrs Luckerniddle’s costume is complemented by an artificial, particularly large rump. These characteristics are synonyms for centuries of oppression of black people and people of color by whites worldwide. They represent enslavement, deportation, murder, genocide, exploitation, land acquisition, social exclusion and the emphasis of white supremacy. To say that these characteristics were purely aesthetic and neutral suggests the denial of this (common) history.

The stereotypical representations are not limited to the racist connotations of the figure of Mrs. Luckerniddle. The presentation of the landlord Mulberry falls into this category, as well as Graham’s purported “Jewish accent.“ An intention to be critical of capitalism in the staging does not justify the use of such drastic stereotypes based on power relations that are far from being overcome. Rather, the repetition of hurtful stereotypes hinders that intention. A self-critical or ironic use of such agents still lacks the basis of a broad critical debate. Such a debate is not created if these stereotypes are just repeated and not deconstructed or contextualized.
“But” is not to be permitted to follow the words “Art is free.” However, the responsibility that the cultural sector carries cannot be negated. Theatre does not take place in a vacuum – that’s why it is still necessary to deal with content and resources responsibly...

Summer more than 7 years ago

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