Today, I saw my first blackface performance.
Let me rephrase that. I’m sure I saw quite a few things of this kind when I was a kid. I know for a fact that I painted my face brown, red, and yellow for carnival. But as an adult, in a serious play, this was a first for me.
Blackface performance has for a long time been a staple of German stage acting, and for a long time, it went largely unquestioned. Then, a year or so ago, a debate erupted in Berlin in the context of a production of Herb Gardner’s I am not Rappaport in which the role of Midge was cast with a white actor in heavy, unironic blackface whose image appeared in posters distributed all over the city. The argument developed along fairly predictable lines, with one side pointing out the racism inherent in the reduction of a person to a set of phenotypical markers, expressing frustration at the lack of non-white actors in many German theatres, and drawing connections to US minstrel shows, and the other side arguing that the minstrelsy tradition has no serious equivalent in Germany, that the basic principle of theatre is that an actor is not the character (and that everyone should be allowed to play anyone), and that artistic freedom needed to be protected from political correctness. I am not entirely off the fence as far as that debate is concerned. It is certainly the case that German acting traditions place so much less of a premium on authenticity than those dominant in the English-speaking world that identity politics of any kind will always function differently on stage here than, say, in the US. Especially in the context of a production that engages with the question of why a character’s skin tone should matter, blackface may be more of a viable artistic choice here than in many other countries. I know of a number of shows that have done interesting things with black makeup; but all of those shows usually draw explicit attention to the fact that the actor’s face is painted, that the dark skin is not real, that it is a signifier — and that its presence has been problematized and needs to be discussed. I don’t think such a thing would be easy to pull off (and perhaps it shouldn’t be attempted) in the US. Some images carry a historical load so heavy that they simply become unusable. And there are equivalents in Germany, too, of course: I’m not sure I could imagine a Shylock played in Jud Süß fashion, no matter how ironized the portrayal. Or has someone actually tried to do that?
But leaving aside that larger debate, what happened tonight was, to my mind, more offensive than these kinds of blackface performances — either the well-intentioned but woefully misguided I am not Rappaport staging or the self-conscious, self-reflexive use of face paint. Sebastian Baumgarten, in his production of Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses (originally staged at the Schauspielhaus Zurich and one of the ten plays invited to the Theatertreffen), chose to turn one of Brecht’s characters, the implausibly named Mrs Luckerniddle, into a bizarre, broad caricature of a “black woman” — not just in thick black face paint and red lipstick, but also wearing an afro wig, dressed in some sort of “ethnic” outfit, weirdly knock-kneed and hunched over, and speaking in a French accent. What’s more, he also had one of his actors in yellow face, with a long thin moustache, literally munching on a bowl of noodles, and speaking “Chinese.”
Why? I have no idea. Neither character is marked ethnically in Brecht’s play. Well, I didn’t have a clue until I read the director’s and dramaturge’s statements on the Theatertreffen blog and went to the post-show Q&A to hear their explanation — an explanation that I found worse than the original offence (all translations below are my own).
Apparently introducing these figures (as well as turning another of the workers into a fur-hatted Russian) was intended as an update on Brecht’s critique of capitalism. As Baumgarten writes, “how can one portray the working class on stage now? Unlike in Brecht’s time, capitalism now functions on a global level. In developing the figures, we deliberately wanted to play with signifiers in order to add a perspective on the globalized world to Brecht’s relatively historical treatment of his material.” Leaving aside the weird notion that capitalism only became a global phenomenon in the later 20th century (hello, colonialism?), that’s not, of course, a terribly problematic position to take: an all-white proletariat would indeed ignore global, national, or local realities. But if the point is to show that the working poor are from all over the world, why then undercut that point by using a distancing manoeuvre? Because that’s what Baumgarten says he is doing: “Our approach to performance works by exaggeration, and that happens on all levels; among other things I used blackface consciously as a means of representation, and especially of a heightened kind of representation. That is an artistic device.”
At first glance this may even sound vaguely plausible. But exactly what is being “heightened” here? What work is the exaggeration doing? It’s true that there’s little room for psychological realism in the entire production. All of the figures are more or less absurd versions of their own stereotypes. The capitalists move as if they were so loaded they could barely lift their feet, Slift (the main villain’s broker — here played by Carolin Conrad as Pierpont Mauler’s lover) was oversexed and power hungry, the salvation army workers are by turns oily and howling hypocrites, and so on. Johanna didn’t strike me as quite as broadly drawn as the rest, but in general, extremes ruled. However, what was exaggerated about those figures were the things that defined their role in the world of the play: the greedy entrepreneurs, the hypocritical clergy, the impossibly idealistic Johanna, the whiny and ultimately spineless workers. What exactly is Mrs Luckerniddle’s role in Baumgarten’s view of the play? Is she a member of the international proletariat, or is she primarily a person of colour? (If the latter, how does that, in and of itself, signify?) From his explanation for the character’s ethnicity, I get the impression that he thinks of her primarily as a worker — her cultural background serves to illustrate that worker “now” aren’t all white anymore. In the performance, however, she reads first and foremost as an absurdly exaggerated assemblage of racial stereotypes; unlike the other two workers, her occupation does not clearly define how she moves or speaks.
Exactly why the figure of the landlord Mulberry has become Chinese is even less clear — as is the question of why his stereotypically Chinese attributes should be so strongly portrayed (rather than his hard-heartedness and greed).
To be fair, Baumgarten’s arsenal of heightened choices is strangely skewed across the board. Mauler and his fellow butcher Cridle both have exaggerated speech problems (Mauler has a strong lisp and Cridle stutters). The third entrepreneur, Graham, has a yiddish accent that fades in and out of audibility. During the Q&A, the actors were asked what the logic of those choices was, and the answer, again, was “heightened representation.” Apparently, Mauler and Cridle’s speech issues were supposed to mark them as relatively “simple” characters, self-made men, not old money types. Cridle’s stammer was associated with “weakness.” None of this is very far from black facing to my mind. It’s turning heavily exaggerated portrayals of physical attributes into signifiers for something else. Though here, as with Mrs Luckerniddle, the relationship between the two is difficult to see. Does a representation of a capitalist seriously become more “heightened” as a portrayal of a capitalist because the character has a lisp? Does a landlord become more grotesque because he’s Chinese?
The yiddish accent is a particularly odd choice, and one Baumgarten, unsurprisingly, brings up himself: “It is all a question of representation; and it’s not like we’re only talking about blackfacing. I could also be charged with antisemitism because one of the capitalists speaks with a Jewish [sic!] accent in one scene. But our entire work functions by starting a narrative with these pop culture clichés only to join Brecht in exposing the social circumstances he’s describing.”
In the case of the Jewish banker (although that’s not what Graham is…), I suppose that argument kind of works, up to a point. But really only up to a point. Because while the stereotypical association of Jewishness and money is surely fair game for satirical treatment, even in Germany, the “exposure” Baumgarten promises would then have to include the various stereotypes the production trots out. I don’t recall Graham’s supposed Jewishness ever coming in for special attention or particular examination as a stereotype; I am certain Mrs Luckerniddle’s or Mulberry’s stereotyped ethnicity never was “exposed” as racist. In other words, how exactly does mobilizing racist tropes aid in the exposure of racism if racism or ethnic identity never becomes an issue in the production?
Baumgarten is right about one thing, though: I think it would be misguided to call him a racist, let alone an anti-semite. Noting that his production is using racist stereotypes in a remarkably naive and unreflected way is not the same as saying that Sebastian Baumgarten thinks African-American women look, sound, or move like his Mrs Luckerniddle, or that he believes greedy meat speculators are typically Jewish. But his work here is really quite astonishingly tone deaf, historically oblivious, and frankly obtuse. Here’s the paragraph from his self-justification that really got me:
“When what happens on stage is a caricature, any colleague of colour would be more than right to complain about that. The decisive point is that the person on stage who is playing the Russian or the African with full emotional investment, is not playing a caricature. A heightened representation is no caricature, because that would mean giving up on the figure — and I would be the first to intervene as a director to make sure that doesn’t happen. As soon as this sort of thing becomes a caricature, any critique is justified.”
How in the world can anyone play a “Russian” or an “African” with “full emotional investment” — and in what would that actor be invested? How can you, as an actor, be invested in your character’s national or ethnic background? What does that even mean? What would a heightened portrayal of a German, driven by full emotional investment, look like? Or that of a Brit? Or a US citizen? “Playing an African” — how can such a project ever not result in a caricature? (Playing a worker who happens to be Russian is obviously a different matter altogether, though why one would choose to heighten the Russian stereotypes and not the workerly ones in such a portrayal, and how that choice furthers Baumgarten’s project is, frankly, beyond me.)
Most problematically, though, leaving aside the issue of whether such a project is possible at all, is the fact that Baumgarten does not think the Mrs Luckerniddle in his production is a caricature. Has he ever met a black person? (I’m being facetious. I’m sure he has, and I’m sure he has a richly multiethnic circle of friends.)
As infuriating as this entire debacle is, it’s also quite representative of the entire production. The set is nice, makes quite wonderful use of projections to define spaces, and employs a clever mix of modern technology and very traditional (and Brechtian) elements, including a half-height curtain. Stylistically, it’s a rigorous show, relentless in its commitment to the heightened performances Baumgarten describes. It’s also rich in visual and gestural allusions to a kind of pop cultural canon, including cartoonish punching and drinking noises. But that’s where the tone-deafness of the director’s response to the blackfacing issue resonated with the entire production for me: as allusive as it is, its allusions mostly seemed awfully shopworn to me, to a pop culture and an America that’s neither of Brecht’s time nor of ours, but stuck somewhere in the 70s and 80s. A final video montage that romps through those eras and winds up with Obama didn’t really do enough to make the production’s universe of references feel relevant. Perhaps I’ve lived on the other side of the Atlantic for too long to still see cowboys as especially pertinent cultural representations of modern-day America, but even within a contemporary German context, those images and signals all felt terribly nostalgic. As a consequence, the entire satire of the production, to the extent that it worked, seemed to target things that have long ago become their own best self-parody. In that regard, at least, the racial stereotype seemed of a piece with the rest of the show: beyond its offensiveness, it just felt dated.
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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