Debate on racist theatre practices – the use of ‘blackface’ and ‘yellowface’.

There are currently some very interesting debates occurring in Germany, and the US about casting and ‘blacking up’, and in the UK with the RSC’s controversial use of ‘yellowface’ in their forthcoming season.

As I am currently in Berlin, I have been able to attend some of the discussions about the use of ‘blackface’ in German theatres. There has been dialogue and seminars with various organisations and institutions, including ‘Buehnenwatch’, or Stagewatch, which was set up earlier this year, dedicated to end racist practices on German stages.

The ignition for this group and the protests and activism was The Deutsches Theater production of Dea Lohrer’s play ‘Innocence’ in February 2012, which portrays two African characters by white actors in blackface.

The discussion has deepened since the recent revelation that playwright Bruce Norris withdrew the German rights to his play on race ‘Clybourne Park’ as he discovered The Deutsches Theater were planning to cast white actors and use ‘experimental theatrical makeup.’

What follows is Bruce Norris’s open letter to the American Dramatist’s Guild and a link to the petition he has set up against the practice of casting white actors in ‘make-up’ in black character roles.

I have also provided a few links to the RSC and the discussion about ‘yellow face’.

Regarding Bruce Norris’s stance, as a playwright concerned with issues of representations of ‘the other’ (in my case, representations of disabled characters), this is a fascinating case of a playwright’s say, power, and position in relationship to productions and interpretations of the work. I hope you find it of interest.

Open Letter by Bruce Norris to the American Dramatists Guild:

October 16, 2012

Dear Dramatists Guild Members,

Last year (2011) I had the pleasure to attend a terrific production of my play Clybourne Park at the Staatstheatre Mainz in Germany, a theatre that has also staged excellent and respectful productions of two other of my plays. Shortly afterward, I was informed via email from my German agent that the play would soon be produced at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin – a somewhat prestigious theatre of good reputation. I asked to have the theatre put me in touch with the director so that we could discuss the play and the intended production. 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.

Disbelievingly, I contacted my agent who put me in touch with the management of Deutsches Theatre. Yes, they confirmed, it is true, we have cast a white ensemble member in this role, and we see no logical reason why we should cast an “Afro-German”. (If you are familiar with my play at all, the reasons are self-evident.) After much evasion, justification and rationalizing of their reasons, they finally informed me that the color of the actress’s skin would ultimately be irrelevant, since they intended to “experiment with makeup”. At this point, I retracted the rights to the production.

As it turns out, blackface has been and continues to be a widespread practice on the German stage. German actors of African descent are routinely passed over for roles explicitly designated for them in some of the largest theatres in the country. This is weakly defended as either a director’s prerogative or a matter of “artistic choice” – and yet, when questioned, no one could offer me an equivalent example of a white German actor having lost a role to a black actor in whiteface.

Now, normally I don’t meddle in the cultural politics of other countries, but when my work and the work of my colleagues – other playwrights – is misrepresented, I do. When we write plays, among other things, we are creating employment for working actors, and often we intend to employ a specific diverse body. Whatever rationale the German theatre establishment might offer for their brazenly discriminatory practice is of no interest to me. For, as little power as we playwrights have, we always retain one small power and that is the power to say no. To say, no thank you, I’d rather not have my work performed in Germany, today, under those conditions.

Lara-Sophie Milagro and her colleague Gyavira Lasana have created an online petition (included below) condemning the ongoing practice of blackface in German theatres and have asked me to ask you, fellow playwrights, to add your name to their petition. I urge you to do so.

But I would go one step further – I would advise you to boycott productions of your own work by German theatres that continue this asinine tradition (The Deutsches Theatre and the Schlosspark are only two examples). A zero-tolerance position is the only position to take, in my opinion, and if we are united then perhaps a few German theatres may take notice and, hopefully, in time, a better course of action.


Bruce Norris.  
New York

Against Black-Face Roles in German Theatre

The German theatre use of “black-faced” white actors in roles written and designed for blacks subverts the intentions of the dramatists and denies work to black actors. On a broader scale, black-face demeans black Germans and reinforces racist societal and political positions of power.


Use of ‘Yellow Face’ by Royal Shakespeare Company:

What follows are some links to discussions about the RSC and the criticism of racism within British theatre. I am grateful to Dr Lesley Judd whose letter appeared on SCUDD (Standing Conference for University Drama Departments) and which I reproduce here.

Dear Colleagues

I would like to draw your attention to a debate currently taking place between members of the British Chinese theatre community and the RSC.

The RSC are currently working on a production of The Orphan of Zhao, a classic Chinese play attributed to the thirteenth century Chinese dramatist Ji Junxiang. Of the seventeen roles in the production, the RSC has cast only three East Asian actors, two as puppeteers to play a dog, and the other as a Maid, albeit one, the RSC argues, with a reasonably significant part in the play.

The RSC have attempted to justify this casting decision on the fact that the play is in rep with two other plays. I consider this to imply that the appearance of East Asian actors would not be appropriate in these other plays. This, in itself, is an interesting argument to propose in relation to representation and stereotyping. Can East Asians act in non-East Asian plays?

Of course, the RSC has a record of working with Chinese and British Chinese artists. Yellow Earth’s collaboration with the RSC on Lear is the most obvious example of this, and it is not my intention to entirely denigrate the RSC’s engagement with multiculturalism.

Nevertheless, there remains an issue here regarding representation in this particular project. Were the RSC to stage a play concerning Africa, South Asia or South-East Asia, etc. would it be appropriate, or even acceptable, to ask White British actors to take the majority of roles, and to portray characters from those countries? Indeed, White actors portraying Black characters is now unthinkable. For East Asians, this is an astonishingly persistent mode of representation, especially in theatre.

At the very least, the RSC has stumbled into a debate about race with its eyes closed, and I feel it has some questions to answer.

British Chinese actors are asking for support, and are asking for objections to be raised with the RSC directly.

I also understand that MPs Ben Bradshaw (formerly Labour Culture Minister) and Keith Vaz are writing to the RSC to ask for an explanation, and that this issue might also be raised at Prime Minister’s questions. We shall see.

A debate about the RSC, and responses to its statements about this can be found here:

Many thanks

Dr Ashley  Thorpe.  University of Reading.

The formal statement from the RSC on the topic:

Other online resources:

10 responses to “Debate on racist theatre practices – the use of ‘blackface’ and ‘yellowface’.

  1. Thank you for covering these issues in an objective and articulate manner and for further raising awareness of the debates that are going on. It’s really much appreciated.

    • What has been so clear in the discussions online and in Berlin is the absolute necessity of dialogue, of discussion, of listening and engaging… I am thankful for your comment – I wanted to raise awareness, but allow individuals to draw their own conclusions, and act if they felt compelled to. Thank you Michelle.

  2. Dear Kaite,
    Thank you for such a clear and thoughtful addition to the discussion. Raising awareness in a fair and educated way is most welcome.

  3. Very interesting and an ongoing obstacle for ‘other’ actors which should have been removed by now.

    • Indeed… This explosion it seemed of activity surprised me – ‘Innocence’ and the Norris at Deutsches theater in Berlin, then the furore over the RSC…. It feels somehow that ground I thought had been ‘won’ and principled practice has lost its hold. It’s fascinating and also troubling – which is why I embrace all discussion and responses to this.

  4. Rosaleen McDonagh

    This subject matter is very close to my heart. Crippen up and blacking up is so disgusting. Theatre companies and actors who negate their responsibility by suggesting that art and performance is beyond embodiment or ethnicity and race, should have their funding pulled. I’m so proud of Bruce. We as writers must always be the masters of our work and therefore hold clear beacons reflecting credibility and authenticity about where and how our work is performed..


    • Fantastic. Yes, thank you, Rosaleen. As my 2002 play ‘peeling’ went: ‘Cripping up is the twenty-first century answer to blacking up.’ I’m inspired by Norris’s power and taking a stand regarding the representation and interpretation of his work.

  5. Thanks Kaite. Very interesting piece and the insight into the thoughts (and action taken) of Bruce Norris are most welcome. It shows ‘issues’ and an example of action. Anyone who reads this and had believed such things were of the past …?

    Of course when I look back I chuckle at how things seem so different now…but I don’t believe they are. However, I accept that a lot of people will sometimes find themselves having to face the dilemna ‘put up or shut up’.

    I mean how many of the actors who ‘blackface’ or would ‘yellowface’, would do so only because it is an opportunity to perform and work is work? By that I mean to just earn a living. If Bruce Norris was trying to establish himself would his actions have been the same?

    I know what I would do.

  6. Pingback: The Orphans of Theatre « The Adventures of littlemissmandu

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