Bruce Norris, whose play Clybourne Park features white and African-American characters — to Pulitzer Prize-honored, Tony Award-winning effect — stripped a German theatre company of rights to his drama when he learned that a white actress would be using makeup to play a black woman.
In an Oct. 16 letter to his colleagues at the Dramatists Guild (made public on the DG website), Norris wrote that after he learned that Deutsches Theatre in Berlin was going to produce his hit play about race and real estate, he reached out to the director "so that we could discuss the play and the intended production," and after not hearing back, "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 [2011 Staatstheatre] 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."
He continued, "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."
The wide, popular use of blackface fell out of favor in the U.S. by the mid-20th century, with the rise of the Civil Rights movement and social and cultural enlightenment, though it is sometimes used on American stages today for ironic, satiric, historical or thematic effect (as in the Broadway musicals The Scottsboro Boys or The Wild Party). The practice remains in use abroad. A recent production of Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport at Schlosspark Theatre in Berlin featured a white actor in blackface playing Midge, an African-American character. (Read about a petition decrying the German practice here.)
In his open letter to DG, Norris added, "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."
Norris has asked his fellow dramatists "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."
A Dramatists Guild statement accompanying Norris' letter and a link to petitions reads, "While we do not, as a general matter, allow members to use the Guild's communications network to advocate for their particular views, we are making this statement and petition available to the membership because it relates directly to an author's right of casting approval, which is a critical right reserved to authors and one at the heart of the Guild's purpose in advocating for authorial ownership and control of their work."
Licensing agents for plays and musicals occasionally hear from amateur companies requesting to cast white actors in blackface or makeup, citing lack of available multicultural performers. Those requests are usually denied.
For example, Music Theatre International sends out this statement to troupes producing the multiracial musical Hairspray: "The use of make-up to portray black characters in your production (e.g., blackface) is not permitted under your License Agreement. As per your License Agreement, you agree that such use of make-up is strictly prohibited.
"If your production of Hairspray features actors who are portraying characters whose race may be other than their own, you may elect to include the below letter from the creators of Hairspray in your program. You are not permitted to edit this letter in any way (including U.S. English spelling)."
That accompanying letter from writers Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Thomas Meehan, Mark O'Donnell and John Waters reads:
"Dear Audience Members,
"When we, the creators of Hairspray, first started licensing the show to high-schools and community theatres, we were asked by some about using make-up in order for non-African Americans to portray the black characters in the show.
"Although we comprehend that not every community around the globe has the perfectly balanced make-up (pardon the pun) of ethnicity to cast Hairspray as written, we had to, of course, forbid any use of the coloring of anyone's face (even if done respectfully and subtly) for it is still, at the end of the day, a form of blackface, which is a chapter in the story of race in America that our show is obviously against.
"Yet, we also realized, to deny an actor the chance to play a role due to the color of his or her skin would be its own form of racism, albeit a 'politically correct' one.
"And so, if the production of Hairspray you are about to see tonight features folks whose skin color doesn't match the characters (not unlike how Edna has been traditionally played by a man), we ask that you use the timeless theatrical concept of 'suspension of disbelief' and allow yourself to witness the story and not the racial background (or gender) of the actors. Our show is, after all, about not judging books by their covers! If the direction and the actors are good (and they had better be!) you will still get the message loud and clear. And hopefully have a great time receiving it!"