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"Black Face" In the Post-Racial Year of Obama

So I started this blog recently because I'm now a member of the NBC Street Team (yea!), but I've really wanted a forum where we could exchange ideas for some time now.  Here we go . . . !

Maybe you've gotten word about the controversial Emperor JonesYesterday marked Goodman Theatre's Chicago premiere of the Wooster Group's take  - performed in "Black Face" by Kate Valk.  Yes, black face.  Provocative? You bet.

Emperor JonesFirst released in the early-1930s, The Emperor Jones, starring Paul Robeson, tells the story of Pullman porter, who loses his temper and his job; lands not only in jail, but on a chain gang; kills a white guard, but manages to escape to Haiti where he crowns himself emperor. In this production, The Wooster Group, apparently notorious for their radical productions, clearly has a message that they find well-worth the risk of offending cultural sensibilities

Barack's historic "post-racial" bid for presidency may, for some, mark the end of racism in America. But, we've got a mighty long way to go before the revival of a seemingly minstrel-like performance can escape the ire of people who routinely feel the effect of racism in this country. That being said, Goodman Theatre has an undisputed record of including culturally diverse productions - and not just during the month of February! Giving Goodman the benefit of the doubt, I would be disappointed to find that the use of "black face" was purely gratuitous.  Are the wounds from that history that linger into the present still too painful that any purpose could every be justifiable?  Or should we be past all that by now?

Reader Comments (7)

[from a subscriber]
I saw this yesterday and sent an email response to the newspaper. I find it insulting and degrading and any African-American subscriber/doner/customer at Goodman should protest. This theater company (Wooster) is from NYC, they have a reputation for this kind of offensive material. I don't give a shit about how they perform it. We need to stand up and demand respect--its time for change. Why don't they put on a musical about the Holocaust with Blacks in whiteface. Lets see how great everybody thinks that is.

January 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSoleil!

[pemen says:]
Please don't go! Why give Goodman money to see why the justify doing a production in Black Face? There is no justification for them or you supporting it!

January 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSoleil!

Are there things that are so patently and blatantly offensive that they don't even merit discussion? Is there any possibility that there is some artistic merit to this production? Can we judge it sight unseen? I'm just asking the question . . .

January 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSoleil!

As a founding board member who served in that position for twenty years with the Chicago Theatre company, I have an affinity for non-traditional casting, whereby certain roles that are normally filled by whites are portrayed by black actors. I surmise that this might be the argument that this particular acting troupe might be espousing.

However, this is not the same as, say, in a film production where the white Victor Mature is cast in the role of Hannibal, Liz Taylor as Cleopatra or Charlton Heston portrays The Black Moor (El Cid).

No, this is not the same. It's more like the minstrel shows, where black people like the extremely talented Bert Williams watched white folks performing in black face while he himself was "cast out." More importantly, most of those shows depicted blacks as shuffling imbeciles.

It is that image that strikes a harsh chord with the majority of black folks, who see it as a throwback to the Jim Crow era, and as tantamount to expressing a non-verbal "N-word."

I would surmise that some of the black-faced actors in this production might be of Jewish persuasion, and wonder how well it would be received by their brethren if they donned Nazi uniforms and sang about the Wonderful Fatherland. I'm sure that these same individuals are aware of the sensitivities aroused as a result of this undertaking.


January 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFred Dunham

[from New York]

what the publicity material on minstrelsy fails to acknowledge is that the demise of "blackface" did not stem from white america suddenly developing a conscience abt stereotypical images of blacks; its demise stems from black performers turning minstrelsy from comedy to tragedy and devleoping its own audience for it. since minstrelsy was the popular form of entertainment (sort of like what reality tv is now) black performers had to embrace the production elements of minstrelsy, i.e. "blackface" etc. but the story-telling aspect changed from comedy/buffoonery to tragic realism abt racism. as black minstrels continued to embrace the tragic and developed an audience among blacks, i.e. when black performers and audiences empowered themselves, then minstrelsy began to die out.

you have to ask what is the purpose of the wooster group production? is it simply to be controversial for controversy sake. or is white america trying to say, now that we have elected a black president then we are free to exploit race. how does the wooster group production differ from the tn gop chairman's "obama, the magic negro" set to the tune of "puff the magic dragon" differ? high art vs. low art?

January 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSoleil!


Greetings: I sat through the Emperor Jones production at the Goodman Theatre & waS THOROUGHLY DISGUSTED. A white lady sitting next to me could observe that I made a tally of the times I heard Nigger. it was 27 times. I later had a discussion with a member of the Goodman Theatre staff who thought that is the way to get white racist to see that it is wrong. She further stated’it is hard for me to show high school students the trouble we as African Americans have encountered; and the uncomfortableness of this production could serve that purpose.”

Since I am a subscriber to Goodman, I left comments in the box, although there was no provision in the program about the offense I had & how it should be dropped from the series or the word Nigger dropped from the production.

January 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbarbara

While I was unable to attend the performance on Sunday, a subscriber and new Soleil's To-Dos Theater Critic has something to say about it! Welcome to Sydney Chatman, co-founder of the" rel="nofollow">Tofu Chitlin Circuit - A Theater Company!" rel="nofollow">Read her comments and please share your thoughts.

January 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSoleil!

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