Blackface fail

Even after I heard that the production of Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards from Schauspielhaus Zurich not only used full body black facing but incorporated a “booty enhancer” as well, I went through with the decision to go watch it. I was determined to keep an open mind, because there should be freedom of art. Right?

Since the beginning of 2012, blackfacing on stage has sparked controversy in Berlin, spurring multiple protests, but I’d managed to steer clear of personally experiencing it myself. I was raised in post-Civil Rights Movement U.S.A., thankfully only saw the minstrel show tradition in books and wanted to keep it that way.

But when this piece was chosen as one of the 10 “most remarkable” productions in the German-language theater world, I had to suck it up, put my American political correctness aside and face it.

And it was disturbingly terrible: an exaggerated reproduction of a “black other” that more closely resembles 19th century caricatures and “darkies,” than any sort of 21st century, repressed by global capitalism, “African” that the character Mrs. Luckerniddle is now (there’s no reference to origins in Brecht’s text) allegedly supposed to represent. I felt sick to my stomach.

I mostly wanted to forget the experience as soon as possible, but I cannot help but feel outraged, especially since public funding was used to bring this piece to Berlin. (They also failed to mention the use of blackfacing in the jury’s decision AT ALL). So I wanted answers. Fast.

Thankfully my fellow Bloggerin had interviewed the director Sebastian Baumgarten. Justification?

Baumgarten: “I deliberately chose blackfacing, among others, as a technique for presentation, heightened presentation. That is a tool of art.”

Yes, blackfacing is a tool for presentation. And it’s been used to propagate negative stereotypes for centuries. To put this technique on stage and not create a venue within the work for the analysis and questioning of this historic usage deliberately ignores the explosive nature of this “tool of art”.

I still believe that art should be free. And that there might theoretically be a production in which even a technique as negatively-charged as blackfacing could be intelligently and powerfully addressed on stage. And that it could even be chosen as one of the 10 “most remarkable” that year. But this car wreck of clashing stereotypes (let’s not forget the squinty-eyed, noodle-slurping portrayal of Mulberry) certainly isn’t it.

The audience discussion after the second performance last night was just disappointing: the director was back in Zurich and the dramaturg was left to fend for herself. Yes, they were aware of the controversy, but they needed “images” to represent the globalisation of capitalism. Right.

The actress who portrayed the “African” was notably absent. Why?

“I think she’s still in the shower.”