German ‘Clybourne Park’ production features white actor in blackface; Playwright rescinds rights

Posted on October 17, 2012 /Theater

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(Photo: Damon Gupton and Crystal A. Dickinson in the Broadway production of “Clybourne Park”/Nathan Johnson)

Bruce Norris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Clybourne Park,” has derailed a German language production of his Tony-wining drama after he learned that a white actress would use makeup to play one of the black characters.

The production was scheduled to debut at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin earlier this year, but it has since been cancelled.

“Clybourne Park” is a racial comedy that explores the history of racial steering in white communities during the 1950s and the gentrification of black neighborhoods in present day.

Despite the abundance of Afro-German talet available, the practice of blackface is still widely used in German society and black actors are constantly passed over for white actors. This week, Norris penned a condemning letter to his colleagues at the Dramatists Guild, which addressed the cancellation of the production in more detail.

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.

Thanks,
Bruce Norris
New York

The Broadway production of “Clybourne Park” won a Tony award for Best Play earlier this year. Writer Gyavira Lasana has started a petition to stop the horrendous practice of blackface in German theatre.