Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Blackface

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, one of the shows I saw recently was Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins' Neighbors at the Public. I really wanted to write about it and discuss some of the issues it brought up for me, but felt like I couldn't because it's a workshop and not open to review. That seemed like cheating. However, that's changed a bit. I think, on the balance, that's a good thing. Neighbors is a provocative piece worthy of a wider discussion, especially more than what the Times already did on it here. (Note to Patrick Healy: Blackface and racial epithets are not the same thing as a famous actor with a fake stump. No, really, they're not.)

I also attended this event on Monday, to hear Brandon, the director Niegel Smith and others talk about using blackface and minstrel shows in theatre to address the thorny issues of race. It was a pretty great conversation and talking with Brandon after helped clarify some things I had issues with in Neighbors and some things that I'm struggling with in my own work.

When I saw Neighbors, I was really struck by how little blackface affected me (in case you don't click any of the links above, in the play, a family of old-style minstrels in blackface move in next door to an interracial family). How do you approach blackface and stereotypes of African-Americans after you've seen this:

Chappelle's Show
The Racial Draft
www.comedycentral.com
Buy Chappelle's Show DVDsBlack ComedyTrue Hollywood Story


Seriously, what can Sambo or Topsy tell me after that? I grew up with this, man:
So blackface, in and of itself? Not so shocking to me. But there is a generation for whom it still has power, for whom it still needs to be pushed back against. And I respect that. I benefited from that. I just think we need to re-examine our relationship to it.

In addition to Neighbors, I've come across a couple of plays that use blackface and minstrel shows lately and I'm always left a bit cold. There's a simplistic treatment to it that I think leaves out a sense of complicity and a weird kind of ownership. Minstrel shows are upsetting, racist and disgusting...and the basis for the modern American musical. In fact, the minstrel show is one of the, what, two or three genuine American additions to the cultural legacy of the world. And yet, they're completely verboten and hidden away. It's a complicated history to delve into, with many, many layers to unpack. I think a lot of writers are happy to just say, "This is how they think of you." But it's obviously more complicated and more interwoven than that.

I've approached race fairly gingerly in my work, with one exception (and that apparently needs a new title). Partly as a result of my pre-post-racial upbringing (black dad, white stepmom, suburban childhood), partly because it's so huge and tangled, I wanted to make sure I had my craft down before I broached it. But since this is shaping up into The Year I Write About Race, blackface and minstrel shows looms large over it. It's not a thing I'm likely to use, not any time soon, since I write in more "realistic" vein and it's a powerful, more than surreal style, but it's something in the back of my mind. And I'm certainly excited to see it tackled on stage more.

But it does make wonder about the retroactive nature of theatre. The Dave Chappelle skit up there is six years old. Bamboozled was a decade ago. There's a lot more space to approach the issues of stereotypes and images of blackness, maybe even some more latitude. I think, for certain audiences, there is more to be gained from pushing the envelope even further and drawing a sharper connection between the antiquated tropes of the minstrel show and our own modern forms of entertainment.

Either way, it seems like we're coming into a period of facing some of this stuff head on. For that, at least, I'm glad.

Because I love it and it is, sincerely, a seminal work in my development as an artist and a person, I leave you with this:

4 comments:

The Director said...

This unrelated to the actual post, but I wanted to point out that I subscribe to your blog. When I hit "Next" on my Google Reader feed, I saw the "Manifesto @ E.S.T" thing. I read that, hit Next, and saw another post from you, saw that it said "Manifesto @ E.S.T" at the top and figured you hit a duplicate post. Only after the fourth or fifth post did I realize that the Manifesto bit was your header text and the actual post was below.

Just wanted to let you know that it might be a bit confusing and people might be missing your posts because your intro text is so long (the actual post is below the fold) and looks like a duplicate post from previous posts.

Regards,
D

99 said...

Thanks, Director. I'm still figuring out some of the kinks around here. I'll make some changes.

About Me said...

Hi--Interested to know more of your thoughts about Neighbors. I thought I wanted to see it, but people I respect have told me it's offensive without making any real point. I'm not that into being made uncomfortable unless the journey is worth it. Was it for you?

99 said...

Hm. I would say see it for yourself, always. I had some issues with the dramaturgy and the production, but I didn't find it offensive in the least. Again, though, I don't have a very fine-tuned sensitivity to it (as I said). But there are a lot of interesting things about it, to say the least.