Critics go hush, hush about Blackface

In this time of a recession, one of the first things to take a hit in the economy is art. An article in the Wall Street Journal warns “that corporations are scaling back in giving.” If corporations are scaling back, then you’ll be hard pressed to find patrons shelling out $45 dollars a ticket to see a theater piece.

However, I was surprised to see a sold-out crowd attend The Goodman Theatre’s Global Exploration of Eugene O’ Neill in the 21st century. The inaugural production for the festival features The Wooster Groups interpretation of “The Emperor Jones” directed by Elizabeth LeCompte.

In this version Brutus Jones, a black Pullman Porter and self-appointed West Indian emperor is played by Kate Valk, a white woman featured in Blackface. The Emperor Jones is a morality play about a black man, Brutus Jones, who’s checkered past becomes his demise. Jones’ own choices force him to face his wrongdoing in the West Indies.

But was this a brilliant marketing strategy to place the most controversial play, first in the line-up of the festival? Or was it holding true to the Goodman’s mission to “feature the work of the finest artists working today, from exciting new talents to established national and international voices.”

Either way, I sat in between patrons and press as the stage was set for a 60-minute reconstructed version of “The Emperor Jones.” Ms. Valk’s interpretation of Brutus Jones is reminiscent of Mr. Paul Robeson’s translation from the film version. Her voice is low and raspy with moments where she squeals particular words and bellows a large, hearty laugh. At some point, she grins to the audience, reminiscent of a minstrel grin that sends the audience into laughter. Her costume is a mish-mashed kimono with a billowy apron and black boots.

She commands the very small mechanical boxed stage with white tiled floors. Hurling a microphone on a broken MIC stand to amplify the sound of her voice over a jarring, cacophonous, electronic drum and bass score. Television monitors hang in the downstage area revealing Kabuki Theater scenes that run simultaneously during the play. There are also television monitors surrounding the upstage area of the set, which projected distorted video images such as the forest, the chain gang, and the train.

Throughout the piece, Smithers, the British confidant of Jones and a stage assistant that rolls in her throne on wheels and sets up props to delineate the scene shifts join her on stage. At some point during the performance, intermittently between the scenes, Jones, Smithers and the assistant dance a Kabuki-rifted sequence.

What would seem idiosyncratic aren’t just the Blackface, but the reaction of the critics.
“By casting Jones as a white woman, LeCompte simply lays bare the play’s stereotypes. As played by the simply astonishing Kate Valk, Jones becomes not so much a man but a cultural construct. As the Russian formalists would have said, everything is laid bare. And you can’t run away. No wonder this production has been in the visiting Wooster Group’s repertoire for some 15 years.” (Chicago Tribune)

Are we so desensitized by invidious images that we no longer question what’s considered (in the case of The Third Word Press) racist anymore?

“Our complaint is not with O’Neill’s play,” said [Bennet Jones] Johnson, who has not seen the Wooster Group show. After all, Charles L. Gilpin, a black actor, made his mark in the original 1920 production, and this was a revolutionary thing at the time. If a black actor were starring in it here, we would have no problem. What we object to is the minstrelsy aspect, which we consider both an anachronism and an insult. Minstrelsy has the same emotional connotations as lynching,” said Johnson.” (Chicago Sun Times)

What other’s may not know is that in 1981, The Wooster Group produced “Route 1 and 9” (The Last Act) based on Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play “Our Town,” “The Wooster Group smashes this piece with a vaudeville routine by African-American comedian, “Pigmeat” Markham. While videotaped excerpts of Our Town play on overhead monitors, the white male actors don exaggerated blackface and play the roles of stagehands who must build a house on stage. Loudspeakers broadcast a real phone conversation of two women as they try to order fried chicken from a series of uptown take-out restaurants. The onstage scene devolves into a Markham routine, using scatological humor, set at a party in which the men and the two women, also in blackface, have to leave the party to “send a telegram” (a euphemism for defecating in your pants) because Pigmeat (Vawter) has slipped castor oil into the punch.” (PBS.org/Cultural Shock)

Why would LeCompte and the Wooster Group decide to return to a devise long shunned by African-Americans in this country as stereotypical? All of the reviews seem to “excuse” this racially charged choice because the piece didn’t have exaggerated movement, incoherent speaking, or stock and demeaning images. “America has long passed the point where a straightforward production of ”The Emperor Jones,” with a black man delivering O’Neill’s dialectical speeches as written, could be other than embarrassing. Yet the drama remains fascinating, and it would be a shame to consign it to the shelves of unplayable plays.” (New York Times)

Who is this play actually for? Is this “high art?” Is this the type of play that is only for the ones that “get it?” The play features a white woman performing Blackface for a predominantly white audience in a white institution. How can the critics define this play as a take on gender and race if there is only a one-sided view? There were no African-Americans in the play. What are they really trying to say? Considering the history of this group and the previous play that had major controversy, I can’t imagine the group being able to justify using Blackface and connecting this to an underlined message on race and gender.

Here’s the drawback, do you attend the play and see for yourself if this production is offensive or not, or do you boycott? There are very few institutions where African-Americans can see themselves on stage. Should one boycott the few places that feature two African-American directors as collaborators? That has African-American board members and subscribers? Does one give a “late pass” to The Goodman Theatre’s decision to feature this controversial work? Only time will tell. What is your contribution to changing the structures that continue to divide us?

The Goodman Theatre is featuring a conversation with The Wooster Group and it’s Impact on Contemporary Performance Saturday, January 10 at 3 p.m. at the Goodman Theatre.

“The Emperor Jones” runs from 1/7-11 at the Goodman Theatre. 170 North Dearborn Chicago, Illinois 60601 phone number 312-443-3821 Tickets are $45. GOODMANTHEATRE.ORG.

THE EMPEROR JONES
THE EMPEROR JONES
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3 Comments

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  1. As a 58 year old African American woman celebrating her 40 th year in theater administration, I find this situation appalling. The Wooster Group has a long history of racist presentations. It is indeed a shame the Goodman, one of the most respected theaters in the country, has wasted time, talent and money to present this. No–I have not seen it and, quite frankly, my time (and money) is MUCH to valuable to be spent anywhere near this.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I pose another question for you and our readers. What’s the difference between this type of theater and the “chitlin’ circuit” plays that come into the neighborhoods for a weekend? Although they are African-Americans producing this work, it still showcases stock characters, not necessarily donning blackface, but are poor representations of a well-rounded human being…do you agree or disagree?

  3. roadlesswandering February 23, 2009 — 12:51 pm

    Enjoyed this thoughtful and provoking article. You mentioned how the play was performed without any black actors involved. Would that have made a difference? What could the black actor bring to the stage play that would add relevancy?
    I know this is about theater, but it made me think of the movie Tropic Thunder. Robert Downey Jr. portrays his idea of a black man and they contrast that with an actual black character who turns out to be another faulty stereotype.

    Looks to me like blackface still sells as long as the characters underneath aren’t black.

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