Blackface is older than you think | Arts and culture


When the Metropolitan Opera in New York produced Guiseppi Verdi Otello in 2015, it was the first time in the company’s 125-year performance history that the lead actor did not use blackface makeup. Since the opera’s first performance in New York in 1891, all of the major tenors had performed the role in black and brown makeup.

Likewise, there were American performances by Shakespeare Othello long featured white actors turning black to star, even before the 1830 debut of Thomas Dartmouth Rice, the so-called “father of the American minstrel” who is credited with launching a whole genre of mass entertainment that has dominated the national scene for over a century.

Indeed, the tradition of white men performing in black makeup has barely disappeared, sometimes causing scandals in state, American houses. colleges and beyond. But the origins of the black-faced minstrel are much older than most people know, with deep roots in English medieval and Shakespearean theatrical traditions. Understanding the often forgotten medieval roots of blackface could help us end old performance traditions and create new ones.

At the most basic level, blackface is the application of any prosthesis – makeup, soot, burnt cork, minerals, masks, etc. – to imitate the complexion of another race. In the performance, the application of black makeup dates back at least as far as the medieval period, when guild records show that some of the demons in English religious dramas were described as black. Like Anthony Barthelemy, professor of English at Louisiana State University, Explain: “In many medieval miracle plays, the souls of the damned were represented by actors painted in black or in black costumes … [many versions], Lucifer and his Confederate rebels, after sinning, turn black. Researchers believe that natural oils like bitumen, coal soot, and black clothing were used to convey the blackness of fallen angels during these medieval guild performances. The association between blackness and spiritual lowering was therefore an element of blackface from the start.

Following the medieval period, Blackface had its heyday in England during William Shakespeare’s lifetime, when white actors in various types of racial makeup and prosthetics performed at the theater of the Moors, Africans and Turks. In fact, the only contemporary drawing we have of a Shakespeare performance includes Titus Andronicus’ Aaron the Moor, a black villain whose origins are not specified. The drawing is by English writer Henry Peacham, who likely went to see a performance of tragedy, Shakespeare’s premiere, in 1595, then returned home and commemorated his experience by drawing some of the characters and writing pieces dialogue of the room. .

Based on these sketches, Aaron the Moor looks like he was portrayed by a white actor in black makeup, a black afro wig affixed with a headband and either black stockings and gloves, or more makeup that covered hands and legs of the actor. This performance was hardly an outlier: one scholar notes that between 1579 and 1642 at least 50 plays were staged with racialized characters, and another scholar counts at least 70 productions with black characters between those years. . Renaissance theaters were full of black backstage.

Until recently, it was common for scholars to argue that Shakespeare would not have known blacks or Jews, but archival work by scholars like Imtiaz Habib has shown Shakespeare’s London to be much more diverse. that scholars had understood before. Shakespeare’s theatrical creations were probably a mixture of first-hand experiences with the various peoples who passed through the city and reimaginations of these people. This mixture is reflected in the pieces he wrote for his theater, the aptly named Globe, a space which advertised itself as being interested in the world at large.

The tradition of white men applying and using racial prosthetics to play as black characters migrated to the American colonies at the end of the 18th century. Othello was one of the most popular plays on the American colonial scene, but various other plays featured black characters portrayed by white male actors. These plays ranged from tragedies like those of Thomas Morton The slave (1816), to comedies like Isaac Bickerstaff The lock (1768), to pantomimes like those of John Fawcett Obi; or, three-fingered jack (1800), to equestrian dramas like that of John Fawcett The secret mine (1812), to comic operas like that of George Colman Inkle and Yarico (1787). Running blackness in the western world was therefore a white enterprise from the start. Being a black character on stage had to be played by a white actor in racial prosthesis.

Famous actor Edmund Kean wore blackface makeup in his role as Othello.

(Folger Shakespeare Library)

What we call blackface minstrelsy is a specific genre of performance that developed in the early 19th century in America, with the first documented performance being in 1830. Featuring characters with names like Jim Crow, Zip Coon, and Mammy, these performances included skits, monologues, songs and dances that mimicked those of enslaved or recently released people. The genre was meant to be a comedy and performed by white men; when there were female characters, the male performers disguised themselves while wearing a black face. And while the earliest minstrel performances were done as one man shows, after the Civil War, performers gathered in minstrel troupes, turning the fashion into a larger performance extravaganza. The fashion and genre became so popular that there were active minstrel troupes well into the mid to late 20th century. “The Black and White Minstrel Show, “for example, was broadcast on BBC1 television in the UK until it was canceled in 1978.

So, while “Daddy” Rice is often considered to be the progenitor of the American Minstrel, the mode of performance, techniques and genre that have come to terms with the Blackface Minstrel stem from a much longer European tradition of blackface performances. European blackface and American minstrels alike assume that the practice of darkness is a white birthright – that the stage is a white realm in which blacks are not allowed to tell their own stories, or even to tell their own stories. enjoy basic dignity. And these performance traditions have profound implications for acting today. All blackface applications, whether on opera stages or on television screens, objectify darkness, denigrate black identities – and make it much more difficult to create stories created by blacks.

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