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18 april 2021

Ayanna Thompson, a Shakespeare scholar who wrote a terrific introduction to the current Arden edition of Othello among many other publications, now has the newest contribution to Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series: Blackface.

As one might expect, Othello looms large in the history of blackface. The greatest role in English-language and probably world theater to represent a black person, Othello was created by a white actor (probably Richard Burbage) and coveted by white actors for the next 300+ years, until very recently it became the convention for only black actors to play the role. The earliest Othellos probably used some form of coloring makeup: "prosthetics," Thompson calls such makeup, aligning the black appearance of many a white Othello with the exaggerated noses sported by many a Gentile Shylock.

Othello also represents one major type of blackface. Thompson defines blackface simply as steps taken to "imitate the complexion of another race" (19). (She focuses on visual prosthetics, but in many of her examples, voice is also a component: blackface often involves dialectal mimicry or burlesque, as in Amos 'n' Andy.) While no blackface is politically neutral, some shares features with truly neutral stage disguise, and Othello tends toward that end of the continuum. At the other end are the mockeries of black people in minstrelsy.

Thompson covers some of the early history of minstrelsy in Blackface. Minstrelsy is a practice, in its received forms, now so taboo that it can be hard for people to imagine it existed. I get the sense that some white people want to think of blackface as always having been mere disguise, at worst a form of taking jobs from black performers (and it was certainly that, at times). But minstrelsy was much worse. Thompson traces the practice to a reaction against black actors who sought to play white roles (sometimes in whiteface). You can see true minstrelsy on the Internet if you search for it, and its lethal creation of black people as grotesque, ignorant, and inherently freakish … well, explains why the practice is now taboo.

Or is it? Pretty much annually, some white notable is either found with a blackface performance in their (often recent) past (Ralph Northam, Justin Trudeau) – or mounts a neo-blackface act, out of either apparent cluelessness or miscalculated edginess (Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman). Thompson catalogues several of these incidents and wonders what the hell white people can be thinking. She concludes, with Kenan Thompson on Saturday Night Live, by exclaiming "No more blackface!" as the best ground rule (61).

The situation does not go both ways. (Another common misconception we white people make: that race is just some balanced dynamic like Republican/Democrat where both sides trade prejudices and disdain and each wins about 50% of the contests.) White performers who "blacken up" are always invoking their perception of the oddness, the markedness, the ugliness of color. Even if they claim to like the black person they're portraying, they're punching down, and no comparable punching up exists. (If you play Othello, you get to speak some of the grandest poetry ever written; but you also get to play an irrational, sexually-obsessed Other who takes domestic violence to a murderous extreme.)

In fact, whitening up has a long tradition too, though outside the bounds of Thompson's book, and is all about access to privileges that come with a lack of color. Megyn Kelly, bothsidesing it, claimed that black people get in trouble doing "whiteface for Halloween," but Thompson answers that in her Halloween days, "I really liked white singers … but I never thought to celebrate my love for them by whitening my face," as Northam claimed to be celebrating Michael Jackson by blackening his (18). Of course, Michael Jackson's adulthood was a kind of accelerating, saddening whiteface performance. The difference between Jackson and Northam was that Northam could wash up when he was done playing; and Jackson, bought into a dynamic where white was beautiful and deadly permanent.

Thompson notes that black performers, when they have full creative control of their projects, have at times taken on a variety of inappropriate impersonations, too, from Flip Wilson's drag comedy to Tyler Perry's. She is even dubious of the highly aestheticized, anti-racist 12 Years a Slave because director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley, while obviously not engaging in blackface, could not seem to avoid the complementary dynamic of making art out of a parade of tortured black bodies. Can any artist get out of the double bind of burlesque vs. horror show?

Full disclosure: while I have never donned African or African-American-mocking blackface, there is a picture of me as a "Chinaman" for Halloween, when I was four years old; and there may be pictures of me somewhere, in my senior high-school musical, in slightly-darker-face as Ali Hakim, the Persian Peddler in Oklahoma! I was trying to look like Eddie Albert in the movie, so I used a makeup foundation color called "Sallow" – still a white person's color, but distinctly less chalky than my natural tone.

I take no responsibility for what I did at age four, but in high school I was good at makeup and did my own and other cast members', too; it's on me. Ali Hakim was Persian and I figured Persian meant darker. Although, to pursue this bit of stage convention further, it's fairly clear that Ali Hakim, in Oklahoma!, has never been any closer to Persia than Kansas City. Ali Hakim is not Persian at all; he is a white man darkening up so that he can pretend to be Persian, bilk farmers out of their savings, and dance with the ranchers' daughters.

This makes my own darkening up for Oklahoma! in 1975 even worse in some ways: performing a mockery of a mockery. Of course I wasn't the one who chose Oklahoma!; I have to share blame with my choir director and with Rodgers and Hammerstein, for that matter. And Ali Hakim is one of the minor uneasinesses in a classic American play that features a lot of singing and dancing about the expropriation of previously-expropriated Native Americans in the interests of making the prairie safe for surreys with fringed tops. It all doesn't bear thinking about. Or maybe it does. Yet I have to say that in 1975 I didn't give it much of a thought at all.

Ali Hakim is an instance of what one might call Orientalist prosthetics. Thompson would still classify him under blackface, but this is a whole different wing of blackface from minstrelsy. White performers have a long history of making up as Persians, as Arabs, as Turks; as Indians and Chinese and Japanese; Gentiles have a long history of making up as Jews. The dynamics are colonial and anti-Semitic and great-gamy: the target is exotic Asians, not domestic Africans. But the power still flows one way. If there are Asian versions of whiteface, they don't circulate with the same direction, force, and scope as Orientalist blackface.

The opera world (if you have read much here you knew opera would come up eventually) has increasingly been brought to answer more and more for its blackface past and present. Verdi's Otello is probably the most famous role in the opera repertoire traditionally played in blackface, just as Shakespeare's Othello is in non-musical theater. But there are many other examples, often in the Orientalist direction. Aida, L'Africaine, L'amour des trois oranges; the various comic MENA villains of the Entführung aus dem Serail, L'Italiana in Algeri, Il Turco in Italia; Cio-Cio San and the Mikado; Corsairs and Gypsies and Assyrians and Pêcheurs de Perles.

Time was, a lot of Max Factor got expended to make a lot of French, German, and American midwestern singers more exotic than their unadorned whiteness would have suggested. But as opera casting began to open up internationally to singers of different races, 50-60 years ago, old conventions came under stress, sometimes collapsing, sometimes strained into weird pockets of resistance. On the one hand, you might show up at your local opera house for La Bohème and be treated to a Korean Rodolfo, a Mexican Mimi, and an African Musetta, with everybody wearing makeup to highlight their natural skin color, and it be the most normal matinee imaginable. On the other: "Black Face and Black Body for Ethiopien [sic] princess, for Verdi['s] greatest opera! YES!" insisted Anna Netrebko – in 2019, as she slathered some hue several tones darker than "Sallow" on her exceedingly white self. A jumble of contradictions, a situation at once admirably progressive and bizarrely conservative – and one that, despite Ayanna Thompson's wish that hers will be "the last book we will ever need on blackface" (112), a lot of theatrical professionals and their fans – along with a lot of suburban Halloweeners and prime-time TV viewers and politicians and newscasters – have barely begun to think about.

Thompson, Ayanna. Blackface. New York: Bloomsbury, 2021. [Object Lessons] PN 2071 .B58T46