Two more reviews in the paper today, Altar Boyz and the world premiere of Russell Davis' The Day of the Picnic.
Here's what I'm wondering: As I mentioned in the review, I believe The Day of the Picnic relies heavily on the stereotype of the "magic negro." (At left: Sidney Poitier in what has been labeled the sine qua non of magic negro films.) The Wooster Group recently caught a whole lot of flack--while getting great reviews from white people--for reviving their blackfaced Emperor Jones. And complicating things, Young Jean Lee, who usually writes about Asian-American stereotypes, wrote The Shipment for an African-American cast about African-American stereotypes, which was then reviewed--favorably--again, by a white reviewer. So when, if ever, is it okay for a non-African-American company or playwright to use these kinds of images? And if they're all right with white reviewers, but not with African-Americans, does that mean black steps back, or at this point in our culture are both perceptions equally valid?
If, as many would have you believe, we're now postracial, I guess you can make the assumption that plenty of us are familiar with the history of racism in this country, and have grown up learning African-American history right alongside European-American history, and perhaps, in a few school districts, some Asian-American history too. We've grown up in integrated communities, worked in integrated workplaces and socialized in an integrated fashion all our lives.
So is it okay to go blackfaced if you're completely aware of all its implications? Or if you're co-opting them to make your own, separate point? After all, Wooster's Elizabeth LeCompte says in David Savrian's Breaking the Rules: The Wooster Group, "The blackface is not sociological. It's a theatrical metaphor." And is it okay to use the magic negro if you're a white playwright making a point about British colonialism in Africa? Or does a white critic--as most of us are--have an obligation to call attention to these issues in the first place? And hey, if the answer to any of these questions is yes or no, well then, who gets to make the rules?
Below: A theatrical metaphor from Spike Lee's Bamboozled.