Black Magic

Two more reviews in the paper today, Altar Boyz and the world premiere of Russell Davis' The Day of the Picnic.

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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.
February 3, 2009 3:00 PM | | Comments (3)

3 Comments

Thanks for the links, and no, I haven't seen the show because even though I'm only an hour and a half from New York, I somehow NEVER get there. However, it sounded like a really interesting production. Maybe you can bring it back to the Philly Live Arts Fest, where I saw (and reviewed and was pretty intrigued by) your Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven.

For the record, I'm completely in favor of consciously using stereotypes for one's own purposes, but generally one's own stereotypes. However, the fact that this is a line of investigation you've taken before makes The Shipment probably the next logical--though still surprising, I guess--step in your work.

So, maybe seeing the play would answer this question for me, but in your collaborative process, did you get into issues between Asian- and African-Americans? Was that a part of The Shipment's concept at all?

Finally! I've been getting a little weirded-out that nobody has asked this question of THE SHIPMENT yet. For the record, THE SHIPMENT was made collaboratively with a black cast who had full artistic control over where the show went (I got vetoed many a time over the course of the process). We were all kind of freaked out about the use of stereotypes, and at one point I tried to convince the cast to ditch the stereotypes altogether, but they felt strongly that it was important to address them since they were pissed-off that those were the types of roles they got asked to play all the time. We really busted our asses trying not to just present the stereotype as-is and belligerently call it a critique. Did you happen to see the show, BTW? In any case, I can certainly see why you would be suspicious.

And if you did see the show and still found it dodgy, I'm truly sorry to hear it. We haven't gotten that feedback from anyone else so far (at least not to our faces!).

Here are a couple of reviews by black critics, in case you're interested in seeing how they dealt with the show:

http://www.theroot.com/views/shock-theatre

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/theatre/2009/01/26/090126crth_theatre_als

Also for the record, only two of my six shows has dealt with Asian stereotypes and one of them was six years ago!

Anyway, thanks for asking good questions!

Not sure about contemporary use of blackface for general mainstream audiences. Theatre consists of actor and audience, and I'd assume intended audience should determine appropriateness of medium. I'm not one for big general rules... Black face, while not unrelated, isn't exactly the same as "magic" to me, however.

It does seem to me that the "magic negro" is very similar to the "magic gay man", "magic transvestite", "magic Asian woman", etc. Seems that disenfranchised groups often go through a being pitied phase and a being glorified phase on their way to being, hopefully, just like everyone else.

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