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Playwright pulls production of Clybourne Park in Berlin – is theatre discriminatory?

Bruce NorrisThe social networking site twitter has many uses, but one of its best qualities is how it is able to bring together people from many walks of life so they may converse with one another on a range of issues, allowing for a widely-differing assortment of opinions to be heard. No matter how right you may believe you are in a particular matter, there are always others out there with a different perspective and different doesn’t necessarily mean wrong. Debate is a wonderful and healthy activity to take part in, and the poll ran on the website of The Stage has certainly sparked a hot debate on twitter.

Last Thursday, they published a news item on the recent furore in Germany caused by playwright Bruce Norris withdrawing the rights to one of his works in reaction to the theatre’s intent to ‘blackface’ one of its leading ladies. The Deutsche Theatre in Berlin were planning to stage a production of the Olivier Award winning writer’s  play Clybourne Park, but Norris has put a stop to that with his retraction, going a step further by picking up his pen and composing an open letter to vent his outrage – a letter which was published by the Dramatists Guild of America. In one section, he writes: ‘Whatever rationale the German theatre establishment might offer for their brazenly discriminatory practice is of no interest to me. For, as little power as we playwrights have, we always retain one small power and that is the power to say no.’ Norris clearly decided to exercise the power of a ‘No’, and in doing so, has started a debate on the matter of racism in theatre.

Let’s begin by seeing that the situation in Germany is hardly a unique one: for example, there was a similar uproar twenty-three years ago when Schonberg and Boublil’s Miss Saigon opened in the West End. Based on the opera Madame Butterfly, the musical is set in Saigon in the midst of the Vietnam War and tells the – ultimately doomed – love story of a Vietnamese bar girl (Kim) and an American GI (John). Filipino actress Lea Salonga‘s performance as ‘Kim’ made her into a star, but while she received a torrent of endless praise, the show received a stack of criticism for two of its other casting choices. Jonathan Pryce (The Engineer) and Keith Burns (Thuy) were both white actors who underwent prosthetics and make-up to give them an Asian appearance; this didn’t sit well with Broadway either as Pryce wasn’t given permission at first to recreate his role in the show’s transfer there.

The practice of alternating an actor’s ethnicity with prosthetics and/or make-up may not be unique, but it is uncommon – for both stage and screen. Robert Downey Jr. being ‘blacked up’ in the Hollywood film Tropic Thunder is the only instance of a film/TV programme thatcomes to mind right now. There was also a reversal of the issue in the film White Chicks, in which two black FBI agents go undercover as white women. Both of these films were comedies though and the over-riding intent was to make people laugh, not to cause offence or suggest racism.

Despite best efforts, it’s impossible to get everyone to agree with one another: where one person sees a harmless act, another will see discernible racism. Who makes the choice as to which is right and which is wrong? In the Les Miserables 25th anniversary concert, there was a black man playing ‘Javert’ and a Filipino woman playing ‘Fantine’ – who also had a Caucasian daughter. That concert was a special occasion and everyone on that stage was just there to celebrate the longest-running West End musical on its 25th birthday, so what should it matter what colour their skin is? I’ve encountered people who clearly believe that it does matter though and were very much put-out by the casting decisions for the concert – are they racist?

There are arguments for both sides of the issue. On the one hand, there are undeniably more opportunities available for Caucasian actors than those of other ethnicities. With a selection of limited roles, it’s easy to understand the anger when they are given to actors who have to be ‘made-up’ for them, opposed to an actor who naturally fits the bill. On the other hand, the very essence of acting is to turn yourself into somebody different. Actors will adopt an accent, dye their hair or wear a wig and dress in clothes that are not theirs – all in the name of becoming someone else. Painting white skin black or using prosthetics to make Western eyes look oriental… it could be argued that these are just another tool in the actor’s belt.

I’ve found it interesting to see how people have differed in their views on whether ‘blackfacing’ is racist or not. Some have likened it to men playing women or able-bodied performers playing disabled characters; I even saw one comment on twitter in which ‘blackfacing’ was compared to the performers in Shrek The Musical painting their faces green. Seeing as there aren’t exactly any little green-faced men running around bemoaning the evil of having a non-greenie play an ogre, I don’t really see it as a fair comparison though. I also don’t think there is any racism occurring here that is deliberately malicious. No-one on these productions are actively attempting to exclude those who are not Caucasian (at least I hope not), but the fact remains that, in even the most guileless reasoning behind a move like this, they are inevitably being excluded. I admire Bruce Norris for what he’s done, and it doesn’t really matter whether you think of him as someone who has stood up against what he described as an, ‘asinine tradition’ or as someone who is making a big fuss over nothing. No, what matters is that he spoke out for what he believes in.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Tuesday 23rd October 2012


  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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