Pulitzer Winner Bruce Norris Retracts Rights to German Troupe's Clybourne Park Over "Blackface" Casting

By Kenneth Jones
17 Oct 2012

Licensing agents for plays and musicals occasionally hear from amateur companies requesting to cast white actors in blackface or makeup, citing lack of available multicultural performers. Those requests are usually denied.

For example, Music Theatre International sends out this statement to troupes producing the multiracial musical Hairspray: "The use of make-up to portray black characters in your production (e.g., blackface) is not permitted under your License Agreement. As per your License Agreement, you agree that such use of make-up is strictly prohibited.

"If your production of Hairspray features actors who are portraying characters whose race may be other than their own, you may elect to include the below letter from the creators of Hairspray in your program.
You are not permitted to edit this letter in any way (including U.S. English spelling)."

That accompanying letter from writers Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Thomas Meehan, Mark O'Donnell and John Waters reads:

"Dear Audience Members,

"When we, the creators of Hairspray, first started licensing the show to high-schools and community theatres, we were asked by some about using make-up in order for non-African Americans to portray the black characters in the show.

"Although we comprehend that not every community around the globe has the perfectly balanced make-up (pardon the pun) of ethnicity to cast Hairspray as written, we had to, of course, forbid any use of the coloring of anyone's face (even if done respectfully and subtly) for it is still, at the end of the day, a form of blackface, which is a chapter in the story of race in America that our show is obviously against.

"Yet, we also realized, to deny an actor the chance to play a role due to the color of his or her skin would be its own form of racism, albeit a 'politically correct' one.

"And so, if the production of Hairspray you are about to see tonight features folks whose skin color doesn't match the characters (not unlike how Edna has been traditionally played by a man), we ask that you use the timeless theatrical concept of 'suspension of disbelief' and allow yourself to witness the story and not the racial background (or gender) of the actors. Our show is, after all, about not judging books by their covers! If the direction and the actors are good (and they had better be!) you will still get the message loud and clear. And hopefully have a great time receiving it!"