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

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17 Oct 2012

Bruce Norris
Bruce Norris

Bruce Norris, whose play Clybourne Park features white and African-American characters — to Pulitzer Prize-honored, Tony Award-winning effect — stripped a German theatre company of rights to his drama when he learned that a white actress would be using makeup to play a black woman.

In an Oct. 16 letter to his colleagues at the Dramatists Guild (made public on the DG website), Norris wrote that after he learned that Deutsches Theatre in Berlin was going to produce his hit play about race and real estate, he reached out to the director "so that we could discuss the play and the intended production," and after not hearing back, "some time later I received a disturbing email from an actress named Lara-Sophie Milagro (who happens to be black, and whom I much enjoyed in the [2011 Staatstheatre] Mainz production of Clybourne), informing me of the fact that the actress who had been cast in the same role at the theatre in Berlin, was white."

He continued, "Disbelievingly, I contacted my agent who put me in touch with the management of Deutsches Theatre. Yes, they confirmed, it is true, we have cast a white ensemble member in this role, and we see no logical reason why we should cast an 'Afro-German.' (If you are familiar with my play at all, the reasons are self-evident.) After much evasion, justification and rationalizing of their reasons, they finally informed me that the color of the actress's skin would ultimately be irrelevant, since they intended to 'experiment with makeup.' At this point, I retracted the rights to the production."

The wide, popular use of blackface fell out of favor in the U.S. by the mid-20th century, with the rise of the Civil Rights movement and social and cultural enlightenment, though it is sometimes used on American stages today for ironic, satiric, historical or thematic effect (as in the Broadway musicals The Scottsboro Boys or The Wild Party). The practice remains in use abroad. A recent production of Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport at Schlosspark Theatre in Berlin featured a white actor in blackface playing Midge, an African-American character. (Read about a petition decrying the German practice here.)

In his open letter to DG, Norris added, "As it turns out, blackface has been and continues to be a widespread practice on the German stage. German actors of African descent are routinely passed over for roles explicitly designated for them in some of the largest theatres in the country. This is weakly defended as either a director's prerogative or a matter of 'artistic choice' — and yet, when questioned, no one could offer me an equivalent example of a white German actor having lost a role to a black actor in whiteface."

Norris has asked his fellow dramatists "to boycott productions of your own work by German theatres that continue this asinine tradition (The Deutsches Theatre and the Schlosspark are only two examples). A zero-tolerance position is the only position to take, in my opinion, and if we are united then perhaps a few German theatres may take notice and, hopefully, in time, a better course of action."

A Dramatists Guild statement accompanying Norris' letter and a link to petitions reads, "While we do not, as a general matter, allow members to use the Guild's communications network to advocate for their particular views, we are making this statement and petition available to the membership because it relates directly to an author's right of casting approval, which is a critical right reserved to authors and one at the heart of the Guild's purpose in advocating for authorial ownership and control of their work."

Read Norris' letter to DG here


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