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A production scheduled in Berlin of Bruce Norris's satire Clybourne Park, which has won the Pulitzer, Tony and U.K. theatre Olivier Awards, about class divisions and race relations, was cancelled by the playwright himself when he learned that one of black characters in the play would be played by a white German actress in blackface.
A production scheduled in Berlin of Bruce Norris's satire Clybourne Park, which has won the Pulitzer, Tony and U.K. theatre Olivier Awards, about class divisions and race relations, was cancelled by the playwright himself when he learned that one of black characters in the play would be played by a white German actress in blackface.

Theatre

Blackface, really? 3 ways to avoid cultural insensitivity on Halloween Add to ...

With all the zombies and vampires walking around, Halloween is supposed to be scary. But these days committing a fashion faux-pas is the biggest fear among adults who celebrate All Hallow’s Eve.

Many of the costumes that once were commonplace at parties – geishas, “Indian” princesses, banditos – are now considered culturally offensive. Every year, it seems another celebrity or politician or unlucky average punter makes an insensitive decision – and ends up haunted by the photos that inevitably spread far and wide.

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It’s no wonder that so many end up in the Halloweenie hall of shame, when even pop-culture professionals don’t seem to know what’s taboo and what’s not when it comes to colour, costumes and casting any more.

On Friday, Cloud Atlas, the new movie by the Wachowski siblings, opened in the shadow of accusations that the filmmakers had revived the racist practice of “yellow face” because, in certain scenes, white actors Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving are transformed into Asian characters through the use of slanty-eye prosthetics.

At the same time, Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company – which has in the past been lauded for its colour-blind casting – came under fire for only having three actors of Asian descent in its production of the classic Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao.

And just two weeks ago, American playwright Bruce Norris called for a boycott of German theatres that still employ blackface after learning that the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin planned to have a white actor play one of the black characters in his Tony-winning racial satire, Clybourne Park.

What can be really confusing is that practices that arouse anger in some circumstances don’t in others. With the topic somehow having been skipped over by Emily Post, here is some advice from performance professionals to hypothetical readers on the tricky modern etiquette of dressing up as a person of a different race than your own.

SCENARIO 1

Question: With the American election coming up, I want to be my boy Barack for Halloween. Only problem is: I’m Latino. How can I pull off the President look without getting into trouble like Phoenix Coyote forward Raffi Torres did when he was photographed in black makeup as his hero Jay-Z last year?

Answer: If you want to dress up as Obama without angering anyone, your best bet is to purchase a mask, says Philip Akin, artistic director of the culturally diverse Obsidian Theatre Company. Certainly “blacking up” is out of the question due to the racist history of the practice – and being of colour or ignorant of the legacy of minstrelsy is no excuse.

“Blackface was typically used to perpetrate ongoing stereotypes that white people had about black people,” says Akin, who has no sympathy for the university students who seem to annually get caught blacking up. “People actually need to get a little bit smarter and learn about the world before they popped out of their mother’s uterus.”

But what about artistic provocateurs who are aware of and play with this history? Say, New York avant-gardistes the Wooster Group’s production of The Emperor Jones, in which the lead was a white woman in blackface. And didn’t Robert Downey Jr. get an Oscar nomination for his ironic blackface in the comedy Tropic Thunder?

Akin, who was the first black Canadian actor to play Othello at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, cautions that just because artists have broken taboos in a certain context, doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to try it at home. “They pull it off, so a regular person thinks they can pull it off – and next day wonders why they’ve got a Facebook wall of shame,” he says.

SCENARIO 2

Question: I’m a Caucasian aficionado of K-pop who has been practising his horsey dance for weeks in preparation for dressing up as Korean crossover star Psy. Even Canada’s most trusted white man, Peter Mansbridge, has been seen on YouTube galloping to Gangnam Style, so do I have anything to worry about?

Answer: Last October, in advance of Halloween, an Ohio University group called Students Teaching Against Racism in Society released a poster campaign that went viral, spreading the message: “We’re a culture, not a costume.” It preached against dressing up as generic representatives of a different background.

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, the Korean-Canadian actor and star of the hit play Kim’s Convenience, refers to that campaign and suggests that before you head out on your invisible stallion, ask yourself a question: “Are you dressing up as the guy or his ethnicity?… If it’s done out of sheer admiration, it’s one thing; if it’s done to mock, it’s another.”

If you’re simply an ardent admirer of Psy’s mantra of “dress classy, dance cheesy,” then go for it, advises Lee – but embrace subtlety in your costuming. “Where I would draw the line is you try to tape your eyes back or paint your face or speak with a bad accent.”

In film, the objection to white actors playing characters of colour can be about crude makeup as in Cloud Atlas – which, complicating matters, also includes Asian actresses Doona Bae and Xun Zhou transformed into Caucasians – but in theatre it often has to do with employment equity. In the case of the RSC’s Orphan of Zhao production, as American playwright David Henry Hwang tweeted, the RSC “puts [an] Asian kid on the poster, but casts actors only as dogs and a maid.”

Lee cites a continuing Catch-22 that still leads to Asian performers getting sidelined in a way he feels other cultural groups don’t any longer. “They say there are no experienced Asian actors, but how are they to get experience?”

SCENARIO 3

Question: With the War of 1812 bicentennial, I’m thinking of dressing up as Tecumseh – even though I’m probably too late to get a Canadian Heritage grant to do so. As a South Asian Canadian, am I going to get in hot water?

Answer: Aboriginal playwright Yvette Nolan doesn’t think the native-American leader is necessarily a bad costume idea. “I’d probably be happy to see someone dress up as Tecumseh and not just a generic Indian in the cupboard,” Nolan says.

If you’re just dressing as Tecumseh to be facetious, however – “Hey, I’m an Indian dressed as an Indian!” – don’t do it, says Anand Rajaram, the South Asian performer who played the Shawnee leader in in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of The War of 1812 last summer. “I’d ask first, why did you choose to dress up as what you dressed up as?” says Rajaram, who always makes sure to research roles of other ethnicities even for the smallest sketch. (He once called hardware stores in Glasgow to make sure he had the accent right to play a Scottish cab driver at Second City.)

If you’re a history buff eager to spread the word about Tecumseh’s accomplishments, go for it, says Nolan – just don’t alter your skin tone and, she adds, “Don’t do the war paint unless you know what you’re doing with it.”

Or, she says, distilling her advice down to one line that should be applied to all Halloween costume choices regardless of race: “Don’t dress like an idiot.”

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