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Theatre & Performance The Wild Party explores the troubled tradition of blackface in surprising new ways

Stars of the upcoming musical, The Wild Party, Cara Ricketts and Daren Herbert pose for pictures in their rehearsal hall at The Elgin Theatre on February 10, 2015.

Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still

And she danced twice a day in vaudeville

Grey eyes

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Lips like coals aglow

Her face was a tinted mask of snow …

She lived at present with a man named Burrs

Whose act came on just after hers

A clown

Of renown:

Three-sheeted all over town.

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The Wild Party, Joseph Moncure March (1928)

Over the holidays, Montreal's Théâtre du Rideau Vert provoked a flurry of outraged op-eds and open letters after a white actor put on black makeup to portray Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban in an end-of-year sketch show.

Now, in Toronto, a musical called The Wild Party has opened this week – and one-upped that loaded racial imagery.

Director Robert McQueen's production of Michael John LaChiusa's 2000 show, about a jazz-age party where no one is exactly what they seem, not only features a character who blacks up, but another who puts on white makeup in order to lighten her skin.

Of course, the fact that black actors – The Book of Negroes star Cara Ricketts and musical-theatre maverick Daren A. Herbert – are playing the characters in question (and that they are put in a historical context) means that outrage is on hold for the moment. But should it be?

"I've already had at least one person say to me, 'Yeah, it's not going to be offensive because you're doing it,'" says Herbert, who plays the vaudevillian clown named Burrs who does his blackface act in the show, sitting next to Ricketts, who plays a face-powdering dancer named Queenie.

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"That's a very interesting perspective," he continues. "I never even thought of that. I thought blackface was always offensive, but then people are still doing it, so clearly I'm incorrect. Did you see the one that they did with P.K. Subban? Nope – it's still not over."

The Wild Party is based on Joseph Moncure March's scandalous 1928 narrative poem about a boozy blowout among New York's artistic demimonde. In the original Broadway production of LaChiusa's musical, the party's tempestuous hosts Queenie and Burrs were played by white actors – Toni Collette and Mandy Patinkin.

With Ricketts and Herbert in the roles, however, the show's themes of disguise gain an added racial relevance.

And coming at a time of clockwork controversies – where every Halloween leads to another thoughtless blackface costume going viral; every Christmas results in another round of think-pieces about Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands – it allows for a timely conversation about the many reasons black performers sought to change the colour of their skin, both then and now. (Says Herbert: "Michael Jackson – he almost embodies everything about this show in one guy. The late, great, I should say.") Because, in a way, blackface isn't having a revival – it just never went away.

With minstrel shows and vaudeville long consigned to the dustbin of entertainment history, not everyone is aware that it wasn't just white performers who used to perform in blackface. Indeed, the practice of, originally, applying burned cork to the face, and red or white paint to accentuate the lips, has never really been about naturalistic racial disguise, but about creating a clownish caricature of blackness.

Blackface was born in minstrel shows of the 19th century, the original American pop culture, where white northerners performed sketches and songs depicting a sanitized version of life among slaves on southern plantations.

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After American slavery ended, however, many newly free black men took up jobs as minstrels in an uncomfortable act of cultural reappropriation. Some blacked up and billed themselves as "genuine minstrels," while others, paradoxically, put on the cork in order to disguise that they actually had black skin themselves.

In the 20th century, as minstrels vanished, the performance tradition transferred over to vaudeville – and blacks in blackface worked and sometimes thrived there, performing in front of both white and black audiences until the civil rights movement.

The most successful was Bert Williams – after whom Herbert has modelled his performance of Burrs in The Wild Party. One of the most popular comedians of the age, Williams was praised by George Washington Carver for having "done more for the race than I have – he's smiled his way into people's hearts."

At the same time, W.C. Fields described Williams, who died in 1922 at just 48, as the "funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew."

Williams was originally from the Bahamas– and he was actually putting on a mask on top of a mask when he performed in blackface. "He had to learn to speak in an American accent. Then, for vaudeville, he had to learn to speak in a southern, black, lower-class accent and create this whole persona," Herbert, a Bermuda-born performer who has worked in Canada for years and just became a citizen, explains. "He had constant shame over it – and he was a genius at it at the same time."

Transposing a black vaudevillian background onto the character of Burrs helps explain the character's anger and self-destructive behaviour. Queenie, meanwhile, has long been read as a black woman in March's poem – the references to her "mask of white" suspected to mean she is trying to "pass" as white. (LaChiusa, composer of the musical adaptation, originally wrote the part in his show for Vanessa Williams.)

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For her Queenie, Ricketts has researched real-life entertainers of colour from the 1920s and 1930s who may have "passed," such as the popular bandleader Ina Ray Hutton (who was only revealed a few years ago to have an African-American background by a radio documentarian), or the Anglo-Indian actress Merle Oberon, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1935 and pretended she was from Australia for her entire career. "She packed on the white powder and, because it was black-and-white film, you can't tell," Ricketts notes.

Given the way blackface or skin-lightening creams are condemned in the U.S. and Canada these days (though you'll find the former widespread in parts of Europe, and the latter widely for sale in India or Jamaica), staging The Wild Party in this way was not a safe choice for co-producers Acting Up Stage, a company that specializes in musical theatre, and Obsidian Theatre Company, a theatre company dedicated to "to the exploration, development, and production of the Black voice."

But Philip Akin, artistic director of Obsidian, only wanted to co-produce The Wild Party once black leads were determined. "There's a difference between what Rideau Vert did – or guys getting blacked up for Halloween – and the Wooster Group's [blackface The Emperor Jones]," says Akin, who will also be directing a show about blackface performers written by Sean Dixon at Ontario's Blyth Festival this summer.

For him, the casting of this production of The Wild Party allows for a exploration of not just the "messed up history" of blackface, but "shadism" within the black community. "Culturally, in Western European culture, the epitome of beauty is supposed to be blonde and blue-eyed. That has had a huge impact on black culture, particularly in North America," Akin says.

These racist realities continue to affect black men and women working in arts and entertainment today – which is why, when you talk to Herbert and Ricketts about blackface or passing, it's not strictly a historical conversation, just as discussion of the Black Bottom dance in the 1920s leads to talking about twerking in our time.

Take this revelation by Ricketts while talking about Queenie's putting on of powder: "Even now, I'll verge between shades," she says. "There have been moments where I've worn lighter foundations for certain things."

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Ricketts comes from a light-skinned family, while Herbert has a darker black complexion. And for the record, the reporter in the room is white – and his voice tightens up when asking personal questions about race in an interview. Which perhaps explains why Herbert takes over the role of interviewer when the conversation turns to this topic. "Certain things? Like what?" he asks Ricketts.

"Certain shows," says Ricketts, coyly.

Ricketts, who spend fours season at the Stratford Festival, doesn't specify which plays or films she's wore a lighter foundation for, but she does tell a story about going out to a club when she was in high school with a group of her Italian-Canadian friends and meeting some guys. "We were all talking, having a great time and this guy says, 'Why don't we meet up tomorrow?' And I remember going home thinking, 'He thinks I'm white, I'm pretty sure he didn't really see my complexion.'"

On the other hand, Ricketts says she's also felt pressure to darken her skin professionally, too – for instance, on the recent CBC miniseries The Book of Negroes. That didn't come from producers, however, but from a light-skinned black man who was her driver and self-identified as "coloured" on set in South Africa.

"One day, he says, 'I have to ask you a question. Why are you in this movie? You're coloured, you're not black,'" Ricketts recalls.

That's not a comment that is ever aimed at Herbert. He never gets mistaken for anything other than black – and so is suspicious of the idea of "colour-blind" casting in theatre or film. "When [a director] says 'colour-blind casting,' you have a superpower," Herbert says. "When you call me [to audition] for Othello and Caliban, are you colour blind then? No, you turned it off.

"Well, that's a great superpower to have, but I'm black all the time. I don't believe in that."

Ricketts laughs: "That's why you're Burrs and why I'm Queenie."

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