Portraying race on stage

By Monica Prendergast, April 2015

An upcoming production of Madama Butterfly encourages discussion of how to represent race properly in theatre.

Theatre scholar Harvey Young, in his 2013 book Theatre & Race, warns his reader upfront: “To talk about race feels dangerous. There is the possibility of slippage, a verbal gaffe or, perhaps worse, a sincere and honest opinion that does not jibe with contemporary groupthink.” It is most difficult to talk about the representation of race on the stage when one is a member of the dominant culture, as I am. Yet that is what I wish to reflect on this month, in particular because April sees a remount by Pacific Opera Victoria of the perennial favourite Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. 

This wonderful opera has carried the burden of the representation of race throughout its history. There have been a few occasions when the lead female role of Japanese courtesan Cio-Cio San has been played by a Japanese singer (or even a singer of Asian heritage, although that, too, may be seen an issue). But most usually a Caucasian performer has played the role. This might not have troubled audiences a hundred years ago when Puccini premiered his opera. These days, however, it is difficult for some audience members not to squirm at least a little bit in discomfort when presented with an obviously white performer in this role. 

I am delighted to see that Korean soprano Jee Hye Han is playing Cio-Cio San here in Victoria. Of course, Korea and Japan have had a fraught history and a western audience should not “read” a Korean performer as Japanese without some foreknowledge of these differences. But considering race in the casting of the role is as it should be, in my view. Yet the issue of “playing race” remains an interesting one, filled with controversy.

Last month, for example, I saw a very good production of the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Langham Court Theatre. Composed by Rupert Holmes and originally mounted in New York in the mid-1980s, the show tackles Charles Dickens’ final and incomplete novel, a murder mystery. The clever adaptation is set in a 19th century British music hall and the story is told by a troupe of music hall performers who are introduced to us throughout by an omnipresent MC. This device allows the musical to be a lot more lighthearted than the source material, including the insertion of many song and dance numbers along the way. 

Two of the characters in the musical, however, left me feeling a bit uncomfortable. They are a brother and sister, the Landlesses, who we are told are from Ceylon. Their last name does not strike me as particularly Ceylonese, so my first thought was that they were colonialists who had been sent back home by their parents. But when they appear on stage they are both clearly portrayed as South Asian by Caucasian actors, complete with brown makeup and (generalized) accents. I have no issue with the actors in these roles, as both were just fine. My concern is with the choice made by Holmes, and established in the history of this musical’s productions, to have white actors in brownface play these roles. To the credit of the composer, the two characters are given a song in the show that addresses the racism they have to endure as British subjects who are treated as less than their English counterparts. “How cool are their words and how cold is their smile” the pair sing. 

The historically minded in my readership might remember that the traditional music hall genre was perfectly comfortable with what we would perceive as racist portrayals, including minstrel shows with white performers in exaggerated blackface. The historical frame in place in Drood does ameliorate the sense of discomfort somewhat, but does not disperse it entirely. 

A few other examples of what we academics like to call “problematic” plays in regard to race may further this reflection. Othello by Shakespeare is an obvious choice. Although Laurence Olivier was a giant of the art of acting, his 1965 film version of the play does cause some discomfort. The New York Times review of the movie expresses horror at Olivier’s performance as “shiny blackface with a wig of kinky black hair…the insides of his lips smeared and thickened with a startling raspberry red. Several times, in his rages or reflections, he rolls his eyes up into his head so that the whites gleam like small milk agates out of the inky face.” Cringe-inducing for sure. This performance would not be tolerated on most stages today. 

When Patrick Stewart wanted to tackle this role he made the smart decision to reverse engineer the entire play. He was the only white actor in an otherwise all-black cast at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre. But is this the only solution available for a white actor who wishes to play this terrific role? Or should it be off-limits now to anyone but a black actor? We have had female Lears, Prosperos and Hamlets (quite rightly!), so why not have a white actor play Othello, a black actor play Hamlet, an Asian actor play Macbeth, and so on? Should not talent alone be the only guideline for casting?

This attitude has come be known as “colour-blind casting” or “non-traditional casting” and has led to a white King Lear playing father to a black Cordelia (in Derek Jacobi’s King Lear in 2010), and all-black productions of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Yale Repertory Theatre in 2009) and Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (on Broadway starring James Earl Jones in 2008). 

These productions spark debate on both sides. It may be historically inaccurate, for example, to have an African-American Willy Loman in a play set in 1949. The American dream that Loman sees implode on him was nowhere in reach for most black Americans at that time. And biracial playwright August Wilson famously railed against the idea of an all black Salesman in a public talk in 1997: “To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our humanity, our own history.” 

The rise of intercultural theatre practices over the past couple of decades offers theatre artists the possibility of addressing and exploring cultural differences on stage. At times intercultural theatre can fall into the same imperialist trap as the portrayal of race. In effective intercultural theatre there is an equal dialogue between two or more distinct cultures. However, the appropriation of a cultural practice that is then staged by the dominant culture and framed as progressively intercultural is just another version of the ongoing problem. This was the issue with Peter Brook’s well-known version of The Mahabharata in the 1980s. Even with a multiracial cast from over 15 different countries, Brook was castigated for attempting to universalize this Hindu epic through western sensibilities. 

There are no easy answers to these conundrums. A thoughtful spectator brings critical questions, such as the ones I have shared, with them to the theatre. So while we delight in the gift of Puccini’s genius in Madama Butterfly, we can also reflect on how history, memory and contemporary concerns always colour what we experience in performance.

Monica reviews theatre for CBC Radio’s On the Island and is currently on sabbatical leave from UVic, working on books on dramatic ensemble as utopian spaces, drama and theatre education in Canada, and the second edition of her award-winning Applied Theatre (co-edited and authored with Juliana Saxton).