Monday, June 08, 2009

An OMG Moment

Yesterday I blogged about my recent trip to the opera. What would have been an otherwise overall fantastic experience and rare cultural treat was marred by one tiny, little detail: blackface. Let me leave you to think about that word for a moment before I continue. Blackface.

As the curtain rose on the second act of Aida, we were greeted with gorgeous scenery, beautifully costumed handmaidens, and two groups of children representing Ethiopian slaves, dressed in brown bodysuits and wearing brown makeup on their faces. It was horrific. Sitting on my right, Adelpha turned to me and whispered, “Is that what I think it is?” I was too shocked to respond.

Midway through the scene, the children stood up and performed a primitive dance at center stage. When their part of the performance was over, the applause was uneven as people throughout the theatre worked through their shock. (To be fair the dance could have been blamed on their age and ability, or the overall poor choreography rather than attempt to make the dance look "primitive.")

A few minutes later, Little One leaned forward from her seat behind us to whisper what we were both thinking, “I’ve heard of blackface but I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen it before.”

Sadly, that was not the last we would see either of these children or of the outdated use of blackface and it overshadowed what was an otherwise fun evening. No one in our group was able to understand how anyone allowed this to make it to the stage. “Surely a discussion period or editing process should have taken place at some point?” posited a still shocked Adelpha.

The next morning, I tried to look up reviews of the current run but failed to come up with any that raised the issue I wanted to discuss. Then I broadened my search and was amazed to learn that having people appear in blackface and “afro wigs” to portray Ethiopians during performances of Aida was common. Not just in 1871 but in modern productions in the US. To quote one American reviewer, “Could you not, in Los Angeles, find 8 black dancers?”

Descriptions of this particular “artistic choice” abounded. I was flat our astounded. It’s 2009 yet opera and dance companies think this is appropriate?

I was so flummoxed by this discovery that I immediately called Black Beard and Adelpha. BB claimed this was an artistic choice and was in keeping with the way the opera would have been presented back in the 1800’s. I challenged him to visit a doctor in the 1800’s to determine if medicine too should be “historically accurate.”

This sparked a debate that ran for several hours about the cleansing of history versus artistic freedoms. I understand that modern productions want to be as close to the original as possible but I sincerely believe this is going too far. This may have been a valid artistic choice in 1871 or even in 1909 but bonehead moves like this today are flat out racist and offensive. Hire black actors or dancers, or if you must use white actors costume them in a manner that does not make me want to run up on stage and give a lecture about civil rights in the 21st century.

19 comments:

NicoleB said...

I can see why you are shocked and outraged.
But why on earth doesn't it surprise me that they did it that way.
Authentic my a$$. At least not in Egypt. ;)

Corinne said...

Blackface?? Blech. I don't buy for a minute that there are no talented black dancers to be found in Egypt. Not only offensive, but downright lazy on the company's part.

Connie said...

Now, maybe it would a be authentic/historic 'costume' if they used blackface and wigs... no matter if the actors were white OR black, but I get the impression that this was a replacement, not a costume choice.

LadyFi said...

My reaction? OMG and WTF!

Saying that you want an opera to be historically accurate is no excuse for racism and stereotyping people in an offensive way.

American in Norway said...

I have to ditto Corinne... I know we all agree.. in this day & age...WTF.

You need to fill me in on YOUR European adventure... Are you driving around? Where do you think you will be stopping?

Gaston Studio said...

Come on, you know perfectly well that Egypt and especially Cairo is filled with racism; that's why there was blackface instead of black children.

Sturgmom said...

Wow. I, too, would have been shocked. If they want to be historically accurate, they should also probably fire all the women and just have men playing the parts. Good grief!

Kat said...

Wow. That is surprising. I would be really shocked to see such a thing here. But...based on the culture you are in...is it AS surprising??

Lydia said...

No, not shocking at all. It's Egypt!! ;) This is the country that systematically slaughtered pigs to prevent swine flu and did the same with chickens when bird flu hit. I'm not really having those feelings of longing to return to the land of backwards logic and wtf moments. Nah, I get where you're coming from. My husband and I had a "That's Egypt" jar that we had to donate $$ to every time we asked "Why?" but seriously, why is sometimes the only word you have for a situation!

Grand Pooba said...

I agree, they really need to update that part of the opera, it seriously is offending!

GutsyWriter said...

I can see how this would be a shock in today's world. I'm pleased to hear you have the guts to follow through with a phone call and questions to the production company.
I just wanted to let you know I deleted my original post, while making some changes. Unfortunately, your comment was deleted too. Not on purpose!

Jemma Ruby said...

Oh that is horrible and tasteless, really. What kind of twits do these kind of things in this day and age?? On another skin color related note though I know an Egyptian guy who was in LA playing basketball with some other egyptian friends and a bunch of rather large African-American guys started harassing him and his friends to leave the court and that it was their court, they were saying some rather nasty things about hispanics, thinking they were hispanic. His big comeback was hey dudes- I am African too- we are brothers!! That seemed to diffuse the situation. Big sigh.. racism is so silly in this day and age with the world getting smaller and smaller and I wish others would realize that too. No one can tell where anyone comes from anymore and you would think stuff like you saw and pokes at skin color or looks wouldn't be happening now given the diversity people are exposed to in the media, on TV, etc. (I know Cairo isn't quite as diverse as other places but still...)

Melissa B. said...

I guess Al Jolsen must have toured in Cairo. Pretty unbelievable that the opera was staged in North Africa, and they couldn't find any black folks to take the stage. I think I would have been dumbfounded myself!

The Blonde Duck said...

I didn't even know you could still do that and not be slandered! How terrible!

Kathy B! said...

How far we've come and yet how far we have to go. It's a shame really. Hopefully people like you who call foul will help to hasten the demise of such stupidity.

Miss Footloose said...

The Netherlands has a Dec. 5 tradition called "Sinterklaas" which is not the same as Santa Claus, however the good man brings presents. Historically he is a bishop from Spain, from I believe the Middle Ages, and he has a black slave-helper (Moorish background I assume) who wears a colorful costume. He is called "Zwarte Piet" which means Black Peter. To this day this character has always been played by a white person with black make-up. Even today when there are plenty of black Dutch people. Nobody until recently thought anything about it, did not think of it as racist. It was just a tradition. Now all hell has broken loose about it with demonstrations and so on. Read this and see the pictures:

http://fromhollandwithlove.wordpress.com/2008/11/26/zwarte-piet-a-fun-or-racist-tradition/

Brenda said...

Astounding. I would not have believed if I had not read it here. I'm not even sure people I know in San Francisco would believe it if I told them about it.

honkeie2 said...

blackface is primarly only understood in the USA. I will post a picture of a bag of flour I bought recently from Argenetia with the cartoon on it done in black face. I have seen blackface in other countries even in parades and no one even looked twice, well the American ones did. I do not agree with racial bigotry, but in all honesty I really dont think they used it with the intent of being mean.

Abu Dhabi/UAE Daily Photo said...

Agreed w/ some of the above comments about what blackface means. I saw it in Spain every year when they represented the 3 kings. I've lived in Egypt myself. I think that what blackface means in terms of US history and how Egyptians perceive it are two very different things. Was this the performance of Aida at the pyramids or was it indoors?