The Bruce Norris satire Clybourne Park, a Chicago-set play inspired by A Raisin in the Sun, has garnered raves and awards for productions in the U.S. (a Pulitzer and a Tony) and England (an Olivier)—but a planned production in Berlin has been canceled. Norris learned that one of the African-American characters in the play about race relations and class would be portrayed by a white German actor in blackface. In response, he withdrew permission for the Deutsches Theatre to do the show.
In an open letter to the members of the Dramatists Guild, a professional association of playwrights, Norris explained his decision. Having seen a 2011 German production of Clybourne Park in the city of Mainz, the author says that he looked forward to the play moving to the “somewhat prestigious theatre of good reputation” in Berlin—until he heard directly from the actress Lara-Sophie Milagro, who is black and appeared in the Mainz production, that her replacement in Berlin would be white. He contacted the management of the 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.
Norris goes on to explain that the discriminatory use of blackface, while no longer considered acceptable in most American and British theaters (except a few operas and in cases of commentary on the practice, like the Scottsboro Boys musical), is common practice in German theater. Black German actors, he says, are underemployed and passed over for roles specifically intended for them—and the practice of race-blind casting does not work the other way, allowing them to perform in roles intended for actors of other races. He calls for his fellow playwrights to boycott German theaters who do not ban the practice, and links to a petition against blackface that was co-started by Lara-Sophie Milagro.
This is the second blackface controversy to roil the German theater world this year. A Schlosspark Theatre production of I’m Not Rappaport, Herb Gardner’s play about the relationship between a Jewish man and a black man, also used white actors for both roles. In an interview with Vice, Tahir Della, an advocate for black Germans, said that though casting directors for I’m Not Rappaport did look at “tons” of actors from the Berlin-based black theater group Label Noir, she found it “impossible” that no black actors were appropriate for the parts. Della also told Vice that claims that blackface is not racist are an attempt to seize the conversation by redefining racism. The production of I’m Not Rappaport, however, went forward as planned; the director told English-language German publication The Local that blackface was just a “theater tradition that was never intended to be racist.” A similar controversy emerged last fall, when a white German comedian wore blackface to pose as President Obama in an ad for a satirical political party. The comedian, Martin Sonneborn, said that he was unaware of why blackface might be seen as racist and refused to take down the billboard.
While the use of blackface remains problematic in Germany, blind acceptance is not universal. On Oct. 16, the very day Norris published his letter to the Dramatists Guild, a symposium was scheduled to begin at Berlin’s International Research Center called “Blackface, Whiteness and the Power of Definition in German Contemporary Theater”—including a discussion of a Feb. 12, 2012, audience walk-out, planned by the group Bühnenwatch (“stagewatch”) at a German production that used blackface. That production, of the play Unschuld, was at the very theater where Clybourne Park was to be produced.