Our Lives | BLACK EYE

To black up or not to black up for ‘Othello,’ that is the question

by Baye McNeil

I simply can’t view a nonblack comedian, singer, actor, cosplayer — even a Halloween reveler — appropriating or approximating “blackness” by donning blackface without wondering what is going through that person’s mind.

Upon seeing it, I’m immediately compelled to devote my mental and/or emotional resources to attempting the impossible: to read that person’s mind and discern intent from the available evidence. Sometimes, I can dismiss it as harmless, or find it forgivably ignorant. Or, I might conclude it’s too problematic to disregard, and address it. But, to not vet it is not an option.

This vetting is not an intellectual exercise. It’s a survival instinct. Because similar dehumanization by a group in power has, throughout history, contributed to an atmosphere that devalues and endangers the lives of a group subject to that power. What I’m saying is, the response to blackface should not always be “This is some racist BS” or even to take offense. Blackface is not always “blackface”; it is not inherently racist. Everything must be taken into consideration and every effort must be made to be discerning.

When Robert Downey Jr. blacked up for “Tropic Thunder” I totally got the satirical statement Ben Stiller (the film’s writer and director) was trying to make, and I laughed my ass off. When Billy Crystal blacked up to play Sammy Davis Jr. for a skit during the 2012 Oscars ceremony, again, I totally got it. I didn’t laugh, though, cause Crystal’s jokes had gotten a little crusty by then, but I didn’t take offense either. Because Crystal and Sammy had a relationship, and I trust there was real love and admiration there.

And that’s the key word, for me: trust.

So, when I learned that a Japanese production of Shakespeare’s “Othello” soon to open in Tokyo was to feature Nakamura Shikan — a noted kabuki actor — performing the titular role in blackface, I wasn’t appalled, nor offended, and racism didn’t even enter my mind. In fact, the first thought when I saw the advertisement on the net was: With all the blacking up that goes on here, someone who didn’t know better might think Japanese desperately wish they were black.

But I know better.

My second thought was: What a wasted opportunity!

Of course, this is not the first time in the history of “Othello” that the titular character has been played by a nonblack person in black makeup (and it likely won’t be the last, either).

Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Alec Guinness, Sir Anthony Hopkins and a bunch of other famous Caucasian sirs have done so over the years. But ever since the likes of Paul Robeson, James Earl Jones, Moses Gunn and Laurence Fishburne (all “sirs” in my book) have proven that actual black actors can excel as Othello, instances of blacked-up whites have decreased. In fact, when Robeson, a civil rights activist, took on the role on Broadway in 1943, he was so magnificent that one reviewer said, “No white man should ever dare play the part again.”

Ideally, on stage and screen, all roles would be played by the actor best suited for the part, regardless of their race. All things being equal, in a world where racism, xenophobia and gender discrimination didn’t exist, anyone would be able to play any role without any restrictions because trust would exist in abundance, and the benefit of the doubt would be extended generously in the event of any misunderstandings.

In that world, a trusting world, white people wouldn’t have gotten bent out of shape when, in “The Hunger Games,” Rue and Beetee were played by black actors (even though Rue was black in the book). And black people wouldn’t have to get upset over the scarcity of respectable roles (and overabundance of the opposite) that has plagued Hollywood and the theater since forever, or over Masatoshi Hamada deciding an afro and shoe polish are the makings of a fun-filled New Year’s Eve for his fans. And there wouldn’t have been outrage among Asians over films like “Ghost in the Shell” (whitewashing), “Doctor Strange” (more whitewashing) and “Cloud Atlas” (ugh — use of yellowface in place of Asian actors).

Guy Aoki, founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, had some interesting thoughts on the matter. Of Hollywood’s decision to use a white actor instead of an Asian to play a Korean action hero in “Cloud Atlas,” he said they “missed a great opportunity. … It would have been a great, stereotype-busting role for an Asian-American actor to play, as Asian-American men aren’t allowed to be dynamic or heroic very often.”

But, unfortunately, as things stand, humanity can barely get on the same page that we’re all the same species, let alone trust one another. So, it should come as no surprise when such opportunities are missed.

And here we go again, missing yet another.

There are alternative options to blackface, and the impetus for exploring these options need not be the avoidance of offending thin-skinned blacks and PC-happy whites. The central themes of “Othello” — racism, love, jealousy and betrayal — are universal, and as relevant to life in Japan now as they were back to Europe when Shakespeare penned the play, and that should be enough of an impetus.

“Othello” could have been adapted and localized to Japan by having it tackle issues (and they do exist) the Japanese audience is familiar with. And, at the same time, it would signal to the world (and, yes, we are watching) that, at last, not only is Japan aware that it has serious issues worthy of the Shakespearean touch, but that the society’s artists — generally some of the more astute, sensitive and progressive people in any society — are savvy enough to innovate the Bard’s work to confront these issues.

And it would send a clear and positive message to the growing ranks of non-Japanese and mixed-heritage people waiting patiently in the wings, perturbed by Japan’s insistence on deflecting criticism of its discriminatory and xenophobic tendencies and practices with a perpetual reliance on outdated notions of isolation and a dubious homogeneity. That message being: We’ve heard your cries and, yes, we can do better!

It wouldn’t be the first time this has been done. “Othello” has been adapted and localized to Japan several times before. The very first production of the play in Japan, back in 1903, was an adaptation that, instead of dealing with issues utterly unrelatable to many Japanese, like race relations between blacks and whites in a 16th-century European setting, tackled discrimination in Japan. In that production, Othello wasn’t a black man played by a blacked-up Japanese man; he was shin-heimin, a term applied to former burakumin outcasts after the Meiji Reformation of 1868.

Even a production of “Othello” earlier this year decided against subjecting its audiences to Western dilemmas and the European mindset, and instead reimagined Othello as an Ainu man married to the daughter of a samurai at the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868). In this way, the play explored the roots of contemporary racial discrimination in Japan.

And that’s dope!

Even more dope would be if those calling the shots decided that, rather than breaking out the shoe polish, they’d enlist a black or biracial black actor for this and other similar roles. And I’m not talking about a foreigner. I mean a Japanese citizen, born and raised, and groomed with the requisite skill for the role.

I imagine it would be quite an undertaking to find such a person and cause quite the stir in the theatrical community. But I also suspect the first theater company that did so would be pleasantly surprised by the response and rewarded handsomely for the effort, not only by the Japanese audience but by all the rest of us clinging to hope for the future of this country.

That would be powerful — a groundbreaking giant leap forward — and I’d buy a ticket to see that. Two, even.

I appreciate that the Japanese theater community wants to expose the people here to entertainment from around the globe through Western plays and musicals. That’s all well and good, but you must be circumspect when you do, because not all but some of these productions are the brainchild of people with foul or misguided agendas.

Thus, the product has varying levels of contamination, and even if Japanese come to the product pure of heart, that alone is not enough to purify it. The contamination persists. And if you focus merely on the show’s entertainment value or marketability without excising these elements, you may wind up committing the exact same transgressions committed by their originators — and be subject to the very same judgment.

Case in point: Japan was originally contaminated with blackface in just this manner. Ironically, the contamination occurred while U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry was opening the country to trade with the West. Perry had his crew perform a minstrel show for the Japanese bakufu and the well was tainted, and blackface remains a popular form of entertainment in Japan 160 years later.

I don’t think playing Othello in blackface is necessarily racist, but every time it’s done I assure you it will be vetted, and many will wonder why Japanese performers would even want to play with that scab when there is no upside. Especially since the alternatives are so much more expedient and, well, trustworthy.

Trust me.

Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com.

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