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A More Subtle Form of Censorship

Dateline: 24th October, 1999

Coincidence is a funny thing.

A week or two back I had a query from a reader about theatre censorship. Then last week I heard about planned amateur productions of Show Boat being cancelled in the Midlands and on Teesside.

The Teesside production, at the Middlesborough Theatre which is owned by the Town Council, was stopped because it would be "distasteful" to ethnic minorities. Producing the show would entail white actors "blacking up" because, according to a fan of the musical, "Middlesbrough's Afro-Caribbean population is small, and the amateur operatic society has next to no chance of recruiting enough qualifying members," and this is what led the council to ban the show.

"We make no apologies," said a spokesman for the council. "We felt the show would be distasteful and upsetting to a number of people. And it would leave the council and the operatic society open to legitimate criticism." The council, however, denied any suggestion of 'political correctness'.

The local paper, The Teesside Evening Gazette, commented the following day in its editorial:

"Of course it is possible to stage Show Boat without the actors blacking up. But Middlesbrough Council's refusal to back the Teesside Operatic Society's production is surely taking political correctness too far. For fear of causing offence where none would be taken, doubtless the council would not allow a blacked-up Othello."

Worry

Am I alone in being a bit worried about this? There's been a lot of discussion about it in uk.culture.arts.theatre but, as so often in the Newsgroups, passions have started to rise and personal foibles and hobby-horses have been given free rein. One poster announced that he lived close to the society in question and that they are all "middle-class pseuds", which made me, for one, totally discount what he had to say: such a comment is hardly the preamble to a rational discussion of the topic!

It was obvious that rationality had ceased when one poster argued that it was OK for a white actor to play Othello because, as a Moor, he came from Mo(o)rocco (I'm not at all sure about that one!) and was therefore not black but Arab. Presumably it is OK to "brown up" but not to "black up"!

The consensus amongst those who support the stopping of the production is that only black actors should play black parts: some even go so far as to say that if there is no black actor available, then the play should not be produced.

The logical extension of this, of course, is that only Jewish actors should play Jews, only disabled actors should play disabled people, only Scotsmen Scots, Americans Americans, Liverpudlians Liverpudlians, and only people called John should play people called John.... So perhaps only Russians should play Chekhov, Ibsen should be reserved purely for Norwegians and no non-Italians should even consider doing Pirandello?

But what about Hamlet? Should that only be played by English actors, because Shakespeare was English? Or should it only be played by Danes, because Hamlet was Prince of Denmark?

Those last two paragraphs are perfectly ridiculous, so why should we not consider the idea of only blacks playing blacks ridiculous too?

The answer, of course, is to do with the racist attitudes which are regrettably so prevalent all over the world, not just in the UK. But are black people so intolerant? so supersensitive?

I can understand them being offended by such things as the old BBC programme The Black and White Minstrel Show, in which white people wore black faces with large white mouths, the traditional "blackface". In fact, I am equally offended, for it was grossly insulting because extremely patronising, portraying black people as "endearingly" comic Uncle Rastus characters. But would they react in the same way because an amateur operatic society, in an area where there is a only very small Afro-Caribbean population, wants to do a fine musical which portrays blacks in a very positive light but has no black members? Some would, I am sure, but would the majority? I really do doubt it.

Isn't there a double standard at work here? We introduced the Sex Discrimination Act in the UK to ensure that all jobs were open to both sexes, so that the best candidate would have the best shot at getting the job, regardless of gender. Do we abandon that principle when it comes to race?

Censorship

Now please don't misunderstand me. I want a truly multi-racial society. Nobody in a modern democratic society should be disadvantaged or discriminated against because of the colour of their skin, their race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability or any other similar cause. My concern is that the kind of censorship we've been talking about - for censorship it is - actually militates against a truly integrated society, for it emphasises differences. It puts a wall around groups within society, dividing people by creating metaphorical ghettos, and prevents mutual understanding.

It is many years since the Lord Chamberlain lost the power to censor plays. Do we really now want to replace him with another kind of censorship, a censorship which extends beyond what is written to how the play is performed and by whom? Isn't this an extremely retrograde step?

As a Internet journalist, I want the freedom to report on stories no matter how much some people may not want them reported; as a commentator, I want to be able to express my ideas; as a theatre director (even if only in a very small way), I want to be able to produce plays which express what I believe to be the truth; as a theatre-goer I do not want anyone else to tell me what I can or cannot see. I want freedom of speech, belief and expression, and if that means that those whose ideas I find positively repugnant have to have the same freedom, then so be it: that is the price I have to pay.

It has been suggested that perhaps the Teesside society should play the piece with no make-up; after all, we have had at least one black Hamlet and it was not felt necessary for him to make himself up as a blond Dane. But that, to me, is no real answer, because one of the points of Show Boat - listen to the words of Old Man River - is the whole question of race, and the treatment of one race by another, whereas the fact that Hamlet was a Dane is, essentially, irrelevant.

What about, then, representing race in some different way? By clothing, for instance? But isn't this just replacing one symbol for another? Admittedly a white actor blacking up is a very potent symbol indeed because of its association with the justifiably much despised blackface, but done with sensitivity and integrity, surely it could have the opposite effect and show up blackface for the patronising insult it really is?

But this would not satisfy those who insist that only blacks should play blacks, disabled should play disabled, etc. etc. etc..

I sympathise wholeheartedly with those ethnic communities who feel threatened within our society. I cannot say that I know how they're feeling, because, although I might try to imagine it, imagination cannot begin to make me experience the slights and insults which they have to put up with. However I feel that the action of Middlesborough City Council, although done for the best of motives, is actually discriminatory and just as patronising as the attitudes which lay behind the Black and White Minstrel Show.

If we really want to get rid of discrimination, then we should not be extending it to other people. We won't knock down barriers by building more!

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©Peter Lathan 2001