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Blackface in the year of Obama

January 8, 2009 |  6:02 pm

2009_01_8blackface A blackface production of "The Emperor Jones" from the innovative Wooster Group is stirring up controversy in Chicago.

The Chicago Tribune writes of Eugene O'Neill's play: On the one hand, this 1920 one-act is a brilliant piece of expressionistic drama and an unstinting -- and weirdly timeless -- exploration of how the exploited turn into exploiters with particular ease. On the other, O'Neill's story of Brutus Jones, train conductor turned despotic ruler of a West Indian island, is an odious example of ignorant stereotyping that would be eschewed and forgotten, had its author not gone on to pen some of the greatest American dramas of the twentieth century. Few black actors would want to play this odiously unplayable role today.

The Chicagoist website reports that "The Emperor Jones" opened last night at the Goodman Theatre to a sold-out crowd despite a protest by the Chicago publishing company and African American activist group, Third World Press.

Bennett Jones Johnson, vice president of Third World Press, told Chicagoist: "What we object to is the minstrelsy aspect, which we consider both an anachronism and an insult. Minstrelsy has the same emotional connotations as lynching."

The Goodman's executive producer Roche Schulfer said: "This Wooster Group production has been performed for 15 years at theaters around the world. And the overwhelming response to it is that it is not racist, but that it undermines racist and sexist stereotypes through the use of masks and Japanese theater techniques."

When the production was mounted in New York in 2006,  New York Times critic Charles Isherwood  wrote that "it could be argued that the decision to cast a white woman in a role written for a black man is uniquely sensitive. It's hard to imagine a black actor playing the role today without causing discomfort, to himself or to the audience."

Isherwood called lead actress Kate Valk  "riveting, haunting, altogether astonishing."

--Sherry Stern

Photo: Kate Valk in The Wooster Group's production of "The Emperor Jones"

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