I’m in a play. I’ve done this before. It’s fun. There are other people in it with me.
It works like this: I pretend to be someone else. It isn’t a real person I’m pretending to be, but a person that, ideally, people will believe could be real. Someone else, called the playwright, has written down words for me to say, and another person, called the director, has helped me to say them, and do things, so that they seem real – or at least if they don’t seem real, they will help the people watching to enjoy what they see in some way. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be laughing, or experiencing any particular pleasure that actually makes adrenaline flow through their veins. Sometimes it is just a satisfaction in seeing the way things play out.
Now my character isn’t exactly like me. He says he’s 58. Well, he doesn’t actually say that, but you can work it out from the script. I’m nowhere near that old. Someone talks about his hair, and I don’t actually have much hair at all. Someone calls me a ‘funny little man’ – but in fact, I’m very tall in comparison to the average. This last bit worries me a little. We could just cut that word out. She could say ‘you funny old man’ or ‘you funny man’. It bothers me because it might make the audience momentarily distracted from what we’re saying. The hair bit doesn’t bother me. We can make a joke out of that.
My character also isn’t like me the way he behaves. We have tried to make him a bit Asperger’s – a bit nerdy and fixated, a bit socially awkward. I’m not really like this. I don’t think so, anyway. I’m a maths teacher, it’s true, but there are nerdier ones than me by far. Having Asperger’s is a little bit of a disability in life. Probably my character doesn’t actually have it so that it inhibits his life especially – he is a professor, after all, another way in which he is different from me, a mere secondary teacher – but by playing him in this way, I am pretending that I have Asperger’s – at least to the extent that he has it.
Some people might think that this is in poor taste. People with Asperger’s – or maybe those who care for them in severe cases – might feel that without fully understanding the syndrome, we should not have the temerity to seek to portray it.
My character is also divorced. I am not. He gets very angry thinking about his wife. He also gets very sad. I don’t. Thinking about my wife makes me feel happy and warm.
And there’s the thing, see. To do this acting thing, you have to pretend. You have to try to think what it would be like to be something else. That isn’t something you do just when you start acting in a play. You do it without thinking all the time. I think most reasonably good actors (and I don’t think I’m too bad) are almost always thinking about what it would be like to be other people, imitating them maybe, doing their voices, putting themselves in the other person’s place, so that when they are asked to act, they use what they have thought about in the past to help them to pretend to be someone else.
We use tricks to help us to pretend. One of the tricks is that we wear clothes that might be like our character would wear, but not what we wear ourselves. We sometimes use make up to make our features seem different to how they would otherwise look. We might (although we aren’t doing this in this play) make our noses look like they are a different shape.
But why would we do that? Why would the shape of our noses be something we had to worry about? Why would it be like me not being ‘little’, which I do worry about, and not like me not having any hair, which I don’t? Only if you thought that there was a reasons why the audience wouldn’t believe you if you had a nose of a different shape. You might think that your character needs to have a flat nose. Or a big, hooked one.
But why might you think that? If you’re playing Cyrano de Bergerac, a character famous for the size of his nose, you could see why having a little one might be a problem. I can see why you’d put on a big nose for him, so long as it didn’t look so unlikely that it was more distracting than not having one at all. But then there’s Othello.
There’s all sorts of problems with playing Othello. For a start, it is an absolutely essential aspect of Othello’s character that he is black. In fact, he is a Moor – someone from Morocco. Much of the play hinges on real and perceive prejudices against him because of his colour. He is called ‘thick lips’ by one of the other characters. Now what if your lips are thin? Is this like my ‘hair’ issue? Can it be ignored? Well, maybe. There’s not a lot you can do otherwise. There isn’t lip putty, and you probably won’t go in for one of those ‘trout pout’ injections that permanently disfigured Lesley Ash. Not just for a play.
But you can’t really ignore the fact that Othello is black. Well, you could. You could just carry on with a white actor, and hope that the audience is clever enough to realise that he is supposed to be black. Or you could find a black actor. There are plenty of them about. Since they are apparently not allowed to play Hamlet, because hey, Hamlet wasn’t black, was he, then they must be only too eager to play the one character in Shakespeare that we know was definitely definitely black.
The one thing you are absolutely not allowed to do, absolutely not allowed to do, is put black make-up on. That is completely out of the question. White people are not allowed to make themselves up as black people. The reason is that in the old days, before anyone in this country knew what it was like to see a black person, they were mocked and ridiculed. They put boot polish on their face, and went ‘how-de-do-dare bwana’, and they looked like ‘gollywogs’ a ghastly caricature of an African, until surprisingly recently depicted on every jar of Robinson’s marmalade, for reasons which are disappearing into the mists of time.
Because of this, all black people apparently think that when a white man puts black make-up on, he is participating in this old tradition of mockery. This is called ‘blackface’ and if you consider yourself a modern person in tune with responsible social mores you won’t do it. Even if you don’t so consider, you’ll struggle to be allowed to do it on any stage worth performing on.
This is an idea I find endlessly fascinating. Let’s get out of the way any suggestion that I don’t get it. I do get it. I get the idea that the tradition of blackface is offensive to the extent that it mocks the appearance of the African human, and that it has its roots in the institutional exploitation and subjugation of the black races by the European ones. What I don’t get is the chain of logic that means that any coloration of the face no matter how remote, must be an offensive participation in this tradition, and worse, the presumption that anyone who does not agree with this must be some kind of racist. (The latter is becoming less of a problem in most forums, though. The racist label is fired so frequently at people who clearly are not, that it is ceasing to have any useful function. No one expressing interesting opinions can fail to be accused of racism at least some of the time. Like a Bugsy Malone pie fight, eventually everyone will have been smeared by it, save those too pusillanimous to have any opinion of their own. But I digress.)
I attended a production of a musical from the 1950s recently, which featured a group of characters who were described as Africans. The white cast members representing them had black smears on their cheeks. I scarcely noticed. It could have been meant to represent dirt, or war paint. It could have been any one of a number of aspects of the characters which the director and or the actors wished to depict. But for one of the friends I was with, there was a distinct possibility that this was an oblique hint at blackface, and she was gently outraged. Why should this be so? Is it that the idea of blackface stinks so badly that like dog shit, the slightest smear not cleaned away will clear the house? Is that real, or is it in the minds of the offended? Is blackface more than just bad manners? If someone says ‘Fuck off’ to someone, and means it, it’s offensive to that person, and probably upsetting to those around. If they say ‘Eff off’ it is less so. If I say ‘He told her to eff off’, I might offend a very prissy grandmother, but everyone else is likely to understand it as a communication of a set of facts. Clearly, a black person watching a white person blacked up and lampooning the modes of speech and movement of their race is very understandably going to cause offence, not only to them, but to their loved ones and friends, whether or not those latter share their race. They will probably cause offence to others who have any experience of black people as anything but a grotesque and racist caricature. But move away from this extreme by changing any of a number of variables, and, I suggest, taking offence is less justified, and certainly less simple to explain. What if there is no lampooning? What if the acting is sensitive and moving? What if the person is not white, but Asian or Chinese? What if the portrayal is of Asian or Chinese features? What if the person is black and has whited up? What if the white person is in fact not seeking to portray a black person, but seeking to portray a racist white man who has blacked up to mock them? Would it then be okay, or is blackface still a no-no?
Most intriguingly of all, what if it is not blacking up which is done, but cross-dressing? Isn’t cross-dressing another version of blacking up? Why isn’t drag burlesque just as offensive to women as blackface supposedly is to people of colour? The elements are there: men pretending to be women by imitating their figures, their clothes, their mannerisms and their make-up?
I suspect the answer is something to do with power, but I can’t quite find what it is. What will be the response to a savagely racist blackface performance? What is its intention? To ridicule and attack the black person? Will it lead to lynching? Is the performer, being a white person, tacitly encouraging violence of all kinds against black people? Very possibly. Yet, the drag artist is also a man, notoriously in a position of power over women. Is it somehow that the man in drag is feminised by his appearance and thus cannot be a threat, cannot be taken seriously, by the males in the audience? Ironically, it is often men who are most discomfited by drag artistes, while women are more tolerant and find them amusing (this is a sweeping notion that I haven’t researched. But it’s still what I reckon). Is it that the drag artist imperils their male (presumed hetero)sexuality? Here is a man pretending to be a woman. He must, therefore, runs the logic, be sexually interested in men. Yet the fact that he is dressed as a woman leaves the possibility that I might mistake him for a woman, and pursue her or be pursued by her, thereby ending up in a homosexual situation by mistake. What a terrifying notion for a straight cisgender male!
The comparison brings us inevitably to the celebrated Rachel Dolezal, the racial activist who ‘identified as black’, and was widely condemned for it. ‘Identify as’ is a phrase used in recent years to describe gender transition, more correctly called gender confirmation, I understand, the suggestion being that the gender of the mind of the person is the constant, and it is only nature that has sometimes got it wrong by supplying the wrong body. Those upon whom society, following nature and its dull binary of genital construction, have thrust a particular gender role can ‘identify’ as the opposite gender (or indeed, no gender, or presumably some fractional or alternative gender) and justifiably require society to recognise the identified gender rather than the biological one.
Again, what is it about the gender issue which is so different from the racial issue that means that no similar logic is acceptable to justify Dolezal. Why, to put it in less inclusive terms than I would like, can a woman ‘identify as a man’ while a white woman cannot ‘identify as a black woman’?
In the Dolezal case there was a suggestion that the outrage came from a perception that, as a racial activist, she was pretending to have shared in the oppression of black people when in fact she could easily escape it. Perhaps this is part of it. But women are oppressed by men. Why should not a man ‘identifying as female’ not attract opprobrium for just the same reason. But the opposite seems to be the case. Those seeking to express an alternative gender are defended with almost as much passion as Dolezal and blackface are condemned. Germaine Greer was nearly denied a platform at Cardiff University because of her professed view that it took more than surgery and hormones to make a man into a woman. For this she was condemned for ‘misogyny’ despite the fact that her whole point was that those she was denying were not actually women at all. There seemed to be few feminists raising their voices with hers to deplore the male interlopers into ‘their gender’ in the way that Dolezal was deplored for ‘pretending’ to be black.
Pretence is a behaviour confined largely to humans and the apes which are our closest kin; even small babies have been observed doing it, before they can speak. Presenting as reality that which is not the case can be as innocent as a child’s play and as obnoxious as Watergate or the dodgy dossier presented by the Blair government to justify its invasion of Iraq. Dolezal’s deceit is perhaps deplored because it is at the latter end of this spectrum – that she certainly intended not to be found out, and had to be ‘outed’ as white. But is not the ultimate end of gender confirmation to be recognised fully as the target gender?
Is this a core inconsistency in the politics of inclusion?