Blackface in Burlesque. Again.
21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene…
Sadie Sinner and Coco Deville report on a disturbing burlesque act involving blackface which came to light on social media today. Not the first. We hope it’s the last. Ed.
At approximately 2pm today, a burlesquer dropped a little box, similar to Pandora’s, in a Facebook group.
“Am I weird to think ‘blacking up’ is just wrong?” she began. “I just saw something and it made me really wonder. By weird I mean something that made me actually stop scrolling and gasp.”
Yep, my work colleague fell into her seat too…
So the box was wide open, a discussion on race in performance. I wont lie, I get fragile at times like these. It scares me and it makes me question myself, my worth and my right to exist. It takes every part of my life, which I have built from being told I am ugly, I’m too dark, I should go back to where I can from, there are no Black Barbies here, your hair is disgusting, your hair is so weird, you’re too ghetto, and (of course) you’re pretty for a dark skinned girl. It takes ALL of that world I have endured and somehow created a loving and loved person from, and kicks it right in the balls.
Just to be clear, there is NO black person / POC who feels okay and safe when race is discussed; full stop. This is because of White Fragility. Somehow, I’m still going to come off an Angry Black Girl; I might even be called a reverse–racist.
(BTW, you don’t know racism until you’re six years old and being thrown – literally – outside of someone’s house and hear the words “I don’t want that Negro in my house” as the door slams. That’s racism. Now where were we…)
Yes – Angry Black Girl. I don’t want to be her… and for once, I didn’t have to be.
My eyes raced down the comment thread; I expected to see a bunch of white people defending white reasoning – something most (Facebook) conversations about racial politics and appropriation end up being (remember how I said no POC feel safe or okay?)
But I was wrong – and I should have trusted you all, because you had my back.
I had to make it known I was there; I had to see exactly what everyone was going on about, and how bad it was, to even have white people mad on my behalf, defending me – a gesture that gave me the security to look at this image – so I obtained the performers name, the image and a little description of the work from reliable sources.
Listen, I know I’m fabulous – I cry myself to sleep I’m so fabulous – but right now, I was six years old again, being grabbed by the shoulder of my t-shirt and thrown outside. I was scared, confused and honesty disappointed.
The image is a backstage shot – so this act made it to stage. I read the description, I looked at the photo, and then I thought about the REAL problem here.
The description is: It’s a double act. Enter a woman in a tropic helmet; she is obviously hot and sweaty. Enter the blackfaced protagonist, who shoots a poisoned dart, then drags the sedated explorer and puts it in her giant cauldron. They squabble and take each other’s bras off. When they resurface they are no longer fighting but have fallen in love.
Now, I’ve got a flashy little Contemporary Dance degree, so I know all about Gesture, Semiotics, Meaning-Making, and such. I also know a bit about Form and Devising, and ways you can explore communicating an idea without using written or spoken words. So, please take into consideration the following points:
- Do you mean to tell me you can’t communicate the idea of a wild, ‘uncivilized’ person WITHOUT painting them black? GTFOOH.
- Are you telling me there are no movement qualities you can employ in your choreography to represent a wild person through movement?
- Are you so Basic (yes, I said it) that you thought feral person = black – bam, done, the audience will get it?
How lazy! Almost as lazy as the apology that followed.
Now, I didn’t want an apology from this person, for two reasons: a) because the deed had already been done – they were already that person, and b) I knew it would take that timeless format of “Sorry for doing the thing, it was a bad thing to do, sorry if you were offended, it wasn’t my intention.” Seriously, this format should be trademarked.
So, what was the intention? Stormy Heather didn’t actually give us one. But at least we know it wasn’t to offend… well good, as it didn’t offend – it insulted.
To Offend: cause to feel upset, annoyed, or resentful. To Insult: speak to or treat with disrespect or scornful abuse.
There was no part of this portrayal of a black person that was positive. Girl, you did not offend – I am not resentful. You insulted. You said ‘Savages are Black Only’. You chose to use your art and your platform to say ‘Only Black People can be Savages’. That’s astonishing. That’s shameful. I can only hope the art I make, the shows I produce, the words I speak, give an insight into who I am and what I believe. Look at what you made. Look how I will remember you.
I need the creator of this work and others who would think to do this to take responsibility for your decision, and by doing that, I mean be honest. Just say you equate savages with black people in the bush, like you saw in books as a child. You didn’t intend to offend because you don’t think it’s offensive. I can’t change your mind, but your work should never have made it to the stage.
In our modern, liberal, expressive industry, the wave of breaking taboo / political correctness can be a wonderful playground when approached with intelligence and respect. However, it has been brought to light that two performers decided to uphold and celebrate one of the most insulting, culturally disrespectful artforms from the dark sinister past within cabaret: utilising ‘Blackface’. Not only this, but by adopting savage/aggressive/primitive/over sexualised archaic stereotypes and ‘tribal’ costuming as a narrative tool.
As POC we go out of our way to fight these ingrained perceptions and it is deeply hurtful to know that fellow members of our community are not only keeping these dangerous views alive, but are then being ‘liked’ and celebrated for it (the shared image was from another high profile performer, stating how much she ‘loved’ the act and was met with a multitude of ‘likes’ on Instagram).
Personally, as a performance artist, I’m aware when devising work the audience perception can be at the back of one’s mind. However, there are many forums in our community to throw out our ideas and as professional performers we learn from each other in our creative journey.
I opened the platform to the artists and was told: “The act is a love story and was meant to point out the irrelevance of differences, be it colour or sex.” However, no POC (or member of LGBT community – since ‘gaying up’ for male gaze is also fraught with issues) was consulted, as they would have flagged the issues. Also if it was actually created with such innocent intention, a celebration of difference, why weren’t any POC invited to perform? This is beyond ignorance. It was calculated; it’s insulting on the highest level. It is heartbreaking when as an industry we claim to be so forward, but the fight is still raging.
There are still certain venues/promoter/clubs that refuse or are reluctant to book ethnic performers due to misconceptions/stereotypes, which as POC we identify and address. So to see that ‘professional’ acts are essentially throwing the minority in their own community under the bus, in such a distasteful and thoughtless manner, with said act also being ‘celebrated’ on social media, is cheapening our whole industry. Since there is already a stigma towards our industry for defying social norm, standing for feminism, against body shaming, addressing taboo issues as well as performatively overcoming internal battles, these concepts are features that bond us as a community and hold a weight and power we have over our audience. As performers we need to stand by our artistic decisions and have integrity and conviction.
Why is there the desire to perpetuate and feed into culturally horrific negativity for ‘entertainment’? As artists, at what point do you ignore the voice of your own community? There needs to be more thought placed in devising performance work and the power of perception we ignite over our audiences. Also, producers need to wise up and start to care and show a true representation of our modern evolution of the art form when booking shows. A true celebration of diversity should be approached with love, intelligence and respect. We should embrace and honour our differences, not mock and belittle them.
21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.