Ethnic makeup: Artistically correct or culturally insensitive?

By Barb Van Atta

For centuries, theater companies have used ethnic makeup to alter the race of Caucasian performers. This tradition, however, does not align with the racial and cultural sensitivities of the 21st century. Thus, in recent weeks, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players canceled a staging of The Mikado after facing stinging online criticism for the use of “yellowface” in promotional material for a production featuring primarily non-Asian performers (for New York Times coverage, visit

Similarly, complaints arose when Metropolitan Opera promotional material for a new production of Verdi’s Otello showed the title character in the traditional dark makeup (sometimes referred to as “blackface”). It then was announced that the makeup would not be used, prompting print and online discussion by many media outfits, including The New York Times ( and and The Guardian (

In its coverage of the Met decision, NPR asked internationally famous African-American tenor Lawrence Brownlee about the traditional of Otello being sung in blackface. Brownlee, who vocally is not an Otello, said, “Well, to be quite honest, I actually don’t have a problem with it. I think you have to look at all the things we’re doing in this art form and the context of the time in which it was written.”

But Francesca Zambello, the general and artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, told the Times that, if she could not cast a black tenor as Otello, “I certainly would not present another singer ‘blacked up.’ The great stories and characters fascinate us because we recognize something of ourselves — for better or for worse — in them, and not because of the color of their skin.”

Obviously, the ideal casting for Otello would be a black tenor, but the role is one of the most difficult in the operatic canon, and, at any point of time, there is only a handful of dramatic tenors – of any race or ethnicity — capable of singing Verdi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Moor of Venice.” So, should the fact that the character is black be ignored, or rewritten when race is crucial to a plot teeming with professional and personal jealousy?

How do you feel about ethnic stage makeup? Please share your comments here.


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2 Responses to "Ethnic makeup: Artistically correct or culturally insensitive?"

  1. Michael

    What about mimes who wear whiteface?
    Many people already have a problem with clowns; should they be banned due to cultural sensitivity to their makeup?
    Whoopi Goldberg did an intro for WB Cartoon Collections that were packaged for adults which made blackface “acceptable” to be included because it was contextualized. She also was famously the center of a blackface incident two decades ago that Ted Danson still can’t live down. And, there are a couple of Tom & Jerry cartoons that have been embargoed due to racial “stereotypes” while others with blackface have been released with a similar warning that the package was intended for adults and not the coddled children of the New Millennium. In all of those cases, the “N” word was not an issue with it loaded intent. I don’t know where to draw the line, but I do believe that education is the solution to any ill feelings on either side of the issue.
    As long as we have a First Amendment (which should encompass more than words, i.e. pornography) to protect expression, contextual education (explaining the use or non-use of such makeup) should be used rather than hiding heads in the sand to avoid the issue altogether.
    If P-Diddy can be in an all-black production of Death of A Salesman , then what is wrong with an all-Asian version of Otello?
    Do it either way. Just educate the audience (if they aren’t already) about the context and decision to use or not use ethnic makeup.
    If the story involves a certain nationality integral to the story, then makeup can make sense.
    I am a liberal, but I also thought it was a crime to ban the KKK from WHRW when I was a student at BU. Put it out there; let people know those a-holes still exist. Otherwise, you will become to complacent sitting on your pedestal.

  2. Michael

    Hi again.
    Here I am blathering on about education, and I posted with two typos.
    That’s what I get for rushing at the end of my lunch break.
    “it” should be “its” and “to” should be “too”.
    I had to call myself out since typos can elicit a negative opinion all by themselves.

    I also neglected to mention Mel Gibson’s makeup in Braveheart or Darryl Hannah in Clan of the Cave Bear. FYI

    And I also left out a tenuously related comment about the “N” word.
    When researching 125 years of Top 10 Popular Songs from 1886 forward, I was shocked to find at least one song per year at the turn of the Century that featured that word in its title.

    Also to be clear here, as I said, I would support the KKK’s right to speak, but I would never use the “N” word myself, and I am even uncomfortable while my friends of color use it my presence.

    And, two (of the three) Tom & Jerry cartoons that are not on DVD were released on laserdisc in the 1990s. The difference 20 years can make….

    Coke & Ford worked with the Nazi Party.

    Disney did use the “N” word in a UK printed “Annual”.

    Song of the South was even controversial when it came out in 1948 and continues to be unavailable on home video in the US. Asian NTSC copies did come out in the 1990s as well.

    It’s an imperfect, messed-up world and we should try to move forward towards a Progressive goal, but we will never reach perfection. And as they say, those who ignore their history are doomed to repeat it.

    I digress……but that is what I do…..
    Long live Lenny Bruce.

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