Theatre is an integral part of society. It is often the mirror that society uses to see its reflection. Oftentimes, that reflection isn’t always pretty. Though this art form has allowed many Black theatre artists to express the cultural ills of society, there is at least one blemish on the face of theatre: blackface.
Blackface is when actors, often not of color, paint their faces darker in order to portray a Black person. This form of makeup was used in “minstrelsy,” in which white actors and actresses would pretend to be Black people or, more accurately, how they believed Black people to be. Blackface and minstrelsy gained popularity in the nineteenth century by way of actor Thomas D. Rice, who toured the U.S. with the stage name, “Daddy Jim Crow.” His name later became associated with the racism and segregation that was affecting individuals in the South. A video of one of his performances can be seen here.
Today, if blackface is used, it is the subject of controversy; however, that doesn’t mean that it is completely eradicated. In the 2008 movie, “Tropic Thunder,” white actor Robert Downey, Jr. portrays a Black man. The comedy was lauded for its hilarity and Downey was even nominated for an Academy Award. That leads one to wonder if a Black man playing the same role would have received the same critical acclaim. Additionally, actress and dancer, Julianne Hough, dressed as “Orange Is The New Black’s” Crazy Eyes (portrayed by the fabulous Uzo Aduba) as a Halloween costume. The actress later apologized on Twitter for her blunder, but the damage was already done.
Eric Lott at PBS writes that the legacy of blackface is the stereotypes set in the past are still affecting the mindset of white people’s perception of Black people today. This phenomenon affects Black people because the tropes associated with blackface are harmful. Appropriation of someone’s color or culture is not a form of appreciation. Appreciation is not embodying someone and taking over; it is respecting them for who they are.