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Out of all of the art forms, ballet is typically one that is not controversial, and the American Ballet Theatre productions are usually rather traditional in nature. However, the recent production of Shakespeare’s Othello is a striking departure from the status quo.

The American Ballet Theatre cast a Brazilian dancer, Marcelo Gomes, in the lead role, and Gomes wearsABT Othello dark brown makeup to try to match his skin tone to the moor who describes sin as being “black as mine own face,” much to the chagrin of attendees.

Actor Robert Manning, Jr., penned a letter** to the American Theatre, Lincoln Center, and the Metropolitan Opera condemning the production; he left after the first act, felt it was a “Jim Crow production,” and “will never attend another ABT production and…will encourage anyone…to follow suit.”

Unfortunately, this is not the first time in recent history that a dancer has used dark brown makeup for the role of Othello; for example, in 2002, the San Francisco Ballet used dark makeup on Cyril Pierre. And in the American Ballet’s Theatre 2007 production, Gomes used the same dark brown makeup.

One would think the American Ballet Theatre would pay a bit more attention to this indignity, as one of their soloists, Misty Copeland (the first African American soloist in two decades), has been not only incredibly vocal about race and the importance of diversity in the ballet world, but has been seen everywhere from commercials for Dr. Pepper and Under Armour to the cover of Time magazine, which has helped to bring new audiences to see her perform.

Since Othello’s race is so central to the story, why not cast a dancer whose complexion more closely resembles what Shakespeare envisioned? It is not as though there is a dearth of dancers who could not bring the passion, grace, masculinity, and commanding qualities needed in this role; Desmond Richardson, Antonio Douthit-Boyd, and Vernard Gilmore are dancers who come to mind almost immediately.

The American Ballet Theatre missed an opportunity to cast a talented Black dancer in the role of Othello. The organization cannot encourage Copeland to raise the visibility of its ballet productions on one hand yet simultaneously ignore the legions of diverse audiences who are beginning to take note of ballet on the other. It is a grave disservice to fans of Shakespeare and ballet alike.

**Read Manning’s letter in it’s entirety below:

cc: The Metropolitan Opera

Othello
May 21, 2015
Robert Manning, Jr.
RE: Actor in “brown-face”

Dear American Ballet Theatre (ABT), Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center,

Being African-American and living in this country, I am often confronted with racial insensitivity in my every day life. I have even come to expect it in certain situations which is an unfortunate feeling to experience every day. But I never, and I mean never, thought I would experience this feeling at the ABT production of Othello at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City!
I am a professional actor and not only am I an experienced theatre performer, but also an experienced theatre goer. I am very open-minded. I love theatre of all genres and even recently relocated back to New York City from Los Angeles because of my love for theatre. I’m giving you this background so you understand that for me to express my level of disgust for your recent production of Othello will not be possible in this letter. Because of this, I hope you will sit down with me and attempt to explain to me, in person, why you believed it was a remotely good idea to not only cast Othello with a light-skinned Brazilian ballet dancer, BUT to also paint his face BROWN! I sat in that audience on Tuesday anticipating a lovely evening with my wife at the ballet. Othello is one of my favorite plays and I was looking forward to experiencing the ballet version. I was not looking forward to being insulted. I was not looking forward to a Jim Crow production of Othello in 2015. I left after the first act and I will never attend another ABT production for the rest of my life and I will encourage anyone I know to follow suit.
What genius thought your production of Othello should feature an actor that doesn’t look remotely African? Was there a point trying to be made I missed? And since this is not the first time you’ve done this, according to the New York Times 2007 review of your previous production that says that Marcelo Gomes is “painted a striking bronze with body makeup”; what genius thought this was a good idea AGAIN?! And please understand my problem with this casting choice. It says he’s a Moor in the text! It says he has “thick-lips”! “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!”
Arise! Arise and contact me so you can explain why you chose to do a production of Othello with an actor in “brown face.” And just in case you think dark brown makeup is less offensive than dark black makeup, it’s not. And who is in the production photo on your website?

Sincerely yours,
Robert Manning, Jr.

  • John Smith

    This article has a strong scent of self publicity for the writer Robert Manning Jr.

    • Robertmanningjr

      The person who mentioned Misty Copeland just furthers my point. She is a wonderful dancer in her own right. She also was NOT painted white to play the role of Emilia. She just did the role as a dancer. And for Mr. Smith, I didn’t ask for the article to be written. My letter was for my friends, ABT and the New York Times. No one else. But, I think the fact that people are talking about it is a good thing. You don’t have to agree to have a conversation. I will tell you that the lack of response from ABT and the Times is very telling.

      Also understand Mr. Gomes and ABT could have just done the role instead of painting him just as Misty Copeland did.

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  • DM

    your article does a grave injustice to Misty Copeland by implying that she is used for her color by American Ballet theater as some sort of lure to a more diverse audience. Misty Copeland is a superb artist being cast in major roles she deserves for her talent NOT FOR HER COLOR. If the hot head who wrote the letter accusing ABT of racism had remained calm and watched th rest of the show he would’ve had th marvelous good fortune of seeing Misty in the second act of Othello playing Bianca , a major player in the story ,not wearing “italian face” but playing the part with her own gorgeous brown skin as is. In the world of ballet there is and has been for some time a forward moving conversation on the lack of diversity in company membership. As with all issues concerning racism its a long hard slog toward a better day but there is no question that there is positive trend in that direction. there are several young black dancers in ABT at this time , all of whom are also there for their talent not their color. As for Mr Gomes , he is one the world class dancers that is almost without peer. Only a dancer of that rarified caliber could take on this challenging role. In the role of Othello “color” is essential , but cant be the criteria for casting in this case. What a grave and terrible injustice it would be to the superbly talented young black artists who aspire to the perfection that is sought for in ballet to be told they are being hired for the color of their skin. ABT has the good fortune to have a small but brilliant group of outstanding young black ballet dancers whose talents stand apart form their color.

  • DM

    I wanted to add that i thought the letter writer posed extremely important and valid arguments . The anger expressed in the face of of what was perceived by him as offensive, wether rightly or wrongly, is called for and the strength of his response is what is required to draw attention to this issue . i applaud him for his conviction and his willingness to react. What’s important here is that the discourse remains energized and the integrity inherent in his anger and the insistence on keeping a light shining helps to do that. Its yet another wake up call and a chance to think better. While my first response offers an argument only to some areas of his opinion i whole heartedly applaud his message. there is the possibility for enlightenment here, i am grateful for that.

  • permichelen

    There is something positive to be said for color blind casting, and I will know parity has been reached when Queen Elizabeth of England is played by an actor of a different race. Usually the argument goes, that Elizabeth is a real person of a specific race, and therefore credulity would be streched by using someone from another race to portray her. Humh, where have I heard that argument…

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  • steven woodlruff

    While much of the justified criticism has been aimed at ABT
    as an organization it is Gomes who could have ended the sorry practice by
    saying “I’m not going to do this”. Instead he exercised some
    magnificently poor judgement in being the final enabler of a very wrong and harmful
    decision making process. It is hard to imagine the level of racial tone
    deafness (actual racism I suppose) among other dancers in the company (and
    audiences for that matter) to let him proceed without a challenge. My guess is
    that though the public storm in the wake of the story has subsided somewhat,
    this will be the end of blacked up singers, actors and dancers behaving like
    this in any future professional versions of Othello or any other theater piece
    with similar characters. About time! And if you ever need a justification just
    read Manning’s letter and comments here and take them to heart.

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