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 wears 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:
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?
Robert Manning, Jr.