Taye Diggs returns to Broadway after nearly a decade, and makes history as the first African American to take on the lead role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a musical about a band led by a singer named Hedwig, who assumes a female persona after a botched sex change operation (which was performed to allow him to marry an American man and escape East Germany). Reprising a role that has been played by Neil Patrick Harris, Diggs will star in a limited 12-week engagement at the Belasco Theatre in New York; this will mark his first New York stage role since the revival of A Soldier’s Play in 2005.
However, some have pointed out that because of Diggs’ portrayal of a transgender character, he is contributing to the emasculation of black men. Actors such as Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, and Tyler Perry have all taken on roles that could be described as minstrel performances and perpetuating racial stereotypes.
Dave Chappelle famously recounted in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that while filming “Blue Streak” with Martin Lawrence, the producer of the film told him they had adjusted the script and in the next scene Lawrence’s character would break him out of jail, but he would have to be dressed as a prostitute. After Chappelle refused, the director came in to stress how funny it would be for him to wear the dress. Finally, after seeing that Chappelle was not going to change his mind, a new script was presented to him.
Taking a slightly opposing view, in an interview with Vibe magazine, Chris Rock said, “I mean, hey, lots of comedians dress up like women, not just Black. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book. Men in drag…There was Mrs. Doubtfire. [Adam] Sandler’s next movies is Jack and Jill. He plays his brother and sister. [The Black community] doesn’t have that many movies, so if there’s only four Black movies in a year and two of them star Black men in dresses, I could see how that would upset some people. But that’s a job for some people. Tyler Perry is great in a dress, but I don’t want to see Denzel or Will Smith in a dress. And I don’t think we’re in any danger of seeing that.”
The larger (and arguably more notable) issue is that Diggs was cast in a role that does not deal in any sort of racial components; it is a racially neutral role, and the director and producers should be lauded for making a choice based on talent, which should always be the case. Certainly, the lack of traditional black male images in the media is an issue that needs to be addressed, but black men are not monolithic, and the public should be able to see all types of roles that run the gamut. That is what needs to be focused on; ensuring that there is material for audiences to digest that represents diverse aspects of the black male experience.