Thursday, October 8, 2009

Who's That Chik? Pt. 2: Even the White People Don't Look Like White People

Anyone who hasn’t been connected to any form of media in the English-speaking world for the past 12 hours might – just might – be unaware that last night a bunch of dudes appeared in blackface on a Hey Hey, It’s Saturday revival show. They were performing a ‘parody’ of a Jackson 5 performance for the Red Faces segment, and after a (bizarrely long) while were gonged off, to audience disapproval. One of the judges, Harry Connick Jr, was clearly offended, and said that if the same routine had appeared in the US it would have been “Hey Hey, There’s No More Show”. Later in the program he explained that “we [Americans] have spent so much time trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we really take it to heart.”

These ‘performers’ weren’t braindead yobbos. They were successful doctors. Anaesthetists, cardiologists, surgeons.

The outrage has been international – not just from those who saw the skit as offensive but from those millions who always leap to defend the rights of straight white men to do and say anything they please. Anything less is Political Correctness Gone Mad/lefty bullshit/itself racist or sexist or homophobic or whatever. No kidding: in online forums some are calling Connick Jr the racist, for being offended.

And, no surprises, when the issue was debated on morning television today the experts called in were white radio and print commentators. One said that it was just a bit of fun, and that people on TV are used to getting their hair and makeup done (???). The other explained that in Australia we love to have a laugh and it’s not offensive because he wasn’t offended, and then said to the hosts that “it’s like that drag queen you had on earlier,” to which one of said hosts had to interject “we weren’t laughing at her.”

Anyway, as usual the argument over whether anyone has a right to be offended is being decided by the people with nothing at stake. And these days, in Australia, being offended is itself offensive to many – if you can’t laugh at yourself (ie if I can’t laugh at you) then that’s your problem.

I’m not going to comment further on this but it was a bit hard to keep writing up this piece on Candy Bowers without constantly returning to the incident. So that’s where I’ll start.

Connick Jr comes from a place where racial struggle has had a long, loud and very public history. Moreover, as Bowers says, even the sometimes violent aspects of those struggles have made it painfully obvious (in the US) that some things are just not allowable, and aren’t just a case of being oversensitive or PC or whatever.

“We haven’t had that violence in our history, that true activism going ‘this representation is not ok, or this isn’t our country.’”

Why do I know more about the history of black America than I do about Australia’s own racial history? I’m ashamed to realise and admit that. And of course it's not like the US is some kind of multiculturual utopia of racial harmony. But the word racism can hardly be spoken here (cf. the vehement denials that attacks on Indian students are racially motivated). While there are plenty who’ll fight for Sam Newman’s right to wear blackface on The Footy Show, there are also plenty who want to silence someone speaking from a marginalised position.

“I’m just one person. You are the dominant culture and yet you want to shut me down or tell me I’m wrong? It’s about never hearing this voice and not wanting to," says Bowers.

“As an actor I was always told to shut up, don’t write about what you fight about, no one will come. I was like, that doesn’t make sense to me.”

A few years ago Lee Lewis penned a Platform Paper on the institutionalised whitewashing of the Australian theatre industry. She told Bowers of the contrasting situation in the States: in New York, Lewis had visited Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre, an institution harking back to the 50s which has been crucially involved in changing the face of American theatre. “[Lewis] sat down in front of the casting director, and they said ‘you know what, we’re not interested in you. You’re white, an attractive young woman, you’re the most overpopulated demographic that we see come and audition for stuff. But we’re not interested in ingénues. We’re interested in casting New York City.’”

Australia doesn’t seem interested in casting Australia (whatever that means). Australia likes the ingénues. In the US, it’s not a radical act to include non-white actors in a TV show. “Why doesn’t All Saints look like Grey’s Anatomy, at least?” asks Bowers.

When playwright Tanika Gupta came out to Australia for a conference, says Bowers, she laughed at the faces that fill our advertising billboards: “Even these white people don’t look like white people!”

“It’s difficult to believe because we’re so well-educated,” says Bowers, “we have all these great discussions. But who do you see, and who don’t you see? That’s why there are so many people who don’t know because they’ve just been sitting in it quietly marinating.”

Every theatre company worth its salt across the US and UK has diversity officers. It’s not a strange thing. It’s not a fist-shaking, flag-waving activist thing. ‘Diversity’ has a slightly nervous edge to it here, though. Perhaps we need a term that makes people less defensive. ‘Reality,’ possibly.

Who’s That Chik? has made people angry. People who don’t want to deal with the issues it raises, or don’t know how to begin doing so. Sometimes they turn on Bowers. Here are some of the responses she’s had to deal with:

Theatre is traditionally a white institution.

Bowers: Have you been to Africa? Have you seen the kids in the Northern Territory that can’t even read a book but they’ll make a play? What’s that ownership about? That’s not true.

Non-Anglo migrants are relatively new, so it’ll take longer for them to be reflected by our culture.

Bowers: Asian people have been here a lot longer than most of the families that I know, and to be frank my friend who came here from Poland 12 years ago gets a lot more work than I do and I’m more Aussie than him. This is not about that, this is about colour, about aesthetics, what we like to see.

If an actor is great, they’ll get roles regardless of colour.

Bowers: Lee Lewis said to me: great actors don’t walk into drama school, and great actors don’t walk out of drama school. Great actors are the ones working with great directors on great plays consistently. They’re the ones getting better.

Australia’s not *really* racist, it’s not that bad.

Bowers: It’s weird for you to say it’s not true because I’m telling my story. It’s like saying: I blew my nose. ‘It’s not true.’ I felt really shit being cast as the maid in third year obviously because I’m black. ‘It’s not true.’ No, I did feel like shit. But it’s not allowed! 'You’re not allowed to be emotional; look at what this country’s given you!'

When Bowers was in Edinburgh performing in an Australian comedy showcase she met one of the performers from UK outfit 3 Non Blondes, a trio of African-English comics.

“Ninia came up to me and I was in my Sista She all-in-one fluoro tracksuit. She goes ‘Who are you? Who aaare you?’ I said oh, I’m Candy from Sista She. She says ‘Are you Canadian?’ I’m like no, I’m Australian. And she says ‘Nooo, no. There are no people of colour in Australia. I’ve seen Home and Away, I’ve seen Neighbours.’ I laughed and then I turned around and looked at all the other Aussies in the room and went ‘Ooooh…shit.’”

Near the end of Who’s That Chik?, there’s a song that veers away from comedy. Bowers appears before a backdrop of flames and begins to sing over a heavy, driving beat of pounding drums. The hip-hop clown slips away and is replaced by the powerful voice of a proud, strong poet spitting out her pain into the darkness. She describes the violence the industry – and Australia in general – has inflicted on her, on her family and the countless cultures behind her. It builds to a crescendo in which she howls a mantra with barely-suppressed tears in her eyes:


There is a blockage – a deadly blood clot – in Australia’s culture industry. It prevents much from passing through, as entire lives and histories get stuck in invisible arteries and only the thinnest trickle of insipid blood makes it to the heart and brain. The arts and entertainment seem to be existing on the bare minimum of creative sustenance needed to survive, let alone thrive. Maybe that’s why the country is so weary, so slow to respond, to hear the signals its own organs emit.

This body should be able to repair itself. It shouldn’t require a surgeon to cut out that clot. Especially not one in blackface.


Gilligan said...

Hello there!

Just wondering, did you think Mark Jones' performance in goodbye vaudeville Charlie mudd was racist? Or the black face in bell shakespeares Titus androniicus? These both seemed to be far more racist depictions than the hey hey skit. Or is it different cos it's theatre? Or because there's possibly meaning in the blackface? Could there not have been meaning in the hey hey skit?

I'm just wondering about some double standards.

Born Dancin' said...

Yep, I was going to bring in Charlie Mudd (and Optimism) here but didn't have time. I didn't catch Titus either so no comment there.

The character of Bones in Charlie Mudd definitely crossed some boundaries but I think this was really the point - Mark Jones wasn't just a white man playing a black character. He was a white man playing a white character playing a black character... and even this is made problematic by the character's difficulty in understanding what's actually under his facepaint.

Same with Optimism, in which blackface is replaced by mud or oil or something. In both cases the history of racist representation is put front and centre and the audience is put in a very uncomfortable position - sure there's the explicit criticism of racism in the texts being spoken, but there's also a complicity with those racist structures simply through repeating their representation.

Anyway, I think that 'racism' isn't an inherent property of a play or character or whatever, but is more of a relationship between the thing and its observer and the whole complex context from which it emerges. The Hey Hey skit isn't 'racist' in any kind of imaginary existential vacuum but its situation within the Australian mediascape of today definitely ties into larger structures of power that are identifiably exclusionary and oppressive. By the same token, I don't think the Hey Hey performers should be called racist and I'm kinda glad that the discussion hasn't been limited to trying to objectively determine whether they're racist or not - they're just the catalyst for a much bigger discussion that needs to be had.

So in summation, class, I reckon Charlie Mudd and the Hey Hey skit could both be called racist and not-racist but it's a bit of a dead end to try to sort that one out... better to use either (or both) to think about our own relation to racism in entertainment, our presumptions as to the supposed audiences who watch these things (Hey Hey audiences can be deeply critical too; Malthouse audiences very unquestioning too); and the reasons why people mount various arguments defending one side or another.

For me, most of the outcry surrounding the Hey Hey thing was really addressing the question: "Is this an argument that needs to be had?" In my view, it is.

Gilligan said...

Yes it certainly needs to be talked about.

I just thought it was an aspect of the issue that was being overlooked. Some people have pointed out that blackface is a performance style in itself, though grounded in racist begginings, and that simply employinng the style doesn't mean you're being racist. I'm unsure about how I feel about that, but I think it's a valid argument.

I thought I'd bring it up after Emily sexton made a point of condemning the hey hey skit at the fringe awards on Saturday. I know you said they hadn't been labled racist, but I don't see how this wasntdoing just that. I just thought "hang on, isn't it a bit rich for the arts community to get angry about this when they gave a helpman award to a performer in blackface this year?" .

I'll point out that jones was brilliant in this role and he richly deserved it.

The Titus blackface was worse than any of them. But it is a racisim that is present in the writing. I guess you could look at the hey hey skit and think that maybe the blackface thing had some relevance to the subject matter, Michael Jackson - who is a very interesting case when it comes to examining racism. But performers on hey hey couldn't possibly think of that could they?

I'm not defending them or saying blackface is okay, but to pretend it doesn't exist is simply ignoring a relevant and sometimes very powerful performance style. Just look at bones and optimism.

Born Dancin' said...

It's a performance style with a history bound up in terrible racism. So I guess it's a performer's choice whether to acknowledge that history (even implicitly) or to pretend that blackface can be used as just a value-neutral device.

It's also okay for an audience to say "hey, there is a history to this that is being ignored here" and that's the good thing to come out of the Hey Hey thing. It's interesting that there wasn't much reference to the history and immense popularity of minstrel shows in Australia in the past century, too (which Charlie Mudd partially referred to - not enough in my opinion). If you read Melbourne newspapers from only 100 years ago you can find all sorts of theatre reviews of these shows.

Re: the Helpmann award and Emily's comments, I think both are flip sides of the same coin - both drew attention to blackface rather than just glossing over the issue, and both made a point that it's not something we can just pretend doesn't bring a whole bunch of baggage and politics with it. Emily was praising the fringe community as the kind of people to openly discuss this kind of thing, and Jones was (I imagine) being celebrated for putting himself in the very dangerous position Bones occupies.

The performers on Hey Hey certainly might have had something interesting to say about race (they spoke with producers beforehand about the potential for offence to be had) but if they did have a point it was kinda lost on me.

Gilligan said...

Yes I was only speculating, it's impossible to know.

My issue with emily's comment was that the huge amount of history and racism that comes with blackface can be potentially a very powerful thing to place on a contemporary stage, for that veryreason. I found the scene you refered to in optimism to be extremely moving. I just think to say it has no place on the stage doesn't really help the actual issue at all.

Emily Sexton said...

So! You were at the Fringe Awards! We are one step closer to revealing your true identity, Gilligan...

The mystery is KILLING me!

Gilligan said...

Haha! Hello Emily!

I suspected it wouldn't take you long to get here. I suppose a little birdy told you?

If you must know my real name is Bob Denver. There you go, secrets out.

Anonymous said...

Where are all the female and 'non-white' theatre reviewers in Victorian newspapers? Bit of a blokes barbie if you ask me..