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Actress in Blackface Causes Stir at Goodman Theatre

By Ali Trachta in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 8, 2009 6:50PM

2009_01_8blackface.JPG The Wooster Group's production of Eugene O'Neill's 1920s play The Emperor Jones opened last night at the Goodman Theatre to a sold out crowd, despite the boycott initiated hours earlier by local publishing company and African-American activist group, Third World Press. The organization objects to the use of a white actress in blackface playing the leading role, which they believe mimics 19th century-style minstrelsy.

Bennett Jones Johnson, vice president of Third World Press, is quick to point out that neither the play itself nor the Goodman is under attack.

"Our complaint is not with O'Neill's play," said Johnson, who has not seen the Wooster Group show.

"After all, Charles L. Gilpin, a black actor, made his mark in the original 1920 production, and this was a revolutionary thing at the time. If a black actor were starring in it here, we would have no problem. What we object to is the minstrelsy aspect, which we consider both an anachronism and an insult. Minstrelsy has the same emotional connotations as lynching," said Johnson.

Those involved in the production, however, see it another way.

At the Goodman, executive producer Roche Schulfer noted: "This Wooster Group production has been performed for 15 years at theaters around the world. And the overwhelming response to it is that it is not racist, but that it undermines racist and sexist stereotypes through the use of masks and Japanese theater techniques."

"It's always hard to debate work with someone who hasn't seen the production," Schulfer added. "I would like to think those who come to see it will ultimately feel as I do about it. In many ways it's like the debate that has been taking place for years in the African-American community about the 'n' word."

The play, which runs through the weekend, is sold out. [S-T]

Image: Kate Valk performing in The Wooster Group's production of The Emperor Jones