Amid growing public discussions of race and racism, a theater company in North Jersey has apologized publicly for its use of blackface in a production that has relied on the makeup as a plot point.
“Even though no harm was meant, we sincerely apologize for any offense,” the owners of the Rhino Theatre in Pompton Lakes wrote in a social media post.
In question is Rhino’s 2018 production of the 1986 Ken Ludwig comedy “Lend Me a Tenor,” about an opera company that stages Verdi’s “Otello.”
In the play, a white opera company assistant must assume the role of the lead character, who is Moroccan. Both men end up in blackface as part of the farce.
Other area theater companies have staged "Lend Me a Tenor" with actors in blackface.
It specifically raised questions for the Rhino Theater, however, after its owners stood up against racism and for inclusion in a recent post.
Amid concerns that followed about the staging of Ludwig's play two years ago, the Rhino responded with another post that said, in part:
“We speak for our company and perhaps other companies who may encounter similar challenges with regard to things done in the past, even when those things were never meant with bad intention. We are now faced with ever emerging opportunities to learn and grow from past decisions and current social and moral affairs.
“Moreover, as part of our growth process, we will look at our opportunities and leadership teams to make Rhino more accessible to all. Our doors are always open to discuss this matter, and any others, just call anytime. We’d love to have an open dialogue in person.
“Rhino Theatre has always operated with good intent and we are forever grateful to be able to give the platform to speak up, for good and bad, which is everyone’s right.”
Many welcomed the post, praised the family and staff who own and operate the theater and expressed hope that their business can survive.
“You guys have built a remarkable artistic endeavor, where many performers in the area have an outlet,” one wrote. “Hopefully, you will be granted an opportunity to pull this all together!”
One follower called the folks at the Rhino “the most decent, caring, honest and professional people you could ever hope to meet. Their theatre is a blessing for both young aspiring actors and talented actors well into their prime.”
American theater “evolves with the times and is a reflection of the social norms of the day," he added. “The art form is the art form, and for historical correctness, you must respect theatre history, because as actors, it is YOUR HISTORY, warts and all.”
Others offered differing opinions during what became an extended, passionate exchange.
Among those who challenged those sentiments was a woman of color who wrote that racist history can’t be excused.
“We need to acknowledge that access to leadership in theater (who writes, directs, and produced shows) has not been equitable throughout history, so leaning on ‘well we can't change history’ is a cop out,” wrote the woman, noting that she loves the theater and has a daughter has thrived there.
“But even the people and places we love have room to grow. We all do," she added. "And now that we know better, we should do better.”
By way of background: Shakespeare’s “Othello” premiered in 1604 with the lead actor in blackface.
What first made the practice offensive on a grand scale was when Thomas Rice – better known as “Daddy Jim Crow” – began using it in American theater in the 1830s.
The minstrel shows that followed across the national demeaned and insulted enslaved Americans, who were made the butt of horrific jokes.
Some say the dark makeup in “Othello” and its spinoffs is different, that it's part of the costume and not done maliciously.
Intent and effect aren’t always the same, however. As some note, the Metropolitan Opera stopped using blackface for “Otello” five years ago.
“Meaning no ill and doing no ill are not mutually exclusive,” a Rhino follower wrote. “If you have to ask yourself if something is offensive and get the 'buy off' from a marginalized group who is likely the minority of your organization, or if you have to say the equivalent of 'no offense but' prior to doing something, on stage or not, you probably should not do that thing.
“Saying that blackface or any other form of makeup/costume that stereotypes or demeans protected groups is just what's been done 'historically' is not acceptable in this era,” she added. “Art is more mutable than that.”
The man who first raised the question said he’d spoken with a co-owner who said the folks at Rhino “entertained the idea of altering the show, explored less offensive options, and consulted a BIPOC cast member who signed off on the idea.”
He also emphasized that he wasn’t accusing anyone of racism – but, rather, had “called into question the motives of using blackface.”
“No one is denying the role that Rhino has played in the theater community. I literally praised them in an earlier comment saying that they are very much a leader in the NJ theater community,” he added. “But with any leadership role, in theater or not, there needs to be accountability.
“The way they handle themselves could have positive implications for other community theaters and their board members. I would love to see Rhino initiate a roundtable discussion with other influential theater groups to talk about these kinds of issues.”
When he first saw photos from Rhino’s production of “Lend Me a Tenor,” one man wrote, “I asked my friends in disbelief why they had moved forward with that, and every single conversation ended with a shrug. That’s not great.
“Perhaps the lockdown is the perfect opportunity to examine the scale of some things," he added, "and then figure out what direction to move in when theatre slowly starts to open up again."
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