There’s a saying that you can’t pick your family, but you can pick your friends.
Well this is also true of your performance context. You can’t pick what has come before you, but you can pick how you inhabit the space created by the past – and who you choose to share that space with.
As a burlesque performer, and member of the burlesque community I have to look at the space that I share with people and the historical context which my art form inhabits.
This past Friday, a performer in New York City (Rush Aaron Hicks) stepped onto the stage at the Slipper Room in blackface and performed – he did it on a whim, according to those who were there (and to the artist himself.)
I wasn’t there on Friday night, but I haven’t been at other performances on which I have an opinion – and as a minority performer I have to speak up, because those of us who are minorities in the burlesque community are often told not to make waves when we are upset by choices made by our fellow artists.
But there’s a line – and that line needs to be drawn when it come to context.
Blackface is racist. There’s no way around that. There’s no way to say that it ISN” racist, and when you defend yourself with racist comments, it just makes the act of performing in blackface even more repugnant. As a producer, you’re expected to create a space where people want to perform – and where they want to explore their art. The Slipper Room is no longer a place that I want to perform, because I won’t work with people whose statements couch a defense of blackface.
Apologies are all well and good, but they don’t fix the hurt. There are things that would fix the hurt, but they aren’t being said. No responsibility has been taken. No one has said “I should not have done this, and I am deeply sorry for the offense I caused.” Instead people (who are white men) are getting defensive. Sometimes the best thing to do is to say you’re sorry, you were wrong, and you won’t do it again. This is what must happen in this situation.
The costume of skin color is not the only one which we need to talk about in our community – this issue isn’t just ascribed to blackface – this is just an easy thing to get angry about. Burlesque needs to stop being about shocking people by taking on bodies that do not belong to us. If you’re a white performer, you shouldn’t be doing blackface. If you’re an able-bodied performer, you really shouldn’t be putting on crip drag.
These things certainly have context – but the context of blackface is not one which burlesque can support in order to be explored – we just don’t have the time in a burlesque show to dig in like that. If you’re doing a show in which you need to look at the cultural implications of blackface, then maybe you can have it in your show – but I cannot envision a context in a Friday Night cabaret style show in which that is either acceptable or necessary.
If you’re an able bodied performer, crippling yourself for performance just isn’t OK. We just don’t have the cultural context for outrage the way that we do for blackface. But the fact is, when I see a performer hobbling around on crutches for comedic effect, my heart chills, because it’s not just people on crutches who appear funny. The hilarity is transposed onto all disabled bodies, whether or not you realize it, because it is a disabled caricature, in the same way that blackface is a caricature of race.
There are some who say that there are no taboos in humor and in art, but I disagree. I believe in order to create an artistic space which is welcoming to all, we have to eschew some forms of “humor” in order to be better at our jobs. Those who complain that this is unfair, often are the ones who are completely untouched by the dark side of the joke. Those who forget that in the not too recent past, our foremothers in burlesque were treated with burlesque because of their skin color. People forget that this art form has its dark side – it is easy to forget when you are surrounded by privilege, and you have privilege which others do not.
Our performance context is fraught with privilege. I encourage the interrogation of that privilege through performance, I also demand respect within the same context. Blackface and other forms of minority drag are disrespectful not only to fellow performers and peers, but to the very art itself and the stage it is performed on – because of the histories behind it, and because of the of the culture we live in now.
No one likes censorship, least of all me, but I do like respect. Being anti-racist is not censorship – it is about creating a space for everyone to perform. Paying attention to the history of an art form is perhaps the best way to determine whether or not what you’re doing is going to hurt your colleagues. Checking oneself is never a bad idea before stepping onto the stage – because you never know who might be in the audience – or in your community.
Tangerine Jones wrote a fantastic piece on this at 21st Century Burlesque, and I encourage you to read it, because she writes about the experience of a performer of color in this situation.
Great article, Elsa. I’ve always been very uncomfortable with things like blackface and ableism in entertainment of all kinds. Privileged people of all kinds take for granted how hurtful these things can be. As a caucasian able-bodied person I need to be aware of these things, so thanks for writing this. Side note: as I am typing this the word ‘ableism’ is underlined as being misspelled, because it isn’t in my computer’s dictionary. Grrr.
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