Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright Bruce Norris Calls Out German Practice of Casting Whites in Black Roles

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris has called for a boycott in Germany of theater productions in which white actors are cast in roles explicitly written for black performers. In a letter addressed to fellow members of the Dramatists Guild, a trade association for writers, Mr. Norris condemned such casting, which he described as widespread in Germany.

Mr. Norris wrote the letter after his experience with a production of his Tony Award-winning play, “Clybourne Park” at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, in which a white actress had been cast to play a black character. In the letter, which has been posted on the Dramatists Guild’s Web site, Mr. Norris said that it was his final correspondence with the management of the Deutsches Theater that caused him decide to withdraw the rights to the production… (see Mr. Morris’ letter below)

Read more: Adam Kepler, NY Times


October 16, 2012


Dear Dramatists Guild Members,

Last year (2011) I had the pleasure to attend a terrific production of my play Clybourne Park at the Staatstheatre Mainz in Germany, a theatre that has also staged excellent and respectful productions of two other of my plays. Shortly afterward, I was informed via email from my German agent that the play would soon be produced at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin – a somewhat prestigious theatre of good reputation. I asked to have the theatre put me in touch with the director so that we could discuss the play and the intended production. I heard nothing, and some time later I received a disturbing email from an actress named Lara-Sophie Milagro, (who happens to be black, and whom I much enjoyed in the Mainz production of Clybourne) informing me of the fact that the actress who had been cast in the same role at the theatre in Berlin, was white.

Disbelievingly, I contacted my agent who put me in touch with the management of Deutsches Theatre. Yes, they confirmed, it is true, we have cast a white ensemble member in this role, and we see no logical reason why we should cast an “Afro-German”. (If you are familiar with my play at all, the reasons are self-evident.) After much evasion, justification and rationalizing of their reasons, they finally informed me that the color of the actress’s skin would ultimately be irrelevant, since they intended to “experiment with makeup”. At this point, I retracted the rights to the production.

As it turns out, blackface has been and continues to be a widespread practice on the German stage. German actors of African descent are routinely passed over for roles explicitly designated for them in some of the largest theatres in the country. This is weakly defended as either a director’s prerogative or a matter of “artistic choice” – and yet, when questioned, no one could offer me an equivalent example of a white German actor having lost a role to a black actor in whiteface.

Now, normally I don’t meddle in the cultural politics of other countries, but when my work and the work of my colleagues – other playwrights – is misrepresented, I do. When we write plays, among other things, we are creating employment for working actors, and often we intend to employ a specific diverse body. Whatever rationale the German theatre establishment might offer for their brazenly discriminatory practice is of no interest to me. For, as little power as we playwrights have, we always retain one small power and that is the power to say no. To say, no thank you, I’d rather not have my work performed in Germany, today, under those conditions.

Lara-Sophie Milagro and her colleague Gyavira Lasana have created an online petition (included below) condemning the ongoing practice of blackface in German theatres and have asked me to ask you, fellow playwrights, to add your name to their petition. I urge you to do so.

But I would go one step further – I would advise you to boycott productions of your own work by German theatres that continue this asinine tradition (The Deutsches Theatre and the Schlosspark are only two examples). A zero-tolerance position is the only position to take, in my opinion, and if we are united then perhaps a few German theatres may take notice and, hopefully, in time, a better course of action.

Bruce Norris
New York

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