The Fight for Equality in the Arts

Last week I wrote a blog that asked the question, When it comes to the topic of race, are people capable of critical thinking? I do believe that although we are, oft times this means thinking beyond the level of comfort.

Let’s use opera as an example. I was never a huge fan of it myself, despite hearing it frequently as I was growing up. My parents had an annual subscription to New York's Metropolitan Opera (the Met). When my father was unavailable to attend a performance, my mother took a friend, one of my brothers or me. Among the memorable ones I saw over the years:

But again, I wasn’t really into opera and this was for a variety of reasons. Some of it had to do with my own inability to comprehend things (I have always had difficulty with the abstract). It doesn’t help that it’s usually in another language—compounding my confusion. And some of it is political: Where are the people of color represented in these performances?

Sure a few made it in. Leontyne Pryce, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle may come to mind. Despite having a rich history of singing, dancing, acting, paying music and being artistic in general, there have been relatively few Blacks who have broken the color barrier in opera.

Before my parents moved to France (when I was 18), my mother asked me to accompany her to the Met one last time to see Placido Domingo perform the title role of Otello. This was in the winter of 1985 and I had just turned 17. No sooner did Domingo take the stage I noticed that he was considerably darker in the face than he was “in real life.”

In retrospect this wasn’t the first time I had seen a White opera singer using makeup to portray a person of color, but when I was younger it didn’t really register.

By this time I had long since become politically aware and had been identifying as African American. I leaned into my mother and asked her why the normally pink almost olive-complected Spaniard now bore resemblance to a kinda, sorta Black person or a twisted caricature of himself?

My mother explained that indeed he was Spanish but the character was a Moor, meaning of North African descent. “They couldn’t find a Black man to play the role, so they have to bring in a White man, put makeup on his face to play it?” I thought to myself. I couldn’t wrap my head around the whole thing. It was grotesque to me that in 1985, post slavery, post Civil Rights movement, etc. that we were still making a mockery of people of African descent.

Seeing Placidio Domingo in blackface made me think of the days of Minstrel Shows when in an effort to put Blacks down as ignorant, less intelligent, irrelevant, frivolous, Pickaninnies and elevendy million other inaccurate and degrading labels Whites have affixed onto Blacks over the last 300 hundred or so years.

I couldn’t make it through the first act. I was fidgety. I looked around the opera house. I played a game with myself that I have since played several dozen times in similar situations. I call it, “Spot the Black people.” How many could I name in a packed house of at least 3500? (I have since learned capacity at the Met is 3800, so I wasn’t far off). After 30 minutes of playing this game, I counted 30. There were several who were ambiguous (like me) who could have been Biracial, Hispanic or light complected Black.

Even if I added those numbers together, I got maybe 45, but I think I was being generous. 45 folks of color in a theatre of between 3500 and 3800 wasn’t many.

I sighed, growled and rolled my eyes a lot. I even tried hard to fall asleep. But it was like those times when you’re watching a horror movie with your hands over your eyes and you keep moving your fingers to see if the scary part is over. There are only so many times you can ask your mom, “Is it over yet?” before even she is no longer enjoying herself.

That she didn’t get it on the same level I did was a surprise—but not entirely. My mother was Black and Japanese. Her racial makeup, along with why I identify Black, despite having three races and multiple ethnicities are the crux to my essay in the book I have co-authored with Bryony Sutherland on being Biracial. Perhaps coming from a different era she had learned to just accept the denigration of our race. Despite being of that generation where you didn’t question things, she raised me with a different set of values. I often say she raised her kids using unspoken commands that we learned to obey implicitly.

I didn’t want to appear ungrateful to my mother who wanted me to see one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century perform in a most coveted role—at the Met, no less! But I was also sick to my stomach and I couldn’t pretend otherwise.

I suggested to my mother that she stay and enjoy the performance, but I think I killed it for her too. We decided to leave together. Doing something that is considered a major faux pas, we left before the end of the first act, meaning, we disturbed everyone in our row as we left with as little “fanfare” as possible.

We went to have dinner at a restaurant (I have long since forgotten where and it’s probably closed now anyway). We could, of course, talk about nothing else. I asked my mother if she got why I was so angry.

She explained to me that there is just a shortage of talented African Americans to sing these operatic roles. In that moment I wasn’t armed with much information to dispute her, I have since learned there are many African American males who are more than, able, willing and qualified to sing opera—the industry just chooses to ignore them, which was the point I used against this weak argument of my mother’s. In my naiveté about the why, all I could do was speak about the what.

I remember saying something to the effect of, “Mom, that a White person can put on some makeup, do something with his or her hair and suddenly he or she is Black without living our life and experiencing what we experience is crap.” I went on, “Apart from that, why were these operas written about cultures other than their own without a Black person in mind to play them?”

She countered that many of these operas were written in the 1600, 1700 and 1800s. Okay, fair enough, but we are now in the 20th century, I told her. That these roles were still being performed by White opera singers was unconscionable.

Not Having the Life Experience to Adequately Express Myself in My Teens That I Have Today

When I was 17 years old although I had experienced (or watched others experience) enough racism to know that what was happening in the world of opera (and of course the world at large) was wrong (the what I alluded to earlier). I hadn’t yet realized that it was not accidental but systematic and intentional—the why.

I honestly hadn’t thought about the dearth of operatic roles being offered to people of color since that evening out with my mother. That is until today.

Apparently I am not the only who was angered by opera’s use of blackface (oh sorry, I believe they call it skin darkening makeup). The Metropolitan Opera made headlines this week when they announced that for the first time since its inaugural performance of Otello 124 years ago, they were no longer going to use blackface.

I must admit I had a chuckle at the title Jeff Lundon used for his NPR article, “Farewell to Blackfaced Otellos at the Met.” He’s obviously making light of a very big problem that goes beyond opera.

Says co-editor of the book, Blackness in Opera (which examines the lack of diversity in opera) Naomi André of the move, “The Metropolitan Opera is in a position to set precedents," she says. "I mean, we'll see what happens, but this is a really exciting moment."

Precedent? It’s 2015! Precedent would have been at any time between 1891 and 1968. This would be the year that Blacks reached equality status in the United States. I am of course being facetious. 1968 marked the official end of the Civil Rights movement.

So what’s the big deal? Why has the White-dominated opera industry cast majority White people in leading roles? Indeed André redeems herself when she pointed out, “Seeing a black male singer onstage with a white female heroine—there would be anxiety a lot of people could feel in the days of segregation, even in post-segregation times but where racial tensions are still very much around.”

It’s obviously not exclusive to opera. Hollywood, the music industry, television, you name it, quality roles played by talented Black people and people of color are the exception, not the norm.

In her acceptance speech for winning the 2015 Emmy for Lead Actress in a television drama, African American Viola Davis said the following, “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” She went on to thank the writers for creating these roles and then closed by saying, “…people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman … to be Black.”

Perhaps one day we will no longer need White people to play characters that were meant to be Black. I hope one day it will be the norm, rather than the exception to see more roles written by White people (or Black people) expressly intended for a Black or any other person of color to play them—a character who isn’t a thug, a drug dealer, a wife beater, a drug user, crack hoe or some other image that brings to mind the dregs of society.