Without appropriation art is sterile

A response to Jewish theatremakers speak out against cultural appropriation on stage

By Nathan Geffen

26 August 2019

Jewish playwriters and actors have written an impassioned critique of the West End musical production of Falsettos. They describe Falsettos as an “undeniably Jewish show” and they chide the production for not having Jewish actors or a Jewish director.

Falsettos is not their only target. They write:

“Where were the protests over Jewface when non-Jewish performers played the following Jewish roles, to name but a few: James McArdle as Louis (Angels in America, National Theatre), Simon Russell Beale as Chaim Lehman (The Lehman Trilogy, NT), Lauren Ward as Rose Stopnick Gellman (Caroline, Or Change, Hampstead), Stephen Mangan as Goldberg (The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre), Ian McDiarmid as Shylock (The Merchant of Venice, Almeida), Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice (Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory). This is not a criticism of these actors, but a question aimed at the authenticity of apparent Jewish performances.”

While the writers clearly feel slighted and presumably have genuine gripes about the treatment of Jews in British theatre, their letter is an example of a misguided nascent political movement, one that masquerades as left and progressive, but easily crosses the line into nationalism and chauvinism.

This article does not intend to be a carefully argued debunking of the cry against misappropriation and misrepresentation on the stage. I may still write that essay but others have done that better than I can. Here, instead, is a demonstration for people who love music, movies, theatre, art and stories — i.e. nearly everyone on the planet — of what is lost if the argument of the writers against “Jewface” is taken to its logical conclusion. The writers say they value diversity. So do I. The problem is that their campaign stifles art and undermines diversity.

So here’s what we lose when the identity of artists becomes salient in what they’re allowed to do.

Let’s start with Torch Song Trilogy:

Anne Bancroft, who was raised Catholic, played Arnold’s Jewish mother with unquestionable authenticity. Matthew Broderick, who is straight, played freshly out-the-closet Alan. Growing up in oppressive 1980s South Africa, few movies were as liberating as this for a young gay man. Alan was the first gay movie character I could identify with. Was it necessary that he be played by a gay man? Would anyone, given Broderick’s popularity after Ferris Bueller have been able to pull it off better at that time? I doubt it.

Incidentally, the trailer voice-over, from 1988, ends with this: “It’s not just about some people; it’s about everyone.” What a beautiful put-down of today’s silo-building identity politics.

Ok, you may retort, but Harvey Fierstein, who is gay, was the driving force of Torch Song Trilogy. Well, remember this?

Recognised as one of the most beautiful and liberating gay-themed movies, neither the writer, director nor the two stars of Brokeback Mountain were gay. And Jewish Jake Gyllenhaal played Jack, about as un-Jewish a character imaginable. I wonder if Brokeback had been made in the current climate, instead of homophobes protesting outside the theatres, it would be people claiming to represent the gay rights movement lambasting the movie for appropriating gay roles.

Some of the most poignant Jewish roles have been played by non-Jews. Ben Kingsley played Itzhak in Schindler’s List (and also the title character in Richard Attenborough’s highly acclaimed albeit highly sanitised Gandhi). And could anyone have played Cantor Rabinovitch better than Laurence Olivier?

(Not even my father could engender a combination of so much guilt and pride in me with such a scowl.)

Despite the best efforts of some scholars, there is no way to sanitise the anti-semitism out of The Merchant of Venice. Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290 and probably only a few hundred lived there during the reign of Elizabeth I. Shakespeare likely never met a single Jew in his life. But can you deny that Olivier elicits sympathy for Shylock?

And how about Al Pacino?

Does the religion of Pacino or Olivier matter? If you prick them, do they not bleed the same way as Jews? (Well Olivier is dead, so admittedly he doesn’t bleed anymore.)

Here is one of the most wonderful examples of appropriation in one of the best political thrillers made. Linda Hunt, a woman, plays a man, Billy, in The Year of Living Dangerously.

Hunt won an Oscar for her performance. The current identity politics doesn’t object to women playing the roles of men. But here’s the rub: Hunt is a white American. Billy’s surname was Kwan; he was Asian. Shock and horror: a white American woman portrayed an Asian man, a big no-no in the current anti-appropriation milieu. And she did so poignantly and exquisitely.

What Torch Song Trilogy did for gay rights, Transamerica arguably did for Transgender people. Felicity Huffman, who is not transgender, played the role of Bree with tenderness and respect. Kevin Zegers, who is straight, is superb as Bree’s gay hustler son. None of this mattered.

Neither does it matter that straight man Terrence Stamp played a transgender role in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or that straight Guy Pearce stole the show.

Appropriation is the lubricant of art. Music and literature evolve by the mingling of cultures, by borrowing here and being inspired there. Here are 10,000 Japanese people appropriating the most famous piece of music in the Western cannon. It’s incredible:

And here is the Jewish violinist Gil Shaham playing the Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto, composed by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang in China in 1959. This magnificent piece of music barely saw the light of day until the 1970s because of the Cultural Revolution, a period of history current identity politics idealogues would do well to study. (I hope one day the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra plays this.)

Here is South Africa’s most successful, most beloved cultural appropriator, endorsed by its greatest leader. They are both much missed.

And who is even doing the appropriation on the Graceland album? Ladysmith Black Mambazo? Ray Phiri? Paul Simon? All of them?

I hope you’ll agree that this is the joy and beauty that appropriation of art brings us. This is diversity in action.

There’s of course the elephant in the room: blackface. It’s history, particularly in America, as a tool of oppression against black people is undeniable. The revulsion against its use nowadays is completely understandable.

Leon Schuster is an Afrikaans South African comedian. He is also this country’s most commercially successful film maker. There is much antagonistic snobbery towards his movies. None will ever win an Oscar, let alone a prize at Cannes. Schuster’s slapstick comedy works because it pokes fun, mostly kind-hearted, at South African stereotypes, black and white. His target market has never been high-theatre goers. South Africans of all colours flock to see his movies. (I enjoy them too.)

One of his most famous characters is Mama Jack. Double whammy: a white man playing a black woman (actually a white man playing a white man who pretends to be a black woman). Not just blackface: a white Afrikaans man in blackface in a country whose history exemplifies all that is wrong with racism.

And yet Schuster’s movies, which for a long time have cast black actors in leading roles alongside him, have, if anything, helped break down the barriers between races erected by our colonial and apartheid history. Black and white people laugh at the stereotypes together. The reality is that the history of blackface in South Africa is not the same as the United States. When Mama Jack was released in 2005, if there was criticism of the use of black face it was muted. But the times have changed, perhaps for good reason. Here’s what Schuster himself told the Sunday Times in 2018:

“I’m so sorry that I can’t make Mama Jack 2. If I had a dream come true, my next movie would be Mama Jack 2. But especially on Twitter they said stay away from the blackface, it’s not on. It was black people talking to me and you’ve got to listen. I can’t do it because I’ll be heavily criticised. In the olden days it troubled nobody.”
“But I won’t go blackface now, I can’t do it. There’s not one actor in the world that will. It’s just racist.” (Source)

Olivier played Othello in blackface in 1965. You can find clips on Youtube. It’s uncomfortable to watch now and it didn’t go uncriticised at the time. “I was certainly in tune with the gentleman sitting next to me who kept asking ‘When does he sing Mammy?’” wrote one critic who was reminded of Al Jolson wearing blackface in The Jazz Singer. (Source: Wikipedia)

Black actors probably did not play Othello in England until the 19th century. The first black actor to do so appears to have been Ira Aldrige, in 1833. A racist campaign tried to stop his performance. The story is told in BBC History Magazine.

Blackface has a very particular history. It is dangerous to generalise the taboo against it to all cultural borrowing. Yes, Jews too have a history of being excluded, villainised or caricatured in English theatre and literature. The same goes for women and Irish people. But claiming that a minority group has some kind of ownership over plays and roles depicting them is not a solution to prejudice.

While Shylock is a barely sympathetic character, Shakespeare’s black characters were much more complex. Othello is one of his most honourable and likeable tragic heroes. And then there’s Aaron.

Aaron is much less known than Othello. But he shouldn’t be. He has a central role in Titus Andronicus, the bard’s most (unfairly) maligned play. I was introduced to it by the 1999 movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Glenn Close. Aaron is a Moor, played by Harry Lennix. He is so villainous, that he makes Richard III seem angelic. Aaron has the best lines and Lennix steals the show from Hopkins and Close (although they’re all very good).

After sowing treachery that leads to the usual Shakespearean tragedy bloodbath, this scene is quite something:

“Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.”

He’s vengeful and frightening.

Despite his villainy, Aaron wins audience sympathy. He is driven by the prejudice that he has endured his whole life. Several hundred years ahead of the taboo cross-racial love in West Side Story (another beautiful example of cultural appropriation), Aaron and Tamora, queen of the Goths, cross the colour line. They have a mixed-race child which Aaron tries to conceal from the world for its own protection.

“Thoust has undone our mother,” one of Tamora’s thuggish sons tells Aaron.
“Villain, I have done thy mother,” he retorts. It’s brilliant! (The thuggish sons eventually get baked in a pie, literally.)

I love Aaron. But he undoes everyone with his hatred, including himself. He is a tragic anti-hero. His politics are destructive and awful. I fear that the identity politics that creates taboos about who represents whom in art ultimately leads to Aaron. It compels us to play specified, pre-wrapped, parts in life. It strangles innovation, and emphasises “otherness”. It leads to chauvinism and hate. That is not something anyone who wants to fight for equality and moral progress should align with.

This doesn’t mean sensitivity to cultural issues should be given the boot. Perhaps Mel Gibson would not be a good choice for the starring role in the next remake of Fiddler on the Roof. But declaring which groups of people get to act which characters is anti-equality and suffocates art.

Finally here’s the trailer for Pride:

This movie shows how London gays and lesbians in the 1980s raised money for the British miners’ strike. They then travelled to a mining town in Wales and won the hearts of the socially conservative locals. It was reciprocated when the miners came to London to support a massive march for gay rights.

It is an anthem for solidarity and diversity, for the universal nature of human rights. I doubt any of the main actors playing miners have spent a day working in a coal mine. Two of its endearing gay characters are Cliff and Jonathan, played by straight actors Bill Nighy and Dominic West. The lead role of Mark Ashton, a real-life gay man who died of AIDS, is brilliantly played by Ben Schnetzer. I have no idea what Schnetzer’s sexual orientation is. I don’t care. And neither should you.