Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

Black Piet. Old Man Stereotypes Just Keep Rollin’ Along…

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How do we talk about offensive racial stereotypes without smarming each other with accusations of bigotry — blatant or latent? 

This isn’t a “diversity” discussion — about inclusion of hitherto neglected ethnicities/genders/orientations in the workplace or in depictions in cultural media. Rather, this is a discussion about those depictions themselves, when they’re perceived as offensive, of the hurt they cause, and the free speech “rights” of others to employ those depictions.

Some samples:

  • Deaf West Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening, born in a 99-seat theater in L.A. and now on Broadway, employing hearing-impaired actors as sexually frustrated teenagers, currently being hailed as a model of inclusivity (that’s the “diversity” part) with the added resonance of how a rigidly moralistic 19th century society bears down upon them.
  • The screwball comedy Hot Shots! (a 1991 parody of Top Gun) shows an aerial view of a U.S. aircraft carrier with one jet landing strip reserved for handicapped parking.
  • David Sedaris’ gun control crack about how it’s legal in Michigan for blind people to hunt. “Which raises the question of how they find what they just shot… and how they then get home.” Sedaris would obviously argue that he’s making fun of Michigan’s lenient gun control laws, but isn’t he also mocking the handicapped?
  • As a culture, we’re constantly renegotiating the lines in public expression between honesty and sensitivity. Just look at David Mamet’s plays, from Oleanna and Race, juxtaposed against Lin-Manuel Miranda’s color-blind Hamilton on Broadway.
  • The black cook Aunt Jemima was once a common figure on the back of a box of pancake mix. That image has all but disappeared from our shores.
  • “Show Boat Hurts” read one picket sign at a protest outside a 1993 revival of the Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein musical. “The entire play, its plot and characterizations demean black life and culture” was part of a statement from the Coalition to Stop Show Boat. The Jewish creators imagined they were depicting a somewhat progressive take on the hardships of miscegenation laws. But what about all those black people singing in the fields?

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Kitty Felde has written a play, The Luckiest Girl, a youth theatre project opening November 30 at Atwater Village Theatre, presented by TheatreWorkers Project in affiliation with Ensemble Studio Theatre/L.A.

The play is set in contemporary Holland, and focuses on the tension between an African-American girl and her black grandmother, who’s employed as a lawyer in The Hague, over a blackface character in Dutch folklore: “Zwarte Piet,” who serves as Santa Claus’ sidekick. (Keep in mind that Felde was a correspondent in the Hague and observed the controversy there surrounding a character used in marketing and street parades — a blackface caricature dating back to the 19th century Dutch slave trade.)

Illustration of Black Piet stuffing a child into a sack
Illustration of Zwarte Piet stuffing a child into a sack

In addition to being in blackface, “Zwarte Piet” has thick, protruding red lips, a shock of thick, curly hair resembling an “Afro” wig, and ostentatious earrings, themselves an emblem of slavery. The controversy grew so contentious — with street protests and some police violence against the protestors — that the United Nations condemned the use of Zwarte Piet in government-funded civic events, as well as in marketing campaigns.

According to Dutch tradition, Santa Claus, a thin, bearded fellow (no roly-poly belly) is actually the Bishop of Turkey (don’t ask), who sails on a boat (no reindeer, no flying) not from the North Pole, but from Spain on December 5. With his sidekick, “Zwarte Piet” he visits Dutch homes, seeking — as the American song goes — to determine “who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.”

Being a naughty child has dire consequences Dutch tradition. The mildly naughty child is kicked and beaten with a switch. The severely naughty child is stuffed into a sack and carted away to Spain, which must be the Dutch version of Hell. The nice child is left sweets in clogs left by the hearth. So Christmas is actually an object lesson in obedience.

Defenders of the tradition argue that Piet’s blackface depicts the smudges of soot from the chimneys. Literalists counter, so why the thick lips — which have nothing to do with chimneys — and the Afro hairdo? And why is the rest of Piet’s costume unsmudged if he’s been crawling down chimneys? There remains one final question, why doesn’t Piet use the front door, or a window, like Santa?

The casting notice sent out by the show’s director, Susie Tanner, included the following remarks, which cuts to the heart of why Tanner had such difficulty casting the role of Piet.

“The role that I am in urgent need of casting is Zwarte Piet, the controversial Dutch sidekick to Sinterklaas (the Dutch version of Santa). This character must be played by a male (any age), in blackface. It’s a very small but extremely pivotal role. In fact, the play hinges on the believability of this character who, in the course of the play, removes his makeup and reveals himself to be white.”

Explains Tanner, who has been helping develop the play with Felde for over three years, “I interviewed and/or received emails and resumes from 20-plus interested actors. Some said ‘no thanks, but it sounds like a great project’; a few said they were available on the given dates but after reading the script and considering the blackface role, suddenly and magically either got jobs or had schedule conflicts. One actor told me that he feared playing the role would ruin his career and that, given the current political climate, he doubted an audience would be able to see the play objectively. A few actually met with me and committed to playing the role. Of the two, one dropped out three days later, citing psychological issues that prevented him from playing a blackface role.”

Tanner says that another was so intensely interested that he “demanded to be assured co-star billing, interviews, press and right for first refusal in perpetuity (Kitty and I decided to pass.)”

They also passed on a Dutch actor who expressed a little too much enthusiasm for Zwarte Piet. He had played him many times during holiday celebrations, he thought all this protest nonsense was ridiculous, and he was proud to have signed the Facebook petition to save “Black Piet.”

The point about Felde’s play is that it’s neither a celebration of Dutch tradition nor an attempt to save Black Piet. Rather, it’s an examination, for children, of how political correctness works by pitting the 10-year-old girl, who finds herself enamored of Black Piet as a kind of Disney character, against her grandmother-judge, who is appalled by the damage Black Piet inflicts upon her race’s self-respect. Both characters shift point-of-view in the course of the drama.

Demonstrations against Zwart Piet
Demonstrations against Zwart Piet

Imagine a white feminist mom trying to persuade her daughter that Cinderella isn’t the greatest role model. Talk about, “You and me against the world.”

Actor Bob Cesario, who had never heard of Black Piet before this play, accepted the role, which he emphasizes, is a character in a play, not an endorsement of any particular view.

“It was interesting to read about him and the controversy,” Cesario says. As far as the controversy goes, this is a 60-year-old man who’s been playing this part most of his life; he sees it as a cultural thing that doesn’t do harm.”

Cesario says if it were him, personally, on the streets, watching Black Piet in a carnival, he’d think, “Hmmm… You’ve got to be more progressive, but for me as an actor, it seems like a challenge, to maybe learn something from this little girl, who [realizing he’s white] says to him, ‘I thought you were just like me.’”

Adds Cesario, “I have two adopted children who are both bi-racial. I asked them if they had a problem with me doing this role, and they said ‘No, it sounds like a part in a play.’”

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Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.