IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Performing the Racial Scale in the Theatre: From Colonial Saint-Domingue to Today
The casting of the “black” actor, Zoe Saldana, as the “black” singer, Nina Simone, in a recent film caused something of an uproar: Saldana, it was claimed, was not black enough and so wore skin-darkening make-up (“blackface”) and a prosthetic nose. These are not new issues. In order to open up the question of the racial scale at work in the theatre, Dr Julia Prest proposes to compare the experiences of two female singer-actors who participated in the vibrant theatrical tradition in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in the 1780s. The first is the white European star, Mme Marsan, who was best-known for her performance of French comic opera but who also participated in local productions and is known to have performed in blackface on at least one occasion (something that actresses in France refused to do at this time); the second is a local woman of mixed racial ancestry, known as “Minette” who is famous for having been the first non-white soloist to perform publically in Saint-Domingue, but who refused to perform repertoire that was not strictly “French”. She will suggest that, in order to hold on to a position further up the racial scale than her ancestry would strictly permit, Minette had to be careful not to do anything that would push her back down that scale, while Mme Marsan, whose position at the top of the racial scale was almost untouchable, had more freedom to explore new theatrical possibilities. However, the fact that Marsan did not make a habit of performing blackface may have reflected a fear of degeneration. Although upward mobility was a common phenomenon on the island, the possibility of downward mobility (or degeneration) was not absolutely excluded. It will be seen that the issues faced by actors today have without doubt evolved but have yet to be fully resolved.
This lecture is free and open to all.
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