Theatre department’s latest production faces criticism for use of blackface

Forrest Milburn

UT theatre students have voiced concerns over the theatre department’s latest production of “The Wild Party” because of a main character’s application of blackface.

According to the Texas Performing Arts website, “The Wild Party,” co-written by Michael John LaChiusa and African-American playwright George C. Wolfe, is set during the Roaring ’20s. Throughout the play, Queenie and her partner Burrs — the character in blackface — host an unruly party seeping with jazz, gin and debauchery.

In the UT production, the actor playing Burrs applies blackface — when white actors use charcoal, face paint or masks to mock caricatures of black culture or stereotypes — twice during the show.

Theatre and dance senior Fallon Christian, who helped paint scene floors, said it was “bold and inconsiderate” for the department to have included blackface.

“Blackface, for me, represents the beginning of a very horrific and damaging practice,” Christian said. “It sort of made it so that black people couldn’t even portray themselves as we fully are. Like we were distilled down to this one depiction and it created other caricatures that inform how people see us today still.”

Through several tweets, Facebook posts and a website disclaimer, the department has warned audiences about the “exploration of sexuality, violence and graphic racial representation” in multiple scenes that depict rape and gratuitous sex.

But Christian said the department did not do enough to warn viewers of the play’s material beforehand.

“If you’re going to make the choice to include blackface in the show, you should explicitly state it,” Christian said. “Otherwise, [the warning] could mean anything.”

Department chair Brant Pope said the playwrights were intentional in using blackface, and no director of the production can remove it without “insulting the spirit of the play or its creators” and risking legal action by the play’s rights holder. In addition, Pope said the department had conversations with theatre and dance classes and faculty members, including a professor within the department of African and African diaspora studies, about the historical context of the play.

“Extensive and substantive discussions between the creative team, the faculty and scholars across the campus preceded this production,” Pope said. “All parties agreed that [the play] was an important, provocative and exciting addition to the theatre and dance season.”

Theatre studies senior Amber Prince said the fault lies with the department and possibly the creative team, not with the cast.

“I think the Department of Theatre and Dance should have … asked the students what they thought before that was put on the main stage,” Prince said.

Christian said department officials have taken steps in response to talks with faculty and staff within the department. The department will host an open conversation Nov. 30 at 5 p.m. to discuss diversity and inclusivity in the department. Christian said she is looking forward to the discussion and hopes students outside the theatre department also voice their concerns.

“It won’t be enough until we have a conversation about race every single time something like that is on the stage,” Christian said.

Correction: The Broadway production of "The Wild Party" featured an actor in blackface, contrary to our original reporting. This article has been updated throughout.