Hey hey, is Yellowface the new Blackface?

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 13th October 2009.

The recent controversy surrounding the Jackson Jive sketch on the revival of Hey Hey It’s Saturday has certainly ignited a fierce debate regarding the appropriateness of racial stereotypes in modern entertainment and media. Whilst a Michael Jackson or Jackson Five tribute is itself not offensive (the question of taste is another question), the choice of the backing performers to wear blackface makeup and frizzy wigs is really the heart of the matter. Blackface is a theatrical style using makeup, usually greasepaint or shoe polish, to blacken the skin and accentuate the lips, and, combined with a shaggy wig, is based on the American stereotype from the 1800’s of the cheerful plantation negro. Originating in the United States in the mid-1800’s, this theatrical traditional was an extremely popular form of entertainment for over a hundred years, and quickly spread to the United Kingdom. The Black Minstrel shows of that era represent the heyday of blackface. Performed by white, and then later, black performers, the shows varied in content and tone between wildly comic buffoonery based on racial stereotypes and serious interpretations of spiritual songs. By the time of Vaudeville in the early years of the 1900’s, blackface was a live entertainment staple, and remained so until it became taboo in the US in the 1950’s with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, although it carried on in the UK until much later, even appearing on primetime television variety shows up until 1981. Al Jolson, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby were among famous film stars who appeared in blackface in movies from the 1930’s. Blackface was not limited to the US or UK either. In Orange, a local group of performers staged a Black Minstrel show at Amoco Hall as recently as the early 1980’s. In the modern world of theatre, blackface is generally no longer acceptable. Actors unions certainly would not allow a black character to be portrayed by a white performer. An exception to the rule would be the musical Jolson, which starred the late Rob Guest in its Australian run, and features blackface during its portrayal of the early years of the titular singer’s career. As blackface was historically part of Jolson’s life story, it would be very difficult to leave it out. Licences for theatrical productions of musicals such as Showboat or Porgy & Bess are subject to the condition that blackface is not used. Until recently, Miss Saigon could only be performed on condition that a black actor played the role of American G.I. John, although this has been lifted for amateur productions. Interestingly enough, the same taboo for racial stereotyping in theatre does not apply equally to all races. The King & I is still performed regularly in amateur circles with a predominantly white cast, made up to look Asian. Controversy erupted in 1989 over the original Broadway and London productions of Miss Saigon when Caucasian actor Jonathan Pryce was cast as the Vietnamese origin character, The Engineer. Whilst there is no easy answer to the question of the appropriateness of the Hey Hey sketch, it must be remembered that the performance originated from an episode 20 years ago. It may have been entertaining and acceptable then, but is it now?

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