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Wednesday, 13 December, 2000, 13:38 GMT
'Blacking up' ban for actors
Black and White Minstrels
Politically incorrect: The once popular Black and White Minstrels
A council is introducing a controversial policy preventing white actors from "blacking up" for roles portraying characters from other ethnic groups.

The move comes in the wake of a ban last year on a performance of the musical South Pacific by the Rotherham Operatic Society.

The show, due to be put on at the town's civic centre, would have involved white actors wearing black make-up to portray natives of a South Sea island.

The ban has been welcomed by some black theatre groups, but criticised by other groups who say there are very few non-white amateur actors in Yorkshire.


It is fundamentally racist to have white actors "blacking up" for black parts - that belongs to the 19th century

Topher Campbell
Talawa Theatre Group
Rotherham is believed to be the first council in Britain to have a formal written ban on the practice.

It applies to all performances in council buildings, including schools.

But other councils have also stopped productions in their buildings on the same grounds.

Last August members of the all-white Studley Operatic Society, who perform at the council-owned Palace Theatre in Redditch in Warwickshire, were not allowed to wear dark face paint to play black slaves in the musical Showboat .

"Heavy-handed"

Mark Pemberton, chief executive of the National Operatic and Dramatics Association (Noda), said it was an over-the-top reaction to a harmless hobby.

Mark Pemberton
Mark Pemberton of Noda: Council has gone over the top
"The wider implication of applying this policy to schools is that shows like West Side Story could not be staged," he said.

"Amateur societies have an open door policy but interested people have to contact them.

"It's not fair to expect unpaid volunteers to put in extra time by actively recruiting ethnic minorities."

But Topher Campbell of the London-based Talawa black theatre group, said: "It is fundamentally racist to have white actors 'blacking up' for black parts. That belongs to the 19th century.

"We welcome any policy that forces groups to reassess how they portray groups on stage.

"It is incumbent on all organisations to be aware of the way they portray and give access to and share power with people from ethnic minorities," he added.

Inappropriate

Philip Deverell, of Nitro, another black theatre group, said there was a sufficient pool of ethnic minority actors to play black roles.

"Blacking up is inappropriate in a multicultural society unless the storyline dictates it," he said.

The integrated casting policy also prohibits drama groups from stereotyping on the grounds of disability, gender or sexual orientation.

The Rotherham councillor responsible for education, Georgina Boyes, said that hers was not the only council to take a tough line.

"A number of local authorities who take a similar position to ours in that they have an informal policy, are now looking to create a formal written policy," she said.

"Indeed they are asking to see ours an as example of good practice," she said.

Mrs Boyes said the policy would only affect a handful of productions but she hoped it would encourage more members of ethnic minorities to become involved in the arts locally.

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