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Wednesday, August 25, 1999 Published at 18:37 GMT 19:37 UK


'Blacking-up' ban for operatic group

Blacking-up white actors was deemed offensive to ethnic minorities

White members of an amateur operatic society have been banned from wearing dark face paint to play black slaves in the musical Showboat.

The Warwickshire-based Studley Operatic Society, whose 45 members are all white, may have to abandon the production after Redditch Borough Council ruled that blacking-up could offend.

"I am sorry to have to tell you it is considered inappropriate for actors to black-up, and in the light of Redditch's multicultural communities, some people may find it offensive," the council said in a letter to the group on 27 July.

'Sympathetic brown make-up'

But Joe Brennan, the society's president, said he was "horrified" by the decision.

"We wanted to use sympathetic brown make-up to distinguish between two cultures. Racism simply isn't an issue," he said.

"We have performed the play twice before, but this has never happened. No one is out to offend anyone here."

The society has also been banned from using an all white cast, because owners of the rights to the American musical do not want the characters altered.

'Blown out of proportion'

The society says it may now look for a new venue which is not controlled by the council.

Showboat chronicles three black families' experiences in the fight against slavery, and features the songs Ol' Man River and Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man.

The group had planned to stage their production next April in the council-owned Palace Theatre, Redditch, in the West Midlands.

A spokesman for the Birmingham Assembly Against Racism, Mr Roger Bethune said the matter had been blown out of proportion.

Decision 'could be reversed'

"As long as it is handled sensitively, I don't see why white characters can't play black parts," he commented.

Redditch Council has tried to defuse the row by insisting its decision was not final and could be reversed after consultations with the local black community.

Phil Mould, deputy leader of the authority, said: "The council are now asking members of the local African-Caribbean community if they think 'blacking-up' is liable to cause offence before making a final decision.

"However, we have today spoken to Equity who have told us that they have no knowledge of Showboat productions in recent years where actors black-up. It's a thing of the past."

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