Clybourne Park playwright Bruce Norris has withdrawn permission for a Berlin theatre company to produce his play after learning that a white actor would be cast in a black role.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is an acute examination of American racial politics, through a storyline that follows the racial and economic changes in a Chicago neighbourhood.
The Deutsches Theatre in Berlin had planned to cast a white actress in an African-American role and told Norris it saw no logical reason why it should cast an Afro-German. The script calls for seven characters, two of them black.
Norris told the theatre he was withdrawing rights to perform the play, shutting the production down.
That decision followed an exchange of letters with the Berlin theatre company, in which the playwright attempted to impress on the company the importance of race to the script. The theatre said it could not find a black actor to fulfill the role.
"After much evasion, justification and rationalizing of their reasons, they finally informed me that the colour of the actress's skin would ultimately be irrelevant, since they intended to 'experiment with makeup.’ At this point, I retracted the rights to the production," he said.
He sent an open letter to the Dramatists Guild of America dated Tuesday urging other playwrights to boycott German productions that use white actors to play black roles. It is a relatively common practice in Germany.
An online petition against its use was started last weekend in response to a production of Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport at another Berlin theatre.
"Normally I don't meddle in the cultural politics of other countries, but when my work and the work of my colleagues — other playwrights—is misrepresented, I do," Norris said in a statement.
In American and Canadian theatre, use of blackface is rare, though it is still seen in opera.
Joel Greenberg, artistic director of Toronto's Studio 180 Theatre, which is currently mounting the Toronto premiere of Clybourne Park, says he does not believe it would be acceptable in Canada to cast a white actor in a role that is clearly black.
"I suppose it could be done as a way of making some sort of comment about it, but in the case of Clybourne Park or — we did a play called The Overwhelming about the Rwandan genocide that had a cast of 11 and there were seven black actors — it wouldn't even cross your mind," he told CBC News.
Norris called what he termed "blackface" an "asinine tradition" and said "a zero-tolerance position is the only position to take, in my opinion."
Clybourne Park is inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun and set in the same fictional Chicago suburb. The first act, in 1959, follows what happens when the first black family moves into the neighbourhood. The second act, in 1990, looks at "gentrification" in the same neighbourhood, which has been predominantly black for more than 30 years.