Few people today would publicly bemoan the loss of blackface makeup, so, in looking at Ken Ludwig’s 1986 comedy, Lend Me a Tenor, here we go.
Ludwig’s farce, being presented by West Chester’s Resident Theater Company, takes place in 1934, when the Cleveland Grand Opera has hired the world-famous singer Tito Morelli (Bart Shatto) for the title role of Verdi’s Otello. The temperamental singer’s personal problems derail the opening, leaving the beleaguered company director, Henry (Michael Yeshion), and his assistant, Max (Woody White), to take drastic measures.
A strong performance by Yeshion overcomes most of the slowness of Ludwig’s first act. The remaining ensemble draws plenty of laughs, and Kristin McLaughlin Mitchell’s direction incorporates clever physical humor. It’s an enjoyable if predictable performance, highlighted by David Arsenault’s Art Deco-inspired hotel-room set.
But Ludwig’s farce hinges on a case of mistaken identity involving the role of Othello that conventionally has rested on actors wearing blackface. I’ve seen three productions in Philadelphia (two professional, one amateur) and all employed this device, as did the 2010 Broadway revival.
Blackface in this play reflects the operatic tradition of darkening the appearance of white singers in the role of Othello, which persists in Europe and occurred at the Metropolitan Opera as recently as 2013, with Jose Cura in the role. In 2015, the Met discontinued the tradition with a production starring Aleksandr Antonenko.
In America, blackface historically reminds of minstrel shows, the vaudevilles that depicted African Americans with exaggerated, negative stereotypes. In response to this, one prominent local critic has suggested that there be a “ban” on productions of Ludwig’s farce.
Perhaps this is the right approach. Many plays can offend the sensitivities of ethnic and racial groups, from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Companies must find a balance between selling tickets and pleasing audience expectations and sensibilities. A critical reflection on Ludwig’s play might be in order for some enterprising young playwright (R. Eric Thomas or James Ijames?), in the manner of Suzan Lori-Parks, Lynn Nottage, or Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Neighbors.
But if a central device in a play calls for something now seen as offensive and a company decides to stage it, it is artistically irresponsible (if not cowardly) to pretend the offensive element no longer exists in the text.
Would we enact Equus today without the nudity, given that it portrays a mentally troubled 17-year-old boy? Should we retire A Streetcar Named Desire, which illustrates the unbridled, irrational affection of a young wife for an abusive husband?
I don’t believe, as many playwrights, directors, and practitioners have argued, that good theater or art should offend sensibilities. But if the cultural consensus no longer accepts the devices, themes, or depictions used by a past work of art (and I apply that term loosely to Lend Me a Tenor), then I will publicly discuss potential distaste for not retiring even a relic.