tkitching (tkitching) wrote,

Blackface in Mummers plays - When tradition and acceptable behaviour collide.

After Shrewsbury folk Festival's decision to ban blackface Morris as of next year's festival, there's been a lot of reaction online. There have been several good articles explaining why people don't want this part of the tradition to continue, and for me, it's rather solidified a decision I arrived at about 6 months ago, which is that I can't black up any more. In fact, when I consider it in the terms of the arguments so well framed in the following articles, I find myself somewhat embarrassed that I have in the past.

Thanks to Tim Chipping and Ben Moss for writing and sharing these articles on Facebook.

I'd quote from a similar article in riposte if I could find one, but all I can see is very short sharp replies along the lines of 'It's political correctness gone mad' and 'It's not racist because it's not meant in a denigratory way'. If I have missed a well considered response to the concerns raised in the above articles, then I would be very happy to include a link to it here if people make me aware of it.


I imagine that some people I know will be rather surprised to hear that as a fairly Liberal sort of person, I would be involved in customs that involve blacking up in this day and age. Others might well be disappointed at my failure to defend an ancient English custom that I have previously supported. I'm not going to hide the fact I've done this many times before, there's plenty of photographic evidence. This is hopefully not a 'holier than thou' article, more a description of the competing concerns, the nature of tradition, and how my sense of what's most important has changed over time. I'd like to thank Lisa Heywood for challenging me on this subject and getting me to think again about it.

Rather than go through the arguments again, when they've been made so well in the articles above, I'd rather explain the personal journey from it being something I did without thinking about it, to something I had concerns about, to something I know I can't do again, and what caused my thinking to change and why.

I'm not a dancer, for me wearing a black face is something I've done as part of another great staple of our folk traditions, the mummers plays. Whilst quite different from dancing, ultimately the same arguments return once you strip back the detail. If anything, it's more problematic.

Many traditional plays have a 'Black Prince', 'Prince of Paradise', or 'Turkish knight', whose job is to fight St George or similar and be an easily recognisable bad guy who loses and is often killed. The detail changes from play to play, but the character is a staple to many traditional plays, and the role immediately recognisable.

There's no two ways about it, this is a crude racial stereotype. It's fair to say that the rest of the characters in the plays I'm involved in are also crude stereotypes, and don't emerge with much credit. St George is a braggart who won't stop killing people. The doctor, a drunken quack. Bold Slasher a violent idiot. All the characters are crude caricatures.

However, there is a difference with the Black Prince. He's not our fool to ridicule. The other characters are drawn of us and our society. We laugh at ourselves and what fools and unfortunates we might become. With the Black Prince, we laugh at an 'outsider'. An 'outsider' with a history of being oppressed by people like us in the most serious forms imaginable. Furthermore, the black nature of the character exists so that the audience immediately know he's a bad guy. It's a racist short-cut to avoid having to explain why he's bad. He just is, 'cause he's black.

Given this, one would be entirely justified to ask why it has taken me so long to see that there is something wrong with this. Folk tradition and community lends a veneer of justification to it that takes some unravelling. Particularly if one joins a strong a tight-knit and long established community for which this is how things are done. Initially, the fact that it is traditional was enough of an argument for me. If something is traditionally carried out in a certain way, then surely censoring it would be a dangerous route to take? A worrying restriction of freedom of expression. But with time and experience, I have come to believe that for something to be truly traditional, it has to be a living, evolving thing. A tradition that refuses to change because that's how it was done when it was collected is rather missing the point that it will have changed numerous times up to that point. In a play such as this, characters and lines will have come and gone, risen with fashions, played to current prejudices and fashions, been dropped or re-written as their relevance shifted. The tradition can only remain relevant if allowed to alter to fit the current state of affairs. It is astonishing how across traditional folk culture, the point at which something was collected for the first time is the point where it was stopped from evolving further. It's like pinning a moth.

A tradition that cannot alter to accommodate acceptable behaviours for its time, is not a tradition at all, but is instead re-enactment. I don't have a problem with things being re-enactment, but do believe that they have a couple of requirements that are different to tradition. A friend of mine deals in medieval plays, and part of her challenge is to address the inherent anti-Semitism and other seriously non PC elements in a way that does not pretend they do not exist, but alerts the audience to their presence and makes a historical understanding of them central to the audience's engagement with the performance. Similarly, there are several well known more modern productions that require a giant swastika to be unfurled for dramatic effect. There is nothing wrong with using offensive imagery, if the context is carefully considered, and addressed. In these cases, the offensiveness is central to artistic expression, be that for reasons of historical truth, or dramatic effect.

In the folk traditions though, the intention is not to offend in this way. I know a great many people who have either worn, or continue to wear blackface, either for Morris dancing, mummers plays, or other customs. Do they seek to offend? I believe that few of them really do. They are not intending in the slightest to make a racist statement, and do not themselves believe they are. Their motives are not usually the issue here. I certainly did not take on the persona of the Black Prince with the thought that I'd be sticking it to black people.

When, as a much younger person, I became involved in these activities, a long established older generation, who had revived these customs were stewards of tradition. As a youngster coming through, I accepted that this was the way it was, and allowed my reverence for the concept of tradition to overcome any doubts I had. When you're at the heart of something much more ancient than you, it feels a terrible sin and a great arrogance to want to change some part of it. It would be like repainting part of the Sistine chapel because you fancied a change. But as the years went by, I became familiar and fixed enough in the tradition to become uncomfortable with the character. My last outing as the Black Prince, three years ago, I went for a stripe of black, keeping my large ginger beard, and did it as the 'Ginger Prince', a name reciprocated to great comic effect by the other protagonists. But now this still doesn't feel quite enough to save this character in his existing form.

How far do things need to change to be ok here? In this first play, the character is quite overt. In the Alderley Edge Mummers play, a particularly ancient play we perform around Christmas time, the Black Prince is not black, and instead is known as 'Prince Paradise'. Owing to an odd historical incident back in the 1920s where the regular player could not make it, and a youth had to fill the role. The other players decided he did not look old enough to be taken seriously, and constructed a cloth mask instead, which the character wore thereafter. Interestingly, although this often obscures the racial element of the character, we were recently asked if he was supposed to represent a Hezbollah fighter.

This character is not blacked up, and not so overtly a racial stereotype, although careful listening to the lines will still make it clear that he is a Moorish villain. Is this character acceptable?

In the Long Company's modern take on the Mummers play, the character is not referred to as black, nor are they geographically placed. They have purple and gold rags rather than black. They are merely a villain of nowhere in particular. There is nothing at all to the casual observer that would come across as having any racial element whatsoever. To a scholar of the tradition, however, the character is clearly derived from the same 'Black Prince' source. Is this character acceptable? Does the hidden nature of the derivation make the character ok, or does the fact that they are drawn from a long history of racial stereotypes become problematic?

I don't have the answer to these questions, and I'd be fascinated to hear what others think.

I wonder if the solution to this depends on whether we view the play as a historical re-enactment or a living tradition. If we regard it as a re-enactment of an old tradition, then the racial stereotype is an important role that must be carefully explained to the audience. Looking at how my friend deals with the difficulties in staging medieval plays, the trick is not to disguise the offensive elements, but to acknowledge them in a way that invites study and discussion. If we decide that the mummers play falls into this category, then a much greater effort must be made to educate why the character is there, and explicitly acknowledge the offensive nature of the character. Indeed, at that point, the aim is distinctly to offend, in order to acknowledge the racist elements of English tradition. However, in my view, this would restrict the essential spontaneous nature of the mummers play, and render it sadly sterile. I would not personally be keen on this route, not unless it was an extra to the main task, perhaps occasionally performed to a pre-warned audience as a historical reference piece.

If this is a living tradition, then the character must surely be written out or heavily evolved. The plays were certainly not born fully formed hundreds of years ago, with no changes ever since. If we accept that to be true, then change and evolution can itself be considered traditional. It is therefore in the interests of the continued tradition for the play to evolve to remain relevant and appropriate.

The next paragraph I originally wrote went like this;
"However, that decision is not mine. The plays were collected, saved, pieced together from fragments recited by old, old men in homes, interpreted, and costumed, by a dedicated group who revived them in the 1970s. They raise large sums for charity each year. The change in feelings towards certain elements of it is a generational thing, and I cannot really expect or demand that the people responsible for giving me the chance to be involved in the first place should change their beloved plays. I consider it fairly unlikely that this character will change during that generation's stewardship of the play. "

But having sent an early draft of this round to both Tony and Duncan who coordinate the two plays I'm broadly referring to, I realise I shouldn't have been so quick to assume these things. Again, out of deference to the fact that these things happen because they have put the effort in to make sure they do, I was perhaps too quick to assume that a good debate on the subject wasn't for me to instigate.

On the basis of a couple of conversations had, it seems to me like the future of these characters is there to tweak. I'd be interested to see what can be done to take them forward in a way that both reflects the great tradition of the activity, but also recognises the need to adjust accordingly. I look forward to developing those conversations further.

I take enormous pleasure from the fact that the Alderley mummers play is performed in the same part of the world, in the same communities that it always has. There is a continuity to it that is extremely important to me. The great history and documentation of it are extraordinarily humbling, when you inhabit a character hundreds of years old, that has been performed by countless people before.

So how do we take it forward? I can't wear blackface again. That's now a personal red line for me.

I am left with the following questions.

Can I perform another character in a play where someone else is in blackface?

Would the answer to that depend on how the piece was interpreted to the audience?

Can I continue to perform in other plays where the character is not so obviously a racial stereotype, but where the underlying point of the character is still the same?

Should I stick with it in the hope of encouraging and developing change and evolution as the play slowly passes between generations? My gut feeling is yes.

I really don't have all the answers here, but would be fascinated to hear what other people think. This is an area that has attracted a lot of passionate debate, spilling over into abuse in some cases. That's a great shame. One well known fiddler of my generation attracted a tirade of online abuse for supporting Shrewsbury's position on blackface Morris. That's not acceptable. As someone who has recently come around to the side of being against blackface, I am not really in a position to force my opinion on anyone, but instead want to hear a balanced debate.

Cheers, Tom.
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