ABT Waits for “Jim Crow Othello” Story to Blow Over

In late May, just a few weeks before Misty Copeland was promoted to principal dancer Marcelo Gomes stepped out on stage as Othello in a revival of the Lar Lubovitch ballet originally made for Desmond Richardson in 1997. With Copeland, ABT had just named the first African American female principal in the company’s 75 year history. It was a position that Copeland, a vocal proponent of diversity in ballet, had pursued very vocally for years. It was both a welcome and deserved milestone. The avalanche of positive press for her promotion shows no sign of abating any time soon. With Gomes, who is a well- liked star performer at ABT, the public engagement has not been so welcomed. Robert Manning Jr., a black actor who had seen the performance (and walked out on it) fired off an angry letter to the publication Broadway Black calling the performance a Jim Crow Othello because Gomes , who is a light-skinned Brazilian, had an ABT makeup artist, in Manning’s words, “paint him brown” for the performance.

Choreographer Lar Lubovitch: Photo by Nan Melville

Choreographer Lar Lubovitch: Photo by Nan Melville

The letter and the story were picked up by The Huffington Post Black Voices section. Manning had been fiercely critical of both the casting and especially painting a light-skinned dancer brown. In a vitriolic letter and public challenge, he asked ABT to justify their actions. Kelly Ryan the head of Marketing and Publicity went on the record in the Huffington Post story saying ABT would respond to him in “one or two days”. Two months later following a query to Manning’s Twitter account he told me, “they never said a word”. Since then, I have contacted Ryan and David Lansky, the company’s General Manger, with repeated email requests and phone messages asking why they had not followed through in contacting Manning. They both have declined to respond.

While Manning’s ire was directed principally at the company’s artistic and administrative targets Gomes was largely left out of the direct line of fire. It is still unclear whose idea it was to make him up though Lubovitch has said that his past preferences have been to use body paint on white dancers in the role. An Instagram photo from Gomes’ account showed a picture of the makeup process with joking references to the hashtags instatan and bronzed. The photo has since been deleted though a screen shot of it was published for the Broadway Black story. It is not known if Gomes deleted the photo on his own or if ABT had asked him to remove it in response to Manning’s letter.

Manning was of course correct to point out the offense. His harshness was real and justified. That more didn’t see it his way is inexplicable and only points to a general sense of tone deafness with ABT and its audiences. The responses in the comment sections for both publications were uniformly bland and ranged from “tempest in a teacup” to matter of fact acknowledgements that painting up white dancers was a kind of business as usual. “Shakespeare did it”, said one, offering a kind of justification of racism by historical fiat. The worst commenters suggested that there were no black dancers of the caliber necessary to fill the role. Surely we have gotten to a point where the perceptions of race and exotic appeal need to be filed away forever. The damage could have stopped with Gomes had he decided simply to dance as himself. Instead, he exercised some magnificently poor judgement in being the final enabler in a very wrong and harmful decision making process.

Others have been there before him. Fabrice Calmels danced the same role recently at the Joffrey Ballet with a heavy application of body makeup. I don’t think there has been a black dancer in the role since Richardson though there are certainly many currently, unknown and otherwise, who are well qualified to do so. None of the recent reviews have bothered to mention or take exception to the practice of painting white dancers for the role. My guess is that those days, at least for top level professional ballet productions, are over.

The Metropolitan Opera announced this week that it would be dropping the more than 100 year old legacy of what they called “blackface style makeup” for its fall production of Verdi’s “Otello”. And since Manning’s letter was originally addressed to the Met as well as ABT perhaps we can assume that his public outcry has finally been heard. In the meantime, Manning is not holding his breath waiting for a response from ABT. They give every impression of having taken a calculated position to wait for the storm to blow over.

3 responses to “ABT Waits for “Jim Crow Othello” Story to Blow Over

  1. Could you please explain why you’re offended by Marcelo darkening his skin with makeup for a role? I understand that you’re offended, but not specifically why.

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  2. Dear Paul

    First, let me refer you to the comments by Manning himself at the conclusion of his published letter with Broadway Black. I included a link to that story because his follow up comments were worth reading. While those are his objections they are not that different from mine. Blacking up performers has a clear historically racist underpinning in American culture. The whole point of the original idea for performance arose as a way of deriving a casual, insulting humor at the expense of blacks. This is simple garden variety racism. That history does not simply go away because we are now post Civil War, post Reconstruction, post Jim Crow, post Civil Rights era. or nearly post Obama. And it is different than, for example, putting a beret on someone and calling him a Frenchman. The simplest answer is that I personally sense this at a gut level and feel that it was a wrong (and offensive) tactic then, and is still wrong for global race and identity issues today.

    ABT, supposedly people at the upper level of thinking and sensitivity, apparently saw painting an actor for a role only as a costuming issue. Mr. Lubovitch, the choreographer for Othello, also felt this way. It is an indication of just how embedded racism can be. It can be the domain of low as well as the elite. Their actions were full of disregard because they failed to follow through on what seemed like sincere intentions to contact Manning. At some level that says that Manning and his concerns don’t count in the world of big time ballet. The Met has now ended its plans to black future performers for the Verdi ‘Otello’. A barrier has come down. I suspect that it has come down at ABT too, though they are not inclined to talk about it. Thanks for reading the story and commenting.

    Steven Woodruff

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