What happens when you ignore racist comments from someone like Janet Suzman

Solomon and Marion
Written for Exeunt:

“People don’t know about the undemonstrative side of racism,” says Dame Janet Suzman during an interview. It’s April 2010 and the actor- director, is telling me about the liberal people that surrounded her during a period of polemic change in South Africa. “It’s there,” she explains, “simmering beneath the surface.”

By now you may have heard about Suzman’s more recent race-related comments published in the Guardian on Monday 8th December. She talked bluntly about catering to Asian audiences, “as if one were ordering food for a special wedding”, and explained that black people don’t come to the theatre because it’s not in their culture. “Fair’s fair” she says “theatre is a totally European invention.” While the factuality of the latter statement is easy to dismiss, the troubling over-simplification of the former, is not.

It gets worse though. One particular sticking point for me was the description of her own behaviour and thought process during a performance of Solomon and Marion. “I’ve just done a South African play” she begins, “my co-star is a young black man from the slums of Cape Town. Totally brilliant actor” – called Khayalethu Anthony – “I saw one black face in the room, at the Print Room. I rail against that and say why don’t black people come to see a play about one of the most powerful African states?”

While some will argue it’s better not to give much attention to her blatantly incorrect “European-invention” thing, I’d argue we need to question how the holy fuck someone who has opposed racism and been in the industry so long can pool together so many parts of the medium (themes, casting, histories) and present reductive, harmful statements in a way that is, to her, well-reasoned. It also scares the living shit out of me that the people who might actually make lasting change in the relationship between audiences and theatre makers i.e. young innovative journalists, would happily ignore her.

Suzman’s comments on the audience she performed to during The Print Room production convinces me that turning a blind eye is not an option. The way she relays her experience brings up two aspects of theatregoing which are consistently misunderstood or straight-up disregarded by those in the industry. The first is the white-gaze that she describes. Consider for a moment what it might feel like to be that one black face, a non-white body in a white-owned space. Because while theatre isn’t white-invented, in this country, most of it is certainly white-owned in multiple ways.

Scanning the crowd for dark skin is not only god damn weird but for a person who is observably part of an ethnic minority it raises some uncomfortable questions while at the theatre. Are you scouring the audience looking for my brown face, Dame Janet? Are you assuming I’m here for your dark-skinned co-star and not you? Do the people on either side of me think I’m here because you’ve made an effort to cater for me? Sometimes, just existing physically as a brown body in theatre spaces is a mindfuck and it often evokes that complicated ‘double consciousness’ that W. E. B. Du Bois used to explain one aspect of having dual heritage (ethnically and environmentally).

He described it thusly: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness…” Reading comments like Suzman’s without a decent discussion by a mixed group of writers following them, only reinforces this way of seeing oneself.

The second commonly ignored aspect of theatre-going that Suzman demonstrates, is the way that comments like hers perpetuate the hegemony that inadvertently or otherwise excludes ethnic minorities while simultaneously blaming them for not behaving as expected. Assuming black people will turn up to a play about South Africa presupposes exactly the kind of conformity that gives value to the power imbalance so evident in the UK theatre scene.

For journalists questioning whether to write about the naivety on display in Suzman’s statements, know that dismissing it perpetuates another kind of hegemony, one that encourages us to think of our effectiveness as limited. To develop the discussion on diversity and inclusion, we need to understand that the problem is more than how many dark faces you can spot in the crowd. We need to strategise. We need to dismiss the idea that the only way to respond to statements that make wild claims is condemnation, we have far greater significance than that. Let’s not wait for the slow “cultivated evolution” that Dominic Cavendish writes about in his response piece. “Patience is not a political strategy” as Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones once said. How can we discuss racial justice in every realm but theatre?

So let’s have a plan for when Suzman-esque shit goes down. I’m talking to Exeunt here and all the people it involves – including myself now, I think – when I ask, what exactly is our policy on this? Or rather, how can we form one together? One thing seems obvious, neglecting the issue, hoping the off-stage drama will die a swift death, or waiting for a brown writer to get mad on Twitter only upholds an attitude of wilful ignorance. Ignorance that could well lead to that “undemonstrative side of racism” Suzman mentioned to me four years ago, the simmering side that will, as we’ve seen, break the surface.

[Image: Solomon and Marion by Ruphin Coudyzer ]

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