Some personal notes from Tony Lidington & Jon Davison.
The following comments are intended to clarify some issues about blackface performance contained in the video recording of the Clown Power Live S2E8 on 24th May 2020. This was commented on briefly during the discussion, but was not explored in depth and went without acknowledgment of the controversy of the topic.
Blackface has been used as a means of further oppressing and othering black people and still is used by some around the world to reinforce, rather than challenge, stereotypes and diminish visibility and representation of black people. These negative connotations mean that blackface performance cannot be considered as merely another kind of mask with solely playful intent.
The issue of blackface performance in Britain is obviously a troubling and controversial subject, yet it has undeniably been a significant element of British popular culture for over 150 years. Although blackface performance is now seldom seen in mainstream contexts, the impact and resonances of the form reverberate throughout contemporary music and comedy. There is much that is disturbing in clown history and uncovering and talking about them is useful in maintaining a critical approach to our profession.
During this discussion about clown history and how clowns seek out the limits across different social, performance and technological contexts, the subject of blackface was raised in connection to a contemporary performance project. The ideas for this project are still at a very early stage of development, but this is what was mentioned briefly in the discussion and we wanted to give further contextualisation to avoid any misconceptions.
Dr Tony Lidington, together with Dr David Linton of Kingston University, Jatinder Verma (formerly of Tara Arts) and Michael Barnes-Wynter (freelance arts worker), are considering ways in which a company of BAME performers might present an al fresco performance troupe for unstratified audiences (i.e. at locations such as the seaside, where previous minstrel performances took place) and thereby reclaim some of the presence and performance idioms that have been appropriated by the dominant culture. The undoubted racist connotations of much of the work has obscured the celebration of black culture which co-exists within some of this material. The aim is not to recreate or resurrect the form, but rather to see how the content and structures of such material has informed the mainstream perceptions of British national identity.
We would like to emphasise that we did not in any way want to cause offence, nor fail to acknowledge the historic role of blackface in oppression and hope that these notes will clarify our stance. We apologise for this not being made clear during the public discussion.
Dr Tony Lidington (panel member)
Dr Jon Davison (panel member)