Spotlight Theatre

Black, brown and in between

Face off Maya Krishna Rao in Quality Street.

Face off Maya Krishna Rao in Quality Street.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On December 5, 2009, the eve of St Nicholas’ birthday, I witnessed the celebration of Sinterklaas on the streets of Amsterdam. A white Dutch man dressed as Sinterklaas arrived on a white horse. He was accompanied by his ‘helpers’, Zwarte Pieten, Dutch for Black Petes — white Dutch men with faces painted black, lips coloured red, wearing brightly coloured costumes, afro wigs and golden earrings — who distributed sweets to excited children.

The organisers claim that blackface (theatrical make-up traditionally donned by whites to represent black people) was used to indicate the soot from the chimney that Pete has to pass through to deliver gifts to young children. Just when one begins to wonder why the colour of the rest of his body (hands and feet) and clothes remains unchanged, the history of Dutch colonialism rings a bell. The country had been actively involved in the slave trade in the 19th century.

Here’s the catch

I found myself thinking about Sinterklaas when I watched Maya Krishna Rao’s Quality Street last month. An adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s short story, Rao’s revived solo comedy piece (first performed in 2011) opened to a full house at New Delhi’s Stein Auditorium. Flitting between two characters with effortless ease, Rao portrayed the generational conflict between a Nigerian mother and daughter, Mrs. Njoku and Sochienne, as the latter returns from the U.S., much transformed.

Dressed in resplendent green with matching headgear, Rao had the audience in splits from the moment she made her entry on stage as a Nigerian woman with her face painted black. The discussion over the daughter’s wedding — involving arguments over every little detail, from the venue to the number of guests, that is so typical of the urban diaspora — was amusing too.

Black, brown and in between

Rao’s training in Kathakali lent a delightful physicality to the performance — her body and voice fluctuated expressively. The show was technically brilliant — the sound design, scenography and lights were almost perfect. Frequent giggles from the audience confirmed Rao’s flawless comic timing and her reputation as one of the most versatile artists in contemporary India.

But there’s a catch. The performance of Quality Street and the use of blackface beg scrutiny in the context of recent instances of racist behaviour in Delhi. And indeed in all of India.

Colour as costume

This performance cannot be divorced from the reality of life as felt in the streets of Delhi, where black men and women are routinely attacked. In early 2017, Endurance and Precious Amalawa, two African brothers, were attacked by a mob as they were roaming around in a shopping mall. In 2016, Masonda Ketada Olivier was beaten to death following a heated row over hiring an autorickshaw.

In 2014, three African men were assaulted by a mob of Indians at the busy Rajiv Chowk Metro station. The same year, the then law minister Somnath Bharti led a mob against African women

living in Delhi’s Khirki Extension, accusing them of prostitution and drug-trafficking.

When incidents of lynching and abuse of black people on the streets of India are common, the use of blackface on stage for comic effect and profit is to ignore the lived reality of oppression, just for an evening of casual humour.

Black, brown and in between

It reminds you of the portrayal of Raj in the television series The Big Bang Theory or the Halloween party in Dear White People — there, as in Quality Street, a historically marginalised section is represented stereotypically and in a reductive manner, with ‘funny’ accents and clothes, for the purpose of entertainment.

In the essay, ‘On Tan Lines’, the Brooklyn-based writer Durga Chew-Bose talks about the body politics of tanning and the “spectrum of darkness”. Born to Bengali parents, Chew-Bose writes from the position of a woman of colour living in present-day New York, where her white female friends shower her brown body with compliments, and express a desire to have that skin colour, temporarily, every summer.

Temporariness is the key here. “You don’t ever have to work for your tan!” they tell her. Her white friends want to be a shade darker, wear colour as a costume, but not inhabit the coloured body permanently. The ability to choose the duration of body colour, according to seasons or moods, signifies a privilege that Chew-Bose does not and will not possess.

Needless to say, Rao is not white, but she is a visibly privileged artist with considerable cultural capital residing in the capital city, where she commands respect and admiration. I grew up looking at her with awe. Her use of blackface in a performance is to ignore centuries of structural oppression that blacks have experienced across the globe.

It is crucial to highlight that Quality Street is an anomaly in Rao’s otherwise powerful and politically subversive repertoire. As a member of The Players, the dramatics society of Kirori Mal College, I grew up learning from her regular workshops as well as from the role played by her in the feminist street theatre of the 1970s. Her energy as a performer never ceases to amaze me. Ravanama, Are you Home Lady Macbeth, Heads are Meant for Walking Into and A Deep Fried Jam are gorgeous in craft and execution. Recent years have seen her protest theatre make a comeback on the streets. The power and resolve of the Walk continue to inspire.

In 2015, Rao returned her Sangeet Natak Akademi award to protest the rising intolerance in the country. She was vocal during the #NotInMyName protest of June 2017 at Jantar Mantar.

Rao’s performances have made me come alive in the past, have reaffirmed my faith in the political potential of theatre time and time again. I am hungry for more of it, and I am not giving up on that.

The author teaches Performance and Politics at the University of Exeter, U.K.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2020 6:41:18 PM |

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