My Brief Stint with Blackface

In the late nineties, I had a brief stint with blackface. Well, not blackface, exactly, but there’s no incentive to make such distinctions in 2017. Even trying to parse an individual’s intentions in public carries a potentially fatal reputational cost. There’s a sort of static cling surrounding the issues of cross-ethnic portrayal of any sort. Walk by any label and it sticks. Hollywood whitewashing, blackface, and centuries of thespian tradition have become an undifferentiated smear — to draw borders around how and why people do things is a dangerous sport if you value your reputation in the Information Age. But in 1999, memories vanished, and you could do something questionable and live to tell about it. That’s how I became the Reverend Al Sharpton.

My acting teacher decided that her predominantly-white Acting II class would perform a no-frills, no makeup production of Fires in the Mirror, a play by Anna Deavere Smith. Fires in the Mirror is a verbatim theater show focused on 1991’s Crown Heights riot, which occurred after a Jewish man in the highly segregated neighborhood swerved off the road and killed a seven-year old black child. Controversy surrounded the long response by authorities; in the ensuing protests, a group of black youths stabbed a visiting Jewish student. The incidents brought extant tension between the involved communities into great relief and into the headlines. The play is composed of monologues taken from real people who the playwright interviewed, from pundits to bystanders and family members of the victims. Devere Smith performs Fires in the Mirror alone, playing every role, but our instructor spread the challenge among the class.

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Anna Deavere Smith

I was handed a slip of paper bearing an unfamiliar name: the Reverend Al Sharpton. Our acting teacher was a thoughtful person, so I must think there was an assignational calculus, known only to her, that resulted in my inhabiting the firebrand preacher and not, say, the Rabbi Joseph Spielman. As a young white endomorph, I couldn’t resemble Sharpton less if I had tried. As the offspring of white ruralite hippies, I was the first person in my family to go to college; I lacked the cultural literacy of many of my liberal arts peers. There was no chance I’d opine about Charles Mingus’s essentialness, or whether Tom Waits was out of bounds in his cribbing of distinctly black blues vocalisms. I knew nothing of New York. When my theater coevals in our dorm broke into a conversation about Annie Hall, I thought she probably lived upstairs.

Colliding with Fires in the Mirror was confusing, upsetting, and disorienting. I knew about slavery and the Holocaust, of course. I had seen Schindler’s List and Roots. But I understood them as matters of historical record. Listening to the cast of Fires in the Mirror dredge up their pain, confusion, and rage brought color to the dusty black and white shapes of atrocious history, and to contemporary places outside my ken at that time. I came to see that slavery and the Holocaust are not simply stories — they are grim engines still animating the communities they victimized long ago.

I’m loath to talk reverently about “acting”— I can’t even invoke the branch of the arts reliably pumping unqualified pundits and outsized influence into public life without sprinkling in scare quotes. But when it comes to practicing art, acting cuts very, very deep. I found this when I wore Al Sharpton’s face for the first time. I had gotten a key to the music practice room in the basement of my dorm and sealed myself in with Sharpton’s words, as was my ritual for any scene. I normally kept my bony white body in the full-length mirror’s view when I worked on a monologue, but the instant I began to try and inhabit Sharpton, I knew that wouldn’t work. I had to turn away from myself, truly.

In the late nineties, I had never heard the Reverend Al Sharpton speak. I didn’t follow the news, and there was no YouTube. I had to invent a version of this man without so much as a photograph, knowing my interpretation would be miles from the reality of him. This presents no problem when you are to become Hamlet or Iago. But a black preacher? I was asking Dionysus for a lot of grace.

I tend to keep my voice locked up in my nose and throat — call it a regional defect. My initial pass over the opening lines was essentially Anderson Cooper. Not even On Location Cooper. Studio Cooper. It was unbearable. I glanced around the room, presumably to ensure I was alone. Because a realization was emerging in the wake of my bounce off the monologue. In the room’s mirror, I might as well have spied a large elephant winking at me. I decided, against all my instincts, to pick up the monologue and try to “do it black.” Making this decision, I didn’t feel “heroically bold,” or “provocative.” I felt like an asshole. And I was reasonably concerned about being overheard. But I pulled my voice out of my nose and into my chest, and let the first line explode against the bare walls and ancient carpet. “James Brown raised me.” Looking back, my delivery is understandably at odds with the reality of Sharpton. I am a deep baritone, and I was channeling an imaginary person. I continued in a style that (I desperately hoped) was simultaneously stately and uncompromising, as I imagined this character must be. As I ratcheted up the bombast, something peculiar happened: I heard what Sharpton was saying. This was not the gentle hearing of oratory from a thrust stage, washing over the safe audience in the dark. This was hearing that begins in the diaphragm, and necessarily snags on the vast mechanism of self as it emerges. It was making me wildly uncomfortable.

“I never had a father. My father left when I was ten.” Each sentence said like a punch. I did have a father; he was a nice guy. But I was booming a different truth to this empty room now, and I felt that vacuity, deep in my origin story, if fleetingly. Sharpton and I continued:

“James Brown took me to the beauty parlor one day, and made my hair like his. And made me promise to wear it like that ‘till the day I die.” I didn’t know Al Sharpton, but even I knew what James Brown looked like. I imagined this look on a preacher, how cartoonish it might seem. It would be instant ammunition for any who might mock you. And later, as your star rose in public life, there was a different kind of concern — as an emissary of “the black community” and oft-tapped pundit, you could not be a liability. But Sharpton’s hair was a covenant, made with a man who stood where the preacher’s father belonged.

I could have heard Sharpton say these words, had I incidentally encountered this play, but I probably wouldn’t have. Not really. Saying the words, I felt the pride, and absence, buried in his past, a biographical detail for all but Al, and for a moment, for me.

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James Brown and Rev. Al Sharpton

“I always wanted a father, and he filled a void for me. And I can’t think of anybody who demonstrated such strength, that he reached such heights, and then he fell so low, and then he had to come back up! And I can’t think of anybody in life that deserved that tribute [more]… that he wanted a kid to look like him, and be just like his son.” At this point, I was all in. And then he dropped the bomb. He explained that people might mock his hair, and that many claim he’s trying to “look white,” since his (and James’s) hairstyle is a 1950s slick. Later, a trip to the library would apprise me of the complex stylistic politics surrounding black hair, and the “slick’s” legacy as an attempt by the ambitious young black man to be included in a world off limits to him — “look at my hair, fellas, I’m just like you.” This made me deeply sad. It also made me understand the pressure inside Sharpton’s own community to disavow that legacy, and his decision to keep his promise atop his head all the more profoundly defiant. He explains that decision succinctly:

“… so I was like the son he never had. And if I had to choose between arguing with people about my hairstyle, or giving James Brown that one tribute he asked, I’d rather give him that tribute. And I really don’t give a damn who don’t understand it.” I was in disbelief at the gall of these faceless detractors as I said these words to the wall. How could people be so petty, so common? Didn’t they have fathers they wanted to honor? Promises to keep? The audacity overcame me, but I never let myself shout — a worthwhile actor knows the wisdom of opening the valve merely halfway. I didn’t shout, and some of the rage, the disappointment with humanity, stayed inside me.

I likely don’t need to explain that there are countless reasons why what I’m saying is wrong, arrogant, evil, and suitable for public shaming. The culture of thinkpiece chic simply cannot abide the idea of a young white college student playing pretend, at the expense of a black man who lived through the Civil Rights era. In an era of feather-pecking about cultural appropriation and its relatives, it’s easy to create an uncharitable assessment that feeds the familiar furnaces. Perhaps there’s something to this empathy business, as I can imagine exactly the sort of thing people might say: Such a reflection is the legacy of white supremacy, using the black body for my own ends; it is transparent virtue signaling, an attempt to be rubberstamped “woke” by the right people; it is the planting of my colonial impulses in a cultural experience I haven’t earned; it is insufferably arrogant to imagine I know a thing about being anyone, let alone Al Sharpton. And these words would be written as thousands of novelists and actors across the earth go to work, secure in the knowledge that we cannot become anyone else, but trying is worth something.

When my acting teacher (naively) contacted the playwright herself to convey the effect Fires in the Mirror was having on our class, Deavere Smith gave her quite the earfull, condemning the idea and reprimanding my teacher for her temerity. I imagine that if I did a monologue as Anna Deavere Smith, upbraiding my teacher, I may understand and inhabit her truth as well. Such is the power of art, that it so often leaps past the artist.

As an adult, I may not agree with much of Sharpton’s thinking, but I have a piece of his personal mythology tucked against my heart. I have a clue to the mystery of his personhood, for all that’s worth. When I see him speak on television, I listen, because of the bizarre moment we shared. It’s difficult to be dismissive when you’ve lived inside someone, however briefly. When you remove the conventions of theater, and acting, and school from the equation, all that’s left is an attempt at understanding. And no matter the moral pronouncements from every corner, that attempt is invaluable. Trapped on the island of self, it’s all we have.

Nestor Primgarden

Nestor Primgarden is a writer and former actor. He talks about writing with other, better authors on a podcast.

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Nestor Primgarden

Nestor Primgarden is a writer and former actor. He talks about writing with other, better authors on a podcast.

One thought on “My Brief Stint with Blackface

  1. Um, hello!

    That is not a photo of Anna Deavere Smith. That is a photo of Philicia Saunders, a student at Princeton performing Anna Deavere Smith’s play, “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities.”

    Please correct your photo caption!

    Not only did you have a brief stint of blackface, you think all black faces look the same. smh.

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