Every time arts leaders cave to racial pressure, they deal creativity another blow

Every time arts leaders cave to racial pressure, they deal creativity another blow


norman lebrecht

July 28, 2021

From a new polemic by Heather MacDonald:

The next step in imaginative emasculation is obvious: Only elderly actors can play King Lear, only hunchbacks can sing Rigoletto or play Richard III, only fat people can play or sing Falstaff, since using stage make-up and body suits to transform non-old, non-handicapped, and non-fat actors into those roles represents ageism, fat-shaming, and ableism. Certainly no straight actor will ever be able to play a gay or “trans” character, as Sean Penn recently observed. But then again, maybe only Falstaff should be able to play Falstaff, since surely between a fat actor and Falstaff himself there are significant differences of identity. Jorge Luis Borges could have figured this puzzler out, but not the rest of us.

Ultimately, theatre itself may have to be segregated, since to claim that a white audience can identify with a black-themed work is a more subtle form of cultural appropriation. A recent play, lauded twice by the New York Times, asked white audience members to leave the theatre before the play’s conclusion so that black attendees could experience undisturbed racial solidarity….

Read full article here.


  • Patricia says:

    The NY Slimes rampant. It has no credibility.

  • Patricia says:

    Who cares what that out-of-work actor Sean Penn thinks?

    • Paula Scherman says:

      I care what the great actor Sean Penn thinks about the field he works in and knows about first hand. What have you done that’s anywhere near as good as the work of Penn? Have you won an Academy Award for best actor????

    • Rupert says:

      Madonna still does even after collecting all of those virtue signaling black babies for good publicly.

    • Tom Phillips says:

      Certainly far more people than those interested in the viewpoints of a far less accomplished and ultra-right wing failure of a person like yourself.

      • Shannon Jackson says:

        As a leftist Mr. Phillips, it’s too bad you’re a failure at life yourself.

        The left always attempts to put anyone down (even from their own side) as a gaslighting tactic. All the left does well is argue manically, ruin their immediate surroundings over time, treat others poorly due their fragile egos and fail to deliver on their magnanimous ‘promises’ as they deflect blaming anyone but themselves. Ergo you’ve got Obama, Hillary Clinton, Biden-Harris, Pelosi, Schumer along with the rest. Under them there’s a horrible economy, escalating inflation, mass exodus of taxpayers from Dem States, NO action on student loan debt, NO action on the eviction moratorium, racial segregation returning as they did with the KKK, incompetence handling the Wuhan, China virus to name a few along with leaving Afghan women to the barbaric Taliban. These are the current results of ONLY Democrat leaders who live very luxurious lifestyles behind walled in mansions using armed men to service them. They are making these decisions alone.

        • Tom Phillips says:

          That you consider these quintessentially corporate Democrats to be “leftist” gives me a clear sense of how thoughtful and knowledgeable you truly are. I admit I didn’t take the time to read the rest of your predictable shrieking tirade.

          • Couperin says:

            I’ll give her this, though: she has every single insane right wing talking point mastered!

        • LaQuann says:

          All true including both Biden and Pelosi’s impotence in extending the eviction moratorium. The Democrats who currently hold the majority failed to get enough of their own votes. Then there’s Harris who couldn’t be bothered with the doomed foreclosure and eviction victims as another Wuhan wave they claim will force Americans back into lockdown soon.

          Why are Democrats always so helpless and run away from the problems they create as they hold majorities?

  • Y says:

    “A recent play, lauded twice by the New York Times, asked white audience members to leave the theatre before the play’s conclusion so that black attendees could experience undisturbed racial solidarity….”

    This is the same New York Times that hired Sarah Jeong after she called white people “goblins” and made other racist statements. Also the same New York Times that employed Walter Duranty, the Moscow bureau chief who denied the holodomor, the Soviet atrocity that killed an estimated 12 million people.

    Why would anyone bother reading a newspaper that employs racists, sows racial discord, and advocates for Communism unless one is also a racist and a Communist?

    • José Bergher says:

      Very good you mentioned the infamous Walter Duranty, the big propagandist for Stalin’s “Worker’s Paradise” and denier of the Holodomor genocide.

  • Freewheeler says:

    In the article: ““yellowface” and “whitewashing” (defined by BEATS as using non-Asian singers for Chinese roles)”.
    But it’s OK to use Korean, or Japanese? And can a Chinese person sing Madame Butterfly? That’s OK right, because at least they are all “yellow”? Earth, 2021: .Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

    • Mafisa says:

      Depends on geography. Somebody from Munich could be Bavarian in Germany, German in France, European in China. Perhaps singers and actors from all over east and south-east Asia, working in Britain, share attitudes and interests within a predominantly European population. And can legitimately work together to promote their common interest (i.e. more work and more visibility for ASEA singers and actors).

  • Michael Endres says:

    It is laudable that the stalwarts of anti-racism are thinking about race 24/7.
    But if part of an audience is asked to leave a running performance because of their skin colour wouldn’t it be more suitable to utilise separate venues for such occasions?

  • Anthony Sanderson says:

    The new political correctness seems to be to insult your audience and show how those on stage are morally superior to them. The artist as Übermensch, a kind of artistic Aryan fuelling a new segregation or cultural apartheid.

    The unsolvable dilemna seems to be that if you don’t listen to music from other cultures, then you are not practising diversiy, but if you do, then it’s cultural appropriation.

    • John Borstlap says:


      One of the many problems with this trend of PC wars, is that it has a fascist element: the idea that people are not individuals with an individual life story, but exclusively the representation of a group, which is dehumanizing. It is group think, the same ingredient which made the nazis so popular. Instead of spreading taboos in the world, it would be so much better if information and education would take its place, the message of: be aware of racist prejudice, conscious or unconscious prejudice, and don’t judge people on their ethnicity. Merely turn the tables and inflict an inverted racism will never have the wished result.

  • PaulD says:

    “It would be hard to come up with a more progressive team of collaborators than Nixon in China’s composer (Adams), inaugural director (Peter Sellars), librettist (Alice Goodman), and original choreographer (Mark Morris). ” The supporters of the revolution never think it will come for them. They didn’t realize they are Old Bolsheviks.

  • Terence says:

    This will soon collapse under it’s own weight as:

    No gay actors to play straight parts

    No handicapped actors to play non-handicapped roles

    Only North (not Black) Africans to play Othello

    No Blacks or Hispanics to play White characters (how did “Hamilton” get away with it?)

    No Asians to play play Western classical music


    • HugoPreuss says:

      I used to think that the careers of Jessye Norman and Grace Bumbry (the “Black Venus” of Bayreuth 1961!) were groundbraking and destroying race barriers. Now I know that I was sadly mistaken, and it was merely cultural appropriation. We seem to be one step short of reestablishing the “separate but equal”-doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), only this time in the art and in intellectual endeavors.

      • M2N2K says:

        You are wildly optimistic and are putting it much too mildly. Unfortunately, this terribly rapid movement back toward segregation, not just racial but based on all kinds of group identity criteria, is particularly frightening precisely because it does not seem to be able to stop at being “only in the art[s] and in intellectual endeavors”.

  • Chilynne says:

    Polemic? Heather Mac Donald’s clear-headed essay was hardly that. Opera, like its cousin (or step-sib – one mustn’t be inappropriately gender specific…) theater, is all about illusion and the suspension of belief. If opera, I hope for a skilled singer to make me believe in the character portrayed, musically and, one hopes, also physically – which may involve many factors other than the singer’s racial and/or ethnic identity.

    • V.Lind says:

      Indeed. I remember going to the National Ballet of Cuba to see Giselle, and the prima was Alicia Alonso (then allegedly 49, though one of her colleagues told me “Alicia has been 49 for some years now”). At first glance, I thought, what the hell…but in seconds she was a girl of 17, and remained so throughout that taxing role in what was possibly the best Giselle I ever saw (leader in a crowded field, as I watch it as often as I can and have seen some of the best in the world tackle the role, often beautifully).

      The artistry topped everything.

  • J Barcelo says:

    I don’t know why, how and when this nonsense started, but it’s got to stop! It’s called acting…for centuries actors and makeup artists have worked to create illusions on stage and on film. When did we all become so sensitive? Why did we let the Politically Correct Police ruin everything? Today we can cringe at Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Dick van Dyke’s Cockney accent, but not because of some cultural appropriation – it’s because they were so terrible at what they did. Those of us who still value and recognize the magic of the theater need to start speaking out and make our voices heard. It’s ok for any actor of any race to play any character they are suitable for. And if makeup is used to help the illusion, that’s fine. When I’m sitting high up in a balcony far from the stage at the Met, it matters not a bit what the nationality of the Turandot on stage is; it’s all about the voice. And if some painted on Asian features add to the magic, who cares? I couldn’t care less if Wotan is sung by a Black, gay or Asian – as long as he can pull the part off. Start speaking out people! Write letters. Push back against the leftist racists who are ruining everything.

  • Curvy Honk Glove says:

    Isn’t this the fundamental transformation we all voted for? The new, inclusive, and diverse cultural collective consciousness we’ve been clamoring for? I’m having difficulty understanding all the apprehension of this progressive social change as it comes knocking on the door of our ivory tower. What gives?

    • BigSir says:

      What gives is the hypocrisy of turning a blind eye to the current move toward institutional racism that was negated by the courts (affirmative action) but is clearly going on in the arts and academia.

  • Herb says:

    The question is, how much does it help to push back? Can people in the Arts even do so at this late date without losing careers and opportunities? Or do we simply stand by and let the movement burn itself out through its own absurdity?

    Meanwhile, artists of all stripes do have equity in at least one respect: They all have front row seats watching the circus collapse into chaos as an endless litany of misguided souls trips over each other in their frantic but fruitless apologies and assurances to do better.

  • George says:

    I said if you’re thinkin’ of being my baby
    It don’t matter if you’re black or white
    I said if you’re thinkin’ of being my brother
    It don’t matter if you’re black or white.

    Michael Jackson

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Not sure it is a good point. I remember Mr Jackson as a kind of pioneer in ethnic fluidity who moved on to lighter and lighter nuances over time.

      • Lionel Hulce says:

        Both Jackson and Levine surely shared the same love of mostly colored boys. Makes one wonder what challenges the new crop of singers are facing.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Ticket money back?

  • Nijinsky says:

    Um there’s this statement in the article: “Certainly no straight actor will ever be able to play a gay or “trans” character, as Sean Penn recently observed. ” Hollywood people seem to just simply have to be a bit clueless often, to be as “famous” as they get. When you add it up it becomes quite a ridiculous statement, given what WAS and IS the climate in Hollywood.

    Sean Penn would say that, and forget that when he played a gay man, no gay actor in Hollywood would have been hired to, because that was perceived as loss of marketing value. And still is. The fact is that when he was hired to play a gay man, no actual gay man that was open about it would be hired to play a gay man, or a straight man, or a transvestite or any major role.

    I don’t think that’s the case in opera, though.

    • George says:

      Waiting for Queen Elizabeth II to play Queen Elizabeth I .

      • Nijinsky says:

        Right.. That Hollywood hires Mr. Penn to play a gay role while any openly gay person is second, third or further down the ladder is to make sure things don’t get out of hand and people want Queen Elizabeth one to play number two, or to make sure he [Mr. Penn] can keep playing roles of people with a lifestyle that wouldn’t be hired by Hollywood, otherwise it’s discrimination against him.

      • MDP says:

        Waiting for George to play someone with empathy.

    • Nijinsky says:

      Roles should be given based on a person’s acting abilities. That then INCLUDES gay people. They also happen to be the people currently discriminated against NOT straight actors. His [Mr. Penn’s] comment is totally off sync, referring to a state that doesn’t exist, in order to disparage people sticking up for gay rights that he thinks are taking it too far. Even if they are taking it too far, that doesn’t excuse his insensitivity as to what the situation truly is. One can be sure no gay person was offered the role he took, and now tries to make out wouldn’t be given to a straight actor somewhere in some potential that hasn’t occurred yet, but he finds looming and somehow would compromise his “dear” career although it clearly hasn’t.

      I don’t know where the quote comes from, or in what exact context; but I find it quite insensitive for him to make such a statement and not add:

      P. R. people shouldn’t tell gay or bisexual actors to not be open about their sexuality.

      Whether a person gets hired in Hollywood or anywhere else shouldn’t depend on whether they are straight or not, nor whether if not straight they aren’t open about it.

      And then there’s the overwhelming truth how many of the actors that DID play straight roles in early Hollywood were gay, but were in the closet. And the whole history of oppression when exposed and made out to be what it is: oppression, and the point is made that it should be stopped, he feels free to make out now is going overboard (which it hasn’t) and would be preventing straight people from taking roles that currently would much more likely be offered to them rather than a gay person or anyone else more controversial in their own lives, rather than being payed millions of dollars to “act it out” on screen.

      I find the whole thing so pretentious I don’t know what to say about it. Added to all of that I’ve had two top billed actors make explicit homosexual passes at me, neither have uttered ONE WORD in the media that they have such desires, one has done a gay role in a big Hollywood movie, the other stated it was his ambition.

      There’s a BIG difference between taking on an issue to turn it into media fodder, and actually being grounded about it, rather than it’s just a headline, an emblem, an “oscar.”

      The whole movie Milk wouldn’t exist, it if wasn’t about how gay people are discriminated against, for Sean Penn to have taken that role, and then turn it into making out somewhere in some future – he conveniently to his ego makes out might happen but hasn’t – becomes discrimination against him that he ever got the role he otherwise wouldn’t have when true discrimination exists. Because he might not get the role that he did, were the real issue that it’s about actually integrated rather than handed to him and his chipper ego to be an “actor,” when he can get it because the discrimination that it’s about still exists and FAVORS him.

  • Gunther says:

    Oh Norman, linking to another far right nut that has no idea about the art form and just writes more generic “anti-woke” partisan pieces based on reading a few Wikipedia articles.

    • Hayne says:

      “…another far right nut…” Ad hominem attacks are not
      constructive criticism. Apparently, you don’t have anything else to offer.

    • The View from America says:

      Nice try.

    • Joe says:

      A summa B.A. from Yale, a Master’s from Cambridge, and a law degree from Stanford–if Heather MacDonald is a typical far right nut, conservatives are in a pretty strong position.

      • Your desperation is showing says:

        Because people on the political left have never been to an Ivy League? That argument will fall down pretty quickly.

    • Y says:

      I guess everything looks “far right” when Stalin and Mao are your idea of political centrists.

    • Tom Phillips says:

      She is also a fervent apologist for police brutality consumed by her pathological loathing for Blacks.

  • Emil says:

    This is just nonsensical apocalypticism. I thought that art was meant to provoke reflection, challenge society, and question established ideas. And now y’all are losing your minds because it does just that? Art is part of society, is part of how society represents itself, sees itself, and challenges itself.
    All the way down to the term “culture wars”. Culture has always been political, critical, contested and contesting. If you want ‘art’ that comforts established hierarchies and entrenches inequalities, if you’re offended when opera questions the representation of Asians in Madame Butterfly, etc., you don’t want art – you want entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s not all there is to art. Just like there’s nothing wrong with enjoying an Avengers movie; but it’s a different kind of art than a movie competing at Cannes or the Berlinale – and both have a role to play in society.

    • John Borstlap says:

      An interesting comment which raises a couple of important points – because it reflects a general, entirely twisted idea about art, a fruit of the last century.

      “I thought that art was meant to provoke reflection, challenge society, and question established ideas.”

      ‘Provoking’ reflection, OK, although I would say ‘inviting’. But challenging society? Why, and which bits of society? That is politics. Questioning established ideas? Which ideas and why? Which would be the substitutes? All of this is mere the rhetoric of 100 years ago, when society was a suffocating, illiberal, suppressing, authoritarian façade culture – and nothing of that has remained today except the empty juvenile theatre of provocation, challenging, and the questioning of established ideas – because if anything looks as something established, it MUST be wrong for that very reason. It is for people wanting to look ‘avantgarde’ without having to pay the price for it.

      If we begin to see the falling apart of society, the widespread incompetence and corruption, the nihilistic cynicism, the ego trippery and decadence and lack of any community awareness, then we see the result of an age of challenging, questioning, protesting, politicizing, revolutionizing etc. etc. – all nice deconstruction but without constructive ideas to fill the gaps.

      “Culture has always been political, critical, contested and contesting. If you want ‘art’ that comforts established hierarchies and entrenches inequalities, if you’re offended when opera questions the representation of Asians in Madame Butterfly, etc., you don’t want art – you want entertainment.”

      The very old argument of early 20C modernism: art is either political and contesting, or else mere entertainment. But this is nonsense. What is the political or contesting value or meaning of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos?
      Just some light entertainment for the local court? How contesting or political are Mozart’s symphonies or piano concertos, or Beethoven’s symhonies – are the latter only republican protests against an aristocratic domination (who paid Beethoven to write them)? Only a small part of art works have a political or contesting meaning, and this meaning does NOT define their artistic qualities – the qualities that transcend their political message. And then, there is art that is contesting on exclusively aesthetic grounds like Pelléas et Mélisande, the one-off opera that subtly shows the two different levels on which human love can play itself out.

      The meaning of art is manyfold and is supposed to enlighten the human condition. That means that it is nonsensical and damaging to put ‘the meaning of art’ in a narrow box. That is exactly the way of thinking against which the early 20C genuine artists protested – a protest against narrow-mindedness.

  • Mildred Pierce says:

    Ridiculous! I saw Glenda Jackson play Lear on Broadway on a couple of years ago!!

    • John Borstlap says:

      I played Lear 2 years ago at my theatre amateur club & was the star of the evening, I just had to think of my job at the toilet paper factory & everybody was in tears in spite of my ballroom dress. Which shows it is delivery! nothing else!


  • Mildred Pierce says:

    Ridiculous!! I saw Glenda Jackson play Lear on Broadway!

  • Privileged says:

    It’s real hard to be a middle aged, white, male atm. Just sayin’.

    • Althea T-H says:

      Older men are clearly finding it even more difficult.

      All this moaning and provocative posting is ‘getting boring now’ – to quote Laurence Fox, of course.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Very soon, ‘complaining old men’ will become an endangered and suppressed minority and will return in victory as a rehabilitated class of people who had known all along.

  • Monsoon says:

    Talk about the definition of white fragility.

    Classical music and opera used to be super racist, with discrimination, black face, stereotypes, etc. Don’t believe me? Read about the life and times of Leontyne Price.

    Today, art institutions are trying to do better. Of course they’re going to get it wrong some times. Have some grace for people doing the right thing.

    But if Heather MacDonald cannot understand the difference between casting singers of the same race as the characters they play, and casting a skinny singer for a character that is fat, then she’s hopeless.

    • Samuel Lyones says:

      Your comment asserts the overtly racist casting of the met’s new ahem..’opera’ LMFAO. The subject matter of which merely relies on pathetic stereotypes of the lowest character, with the most ill-spoken black persons costumed in rags.

      The Met would rather push low iq black characters in impoverished, crime ridden circumstances instead of demanding better from a NYT writer who is black.

      No successful blacks that are degreed professionals contributing positively to society as protagonists??? No heroic black police to be hailed as strong, caring role models? Gee, no gifted black singer who used their talent and hard work ethic to showcase??? It’s not as if there haven’t been any to show their personal beauty!

      Also, Leontyne Price is exquisitely accomplished who HATES whining and enjoys her life! She’s a wonderful adult woman, not a liberal pawn!!!

      If the Met were to not settle for a Porgy and Bess knockoff they’d have a work more worthy of the talent who will be singing it. How utterly degrading for a high caliber, black only cast to have to prostitute such a pander piece considering their own profession made possible by the freedoms they enjoy in America.

  • Marfisa says:

    It is a standard tactic in polemic to push an opponent’s argument to absurd limits. BEATS, Mac Donald’s main target, is an advocacy organisation for British East and South-East Asian artists working in theatre and film. Before reacting to Mac Donald, why not look without prejudice at their site : http://wearebeats.org.uk/. Their message is rather more nuanced. To what extent does she distort it?

    Another tactic is subtle under- and mis-reporting. She says of another target: “A recent play, lauded twice by the New York Times, asked *white^ audience members to leave the theatre *before* the play’s conclusion so that black attendees could experience *undisturbed racial solidarity*.” [My emphases]

    Which play, where?

    The play, on the subject of racism against black people, was put on at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), “created for a Black audience but all are welcome.” https://www.bam.org/what-to-send.

    And here is an extract from a review: “At *the end* of the performances, the actors politely ask the *non-Black* people to leave the room so that Blacks in the audience could linger a little longer in a safe space where they could *share their mutual grief*.” (https://bkreader.com/2021/06/29/yelling-encouraged-at-bam-theatrical-experience-made-for-black-people/) [My emphases]

    • Y says:

      So are White people allowed to put on performances “for a White audience” and ask people of color to leave early so that the White audience members can have “a safe space to share their mutual whatever?” Would you laud such a move just as you are lauding this one? Or are double standards the only standards you have?

      • Marfisa says:

        I made no value judgement. But I can imagine a situation where a historically despised people against whom atrocities have been committed might wish, at the end of a theatrical event describing and enacting those atrocities, to be alone with their sorrow. I also reflect on the religious origins of European theatre.

        Within living memory, theatrical events in large swathes of the USA were indeed created for Whites only (with NO “but all are welcome” added).

      • Marfisa says:

        Y, to your first sentence: why not, if it would make artistic sense? (Note, there is a difference between creating a play for a specific audience, and putting on performances for that specific audience – if you can understand the distinction.)

        I take no position on the racial casting issue. I want unbiased information about the matter, and I felt Heather Mac Donald fell short in that respect.

      • Marfisa says:

        Y, to your first sentence: why not, if it would make artistic sense? (Note, there is a difference between creating a play for a specific audience, and putting on performances for that specific audience – if you can understand the distinction.)

        I take no position on the racial casting issue. I want unbiased information about the matter, and I felt Heather Mac Donald fell short in that respect.

      • Monsoon says:

        You know well that this is a specious comparison because there’s a long, long, long history of whites-only performances, that whites have not faced centuries of enslavement, exploitation, and discrimination.

        After all of the power and privilege white people have wielded for hundreds of years, why does it threaten you so much that Black audience members be given space to share their mutual grief?

    • sabrinensis says:

      One can only imagine the response if today a new work was created and advertised as being “created for a White audience but all are welcome.”

      So, I guess we’re capitalizing White, Yellow, and Brown, now?

    • Smiling Larry says:

      As a non-Black person, if I was attending this show and was asked to leave because of my race, I would follow the noble example of Rosa Parks and refuse to move.

    • John Borstlap says:

      My uncle Arnold was at that performance and got into a difficult social situation since he went there with a friend whose father was black and his mother very white, so he was himself rather coffee. How black was he? Should he share in the grief or not, and then, to which extent? And was my uncle to leave the friend, or would the friend for his white component have to join him? In the end they quarrelled & the friend remained seated while my uncle waited for him in the street. But the night ended in a bad mood & quarrels about race, while they went on purpose to enjoy a PC performance, they are both fanatic lefties.


  • Althea T-H says:

    It’s ‘cave in’, not ‘cave’.

  • Heather thinks that doing it the same way it’s always been done is being creative.

    Yeah, sure.

    Take a pill, Heather. It’s just an opera. It doesn’t really matter.

  • MDR says:

    Norman, it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that you’ve sunk so low you’re now sharing the work of Trump-won-the-election conspiracists.

    • Marfisa says:

      If by ‘Trump-won-the-election conspiracists’ you mean Heather Mac Donald, you are wrong.

      “Trump’s January 6 list of allegedly deliberate ballot improprieties merely recycled the same unproven allegations that have been incessantly amplified on right-wing news sites and either rejected by dozens of courts or held back from adjudication by the Trump legal team itself.”

      Read her whole article:

  • Jack says:

    Is it cultural appropriation for a woman to sing Cherubino or Octavian? Or Julius Caesar, for that matter? Can only Japanese high schools stage productions of The Mikado?

    Heather’s article is well received at this end. For the benefit of some in this string, I happen to come from the progressive liberal end of things, so to assume that this neo-puritanism that reduces an issue worth considering to a kind of silliness that does damage to what might be, in some cases, a valid question.