A composer speaks up in defence of embattled Bright Sheng

A composer speaks up in defence of embattled Bright Sheng


norman lebrecht

October 05, 2021

The composer and conductor Kevin Scott is angry at the University of Michigan’s handling of a students’ protest against Bright Sheng’s use in a lecture of Laurence Olivier’s film of Shakespere’s Othello.

Professor Sheng, who has apologised to the university, is waiting to hear if the outcome. Many academics have privately signalled their solidarity but do not dare to speak up in the present climate.

Here’s Kevin Scott’s response:

First, Bright Sheng is one of today’s finest living composers. His record, in my opinion, is quite good. I remember meeting Bright back around 1987 or 1988 at a Brooklyn Philharmonic Family Concert where he performed one of his compositions for solo piano. He was very friendly and gregarious when we talked, and I had hoped to hear more of his music in the coming years (which I did).

Cut to 2014 when he was one of the composer mentors at the Detroit Symphony’s EarShot! reading session sponsored by the American Composers Orchestra, Bright offered great advice to the composers that participated, yours truly included as he had wonderful things to say about my symphonic essay A point served…(In Remembrance Arthur Ashe), and even suggested that I expand the middle section of the work as he felt the work needed more expressiveness and more heart, something that I took to heart when I expanded and revised the work upon my return to New York.

Since then I have listened to more of his work, and occasionally viewed his FB postings. But when a friend of mine forwarded this article via Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc column and I read it, I was downright livid.

First, I never hear tell of Sammy Sussman either as a composer or journalist or performer. I will review his work after I finish writing this post as well as read some of his writings. That said, this young man and his classmates cringed at seeing this classic film which is heralded as one of the finest screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s immortal classic, though I also hold Orson Welles’ version from 1950 in high esteem on all levels as it is one of the most surreal versions ever filmed.

Now to say that this film demeans Blacks in any way is an outright joke unto itself. As mentioned, up until the last three, possibly four, decades, we have seen many actors, both leading and character, play roles outside of their birth race. Yes, many a White, and even Jewish, thespian have played people of color on both stage and screen. I know my ex-fiancé cringed in seeing Sam Jaffe portraying Gunga Din in George Stevens’ 1939 epic adventure film, one that I grew up seeing as a child on television and was also one of my father’s favorite films when he was a kid, yet Jaffe did a very good job even though he was quite old to take on the role at the time (he was in his late 40s), as opposed to Sabu who was originally cast for the role. Yet by today’s standards, both the portrayal of the character and how Rudyard Kipling deals with him in his poem, is construed as racist and demeaning, yet we do have to take into consideration both the time the poem was penned (1890) and when the movie was released (1939) that these attributes were accepted as the norm.

Yet when we do see the likes of Al Jolson in blackface, it may come off as noble either in 1927 (The Jazz Singer) or even 1945 (his cameo in the Gershwin bio-pic Rhapsody in Blue singing “Swanee”), but today many folks will cringe at this, just as they would in seeing ANY actor or actress doing this back then. Better still, J. Carroll Naish, one of Hollywood’s finest character actors, could play anyone: A Russian in “Beau Geste”, an Italian in Don Siegel’s “Star In The Night” and also in the 1943 WW2 pic “Sahara”, a Native American chieftain (Chief Sitting Bull, no less!) in “Annie Get Your Gun” (talk about a film that can be called on the carpet for everything wrong about portrayals on all levels!!!), and as a Japanese spy in the 1943 serial version of “Batman”. And even though several Japanese folks mentioned that they liked his portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi* in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, Mickey Rooney was called on the carpet then (1960) and even today for what was considered a demeaning stereotype. All of these portrayals, no matter how well they are acted, would be called demeaning to all ethnicities and nationalities today instead of seeing why they were done in the time frame mentioned.

On the other hand, what of Black and Latino actors who have played ethnicities outside of their spectrum such as Jose Ferrer, Frank Silvera, Raul Julia, Jennifer Beals, Ricardo Montalban, Dolores Del Rio Lena Horne and especially Woody Strode? I don’t think White or Asian folks criticized any of these actors. I could name other films where White actors played Asians and should never have, such as Luise Rainer and Paul Muni (another character actor who played just about everyone!) in “The Good Earth” and Katherine Hepburn and Walter Huston in “Dragon Seed”, and especially two films about Genghis Khan, namely Dick Powell’s now-cult classic laughfest “The Conqueror” with John Wayne (which turned out to be a tragedy in more ways than one) and the 1965 film “Genghis Khan” with Omar Sharif (an Egyptian!) playing the title role alongside Stephen Boyd, Francoise Dorleac, Telly Savalas, James Mason, Eli Wallach and many others playing Mongolians or Chinese (and, yes, even Woody Strode played a Mongolian!!!).

Who is to blame for all of this? Your nice Hollywood moguls of yesteryear, such as Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, Jack L. Warner, Samuel Goldwyn and many others who ruled the major studios with an iron fist. All were first-generation Americans of European Jewish heritage (Russia, Poland) who wanted to create a very WASPy, white picket fence and very clean living America. Jews portrayed at a minimum. Blacks made to act in subservient roles except in certain cases where they could be gangsters or African chieftains or tribesmen saying “Umgawa” and “Bwana”.

Yet the case of Othello is, for lack of a better term, an exception. For one thing, Othello has been classified NOT as a Black man, but a Moor. Moors are indeed dark-skinned, but for some reason or another have been made to look African in various portrayals. Yes, it would have been nice to lure Paul Robeson back to the silver screen to do Othello as he did it on Broadway back in the 1940s (and with Ferrer as his Iago), but the likes of Cohn, Goldwyn or Mayer would have none of this. Olivier acted this role not because he wanted to demean Black people, but because first and foremost this is what and how Shakespeare portrayed the character, and to step into character is what we call acting. Moreover, Oliver always played outside his comfort zone – A French-Canadian in Powell & Pressburger’s “49th Parallel”, the German vampire hunter Van Helsing in “Dracula”, General Douglas MacArthur in “Inchon” (also considered one of the world’s worst films) and even a Midwestern tycoon in “Harold Robbins’ The Betsy” (definitely worth watching if you want a good laugh!).

So if Mr. Sussman and his classmates had a rough time with Olivier portraying Othello, how would they respond to his playing the Mahdi Muhammed Ahmed in the 1966 film “Khartoum”, which I saw as a nine-year old and was blown away not only by the movie but by Olivier’s noble portrayal? Probably a lot worse, I’d imagine, but this is what acting is about – to step out of character and portray someone else outside of your own sphere, be they of the same race, creed, ethnicity and sexual orientation or contrary to them. Besides, how many straight actors play gay? Many gay actors have certainly played straight for eons (and many still do, on and off screen), but do you see a straight actor being called on the carpet by the LGBTQIA+ community??? It all depends on how accurate the portrayal is.

Dr. Sheng did not owe anyone an apology. He did this to make a point about the Bard of Theatre and the Bard of Opera. This “cancel culture” and shaming people has to cease. Instead of accusations, hold a meeting of the minds and an open discussion, which should have been held right then and there in the classroom…period. If you and your colleagues were still not impressed or moved by his comments, then you take it up with the chair [who, in turn, should have held a forum with Dr. Sheng and the students involved in this matter.


  • sam says:

    I wouldn’t call this a “defense” as much as a meandering, rambling, directionless stream of loosely related thoughts and sentences that begins with Sheng and ends with Sheng.

  • The View from America says:

    Kevin Scott has no business making such comments about the Bright Sheng affair. They are too thoughtful and well-reasoned.

    • Tamino says:

      Can someone explain to me, why blackfacing is problematic?
      I thought – until now – that in theater, actors assume roles and are dressing in constumes and wear make up to match the roles appointed to them.

      Why would trying to imitate the visuals of a person with dark skin be problematic?

      • japecake says:

        People like to pretend there’s no difference between 19th-century minstrelsy and theatrical makeup in a play by Shakespeare.

  • Joel Lazar says:

    Bravo, Kevin….

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    Decent defence. Good on him for sticking his head over the parapet. Let’s hope more follow.

  • Mark Simon says:

    I don’t understand why this is even an issue. Bright Sheng is owed an apology, big time.

    • Ziebardt says:

      but black people’s feelings

      • Barry Guerrero says:

        What ‘black people’s feelings’? Were there any African American students in that class? If so, could we hear directly from them, please. I’d be very curious to know their take on the matter. Jim Harbough’s football program stereotypes black men much more than watching Olivier in black-face.

  • Sally says:

    How GREAT that we CAN give our opinions in this country! Bravo, Kevin- speak your mind!!!!

  • Karl says:

    Maybe Bright Sheng should move to Canada. Their PM can’t even remember how many times he has worn blackface. Half the black people you see up there are probably white people in blackface. It’s no biggie there!

  • Jack says:

    More people like Kevin Scott are going to have to start speaking out against would-be Red Guards like Sammy Sussman.

    Otherwise, the Anglosphere could be headed down a dark path.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    A very well written article by Mr Scott

  • UWS Tom says:

    As if classical music in America isn’t in enough trouble with declining ticket sales, musicians leaving orchestras and the mainstream perception that all this culture stuff is only for stuffed shirts and old people. I think Bright Sheng is one of the most interesting and accomplished composers working today. I also remember my high school English teacher showing us the Olivier Othello, somehow we all managed to survive. This cancel culture nonsense has to stop now and we all need to focus on what’s really important, the music itself!!!

  • Ms.Melody says:

    Am I the only one who objects to capitalizing White and Black and blaming the evil Jew bosses for what went wrong with the movie industry? The paragraph which begins with :”Who is to blame for all of this…” sounds anti- Semitic.

  • Jim Dukey says:

    What a World!
    I’m SO GLAD to be retired from Professional Music!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Alank says:

    All I can write is “What a refreshing perspective”. Thank you Mr. Scott

  • japecake says:

    Damn right. Thank you for this powerful and important statement. At this point, Sheng’s own U of M composer colleagues and others in the department—you can find their names on the school’s website—have been either cowardly in their silence or craven in their aggressive attempts to take him out for good:


  • Kevin, thank you for saying with such eloquence what desperately needs to be said. The lesson here is to never accept these unreasoning witch hunts. Always, always, push it right back in their faces. They will not stop until we stop them.

  • Leon says:

    Renowned African-American bass baritone Mark Doss in response to Mr. Sussman:

    “This “outrage” is confusing. You viewed a project on a relevant topic from another era to open discussions & that is improper? Any POC in the class?….who are equally outraged? Also your focus is “in hope the piece will get traction” not the subject?”


  • PaulD says:

    I wouldn’t have used Olivier’s French- Canadian as a positive example – it was pretty bad. Jean Simmons as the lower caste Indian girl in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus was much better.

    In any case, its acting. Actors create characters. John Wayne wasn’t a cowboy; Deborah Kerr wasn’t a nun. And Lawrence Olivier wasn’t a Nazi dentist.

  • Zandonai says:

    Many of my black friends enjoy blackface Aida’s and Otello’s they know better than these woke liberal imbeciles.

  • Jj says:

    Denzel Washington, shame on you for playing Macbeth!
    I am white and I resent your attempt to demean us.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Isn’t there a modern term for this? Cultural appropriation? You can never do better than turn the loony Left’s language back on itself. They provide all the tools needed to critique themselves. (And, speaking of tools – not the sharpest in the shed either!)

    • Deja Vu says:

      Can any non Scot play MacBeth without demeaning and insulting the North Britons? And as for anyone but a Dane playing Hamlet!

  • Jj says:

    Maestro Scott, thank you for speaking out !

  • Maria says:

    Please remember this. There is no cure for stupid.

  • Manuela Hoelterhoff says:

    “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
    Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
    Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” Martin Niemoller

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    …”but dare not speak up in the present climate”.

    A return of the old good days of the USSR. Favourite key for composition? A salt miner.

  • EB says:

    And in Shakespear’s time, female roles were played by men. Can we just say, “we have evolved,” instead of making a federal case out of it?