There is no doubt that there has been renewed awareness in 2019 that the use of blackface, yellowface, and brownface, is wrong. We’ve seen many a public figure being brought down by donning them in the past. I am happy that we’ve gotten to the point where we generally accept it as wrong.
However, one term is slower to receive the right amount of attention - redface. For decades, we’ve seen modern society gloss over usage of redface in pop culture, entertainment and professional sports. While there has been some progress, it’s been slow.
Phillip J. Deloria, a Harvard professor, recently stated,
"There's a big, long, complicated history to this that's really deep in American culture. It's every bit as deep as blackface minstrelsy and slavery. It's just out there, but we've kind of forgotten about it."
Thankfully, there has been small progress in the theatre industry. Some theatres are rethinking shows like Peter Pan with the way that Native Americans are portrayed. Others are looking carefully to make sure roles written for Native Americans are cast correctly, such as the play November. But that doesn’t mean the change has been sweeping.
This coming summer, the Schoenbrunn Amphitheatre will celebrate its 50th straight season of performing Paul Green’s Trumpet in the Land. The play re-creates the violent end of Moravian missionary David Zeisberger and his small community of Delaware Native Americans, who worked to establish a settlement, keep the peace and spread Christianity during the Revolutionary War in the Tuscarawas Valley near New Philadelphia. Trumpet in the Land uses hymns and Native American dances and songs to retell the Ohio settlement’s birth and eventual end in what is known as the Gnadenhutten massacre or the Moravian massacre, when some 96 members were killed by a colonial militia from Pennsylvania on March 8, 1782.
However, for the past 50 years the production has been cast with white actors donning redface in the Native American roles. These are some pictures from past productions.
I’ve been told by sources that while some performers in the past do have Native American roots, the majority do not. It should also be noted that nowhere in the audition notice does it state that they are looking exclusively for Native American performers for these roles. Then again, I don’t know how many Native Americans would want to audition for a show that celebrates a white savior trope and supports the idea that the Christianization of Native Americans was the right thing to do. Both are heavily debated topics right now.
While I do not believe it’s the Schoenbrunn Amphitheatre’s intent to mock Native Americans or their culture, producing a show that’s attempting to serve as a tribute but casting it with white actors, in a way, mutes the message.
But something tells me that if the folks at the Schoenbrunn Amphitheatre haven’t changed their minds on this issue for the past 50 years, they’re probably not going to change it now. No matter if the issue of redface is gaining more awareness or not.
I would urge the Schoenbrunn Amphitheatre to end using redface to depict Native Americans, but there are so many problematic things with this production, I might suggest shutting the whole thing down to start and creating a new show that truly celebrates Native American heritage.
As we learn more and more about this country’s past, we’re discovering the awful ways that they were treated and the inhumane methods our government enacted upon them. It’s more than time we started to truly honor them and their existence. Not the reverse.