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Discussion on colour should also rage in theatre

At Amsterdam's Stadsschouwburg, Hans Kesting will once again play the title role of Shakespeare's Othello, in a legendary version by top director Ivo van Hove, already 12 years ago. A stone's throw away, at De Balie, is the equally impressive actor Kenneth Herdigein in David Mamet's play Race.

Why connect the two? Hans Kesting, the best actor of his generation, plays the 'Moorish' character Othello. He plays this 'black' role because, according to the makers and the press, the best actor for the role is the white Hans Kesting. Herdigein is a black actor playing a black character. Also because he is the best for that role. The point here is not that this actor, who on stage equals Kesting in charisma and strength, should necessarily play Othello. After all, that could again be seen as racist role playing. The fact remains that both Shakespeare's Othello and Mamet's Race are about racism and the impossibility of having an uncoloured debate about it.

And that right in between two black-pepper discussion seasons

The two performances around Amsterdam's Leidseplein show how intensely divided Dutch culture is when it comes to colour. At the Stadsschouwburg, a highly educated and predominantly white audience watches a white actor playing a black character, while everything in the programme booklet wants Othello to be 'colourless'. At the premiere of 'Race' on Thursday, 7 May, I sat in a room more than three-quarters filled with black Dutch people at a play played by two black and two white actors, where the theme was 'racism'.

David Mamet wrote a lawyer's drama with 'Race', full of the raunchy one-liners and embarrassing situations familiar from his work (Real Estate bv, Wag The Dog). A wealthy white businessman knocks on the door of a mixed law firm because he has been charged with rape by a black chambermaid. The lawyers realise that the jury trial will not be about whether the man is guilty or not. The situation already makes him guilty because the alternative is unacceptable. Ultimately, this text is also no longer about whether his position is defensible. Everything in this situation is racially charged: the rich white man dominating the poor black girl, the ambitious black lawyer with an Ivy League degree in her pocket, the black lawyer who wants to be unbiased and his partner struggling with his white political correctness.

Time for debate

Enough ingredients for a lot of debate, and of course there could be, were it not for the fact that the text ended up being a real bad guy appears to need. As a result, the story sticks a bit too securely within the lines of its own fable, and we are not sent out into the world with a host of unresolved issues. Which, in this day and age, is a shame anyway.

After all, in the Netherlands in 2015, it is still considered normal that the country's premier theatre barely features actors from a non-white demographic, while the talents from minorities of colour mainly perform in the smaller venues, with the smaller companies, in the smaller arts, with less subsidy and considerably less rehearsal time.

Time for a debate, please before the gingerbread nuts are in the supermarket.

Race can still be seen on Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 May at De Balie. Information.

Kenneth Herdigein, Vastert van Aardenne, Urmie Plein, Reinier Bulder in Race by David Mamet, Photo: Jean van Lingen

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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