This is a fantastic passage on tricky problems of consent within an intercultural context, from the text Dramaturgy in Motion: At Work on Dance and Movement Performance, by Katherine Profeta. TLDR: Black American dancers ask Chinese musicians if they consent to putting on black face, while explaining racist context to them. Chinese musicians say Ok, but obviously don’t understand/care for the context. Is their consent really consent?
When Ralph took his initial research trips across Asia, his journals were rife with observations of basic similarities and differences in skin color, and he drew many of his observations in distant cultures into contrast and comparison with his own experience of race as a black American. For instance, he observed the rural farmers in China’s Yunnan province and wrote, “many are as brown as me. Stunning darkness.” Later he mused about a correlation between dark skin and punishing labor. When, months later, farmer-musician Mr. Li traveled miles from Yunnan to join Ralph in a San Francisco rehearsal room and sat down to sing to the accompaniment of his san xian—a plucked musical instrument whose name literally means “three strings”—Ralph was immediately struck by an overlapping analogy. The sound triggered the image of “an old black man in the South,” sitting and playing a banjo, singing the blues. And indeed, the san xian as played by Mr. Li did sound uncannily like a banjo to American ears.
Ralph began performing workshop solos to Mr. Li’s san xian, imagining himself dancing as “an old black man” to this rural Yi tune. Later he began thinking of ways to push the cross-cultural analogy even further. He began entertaining the idea of asking Mr. Li and Mr. Wang to wear the makeup of blackface minstrels on stage during his solo, for he fully realized that his hearing of the American “Old South” in Mr. Li’s music was an artificial, mythologizing gesture, imposing his own context upon theirs. He suspected that the makeup would make blatant not just the comparison he was hearing but also how wrong it was—highlighting and making a point of the artificiality of the imposition. Immediately he and I began discussing how the two musicians, who were working out of a very different tradition, had little understanding of the resonances of blackface in America. His proposed gesture was thus clearly for an American target audience, a gesture in which our Chinese guests could not intuitively share.
The first matter at hand was to bring Mr. Li and Mr. Wang in on Ralph’s thinking. We gathered together the two men and the requisite interpreters, including dancer Wen Hui, who was the best at speaking and understanding Yunnan dialect. Ralph showed the group photographs of early minstrels and blackface performers, first describing at length the racist context for that tradition, so ingrained in American theater history. I recorded the rest of the interaction in my rehearsal room notebook as follows:
Ralph explains: “I want you to know that in this work there are racial issues. . . . When Mr. Li sings and plays, and I dance, I think of you two as these old black men in America, singing the blues. I want to dance to your music. We did it in [workshops in] San Francisco and Austin. But [this time] I want to make sure the audience is seeing what I’m seeing. I want to make reference to black men, but to the stereotype of black men, and have those men be playing Chinese music. It may be too strong, but I wonder if you would try it.”
Ralph then turns to the interpreter: “Do they understand? The idea is risky, it’s racist . . .” She attempts to explain further, in Mandarin, and Wen Hui helps by glossing in Yunnan dialect. Eventually Mr. Wang and Mr. Li reply simply: It’s OK. They have no questions to ask, which makes all of the Americans in the room a little uncomfortable.
Within a few days the necessary makeup was purchased, and the blackface episode was tried out in the rehearsal room. Immediately afterward a considerable subset of Ralph’s collaborators, myself included, felt an urgent need to ask him questions. We all wanted to open up a dialogue about what exactly he was doing—a clear instance of a dramaturgical function dispersed across a larger collaborative group. As Ralph remembered it in his published journal: “Cheng-Chieh, Katherine, Wen Hui, Carlos, David and Anita [i.e., performer, dramaturg, three more performers, costume designer] corner and force me to explain what it is I’m trying to say with the blackface abstraction. Six variations of friendly outrage. I tell them that I could maybe answer their questions in 30 days. In the meantime, I’ll dance, while Wang and Li wear blackface, while Li plays the san xian, which all of us now call the banjo.”
Despite our dramaturgical grilling, Ralph resisted any implication that he should have immediate answers to these questions. Instead, he wanted to come to an understanding by dancing the troublesome image he had constructed. And meanwhile, as we all continued to wonder, Ralph continued his efforts to make sure Mr. Wang and Mr. Li understood what they were taking part in. He brought more documentation of the American minstrel past into the rehearsal room and invited the two men to dinner off-hours, where (through an interpreter or two) they discussed analogous racial stereotyping in a Chinese context. He kept looking for ways to make them his partners instead of his subjects in this gesture he had devised. Ultimately it was difficult for the American collaborators to verify how much this communication had succeeded, or to even understand what would constitute success. Ralph ended up concluding that even though Mr. Wang and Mr. Li understood on a literal level, they did not have the cultural context to fundamentally understand, or perhaps more important, really care about what he found important. As he put it: “They just look at me curiously, flat. I feel embarrassed, foolish, for bringing this issue to the process. But I’ll do it again, and again. My American exaggeration.”
What might be the ethical balance sheet for this performance moment, which did make it all the way onto the proscenium stage? For the American target audience, in being recognizably problematic it was also provocative, and thus valuable—it stirred consternation, argument, reflection on the bizarre symmetries and embarrassing limits arising from any doomed project of cultural comparison. Ralph had heard the Mississippi Delta in the Yi music. As he later explained, in feeling aware of the limits of that connection, he decided to “exaggerate my thinking and make it shameful because I don’t really know China or the Mississippi Delta.” The exaggeration, the shamefulness, and the wrongness were the expressive point. The transgressive nature of the moment was part of what made it desirable to put onstage—but this conclusion lands, of course, securely within Ralph’s home cultural environment.
As applies to Mr. Wang and Mr. Li’s position, on the other hand, the balance sheet was less knowable to this American dramaturg, as well as other collaborators. For some members of the production, Taiwanese and American dancer Cheng-Chieh Yu prime among them, the blackface episode remained troublesome. When I interviewed her after the Tree tour had concluded, she explained:“[ They] had no real idea about the significance of putting on blackface, even though Ralph tried to explain the history behind it. The issues were too far from their understanding. Their unawareness made me uncomfortable….Wang and Li were willing to do pretty much anything Ralph asked them to do, so the whole responsibility was on Ralph.”
How to discuss and decide, when moments of transgression are attempted within an intercultural performance experiment, whether an idea crosses a line that should not be crossed? What is really at stake, and who gets to say what should or should not go forward? Who has the power to grant permission, and who has the responsibility to decide whether that permission is sufficient? Key in this particular discussion in Tree were Mr. Wang and Mr. Li’s understanding and consent. If they were partners in the gesture, it was felt, then all was well — the transgression would be entirely located within the performance, not within the collaboration. But if they were not fully consenting because they were not fully informed, what then? What was the nature of being informed, anyhow? Was it enough that the relevant cultural history had been literally explained and translated for them? In their seeming “not caring” about the context of American blackface, should we have read an insufficient understanding, and thus not real consent? Or in their “not caring” should we have read their perfectly reasonable understanding that these issues were not their own, and that they would personally not have to deal with any serious consequences from their onstage gesture, for they would soon return to their farm village in Yunnan with an interesting experience under their belts and turn their attention to a host of completely different priorities and concerns?
Although this episode implies many more questions than just the question of advocacy for one’s guests, I will land on that question as a location where the issue might finally reside. In the attention a host shows to a guest, in the regard shown for the “other’s” welfare when invited onto unfamiliar ground, how does one draw the line between appropriate concern and patronizing solicitude? In fearing that Mr. Wang and Mr. Li’s very direct words, “It’s OK,” did not actually constitute consent, were we responsibly advocating for our guests’ well-being or just ignoring what they were telling us? Maybe we were just being self-centered Americans all over again, insisting they should care more profoundly about our context when they were telling us quite clearly no, they did not. When does the host’s concern for guests become just another means of imposing beliefs?
I did attempt to interview Mr. Wang about his retrospective views on the collaboration. This “interview” was conducted after he had returned home, over forwarded e-mails and an intermediary’s phone call, so through more than one stage of imperfect translation, just as our dialogue in rehearsal rooms had been. I asked him if anything had shifted for him since working on Tree, what he thought in retrospect of the time he spent in the United States, and whether he thought Ralph had been adequately respectful of his music and his culture. He replied that the work in the United States had given him enough money to build himself a new home. He also said that our work had been one of the rare times he had been able to earn money from his music, instead of from carpentry or other physical labor, and he hoped for more times like that. He was glad that Ralph had liked his music, and yes, he thought Ralph had been respectful of his culture. He would be happy to work with him again. And that was about all it seemed important to him to relay to an inquiring dramaturg from very far away. Of course, it was not clear what was making it through the filters standing between us, either. The man who contacted Mr. Wang for me and posed my questions ended his e-mailed summary of Wang’s answers with the following words: “Interview with Wang was not so easy. I tried to find something useful from a lot of words about life is hard, need money. But I believe he is a very honest person as a farmer in such a poor village of China who I understand.”
The nature of Mr. Wang’s last communiqué, arriving as it did through the filter of what the interviewer/translator had found “useful” and manifesting above all the stark contrast between our contexts and material resources, was very familiar. It encapsulated well how I often felt about the experience of collaborating with him. Often his words as reported seemed direct, easy to understand. Yet the situation was not direct or easy at all, because so much was not available for communication. And the exercise of my imagining what would be said between us, if the means for communication were somehow further developed, was still ultimately an exercise of imposing my cultural context and frames of understanding on his.
Beyond the cultural context, there’s also an economic context at play – worrying about racist implications of an act you are partaking in (especially in a part of the world in which you are just a visitor!) belongs to the domain of those who aren’t fully preoccupied with basic needs. With the post-dance interview in mind, it was impossible for them to give any sort of an informed consent. The recent blackface incident on China’s CNY programme also shows that a segment of the population (the producers, the censors, and presumably a significant part of the audience) whom we expect to be cosmopolitan (and hence, in a position to know better than these collaborators) simply isn’t acquainted with these issues. I know from the context I grew up with that many Chinese are blind regarding their racism — the Singaporean ones are too used to being the privileged majority, the Malaysian ones feel righteous because of their govt’s treatment towards them, and I suspect for China Chinese it’s the same case as for Singaporean Chinese.
There was no way any amount of explanation would have caught the collaborators up on the context they needed. With the extent of the collaborators’ ignorance, the responsibility for this act really just falls on Ralph. Arguably he should not have gone ahead. But what does this say about the possibility of collaboration between people of different means, exposure to the world, and education levels?