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Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Lion King (Stage) and Racial Politics

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." - Albert Einstein, (attributed)


While watching the Lion King at Marina Bay Sands, I noticed that most of the cast members (whose ethnicity I could discern) were black.

Scar seemed to be Indian, one hyena was probably a Latina and another might have been white. Timon was hard to discern through his makeup but was probably white, and I think there was one Latina in the ensemble. Zazu was impossible to identify given the makeup.

Handily, the website has a cast list for easy identification. The cast is more racially diverse (of the main cast excluding the kids, 5 are black and 6 are non-black, and of the ensemble, 27/34 are black) than I remember (this is confirmed by a video of a rehearsal), but my watching a matinée might've had something to do with that (only 2-4 replacements were announced before the show, though).

More disturbingly, this indicates that many of the cast were in blackface. For example, all 6 of the kids in the cast (3 Young Nalas and 3 Young Simbas) are Filipino. While I must commend the makeup team for their efforts, the fact that they saw the need to blackface virtually so many is worrying (given the negative reaction to blackfacing in the US, presumably this wasn't done in the US productions. Evidence on this is mixed, though, as while I see one distinctly East Asian ensemble member in one of the US videos, all 3 US Scars [as well as the Singapore one] are white (while in the same video he appeared black - leave aside the added complication of British Accents being associated with villains), and in the press kit we see two actors with Dutch last names (Hein Van Der Heijden and Edwin Jonker) in blackface).

Normal objections to blackfacing revolve around relatively obscure events in American history (I'd be surprised if many non-Americans know what minstrel shows were) and are thus irrelevant to the rest of the world (it's on a similar plane as fried chicken, even if "[Americans] have a tendency to think that their history is more important than that of other countries").

No, the disturbing aspect here is why they felt the need to make the cast appear black, especially given that they boast of a cast from 13 countries (even if more than half are from South Africa, which ironically makes them more 'authentic' than the African-American cast in the US productions).

Presumably, it derives from some notion of 'authenticity' - the Lion King is seen as an African tale (even if it's performed in English with some Zulu words) and there is one scene where the black ensemble dances in traditional African garb. Yet, while the plot is influenced by Hamlet and the Epic of Sundiata, these are after all supposed to be animals. If one makes too strong a link to the human world (beyond logistical reasons, like it being impossible to train a mandrill to sing), one sees some disturbing morals, among which:

- Leadership is inherited, and only one race (species) are fit to rule (Lions)
- One species (races) is inherently evil, slimy and we cannot live with it (Hyenas)
- Arranged marriages are a good thing and the children will grow to see the wisdom of their parents' decisions (Simba and Nala)
- Women (females) should do all the work while the men hold the power (Lionesses)

In any event, even if one saw the Lion King as an African tale, it is not clear that we needed Africans, people of African descent or people madeup to look like Africans performing it. For one, many of the characters did not have African accents, so the authenticity argument is weakened.

More importantly, must an African tale be performed by people who come from, whose ancestors came from or who look like they come from Africa?

If one were compelled to endorse this claim, would one condemn the first Black Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights? How about Denzel Washington playing Don Pedro in Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing (as the Prince of Aragon; considering the play was written in the 16th century this would've been impossible).

In addition, in the Thor movie, Heimdall (based on Heimdallr) is black - but one could claim that Gods can morph (this is a possibility rather than a necessity though, so it still leaves questions open, not least why "the whitest of the gods" would go to the other extreme). However, that same article lists other white characters played by minorities (at least in theatre): Adrian Lester as Hamlet, David Oyelowo as Henry VI and a whole black cast in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Perhaps this goes to show that White culture - or at least Anglo culture - has become World culture, whereas minority cultures are ghettoised.

Which, ironically, is itself racist, but there you have it.
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