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Whitewashing and entitlement: The truth about Aida-gate

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The story of Aida is centred around a love triangle, but it is the context of the musical that is more troubling. The titular character, a Nubian princess, is taken into slavery after her country is captured by an Egyptian army. She ends up falling for the captain that enslaved her country, and battling for his affection against another Egyptian princess.

Musical Theatre Bristol (MTB) voted in favour of performing this musical. According to members, it was voted in more out of desperation to fill a slot rather than genuine admiration for the piece. They were reluctant about putting this play on from the start, and according to MTB members, some even called to re-open the vote.

Performances of the past have been largely dominated by white students, so people had concerns about potential whitewashing. Unlike cultural appropriation (the buzzword that many reports have been incorrectly using), whitewashing pertains to giving roles for characters of colour to white performers.

University of Bristol’s Ethnic Minorities (UBEM) is a newly formed network that supports racialised minority groups within the university. As a result, they were the first port of call for people looking for a reliable body to confide in about their discomfort with Aida. UBEM communicated the concerns of both white and BME students about the play’s inevitable whitewashing to the MTB president. At no point did UBEM call for it to be cancelled. They explicitly offered to meet up with MTB to discuss the issue. MTB took it upon themselves to discuss the issue as a committee, and cancel the production. Cries of censorship are therefore null and void. The University did not intervene and call for an end to the performance, nor did they force MTB to reach this decision. Aida was not “banned”, as many sources have incorrectly reported.

The issue surrounding the cancellation of Aida is more complex than false claims of ‘cultural appropriation’. Not only is this incorrect labelling dismissive of the concerns of the students, but it is wholly incorrect. The problem here is the long-standing issue of an incredibly whitewashed arts sector which often snubs black artists. People are outraged by BME actors playing fictional characters yet are still complacent about history being distorted by the blacking-up of white actors. It has become such an issue that people have to actively petition and lobby producers to have the stories of BME people told correctly.

MTB playing the victim says a lot about their inability to understand the wider issues of the racism and whitewashing. The unhelpful and incorrect ‘whitesplaining’ of university papers and the tragic Tab do not allow for an open and nuanced discussion about these issues. This is not an issue of censorship and we need to stop using such inflated language when having these conversations.

Outlets are distorting the concerns of students, which are wholly justified. It is important to tackle these micro-aggressions that contribute to the erasure of BME faces in the world of arts. We see white actors play black characters and get rewarded for it, whilst black actors are struggling to get roles, let alone those which tell their own narratives. When black people are given roles, we and our culture are constantly used as a prop or tacky aesthetic. We need to rightfully reclaim our stories and give credit where it is due.

Students expressing concerns about their identity being co-opted for the enjoyment of white audiences is natural, and they have every right to do so. You are not entitled to our identity, stories or history. The entire arts world is built around white audiences and their sensitivities, and there are a plethora of plays that can be performed with appropriate casting. Why must you choose this one? Instead of dwelling on the fact that the play has been cancelled, it’s important, instead, to learn from this and work towards eradicating the extensive whitewashing of the arts.

This piece was co-authored by Naomi Adedokun, a 2nd year English student at the University of Bristol

2 Comments

  1. Jatinder Verma

    February 18, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    I find the logic in your arguments quite frankly baffling. You seem to completely misunderstand the concept of acting as opposed to representing or being a spokesperson for something.

    Are you as vociferous in your condemnation of, say, Black Theatre Live for their reworking of Macbeth, Catalina, Hamlet, etc? Can you imagine your ire if a white person said to them “You are not entitled to our identity, stories or history”.

    I realise that it’s a convenient cause for you to build your proto-political career upon but you build up a world of division and segregation by your actions and for that I despise your articles.

    • EH

      March 27, 2017 at 11:12 am

      Hamlet, and Macbeth are fictional. When have black people actually depicted non fictioal white people? White people however have taken it upon themselves to cast white people in roles like Jesus, every Egyptian movie, and Ghandi; whilst applauding and giving themselves awards for whitewashing history. And by your logic, white people didn’t have problems playing Othello, despite his being described as “moorish” or casting Scarlet Johansson (a white woman) to play an antagonist from Japanese comics.

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