In these more enlightened days, appearing in blackface is quite rightly considered offensive and unacceptable. I can only plead ignorance and the thoughtlessness of youth in my defence and seek the forgiveness of people of colour.
In my callow youth, I was a thespian, albeit an amateur of the species. (No, Doris, I said ‘thespian’. Turn your hearing aid on!) I belonged to a small theatre group run by one my schoolteachers, Mr. Clapham.
A group of us were sitting around one day while ‘between engagements’ and Mr. Clapham suggested we stage ‘A Taste of Honey’ by Shelagh Delaney. A five-hander with a simple set, he reasoned it was perfect for the summer break. I gently pointed out that most of our usual audience would be at the beach during that time and half-jokingly suggested we do a brief beach towns tour of the play, and lo, a serious plan emerged.
Halls booked, flat pack set constructed, local newspaper ads placed and rehearsals completed, we hit the road with two cars and a trailer, high hopes but modest expectations, and two tents (because we couldn’t afford to pay for hotels or motels).
Of course in those days there was no such thing as online bookings, so we had no idea how many people, if any, would turn up. We even resorted to walking the beaches wearing sandwich boards and distributing leaflets to drum up business. As it turned out, beachgoers were not really all that interested in attending a play while on holidays and the tour was a financial disaster.
However my story really revolves around the character I played, which was that of a black sailor. Yes, I said black. Not to put too fine a point on it, I am not now, nor was I then, black. I was a ginger-haired Anglo-Saxon. With the aid of a crew cut and voluminous amounts of make-up it was thought that, while no-one would be convinced of my blackness, they would consider that a valiant effort had been made to be a passable facsimile of a person of colour. Besides, my character only had a small part in Act 1. (In the cast list for the play, he is only referred to as The Boy, although he is referred to as Jimmy in the dialogue.)
During Act 2, I took care of the lighting and sound, taking over the duties of Mr. Clapham, who appeared in Act 2 as a gay friend of the heroine. (Believe me, the notion of a black person and a gay person appearing in a play in the 1950’s was an act of revolutionary bravery on the part of the playwright, who was herself only 19 at the time.)
One night, when the audience consisted of a grand total of six people, two people waited around afterwards, a woman in her early forties and her teenage daughter. The woman introduced herself as the wife of the commandant of the local Army base and insisted we come to their home for supper. The rest of the cast agreed with alacrity but I demurred on the grounds that it used to take at least an hour to remove my make-up and shower to return to some semblance of my usual appearance.
However our hostess was having none of that and insisted that I come as I was. Thus we arrived at a grand house on the Army base and trooped into a living room that would have served well as the setting of the final scene in an Agatha Christie mystery. A maid was despatched to prepare tea and supper and to fetch the Colonel, only adding to the sense of time-warp.
Soon the Colonel made an appearance and, without batting an eyelid, marched over to me, shook my black make-up caked hand and said ‘Welcome, you look like you could do with a scotch.’ He then chatted to me amiably as if fake black men were regular visitors to his home and that they always left black stains on his crystal scotch glasses.
When we finally grasped the chance to say our farewells, the Colonel once again gripped my hand and intimated in a low voice that I was the least convincing black fellow he’d ever seen and that perhaps other roles might suit me better.