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Use of 'brownface' criticized in Victoria production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood

03/11/2015 02:27 EDT | Updated 05/11/2015 05:59 EDT
Victoria-based theatre Langham Court has come under fire for its production Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood, because it features white performers wearing dark make-up to make themselves look South Asian.

"We know better now," said Anita Majumdar, an actor and playwright from Port Moody of South Asian descent, told On The Island's Gregor Craigie.

Majumdar likened what the theatre is doing to "blackface" — when white actors use make-up to look like they're of African descent.

"Using blackface feels like a slap in the face. It feels like kind of an irreverent attitude to 'we know black people have it harder, but you know what, we just don't care,'" she said.

Keith Digby, who works at Langham Court, said the decision was made for historical reasons.

"We perform as characters and the thing to understand is this is not a white actress playing a Ceylonese person," he said.

"This was a white actress satirizing people who in the time of the musical portrayed Ceylonese people by putting on darker make-up. The way you do that is by putting on darker make-up. Otherwise it wouldn't be a satire."

Majumdar said she hasn't seen the show yet, but said satire itself doesn't give the show a free pass.

"Does it raise the conscious level of an audience to understand the rights of people with colour, that this is so culturally wrong, then I have a little more understanding," she said.

"It has to be conscious. It has to be a decision you make that subverts the form. If you're using it exactly how they used it back in the time … all you're doing is masquerading in a time that used it and in a time that didn't know any better."

Majumdar made the decision to perform in "whiteface" in a play she wrote and stars in, Let Me Borrow That Top, which is currently on at the Belfry Theatre.

In the play she performs a white woman who is appropriating Indian culture, and Majumdar said her make-up was a very conscious decision designed to make the audience think about white privilege and cultural appropriation.

To hear the full interview with actress Anita Majumdar, click the audio labelled: Anita Majumdar criticizes use of 'brown face' in Victoria theatre production.

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