Since January, the Teatro Trail in Little Havana has been showing the play, “Tres Viudas en un Crucero” (“Three Widows on a Cruise”), to sold-out crowds. The Spanish-language production featured a blackface character. A fair-skinned actress wore brown face makeup and overdrawn big red lips.
The theater recently decided to eliminate blackface from the play after an El Nuevo Herald report denouncing it.
Blackface was once popular in racist minstrel shows in the U.S. but has since been regarded as racist. It’s still performed regularly in Spanish-language entertainment.
Afro-Latinos in Miami say the play is a window into the racism that exists and persists in local Latin American communities.
WLRN: What was this play about and how was it received by audiences?
BRENDA MEDINA: The play is about three friends who live in a condo in Hialeah. There are older women, widowers, and they're planning to go on a cruise. The play revolves around their plans to go, and when they come back, their memories of the cruise. I was contacted at the paper and some editors were contacted because a few people who went to see the play, saw the character in blackface and were offended by it.
So I started asking questions about it and calling the people involved with the play. I realized that it had been playing for five months to sold-out audiences every weekend. The director, the actress, everyone involved with the play, told me that people loved it that they hadn't heard any complaints – that no one ever brought up the fact that someone was in blackface. And I went to see the play, and that's not the only problem. It also promotes a lot of stereotypes, but apparently people love it.
What did the director say and what did the actress say in defense of the production?
B.M.: They said that it was normal, that it was part of Cuban culture, of teatro vernáculo, vernacular theater. The actress told me she has been playing similar characters for years in Miami without any issues. When I brought up the possibility of this being offensive to many people here, she said that, one of her most shocking quotes was, that "people now complain for everything."
After you did that report, the theater decided to remove the blackface character or have the character continue in the play but without blackface. Is that right?
B.M.: I was very surprised the character has continued in the play. She's a very well known actress in theater and even in telenovelas. They have removed the blackface makeup, and they say they are modifying the text in the play to change certain lines. I haven't been back to the play since they made the changes.
But I assume one of the most egregious lines was the blackface actress would jump on stage, pounding her chest and opening her legs wide open, and say that "we're going to drink, dance, and have fun like three gorillas" – which is very problematic. I'm assuming that they're going to get rid of that line. I want to go back and see what they have changed.
Nadege, you spoke with Afro-Latinos in South Florida about this production. What was their overall sentiment?
NADEGE GREEN: Everyone I spoke to was like this is blatant racism; this is dehumanizing for black people across the diaspora. It's another way to to see blackness as either comedy or as something to be made fun of, something less than, something inferior.
Brenda's story asks, "If you wanted a black character, why would you not hire an Afro-Latino?" They're everywhere. They're here in Miami too. And the answer was, "Well, we couldn't find one." But in all honesty, those sort of characters were not designed for black people to play. It was designed to make fun of black people, and any assertion that blackface somehow is a way to celebrate black people is just false.
Brenda said that the response she got was that this is a traditional character in Cuban theater. Can you give us a historical context?
N.G.: Blackface was a traditional character in American theater as well. It was part of minstrel shows. It was mammy. It was Uncle Buck. It was very much part of our history as well here in the U.S. and that was dehumanizing as well. And just because something is tradition does not make it right. There are many things we can point to that have been tradition that is not O.K. in 2018.
How did we get to the point in the U.S. where we realized this is absolutely not O.K., but they're not at that point with Cuban theater?
N.G.: I don't know that they're not at that point in Cuban theater because blackface typically isn't shown in Cuban theater in Cuba as much anymore either. But in Spanish-language media, even though it still exists, you do have a backlash. People push back against this all the time. We've seen it in Peru, in Ecuador, and in Brazil.
Earlier this year, Afro-Brazilians were very upset about blackface among samba dancers. In Colombia, you had a blackface soldier on T.V. The Afro-Colombian community stood up and said that is not O.K., that is not a representation of us. He must come off the air, and they got that character off the air. So it's not that we're not seeing this pushback. I think it's very much like in the U.S. Do we listen to black voices? Do we center black voices? And when someone tells you, "this is offensive," will you stop, if the majority doesn't see it that way? All of that is part of the conversation.
This post was updated after the June 1, 2018 episode of The Florida Roundup aired.