Open Forum

Mannequin skin color

  • 1.  Mannequin skin color

    Posted 02-12-2020 05:34
    We are using a caucasian mannequin head to create the beheaded soldier in Pippin.  Our actor is African American.  We were going to use make-up and a wig to make the head look like our actor.  It was brought to my attention that that would be inappropriate and that we should get a darker mannequin.  Any comments or thoughts on that?  
    Linda Urban
    Music Teacher
    Whittier Technical High School
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  • 2.  RE: Mannequin skin color

    Posted 02-12-2020 11:14
    If it were me, I would definitely find the appropriate skin tone.

    Amy Learn
    Ballwin MO

  • 3.  RE: Mannequin skin color

    Posted 02-12-2020 11:25
    Interesting question. Going with a mannequin head does kind of assume a specific skin tone, and changing that tone cosmetically MIGHT affect some people's feelings.

    Rather than the expense and trouble to find a color-matched mannequin (it would not be an exact match anyway), consider using a foam wig head. Those are race-neutral, so you can shape, paint/makeup, or wig it any way you like without offending anyone. The only consideration is that a wig head is much lighter-weight than an actual severed head (I've heard), but you could weight it or just ask the actors to endow it with the required heft.

    Josh Kauffman
    Teacher, Thespian Society/Drama Club sponsor
    Winfield City Schools
    Winfield, AL

  • 4.  RE: Mannequin skin color

    Posted 02-12-2020 13:27
    I'm a bit baffled. Changing a mannequin to look more like an actor is completely different from blackface - it's a prop, not a white actor taking a role meant for a black actor, and not done to belittle/demean/dehumanize an entire race. It's just being practical. Of course, you have to have the actors on your side, so if the suggestion is coming from them, maybe you should rethink it.

    Ken Buswell
    Drama Teacher
    Peachtree City, GA

    Theater kills ignorance

  • 5.  RE: Mannequin skin color

    Posted 02-14-2020 11:00
    Edited by Guy Barbato 02-19-2020 06:57
    I think Ken is right that the most important thing is - if your cast/community are suggesting you rethink your original plan, you should listen to them.  Full stop.

      I would definitely not use "make-up" to achieve the effect you are going for.  I can easily see how using make-up on it could make some people uncomfortable.  Yes, it is a prop and not a real person, but the act itself could bring to mind unpleasant memories for some, or even set an unintended example for people who don't understand the history of minstrelry etc.

      That being said, perhaps engage in a discussion with your cast/community about what they think would be a good solution.  Allow them to suggest alternatives.  Not only are they given a voice, but also the opportunity to see the many challenges we are faced with as directors/producers and will have some ownership / a stake in whatever method you ultimately decide upon.  If procuring a mannequin with a different skin tone isn't possible, you might be able use paint/permanent artistry to alter the mannequin head to make it look truly accurate and life-like - not something that might be seen as an offensive caricature.  There are surely many different possibilities, and there's nothing wrong with coming up with some options on your own, but I would encourage you to start by listening, and let it come from them if at all possible.

      Have a blast, and break many legs!!  :-)


    Guy Barbato
    Theatre Teacher/Director
    Leonardtown MD

  • 6.  RE: Mannequin skin color

    Posted 02-18-2020 23:32
    I think this is a chance to educate people on what blackface is and is not.

    If the mannequin head is supposed to be for an actor who is black, the mannequin head should be painted to match his skin color.  What you want to avoid completely is the exaggerated facial features in the style of blackface.  You might work with an art teacher, or give the job of working on the mannequin head to a student who also does art.

    One of the times I directed Tina Howe's Museum, the actor playing the artist who created the clothesline sculptures was African American.  One of the figures is supposed to be a self-portrait.  One of my students did the heads for all of the clothesline pieces, and she worked really hard to get the skin tone exactly right for his figure.  The entire point of one of the figures being a self-portrait would have been lost if that figure was not black.

    Blackface demeaned and demeans.  Creating a piece that is supposed to approximate an actor of color is certainly not blackface.  I think you should honor that actor's skin color by painting that mannequin head.

    C. J. Breland
    Retired Theatre Arts Educator
    Asheville NC

  • 7.  RE: Mannequin skin color

    Posted 02-19-2020 06:27
    When I directed PIPPIN, I borrowed the Chip cart from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST to use for this scene. We had lots of dismembered arms and legs and "bodies" lying around, and Pippin pushed the cart through the battlefield collecting weapons and body parts. The head was in the pile on the cart, and the actor playing the head was inside the cart. This way Pippin could move around stage while the head talks to him.  It worked great. The audience loved the effect, and no worry about a prop head!

    Sent from my Sprint Phone.

  • 8.  RE: Mannequin skin color

    Posted 02-19-2020 07:31
    Edited by Guy Barbato 02-21-2020 12:23
    Personally, I agree with you C. J. and your logic is impeccable.  I just think it is important to clarify that I do not identify as a person of color or come from a black community and I have not had the same experiences as someone who does.  As such, I would try to make sure that my role as an educator in this instance was more aligned with that of facilitating discussion and problem-solving than lecturing.  As the teacher, I have knowledge/experience that my students do not, but it would be especially important in this case to acknowledge that they have their own experiences/understandings which I might not have and which I can learn from.  I would see it as a powerful opportunity to make sure my students knew that I was listening to them and to give my students a voice to express their concerns.  It's very possible that we might arrive as the same conclusions, but if we do, it would be together.

      Logically, you are absolutely correct that creating an artistic piece which is supposed to approximate an actor of color is not blackface.  However, I would feel the need to create that piece in a way that honors not only the actor's skin tone, but also the feelings and personal experiences of everyone involved.

      Thank you so much for sharing your own experience with us in this and many other threads.  It is genuinely appreciated more than you know!

    All the best,

    Guy Barbato
    Theatre Teacher/Director
    Leonardtown MD

  • 9.  RE: Mannequin skin color

    Posted 02-19-2020 09:51
    I love Floyd Nash's idea. It solves the problem of a decapitated head talking to Pippin in a theatrical way, moves the story forward, and avoids bringing up issues that have nothing to do with the play.

    George F. Ledo
    Set designer

  • 10.  RE: Mannequin skin color

    Posted 02-20-2020 12:07

    Thank you so much for expressing so eloquently the importance of acknowledging the lack of lived experience in approaching this, and so many other sensitive topics. Deferring to those who have the lived experience and truly listening to their input is crucial. Thank you!

    Linda Apperson 
    Stage manager, mentor, former educator

  • 11.  RE: Mannequin skin color

    Posted 02-20-2020 07:21
    Edited by Libya Pugh 02-20-2020 07:21
    I think it would be more offensive to keep the mannequin white because it doesn't represent the person who it represents. Wearing blackface was only part of minstrel shows and more than a black or white actor wearing black shoe polish. It was also about presenting character stereotypes to belittle a race for mostly white audiences. Treat the actor like you would anyone else who had the role.

    Libya Pugh
    New York NY

  • 12.  RE: Mannequin skin color

    Posted 02-20-2020 12:20
    When we did Pippin, we staged the head as the live actor popping out from part of the set and just laying his head on the stage. It totally worked, and then we got to enjoy all of his facial expressions. It was a cheaper version of what @Floyd Nash suggestion (which is a GREAT idea!)​

    Cassy Maxton-Whitacre
    Theatre Department Coordinator
    Fishersville VA