Open Forum

Cultural appropriation

  • 1.  Cultural appropriation

    Posted 01-03-2019 16:34

    Looking for feedback. I am at a 7-12 school of choice with a population of less than 1000. I am not the drama teacher, but I was coaxed back to directing and ITS sponsorship last spring. I am directing The Tempest for the spring. I cast before break and rehearsals begin Jan 12th. Here is the quandary: I am setting the play in the Polynesian islands. My diverse cast is enthusiastic and on board. However, I mentioned to 2 adults outside of education that I was considering traditional Polynesian tattoos as part of Caliban's makeup. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that would be cultural appropriation because my Caliban is white. I would like some feedback - go ahead be brutally honest. Easy enough to forget the tattoos, but I really want to keep the Polynesian setting.

    Susan Rhoden
    Senior Project Coordinator
    Sr. English Teacher
    ITS Troupe 6616 Sponsor
    Edgewood Jr/Sr High School

  • 2.  RE: Cultural appropriation

    Posted 01-03-2019 18:11

    Lose the tattoos. Because tattoos have deep meaning in Polynesian culture, you're setting up an unnecessary minefield for yourself. The Polynesian setting is a cool concept, and the climate would dictate costuming, but when you introduce the tattoos, you're introducing concepts that carry meaning beyond simple adornment. 

    I get why you want them as part of the makeup, but with a white Caliban, you're asking for trouble.

    Scott Piehler

  • 3.  RE: Cultural appropriation

    Posted 01-03-2019 18:20
    Thank you. I appreciate your advice and I'm going to take it. So many other mind fields out there in HS theatre might as well not jump on one intentionally!

  • 4.  RE: Cultural appropriation

    Posted 01-04-2019 11:47
    Setting your play in Polynesia could also be considered a cultural appropriation.

    Why not create your own version of Polynesia - your own tattoos? Disney’s “Moana” was not an accurate reflective of Polynesian culture, but one of their own creation.

    I lived and taught in Hawai’i for 21 years. I saw many productions that incorporated Polynesian culture.
    In fact, I was a member of the chorus for a Hawai’i Opera Theatre production of “The Magic Flute” that borrowed liberally, freely and with their own unique adaptations including some tattoo makeup. I am unaware of anyone being offended.

    How can one produce Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” or Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” without some cultural mis-appropriation?

    How can a rural Iowa school produce “Fiddler on the Roof” if it has no Jewish population? Or how can Trollwood Performing Arts School in Fargo, ND produce “Once On This Island” with no cultural connection to island culture in the Caribbean? They did so very successfully in 1999 piloting the first Jr. production of that wonderful show!

    I know the examples I’ve sited have more implicit written cultural connections, but I see little difference.

    Theatre, especially in a school setting, is first and foremost about education. You could make a dramaturgical point in first educating your students about the choice and secondly, your audience. Better yet, enlist your students as dramaturgs - have them do some research, enlist their help in creating your own “culture” of expression. They could offer a display for your lobby and a fact sheet (several pages?) of information. They could do your program liner notes. In doing these learning exercises, you would be justifying your decisions. You might even reach out to see if anyone in your community has some ancestral connection to Polynesia. Maybe that person would be willing to talk and interactive with your students?

    I think you’ve come up with a grand idea that deserves exploration.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Sent from my iPhone

  • 5.  RE: Cultural appropriation

    Posted 01-05-2019 00:54
    I did a production of The Tempest a few years ago with a Caliban who had facial tattoos.  It wasn't copying any culture's tattoos, they were just what was fashionably called "tribal tattoos."It was very effective.  If you're worried about being accused of cultural appropriation, follow Shakespeare's lead: set the play on an un-named magical island somewhere between Tunis and Naples.

    Bonus cool effect: Our Caliban also drew "eyes" on his eyelids, so even when his eyes were shut, he seemed to be staring at you (it was a studio show)

    Billy Houck
    Theatre Teacher, retired
    Carmichael, CA

  • 6.  RE: Cultural appropriation

    Posted 01-04-2019 11:03
    Even if Caliban were an actor of color, you're still setting up a situation where the only tattooed character is the ignorant savage. Xpeare wrote in enough Euro-centric Superiority, no need for us to compound the problem :/

    Ashley Bishop
    Birmingham AL

  • 7.  RE: Cultural appropriation

    Posted 01-04-2019 07:47
    Yeah. Fight the fights worth fighting. You want your energy directed toward your production which will be exhausting enough

    Joseph Gels
    Theatre Teacher
    Boston Latin School
    Boston MA

  • 8.  RE: Cultural appropriation

    Posted 01-04-2019 11:22
    Yes, using Polynesian tattoos would be inappropriate cultural appropriation.
    Some suggestions:
    Instead of a Polynesian island why not a tropical island.
    Use the idea of Polynesian tattoos as inspiration and have Caliban tattooed but with scenes of his life and the history of the island. Is he going to be topless? If not, use a flesh colored long sleeve shirt and paint it as if his body is tattooed with him being imprisoned, with the back showing his mother giving birth, even his love for Miranda. The tattoos could tell a story of his love and support of Prospero to his hate because he is now enslaved.

    Have you tried to find anyone from Polynesian culture in your community? It would be a great teaching element if you could incorporate someone that knows the culture into the design/education process which would validate using the elements of the culture. And put lots of education into the program, too, explaining where all the elements originated.

    Other cultures can give us inspiration and help us make a leap. Is jazz and tap dancing cultural appropriation? No. Is using African mud cloth on a pair of Converse Chucks cultural appropriation (they do exist!)? Yes.

    I see cultural appropriation a matter of respect. Honoring a culture rather than taking the elements we want simply because we can.

    John Perry
    Retired Theatre Teacher

  • 9.  RE: Cultural appropriation

    Posted 01-04-2019 14:07
    I agree with Scott. Tattoos have deep, symbolic meaning here and I would ask why he needs them.

  • 10.  RE: Cultural appropriation

    Posted 01-07-2019 09:58
    If you've cast a white actor and are setting the play on a Polynesian island, why not feature Caiban's whiteness instead of hiding it behind faux "native" tattoos?  Dress him as a European - their savagery when they encountered people that they considered "other" is legendary.  It would be a fantastic way to have culturally responsive discussions with your cast, and make a much bolder statement to all of your students about the power of theatre.

    Bryce Cahn
    Theatre Arts Teacher
    Tompkins Square Middle School
    New York, NY