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  • Writer's pictureElzbieta M Gozdziak

Red Noses staged in Poznań ... lack of awareness of racism?

I have recently seen Red Noses by Peter Barnes staged at the New Theatre (Teatr Nowy) in Poznań, Poland. The play takes place in 14th century France, where the Black Death is raging. People are dying in the streets having lost any hope for return to normalcy. The country is roamed by flagellants, hoping that thanks to self-mortification and penance they will bring God's Mercy to the earth, Ravens who see illness as a chance to awaken society and revolution, and Father Flote's clowns, the titular Red Noses. They want to relieve people's suffering with buffoonery and jokes. Everything is happening under the watchful eyes of the Church and the Pope Clemens VI who benevolently allows such activities during the pandemic. Today, we would describe his move as an excellent PR stunt. Since a priest is at the head of the troupe, the whole Church gains an image of being brave, fearless, and close to the dying. However, once the pandemic has ended, Clemens VI attends to his true mission: levying taxes and drafting laws on the principle that Christianity is a system designed by geniuses to be implemented by idiots.

The play, directed by Jan Klata, was masterfully performed by the whole ensemble and received many excellent reviews. Some reviewers saw the 1993 staging of the play, directed by Eugeniusz Korin, and the newest rendition and pronounced it a hit. Benjamin Paschalski wrote: "This is Red Noses' discovery for today. In it you can see all the bright colors and the deep meaning of the piece, in combination with what is outside the window. This becomes extremely clear and expressive in the world of the early 1990s, when everyone forgot about the undemocratic regime and wanted to live with changes and transformations. Today, when we have come to live in the reality of protest, unbridled politics and many question marks towards the Catholic Church, one can absorb the spectacle as an unheard of phenomenon. What's more, as a painful warning what can happen in a moment with art that is activated in good faith and for a good cause."

As much as I liked the play, my jaw dropped when in the Nativity performed by the Red Noses in the public square, the Three Kings are depicted as a Chinese man in a stereotypical hat, an actress with blackface and a banana in her hand, and a buffalo man from the Trumpist invasion of the US Capitol. I chatted with a some of the people attending the show but my outrage at the stereotypes, especially the appearance of blackface actress in the show fell on deaf ears. I also could not find any reviewers that would criticize this expression of racism ...

It is not the first time that Polish performers used blackface makeup. In 2021, Polish entertainers participating in a singing competition in blackface were surprised at the critical comments on social media and publicly expressed that surprise. One commentators wrote:

“One word IGNORANCE. Can’t believe we are still dealing with blackface in 2021. The audacity to even defend this act [sic] and not acknowledge the issue is astonishing.”

We are now in 2023 and it seems that this ignorance and total unawareness of the racism involved in appearing in black face still persist....

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