Black, White, and Red Faces: Race and Performance at NIDA

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On 12 May 1960, writes John Clark, 'Robert Quentin's remarkable production of Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures put NIDA on the theatrical map'.It was, indeed, NIDA's first public performance - the commonly cited Our Town was performed in-house in 1959, and the well-regarded repertory season of Hay Fever and Love's Labour's Lost made up the first graduation shows in October 1960.Despite the importance that Clark ascribes to it in his 2003 history of NIDA (quoted above), The Green Pastures is conspicuously absent from almost all institutional histories, and even for Clark it merits only this one sentence. Deep South.NIDA, not at the time noted for the ethnic diversity of its students or staff, presented the play in full blackface.A contemporary issue of PIX Magazine reports that 'all the students had to put on dark brown grease paint so often that many developed a "tan" lasting for weeks.But most of them enjoyed this ordeal to learn their art'.Although this was industry practice at the time, the fraught history of blackface performance is one reason that this show has dropped out of the narrative. This article will argue that understanding the racial blindness on which the institution is built has implications for contemporary practice there.In particular, I will draw on a recent student production of The Importance of Being Earnest, in which a group of students of colour began their performance in full whiteface make-up.The students used this performance to critique the assumptions of racial neutrality that underpin their training, and to instead propose embracing their difference as a source of dramatic power. As well as returning a historical performance to the chronology of NIDA's early work, this article contributes important insight to the perceived neutrality of actor training.If conservatoire-style training is to endure in the twenty-first century, I argue that it must take seriously the specific cultural context of its students, as well as the historical context in which the institution operates.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)57-85
Number of pages29
JournalAustralasian Drama Studies
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2017


  • Theatre--Performances
  • Actors--Training of
  • Theater--Production and direction
  • Drama


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