Curtain Call: Caricature exhibit highlights racism and Black theater through ‘Lost in the Stars’
Here’s a free digital exhibit that theater people everywhere will thoroughly enjoy. In keeping with the times, American theatre begins to unravel racism in theater. “Lost in the Stars: Black Theatre Makers” consists of 26 images over the course of 72 years created by the theater caricature artist Al Hirshfeld.
The Al Hirschfeld Foundation (AHF) press release stated, “We believe that Black Lives Matter, Black Art Matters and Black Theatre Matters.” It also went on to state that this is the first of multiple exhibitions that will explore Black theater, film, dance and music over the next year.
The title of this very impressive exhibition is the name of a musical that examined racial injustices during the South Africa apartheid system during the 20th century. Playwright Athol Fugard wrote extensively about apartheid and his works appeared locally at many of our Connecticut theaters. He also spoke at Lucille Lortell’s White Barn Theatre in Westport. According to the AHF press release, the title is also looked upon as a “metaphor of the Black creative in a predominately white theater world.”
This reminds theater people of playwright August Wilson, the quiet but ever so passionate playwright who insisted on an all-Black theater. He even took on Robert Brustein, critic and founder of Yale Repertory theater and Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre. While Brustein wanted color blind productions featuring diverse casts, Wilson objected and stood firm on his all-Black theater productions.
Al Hirschfeld’s drawings of famous theater people and events are well known. Looking at his famous caricature drawings in this exhibit reveals far more than first meets the eye. Whether the drawings are of actors, playwrights, directors, composers or casts, Hirschfeld always managed to capture the essence of the moment as well as the show and/or its personalities. Take for instance, his amazing drawing of “Voodoo Macbeth.” This all-Black production moved the action from Shakespeare’s Scotland to 19th-century Haiti, the setting in which 20-year old Orson Welles directed the production. What a show it must have been because it received rave reviews from Black and white audiences. The drawing presented in the exhibition is a newspaper reproduction of an ink and lithograph pencil from 1936.
Hirschfeld captured Canada Lee, a Black actor, who was not only in “Voodoo Macbeth” but who starred in Broadway’s “Native Son.” Brooks Atkinson, a well-known theater critic described Lee as “one of the best actors in this country.”
There’s no doubt that Hirschfeld got right to the heart of the matter in his drawing of “Othello” with Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen, Jose Ferrer and Margaret Webster. It was the first American production of the play featuring a Black actor in the title role and the first interracial kiss seen on a Broadway stage.
This exhibition tells quite a story about racism. In Hirschfeld’s drawing of the play “Lost in the Stars” one sees that the horror of South Africa apartheid may have been state policy, but segregation in the United States during 1948 was rampant. Hirschfeld’s drawing is a towering illustration of white power. His drawing of the cast is ink on board in 1949.
“Golden Boy” with Sammy Davis Jr. is a grand drawing as are so many others, but I must say that Hirschfeld’s drawing of “Great White Hope” with James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander is nothing short of a knockout. From the first Black comedy to “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Piano Lesson,” this virtual exhibition is not only a testament to the Black theater scene and actors, but a piece of Black history captured in art.
Creative Director David Leopold stated: “We recognize that some drawings could be found offensive. Hirschfeld’s work is generally described as caricature, but the label is limiting. His art is not pejorative. His intent was not to poke fun at his subjects or perpetuate stereotypes, but rather it was a distillation and celebration of the performance. Exaggeration is used for emphasis so that the drawings, as one fellow artist said of Hirschfeld’s work, look more like the person than the person does.” The exhibition is free to the public and runs through Sept. 15 at alhirschfeldfoundation.org.
Joanne Greco Rochman is a founder and former member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and a current and active member in the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: email@example.com.