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Dame Janet Suzman apologises for racist remark about black theatregoers

Dame Janet Suzman apologises for racist remark about black theatregoers

South African-born actress, Janet Suzman, unleashed storm of global protest and was branded racist when she remarked that theatre was “a white invention, a European invention and white people go it”. Her comments were made in world where black people - from the US to South Africa and in the wake of the Ferguson protests, the controversy surrounding Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B” as well as racist remarks by singer Steve Hofmeyr - are wrestling the narrative about black lives away from a dominant, white media. This week Suzman made an apology from her hospital bed. We print it in its entirety.

From my hospital bed, Thursday 11th December ’14.

Careless talk costs lives’ was the old adage in World War One. I am somewhat relieved that my careless talk will not be in danger of costing a single life in this mini-cyber-war, but I am more taken aback than I can express to have engendered such a storm of derision. Frankly, what I said – or rather yelled down the phone during a noisy student Xmas fair at the Royal College of Art last Thursday – is so very obviously ill-considered. My fault.

Yes, I fervently wish I had thought to use another word instead of ‘white’. But which? ‘European’? Even worse. ‘Pale-skinned punters?’ – too precious by half. No, I’m afraid that’s what they are over here – very, very white audiences. Neither bad nor good, just white. But, hey – audiences, people who attend theatre as a natural, if sometimes costly, way of assessing their world. And as for the regrettable phrase ‘cultural’ DNA’, I have even more regrets, but the lazy phrase is not ever to be taken literally for heaven’s sakes, as Ms Greer so weirdly has.

If I am asked a question about London theatre I instantly think Shaftesbury Avenue, I think South Bank, I think forty plus theatres nightly opening their doors to the public, six nights a week, fifty-two weeks a year. I think hundreds of fringe spaces down alleyways and through pubs. The place is jumping with theatrical activity. Inevitably, having been that sort of an actor most of my life, I am bound to link London, where I live, to a certain genre of text-based drama which goes back about 450 years, and which, bar a brief respite of Puritan intervention, has continued strongly ever since. Thus it is a natural concomitant of metropolitan life here to go to the theatre. I think too, of ancient Greek drama going back many millennia, since this city like the rest of Europe sits firmly in the Hellenistic sphere of cultural influence, and which thus has heavily influenced Continental dramatic literature.

Thus my only regret, in that hectic moment of an ill-considered reply to a question about the multi-ethnic constituents of British theatre, is that my mind didn’t foresee trouble and leap instantly across the great continent of Africa to my beloved homeland, about which I care very greatly. In that rowdy telephone moment, I was absolutely not attempting to address the origins of drama worldwide. Why on earth would I? I am not fit to do so.

I am not an historian of the drama, I am merely an actor-cum-director who has had the privilege of working, once every decade, with many of my talented compatriots. That intermittent refreshment has meant the world to me and taught me what I most value in my small dramatic landscape.

There is absolutely no cause to brand my asinine use of words as racist; that is a charge I do not accept. It’s cheap and it is more thoughtless than I myself freely admit here to being. You may argue the pros and cons of white ‘invention’ but you may not say it is racist; ‘stupidly generalised’ will do nicely. Or ‘90% batty’ as the critic for today’s London Daily Telegraph has succinctly put it. I concede willingly to 80% batty – the other 10% being human error or age, both interchangeable. I unreservedly apologise for that battiness. Although I rather sneakily think that tragedy as a unique dramatic form was invented by the Greeks. Discuss.

If I have insulted any respected colleagues in South Africa then I am truly sorry for that. I respect you and you know who you are. No harm, no harm. Derision will do from those who have taken offense, but not viciousness. Please to accept my heartfelt apologies for having been an ass unpolicied.”

Janet Suzman


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