“Michael McMillan (born 1962) is a British playwright, artist, curator and educator, born in England to parents who were migrants from St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). As an academic, he focuses his research on “the creative process, ethnography, oral histories, material culture and performativity”. He is the author of several plays, and as an artist is best known for his first installation, The West Indian Front Room, which was exhibited with great success in 2005, attracting more than 35,000 visitors in its initial outing at the Geffrye Museum, and going on to inspire a BBC Four documentary called Tales from the Front Room (2007), a website, a 2009 book, The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home, and various international commissions, such as Van Huis Uit: The Living Room of Migrants in the Netherlands (Imagine IC, Amsterdam, and Netherlands Tour, 2007–08) and A Living Room Surrounded by Salt (IBB, Curaçao, 2008). A more recent installation of the Walter Rodney Bookshop featured as part of the 2015 exhibition No Colour Bar at the Guildhall Art Gallery.
McMillan has said of the range of his work: “I was a painter before I was a playwright/dramatist and through making live art pieces and writing critically about performance, photography, visual arts culture, I have come home in a sense to fine arts, through making mixed-media installations, which given my interest in performativity background can be seen also as theatre sets. My work and practice is often interdisciplinary using mixed media, installations and performance.”
Michael McMillan wrote in The Guardian of 20 Feb 2009
In the 1970s, the diet of British television on a given weekend might have included the sitcom Love Thy Neighbour, light entertainment such as The Black and White Minstrel Show and, occasionally, the 1946 Hollywood movie The Jolson Story. Watching The Black and White Minstrel Show felt like hearing nails scratching a blackboard. While I was aware of the American and British theatrical tradition of white performers blacking up for grotesquely caricatured slave plantation dances and singing styles, it seemed offensive for such programmes to be produced in the multi-ethnic Britain of the 1970s without any sense of irony.
The Jolson Story was different because it attempted to show the story of Al Jolson (played by Larry Parks), a Jewish immigrant performer who in 1927 starred in The Jazz Singer. I may have felt ambivalent about Jolson blacking up, but I did recognise that it was a familiar practice among white and black performers in pre-civil rights America. Plus, Jolson’s passion was clearly for the music, as proved by iconic songs such as My Mammy.
In a new production, Jolson & Co – the Musical, to open at the King’s theatre in Edinburgh, the pantomime star Allan Stewart will play Al Jolson. Controversy has erupted as the producers have decided that in a seminal scene he will not black up. Producer Michael Harrison has said: “Blacking up is historically correct, but in this day and age we are not out to offend anyone.” Actors’ union Equity, who oppose the practice of blacking up, said they “might not actively object” to the show.
Inevitably, whenever race comes into the public discourse, we hear canteen cutlery rattling in the backlash against so-called political correctness, itself a rightwing invention that justifies the notion that there is nothing wrong in thinking it, as long as you don’t say it in public, wherever public means.
This takes us away from the subject, which for me smells of liberal paternalism (read: fear) as the producer’s decision in Jolson & Co removes Al Jolson from the context of his era and denies the fact that blackface and minstrelsy have been intrinsic to western entertainment since the 19th century. To put it another way, the idea of contemplating Al Jolson without blacking up is like considering Marvin Gaye without sex; if the producers wanted to avoid controversy, they shouldn’t be doing a musical about Al Jolson.
The blackface may have gone, but a form of minstrelsy is just as popular because, according to film historian Eric Lott, the aspiration for the white male minstrel is “to become black, to inherit the cool” of black men. If we’re honest, we don’t have to look too far to see these forms of imitations in popular music or urban streets on a daily basis.
What is really insidious about blackface minstrelsy is that black male performers such as Master Juba, Bert Williams, George Walker had to black up themselves if they wanted audiences; they were black men imitating a white man imitating a black man. And although some genres in black music have always been perceived as indecent and dangerous, I wonder if artists in gangsta rap videos are playing themselves or simply performing the minstrel because it’s an easier sell, and it makes money? Al Jolson knew this, I know this, and the producers of Jolson & Co – the Musical should be faithful to their subject by being brave and honest enough to represent him as he was.”