The appropriation dance: Whiteface. A Fringe review

Lady Vanessa Cardona and Todd Houseman in Whiteface. Photo supplied.

Whiteface (Stage 4, Academy at King Edward)

By Liz Nicholls,

Is there a way out? Does anybody know a way out?” The masked figures trapped onstage are increasingly frantic. No suggestions are forthcoming.

Masks are the chief theatrical device, and the powerful prevailing metaphor, of Whiteface. It’s a vivid and scathing exploration of cultural identity and its appropriation created by, and starring, Todd Houseman and Lady Vanessa Cardona. 

At the back of the stage is a row of hollow-eyed masks on spikes, some scarred, some grotesque, some decoratively framed with feathers or hair — and all of them white-faced. And, despite our self-consoling talk of multi-cultural inclusivity, reconciliation, and healing, that’s how it is in our world, Whiteface tells us.

It’s a stinging rebuttal of our complacent self-assurance that we’ve entered a brave new post-colonial world. As the show reveals, in its highly charged movement sequences, masks have a kind of two-way power, and high price tag for those who wear them. The physical dynamic of Whiteface is the compulsion to put put them on — to find an acceptable “white-ified” version of self — and the wrenching struggle to remove them.

Both Houseman and Lady Vanessa are inventive and powerful dancers (assisted by a striking soundscore), and the scenes of wrestling with masks — and choreography of appropriation — are the heart of the piece. And when the masks, layers of them at times, are finally peeled off, the faces of the performers themselves (House is Indigenous, Cardona is a Colombian refugee), are painted white.

Whiteface. Photo supplied.

The dance sequences are interwoven with satirical scenes that target white attitudes — for their self-consoling jargon and patronizing smugness, their insatiable appetite to claim ownership.  “You are so brown…. I love your skin…. I wish I had your complexion. If we had children they’d be SO cute!”

The white refrain: “Are you hungry? Starving!”

The success of these is more variable. Some nail that cadence in a recognizable, and hence wincingly funny, way (like the smart, bantering argument about cultural appreciation vs. appropriation); some are near-misses and could use a tune-up.

It’s not, nor was it intended to be, a subtle show.  The strong suit of Whiteface is its theatricality in physicalizing a tragedy that has polished its contours and changed make-up, so to speak, but continues to unfold. A gutsy and gut-wrenching show that cuts to the chase. 


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