A blackface ‘Othello’ shocks, and a professor steps back from class

It was supposed to be an opportunity for music students at the University of Michigan to learn about the process of adapting a classic literary text into an opera from one of the music school’s most celebrated professors, composer Bright Sheng.

But at the first class meeting of this fall’s undergraduate composition seminar, when Sheng hit play on the 1965 film of Shakespeare’s “Othello” starring Laurence Olivier, it quickly became a lesson in something else entirely.

Students said they sat in stunned silence as Olivier appeared on screen in thickly painted blackface makeup. Even before class ended 90 minutes later, group chat messages were flying, along with at least one email of complaint to the department reporting that many students were “incredibly offended both by this video and by the lack of explanation as to why this was selected for our class.”

Within hours, Sheng had sent a terse email issuing the first of what would be two apologies. Then, after weeks of emails, open letters and canceled classes, it was announced Oct. 1 that Sheng — a two-time Pulitzer finalist and winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant — was voluntarily stepping back from the class in order to allow for a “positive learning environment.”

The incident might have remained just the latest flashpoint at a music program that has been roiled in recent years by a series of charges of misconduct by star professors. But a day before Sheng stepped down, a long, scathing Medium post by a student in the class rippled across Twitter before getting picked up in Newsweek, Fox News, The Daily Mail and beyond, entangling one of the nation’s leading music schools in the supercharged national debate over race, academic freedom and free speech.

To some observers, it’s a case of campus “cancel culture” run amok, with overzealous students refusing to accept an apology — with the added twist that the Chinese-born professor was a survivor of the Cultural Revolution, during which the Red Guards had seized the family piano.

To others, the incident is symbolic of an arrogant academic and artistic old guard and of the deeply embedded anti-Black racism in classical music, a field that has been slow to abandon performance traditions featuring blackface and other racialized makeup.

In an email to The New York Times, Sheng, 66, reiterated his apology. “From the bottom of my heart, I would like to say that I am terribly sorry,” he said.

“Of course, facing criticism for my misjudgment as a professor here is nothing like the experience that many Chinese professors faced during the Cultural Revolution,” he wrote. “But it feels uncomfortable that we live in an era where people can attempt to destroy the career and reputation of others with public denunciation. I am not too old to learn, and this mistake has taught me much.”

Sheng, who joined the Michigan faculty in 1995 and holds the title Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor, the highest rank on the faculty, was born in 1955 in Shanghai. As a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, to avoid being sent to a farm to be “reeducated,” he auditioned for an officially sanctioned folk music ensemble and was sent to Qinghai province, a remote area near the Tibetan border, according to a university biography.

After the universities reopened in 1976, he got a degree in composition from Shanghai University, and in 1982, he moved to the United States, eventually earning a doctorate at Columbia University.

His work, which includes an acclaimed 2016 opera based on the 18th-century Chinese literary classic “Dream of the Red Chamber,” blends elements of Eastern and Western music.

“When someone asks me if I consider myself a Chinese or American composer, I say, in the most humble way, ‘100% both,’” he said earlier this year.

The Olivier film was controversial even when it was new. Writing in the Times, critic Bosley Crowther expressed shock that Olivier “plays Othello in blackface,” noting his “wig of kinky black hair,” his lips “smeared and thickened with a startling raspberry red” and his exaggerated accent, which he described as reminiscent of “Amos ’n’ Andy.” (To “the sensitive American viewer,” Crowther wrote, Olivier looked like someone in a “minstrel show.”)

Sheng, in his emailed response to questions from the Times, said the purpose of the class had been to show how Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera and that he had chosen the Olivier film simply because it was “one of the most faithful to Shakespeare.” He also said he had not seen the makeup as an attempt to mock Black people but as part of a long tradition — one that has persisted in opera — which he said valued the “music quality of the singers” over physical resemblance.

“Of course, times have changed, and I made a mistake in showing this film,” he said. “That was insensitive of me, and I am very sorry.”

But to the students — for some, it was their very first class at the university — it was simply a shock.

“I was stunned,” Olivia Cook, a freshman, told The Michigan Daily, adding that the classroom was “supposed to be a safe space.”

A week after the video was shown, Sheng signed on to a letter from six of the composition department’s seven professors, which described the incident as “disappointing and harmful to individual students in many different ways, and destructive to our community.” He also sent another, longer apology, saying that since the incident, “I did more research and learning on the issue and realized that the depth of racism was, and still is, a dangerous part of American culture.”

Sheng also cited discrimination he had faced as an Asian American and listed various Black musicians he had mentored or supported as well as his daughter’s experience performing with Kanye West.

“I hope you can accept my apology and see that I do not discriminate,” he wrote.

That apology provoked fresh outrage. In an open letter to the dean, a group of 33 undergraduate and graduate students and nine staff and faculty members (whose names were not made public) called on the school to remove Sheng from the class, calling his apology “inflammatory” and referring to an unspecified “pattern of harmful behavior in the classroom” that had left students feeling “unsafe and uncomfortable.”

“In retrospect,” Sheng wrote in his email to the Times, “I should have apologized for my mistake without qualification.”

On Sept. 30, a senior in the class, Sammy Sussman, posted the long Medium essay, outlining what he saw as Sheng’s “disregard for students” (which, he wrote, included walking out in the middle of Sussman’s audition for the program several years earlier). Sussman, who in 2018 was the first to report allegations of sexual misconduct against another music faculty member, Stephen Shipps, also linked the case to what he said was a broader failure of the university and the classical music industry to hold prominent figures to account.

After Sussman posted a link to the essay on Twitter, it was retweeted by another composition professor, Kristin Kuster, who cited the need for “conversations about pedagogical racism and pedagogical abuse” and tagged a number of musicians as well as the Pulitzer Prize board and the MacArthur Foundation. (Both Sussman and Kuster declined to comment on the record.)

Some accused the students and the school of overreacting. In an article in Reason, Robby Soave, an editor at the magazine, argued that Sheng’s apology “ought to have been more than sufficient” and that he now deserves an apology himself.

“The University of Michigan is a public institution at which students and professors deserve free speech and expression rights,” he wrote. “It is a violation of the university’s cherished principles of academic freedom to punish Sheng for the choices he makes in the classroom. Screening a racially problematic film in an educational setting is neither a racist act nor an endorsement of racism.”

A spokesperson for the university, Kim Broekhuizen, confirmed that the incident had been referred to the university’s Office of Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX for investigation but emphasized that Sheng had stepped down from the class voluntarily, was still teaching individual studios and was scheduled to teach next semester.

“We do not shy away from addressing racism or any other difficult topic with our students,” Broekhuizen said in an email to the Times. But “in this particular instance, the appropriate context or historical perspective was not provided, and the professor has acknowledged that.”

Some scholars who teach blackface traditions questioned the quickness of some to denounce the students or to mock their insistence on contextualization as a demand for “trigger warnings.”

“Gen Z is unbelievably right on when they say, ‘If you’re not going to give us the context, we shouldn’t have to watch it,’” said Ayanna Thompson, a Shakespeare scholar at Arizona State University who has written extensively on Shakespeare and race.

Thompson, author of the recent book “Blackface” and a trustee of the Royal Shakespeare Company, declined to comment on the details of Sheng’s case. But she said that when it comes to “Othello” and blackface minstrelsy, the connections aren’t incidental but absolutely fundamental.

Contrary to widespread belief, she said, blackface wasn’t an American invention; it sprang from older European performance traditions going back to the Middle Ages. And it was at an 1833 performance of “Othello” featuring an actor who blackened his face that T.D. Rice, a white American performer seen as the father of minstrelsy, claimed to have been inspired to get up at intermission and put on blackface to perform “Jump Jim Crow” for the first time.

“Whenever you’re teaching Shakespeare, period, the history of performing race should be part of the discussion,” Thompson said. “Everyone has a responsibility to give the full history.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company