“Many older black actors come from the music industry, and that wasn't a fit for the play as it isn't a musical,” Thomas Schendel, the director of "I'm Not Rappaport" told The Local. “When we couldn't find an elderly black actor who fit the role and could speak with a perfect German accent, we opted for blackface make-up.”
But the decision to cast 76-year-old Joachim Bliese as the feisty character “Midge,” – an African-American who discusses racism and growing old with an elderly Jewish friend – has prompted a firestorm of criticism from those who have likened the play at the Schlosspark Theater to a minstrel show.
Tahir Della, a spokesman for the Initiative for Black Germans (ISD), which represents the black community in Germany, called Schendel's explanation “idiotic.”
“There are more than enough black actors in Germany, especially in Berlin. Schendel is making excuses,” he told The Local.
And visitors to the theatre's official Facebook page have flooded it with angry comments, calling the decision “racist” and “ignorant.”
Blackface or "blacking up" – painting a light-skinned person's skin to appear black – was once commonplace. But in recent decades it has become associated with racist American theatre from the 19th and early 20th centuries that aimed to mock African-Americans.
Germans have come under particular criticism in recent years for being insensitive about the much-maligned tradition. Last year, for instance, a popular comedian sparked outrage when he posed as Barack Obama on a Berlin billboard while wearing blackface.
But theatre officials said they were shocked by the vitriol online, pointing out there had been a previous production of "I'm not Rappaport” at a different Berlin theatre with a white actor playing the part of Midge.
"(It) wasn't met with a reaction like the one we're facing now,” a Schlosspark Theater spokesman told The Local.
Schendel said he found the negative response to the play “saddening.” In an open letter on Facebook, he invited the play's critics to attend its premiere on Saturday – nobody responded.
“In Germany blackface is part of a theatre tradition that was never intended to be racist,” Schendel told The Local. “I tried to make a play about racism and ended up being called a racist,” he lamented.
The play, said Schendel, will go on as scheduled.