NEARLY 175 YEARS after the first known public performance featuring blackface in the US, the theatrical form continues to create controversy. Drag artist Charles Knipp, whose stage persona is Shirley Q. Liquor, an African-American woman on welfare with 19 children, was scheduled to perform at Machine on October 18. He does his act in what he describes as "brown makeup made for African-American ladies" and what his critics call blackface. Machine canceled the show after the club’s management received a phone call from Mayor Tom Menino’s liaison to the gay community, Jerome Smith. So who’s now to say whether the show charts new satirical territory or descends into cheap racial stereotyping? Censorship, it appears, nullified the question.
Smith told the Phoenix that the mayor "didn’t want to see the show happen" and that Smith was to "see if there was a way to talk to the club’s management" to make sure the show was canceled. One phone call from Smith, who had worked in the mayor’s office of neighborhood services for just a month, was all it took to get the show canned. While Smith, who received a number of phone calls from gay activists concerned about Knipp’s show, did not deliver any direct threats, he relayed concerns about public safety to Machine’s representative. He also mentioned that a New York club that booked Knipp and was subsequently picketed by protesters was shut down by police. (Machine manager DJ Metz did not return numerous phone calls. Someone who answered the phone at Machine last week, but who declined to give his name, confirmed that the show had been canceled after "we found out what it was about.")
Menino spokeswoman Carole Brennan says that the mayor never had any discussions with Smith or anyone else in the administration about Knipp’s show. "The mayor was unaware of the whole controversy," she says, adding that she believes Smith’s intentions were good and that he may have been misunderstood. "What Jerome was trying to do was inform two constituent groups of their mutual concerns. He was trying to make one of the businesses in his district aware of potential public-safety issues. And he was trying to represent his constituents, from whom he had received many calls about this show. If his concern was misinterpreted, then that’s unfortunate. But his intentions were focused on the kinds of things that the mayor is concerned about, which is public safety. If you look at a scale and on one side put racial prejudice and on the other put public safety, I can’t think of a more loaded topic. But they were issues that never reached the mayor’s desk."
Whether Smith acted after speaking with the mayor or not, it’s clear that a paid city employee was involved in shutting down a show scheduled to take place at a local gay bar. City Hall’s new role as censor — certainly a reprise of Boston’s old Watch and Ward Society, which gave us the phrase "banned in Boston" — was the end result of a month-long campaign to get Knipp, who has performed as Shirley Q. Liquor around the country, off the stage.
The campaign began September 13 after Knipp performed at the View, a gay club in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. One of the audience members, who was deeply offended by Knipp’s act, notified local activists about the show, another performance of which was scheduled for the following evening. Within hours, a protest was scheduled for the next show. Although the protest was quiet, according to news reports, New York police dispersed the approximately 50 protestors and shut the bar down after citing its owners for creating "disorder in a licensed premises" and "failure to control a crowd." Even though the protestors’ right to free speech and freedom of association had been violated by police, they nevertheless claimed victory and mobilized to shut Knipp down across the country. One of his next performances was the one scheduled to take place in Boston at Machine on October 18.
Artist and activist Imani Henry sent out a mass e-mail warning Boston activists about Knipp’s show: "This is not about freedom of speech. This is a white supremacist that is being allowed to perform at local gay clubs, do benefits for AIDS organizations, in an attempt to divide our movement. But we won’t let him.... Please write editorials in your gay press condemning his racist show and website.... Organize protests to stop his show from coming to your city — Shut down his scheduled dates in your town."
Sue Hyde, who works for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s office in Cambridge, says she took note of Henry’s e-mail and contacted eight local activists as well as Smith and Cambridge city councilor Ken Reeves. (Reeves did not return numerous phone calls for comment.) Within days, the show was canceled.
Ironically, none of the organizers of the campaign to shut down Knipp’s show has seen it. In fact, the only person taking part in the organizing against Knipp’s act believed to have actually seen it is the unnamed audience member offended by Knipp’s performance who first notified activists. Nevertheless, the anti-Knipp brigade claims that Knipp’s Web site (which Knipp has since taken down) was filled with racist imagery, including Confederate flags, and that a white person doing blackface is, in and of itself, a racist act.
It’s impossible to say whether Knipp’s act is racist without seeing it. What is clear is that Knipp has developed a solid reputation over the past two years as a cutting-edge, in-your-face drag performer. His Web site, which featured a "daily ignunce affirmation," had become increasingly popular. He had developed enough of a following to sell CDs of his Shirley Q. act and items like coffee mugs, tote bags, lunch boxes, baby bibs, and bumper stickers featuring Shirley Q. Liquor’s sayings, such as "how you durrin," "100% ignunt ass," and "axe yo mama how she durrin." Knipp also syndicates radio spots as Liquor on more than 900 radio stations, and he’s featured on several comedy Web sites, including the Comedy XXX (. But it’s difficult to judge the on-stage performance simply from the Web site — where whatever intended nuance of his performance (if indeed there is any) would not be visible.
There is no doubt that Knipp’s act is meant to be provocative — how could it be otherwise? And there is no doubt that the concerns and the questions raised by the protestors are completely valid — racism is certainly present in all aspects of American life, from racial profiling by police to the demeaning roles given non-white performers in Hollywood films and their lack of representation in the mainstream and alternative media. But a strategy that calls for shutting down an already-scheduled show that hardly anyone has seen, rather than engaging in public demonstrations and debate, raises serious questions about freedom of speech. Certainly the actions of the mayor’s gay liaison raise the specter of overt governmental censorship. But it’s also true that the furor and anger over Knipp’s show prove how incapable we are as a culture of dealing forthrightly with issues of race and representation. Of course, none of this is new, and the tensions — and complexity — embedded in the meaning of blackface go back a century and a half in American culture.