Czech adaptation of Martin McDonagh play shut down after playwright issues race clause

The play has been performed in Czechia for a decade; currently the character of Toby is being portrayed by a white actor in blackface.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston Published on 03.12.2021 12:21:00 (updated on 03.12.2021) Reading time: 3 minutes

A theater in Prague has suspended its current production of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s “A Behanding in Spokane” due to the fact that the author now requires a Black actor to be cast in one of the play's key roles. The role was previously performed by a Czech actor in blackface.

Činoherní klub’s production of “A Behanding in Spokane” (Ujetá ruka) has been suspended effective immediately due to a new clause by playwright McDonagh that says the role of Toby must go to an actor with Black heritage. Performances for Dec. 5 and Jan. 27 have already been canceled.

“We are sorry to inform you that we are forced to suspend the presentation of Martin McDonagh's popular play ‘A Behanding in Spokane,’ directed by Ondřej Sokol. A new condition has appeared in the contract extending the rights to its performance,” Činoherní klub said on its website.

The Czech production premiered in January 2011 and had a renewed premiere in November 2014.

The contract now states that theaters wanting to perform the play must ensure that the actor playing Toby is a descendant of black Africans or black Caribbean residents. The actor must be approved in writing by the author, who holds the rights to the play.

Toby is one of the main characters in the comedy set in a fictional town in Ohio. Toby and his girlfriend claim to know something about a long-lost severed hand that another character, Carmichael, is looking for.

“We are currently unable to meet this condition,” Činoherní klub said.

The production originally featured Domingos Correia as Toby. Correia, who was born in Luanda, Angola, would have met the new requirements. However, he changed career paths and is now in diplomatic service abroad.

When Correia left the role, he was replaced by Ondřej Sokol, who also directed the play. Sokol, who was performing the role with black makeup and an afro wig is Czech and does not meet the new heritage requirement.

Ensemble cast 'A Behanding in Spokane.' (Photo: Činoherní klub, Pavel Nesvadba)
Ensemble cast 'A Behanding in Spokane.' (Photo: Činoherní klub, Pavel Nesvadba)

“Although this requirement of the author is understandable, insisting on it in our country and in our context and, moreover, in the theater … we do not understand,” Činoherní klub said.

They added that theater as an art form relies on people playing characters that they do really resemble in real life.

“We believe that this is really a suspension and not a withdrawal of the production from the repertoire and that we will be able to find a suitable actor or agree with the agency representing the author on a possible solution,” Činoherní klub concluded.

Vladimir Prochazka, the director of Činoherní klub, told radio station Frekvence 1 that they are powerless against the will of the author. He added that the agencies controlling rights have forgotten that Black actors are largely not available in Central and Eastern Europe for great dramatic roles.

“The audience of these countries will be deprived of considerable theatrical production, which is interesting and which is part of modern world theater. I consider it to be reverse discrimination,” Procházka said.

Martin McDonagh is known for his edgy works. His other plays include “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” “The Lonesome West,” and “A Very Very Very Dark Matter.” He also wrote and directed the films “In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths,” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

In the past, he has come under fire for his characters' use of racial slurs as well as his failure to cast performers of color in his work.

Czech pop culture has come under fire in recent years for use of blackface. Earlier this year, TV Nova’s show “Tvoje tvář má známý hlas” (Your Face Sounds Familiar) was banned from using dark makeup to impersonate Black celebrities. The show is made under license, and the requirements came from the holders of the international rights to the show concept.

Other examples of blackface that may come as a surprise to foreigners living in the Czech Republic include the appearance of a blackfaced Demon along with St. Nicholas (svatý Mikuláš) and an Angel on Dec. 5 and the blackface character that appears in Three Kings parades on Jan. 6.

Would you like us to write about your business? Find out more