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February 02, 2010

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Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist

As a woman of color who writes plays, I've often thought about this issue, too. Personally, I ain't worried about MY plays because I've been specific about each character's race or I manage to avoid discussions of race in my plays.

As for "colorblind casting" I prefer the term "integrated casting."

I remember at my university, the Drama Dept did a production of Mamet's play OLEANNA. There are no discussions of race in the play, rather the play focuses on sex and gender issues. The director casted a black woman, simply because she was the BEST actress at the auditions-- nothing to do with race. The director put her in the role opposite a white man who was chosen.

The director said that the whole meaning of the play suddenly changed, with a black woman staring opposite a white man, as opposed to a white woman starring opposite a white man. I never saw the play but I understood what she meant.

99

I much prefer the term "integrated casting" over "color-blind." As I posted at Tony's, I do think it requires a different approach as an actor and a director and possibly as a playwright. Color, culture, background, these are all a part of who we are. There is no neutral. The default neutral is white, which isn't really neutral at all.

But, if you're not re-writing the script, you do have to tread lightly to avoid changing the story that the play is telling. Interestingly, I think having a black woman in OLEANNA reinforces the story Mamet is telling...though I think he'd be pissed. Imagine, though, having a black actor in the male role. It becomes a very, very different story.

Ian Thal

I consider rather scandalous... particularly when swarthy looking ethnicish white people (Italians, Greeks and Jews, in particular) end up playing Indians and Arabs.

Let's see: Jews and Arabs are very closely related ethnic groups, so that's not really scandalous unless the casting director is biased against working with a qualified ethnic Arab actor.

Then, again, I'm a Jewish actor who is a commedia dell'arte specialist so I end up playing Italians, right? I'm also a student (not a performer at this point) of kathak, a classical dance-theatre form from Northern India, so this complicates the scandalous nature of this sort of thing...

Don Hall

There is no neutral, there is no "objective" and there is no "color-blind."

That said, as a director, I look at the words of the play as a blueprint. If it specifically denotes a culture, color, or background that is essential to the story being told - anything by August Wilson, for example - then you follow the blueprint. If there is no specificity as to race, then the best actors for the gig get the roles and it's up to me to navigate any cultural tensions that arise.

Given that, in my opinion, tension is an absolutely essential element to great storytelling, the more tension the better.

Thus a black or Latino "Odd Couple?" Who gives a shit? A black Sally Bowles? Sweet mercy, is that cool. An Asian Fletcher Christian. Gold.

As an artist, race is either an obstacle or another color to paint with. I like to paint with lots of color.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist

Ian Thal:

"Let's see: Jews and Arabs are very closely related ethnic groups, so that's not really scandalous unless the casting director is biased against working with a qualified ethnic Arab actor."

There are PLENTY of Indian, Arab, and actors of color who are desperate to get acting roles. It's not fair that white people get to steal their roles and leave people of color behind in the cloud dust.

99

Amen, DIMA! Why is it that there seems to be only one acceptable reason for discrimination: blatant racism. Anything less than that is, apparently, okay.

Is it appropriate to have an Italian guy play Eugene Jerome? Or the lead in The Dybbuk? Even to a certain extent, Pacino playing Shylock. I think that a lot of people would find that objectionable, but we find it easy to accept Hank Azaria as Apu. That formulation really only works when you're coming at it from a colonialist perspective.

Don, I hear you on the increase of tension, but sometimes it can yank people out of the story of the play. That may or may not be a good thing. But it's something to be aware of.

Tony Adams

Hey Isaac, just to clarify. It's not that I want to reserve my thoughts per se, I'm just buried in work and don't have time to write much.

I tend to use the term inclusive more than color-blind etc.

Ian Thal

But DIMA, while I largely agree with your point about skilled actors deserving employment, and that their experience of ethnicity will frequently give their performance a greater depth if it matches the character, I have to ask: what makes a Jew "white" and an Arab "non-white", as you seem to suggest?

Can a Rajasthani play a role written for a Bengali? Is such a casting more or less acceptable in India than in America?

Just to clarify: I'm not claiming to know any better than anyone else, I just have a can opener and I see lots of cans labeled "worms."

Tony Adams

"As an artist, race is either an obstacle or another color to paint with. I like to paint with lots of color."

Don, is that reflected in what is seen on your stage or in your company?

Don Hall

Depends on who auditions.

My experience is that very few non-white actors audition for anything we do although I'm always a little excited when they do.

WNEP doesn't do plays or productions based on gender or race issues - we attack a different sort of sociopolitical thing.

EX: a couple of years ago, we did an adaptation of the John Huston documentary "Let There Be Light!" about WWII vets with PTSD. None of the characters were written as white or black or Latino. Anyone could've been cast. We had one black actor show up for auditions and he wasn't any good. If he had been (and had been the best actor for a role) there's no question he would have been cast and Jen (who directed) would have found moments to heighten the racial tension without changing a word of the script.

Just because I like to paint with lots of colors doesn't mean I get to. WNEP isn't a diversity outreach program and it isn't going to be. The door is open. Buy a ticket, take the ride.

Ian Thal

Perhaps we should consider why some integrated-casting/cross-ethnic casting is controversial and some is not.

Some axes to consider:

Degree to which said ethnicity is viewed as "other."

More stylized theatrical forms (versified Elizabethean, puppetry, mime, clown, commedia, et cetera) versus naturalism.

Classics that have seen multiple interpretations versus new works still aspiring to their "definitive" production.

Roles that are specific regarding the ethnicity of the character versus those that are not.

Willingness of an A.D. to explain his or her thought process in a public forum.

Geography (as a measure of which actors are available.)

Tom Ott

I do a lot of presentations of this at educational conferences and workshops. I think it is important to remember the value of "color-blind" or integrated casting to educational theatre. And just maybe, this is the opportunity or avenue for us to turn some of these arguments around.

While I do agree with Isaac that there are plays about race that would be much more difficult to swap around the the racial makeup of the cast, I disagree that these decisions "can lead to some really, really awkward places... ". In fact I think "the places" you would be lead to are some very interesting conversations about race.

I think you could extend that arguement to say the same thing about age blind casting that takes place in educational theatre. It's not believable that a 15 year old is really a 98 year old, but we still do these plays because we find value and humanity in them. We must acknowledge the value of playing someone older or someone different from us. Should a young African-American girl be relegated to backstage just because it isn't believable that she would be the child of two white parents (and even though she is clearly the best actress available)?

I used to be kind of one way about this issue. I thought it was ok for people of color to play white roles, but it was not acceptable for white people to play roles outside their skin tone. This was until I met a very progressive African-American professor (he's 65) who heads the department of a Historically Black University. He convinced me that, in an educational setting, students of theatre need to explore all literature, and all types of people. He advocates for an all white "Raisin in the Sun", because he feels when people realize that the Youngers are just like any other struggling family (of any racial makeup), then they will start to understand the common humanity of all races. He even addressed the issue of scripts written in dialect or "negro" by white writers in the early 20th century. He advocates the ability of whites to perform these roles. He cherishes the conversations that it will lead to after the show about blackface, popular writing, and black performance.

He understands that there would be all races up in arms about some of the performances, but again, he values the conversations that will follow.

I think it gets more complicated when people are investing money and expect some type of return. It shouldn't but it does.

RVCBard

I'll talk about inclusive casting from a piece I wrote called "The Rose Knight."

It's a fairy tale. Unfortunately, most people's concept of a fairy tale is this generic faux-medieval European aesthetic handed down to them by Disney.

Yet nowhere in the script do I mention or allude to any ethnicity. The person who was going to play Rose is Indian. I even had a Filipino director express interest in putting it on. A lot of people of color who'd read it seemed thrilled that someone wrote an original piece where they had the freedom to define the roles however they liked - they could use their own cultural background to enhance the "The Rose Knight" and make it their own.

This wasn't something I deliberately set out to do, but once it was pointed out to me, it was something I was determined to keep. In fact, all things being equal, I'd be more excited about a no-name production in Sri Lanka than in Yet Another White-dominated institution here in the States.

Backstage On The Esplanade

What a fabulous discussion! I as well prefer the term 'intergrated casting'. I believe that casting based on race should only be applied if race - just like sex or age - is important in telling the story or sharing a message. If the story is of an 8 year old boy, do you have a 60 year old female actor playing the role? Maybe, if it is crucial in creating a specific experience, but probably not.

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