Friday, August 10, 2007

The (Long) Color-Blind Casting Argument

I'm going to have to do this post as a series of anecdotes for now. Just to get the ball rolling.

1. We're rehearsing Shakespeare's Pericles. The play contains several phrases which equate the word "black" with "evil;" i.e. "black-hearted," "black as incest," etc. Whenever we reach a line which includes the word "black," the director stops the rehearsal and says "I think we should take that line out. What do you think?"

Everyone turns to look at the African-American guy in the room (he's playing Helicanus).

"I really don't have a problem with it," he says.

"I know," says the director. "But Pericles says those lines right to you and I would hate for someone in the audience to think..."

In the end all instances of the word "black" are excised from the script.

This isn't a true color-blind casting story but it is the beginning of my argument that even when directors cast "without regard to color" they very often place actors "of color" in the role of the other, both within the ensemble and within the play. This leads us to:

2. A few years ago I was involved in a performance of Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics. The play is about a group of Cuban factory workers whose lives are interrupted by the arrival of a visitor. (It's much more complicated than that, but you'll have to read it for yourself.) The factory workers were all played by Team Light Skin (there was one woman in this group who identified as Hispanic but for acting purposes read white) and the only actor with darker skin than mine was an African-American man who played the visitor.

As a director, this is an example of racism/othering that didn't even occur to me until an African-American actor pointed it out. Then I suddenly saw it everywhere. The performance of A Doll House in which the only actor "of color" was the actor playing Torvald (the character operating outside of the primary group); the performance of Oedipus where the only actor "of color" was the actor playing Oedipus.

Wait, you will say. Isn't Oedipus the lead role? Yes, but it's also the character who doesn't belong to the group. Oedipus is the other. His return to Thebes causes a plague. He is the only character who fails to understand what is going on around him... until, of course, he does, and he blinds and exiles himself (i.e. returns to his otherness).

3. I was sitting in an audience next to an older man who had no patience for politically-correct language. He asked me about an African-American actress we both knew, and asked when he might next get to see her onstage.

I explained that she was going to to be in a performance that opened in a few weeks.

"But that play's about white people," he said.

I gave a brief blurb in support of color-blind casting.

"Why do directors make black actors pretend to be white people?" he asked.

I explained that the idea was that a character didn't have to be a certain race; that a character's experiences could be lived and acted by anybody. He didn't like that argument.

"The play takes place at the turn of the century, and those characters are all white people," he said. "Why don't you find a play where this actress can play a black woman?"

This conversation illustrates two problems: first, the preponderance of theatre towards plays featuring white characters; and second, the failure of color-blind casting to acknowledge that these are white characters. Torvald in A Doll House would not have been a man "of color." We have the option to cast anyone we like in the role, and to suspend our disbelief (as it were), but there is always an underlying dissonance.

This is a huge topic and the one that took up so many tangents and off-tangents in my original draft, because to really dig into this one has to look at a variety of examples -- Jonathan Price in
Miss Saigon, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, white actors playing Cubans in Anna in the Tropics, etc. We used to suspend our disbelief when white actors played Asians or Hispanics, and now we are less comfortable doing so -- but, as the man in my example stated, we are beginning to be less comfortable passing off actors "of color" in roles intended for white actors.

But that argument is hardly simple enough, because to really dig into it one has to ask the question: how far do we go? Can only people of Norwegian descent play Ibsen? Do we need Italian actors for
Romeo and Juliet? Is it an issue of color, of nationality, of ethnicity, or of identity? Can we make the argument that Torvald could (historically) have been of Egyptian or Indian or Mexican descent because it's not a complete impossibility, even though it is an illogicality? Are we making black actors pretend to be white people?

3. The reason (I believe) that directors so often cast only a "minority" (pun intended) of non-white actors in performances, even in performances intended to be color-blind, seems correlated in some way with the way the director has experienced people "of color" in his/her own life. That is to say, if a director does not already have significant personal relationships with a diverse group of people, the director is less likely to give significant stage time to a diverse group of people.

Follow me on this one.

When one is casting, one looks for actors which have qualities one would like to see present in the character. (One also looks for talent/craft/technique/etc. but we'll leave that out of the question for now. Assume that all of my hypothetical actors are ridiculously talented.)

If a director removes color from the list of qualities, i.e. Nora Helmer doesn't have to be played by a white woman, then the director is looking instead for a series of attributes.

So. Nora Helmer should be... young, pretty, quick-moving, capable of humor, capable of depth, beguiling, flirtatious, serious, able to dance a mean tarantella...

All right. Quick quiz. What does the woman who just popped into your mind look like?

In my case, she's white. Just from the list of attributes. Even if I removed Nora's name and removed Ibsen's text and just asked myself to "think of a woman who is..."

This is because I, like many American directors, am white and grew up with white people as my closest influences. It doesn't mean I believe that white is "the default race;" it simply means that when I begin to visualize characters I pull images of shape and line and mannerism from my (white) relatives, my (white) neighbors, etc.

And so already the director is a step away from thinking color-blind. The director may plan to cast color-blind, but when presented with an array of actors is likely to go with the ones who remind the director of characteristics of people he/she already knows. And if most of the people the director knows are white, the "color-blind" casts are going to look pretty white as well.

I had to be told that I was doing this. And then, suddenly, I understood how my mind was getting in the way. Now I look at actors (and at characters) much differently.

Anyway. This was supposed to be a few short anecdotes, but... brevity is never my strong suit. I'll be interested to read the responses, if anyone followed the argument to its end! ^__^

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