There's a wonderful old theater story about Laurence Olivier in the 1960s — he was playing in "Othello" and receiving generally glowing notices opposite Frank Findlay and a young actress by the name of Maggie Smith. One night, however, as he stormed through the jealous general's odyssey, Olivier seemed to be on fire (not literally, of course, because that would be painful, and, while certainly an interesting if too literal take on the Moor's passionate histrionics, pretty "out there" as an interpretation of Shakespeare, even for the '60s).
Backstage he was approached by his colleagues, who found him, rather than overjoyed by his brilliant portrayal, staring mournfully (as only Olivier could supposedly do) into his dressing room mirror. One meekly said to him, "You were magnificent tonight, Larry," to which he moodily answered, "I know." Another of his costars continued on, brave enough to ask, "Then what's the matter?" Olivier turned to them and wearily said, "I don't know how I did it."
Even if that story isn't true, I want it to be because it's not just a terrific tale about one of the great stage actors of the 20th century, but also a perfect example of the actor's alchemy in general. How do they do it? I don't know exactly — and I'm around them all the time.
The focus of my thoughts here, however, is not about the way in which actors go about crafting their work but about the opportunities they have to do that work. If Olivier was alive today, young and vibrant and working in the theater, we might never have that story to tell for one simple reason: In these troubled times, the man would never be allowed to put on blackface and play that role. Hell, he wouldn't be allowed to perform it if he went out in a strawberry-blond wig and clown makeup.
Now this probably won't stop somebody from having the bright idea of casting Beyoncé in the role, but Liev Schreiber — as fine a Shakespearean actor as this country has at the moment — will never have a shot at the part. For most white actors today, roles of color — from the classics to some of the sensational writing that is currently being done for the theater — are not even an option for them, and I'm not sure why.
For a time this idea was given the name "color-blind" casting, but the only thing it seemed to be blind to was the fact that it wasn't a two-way street; it was obviously designed to provide opportunity for minorities rather than put the best person in a role, regardless of color.
I suppose this is the notion of equal opportunity rearing its fearsome head again — and if it is, can we stop using the word "equal" in that phrase?
Or is it something far deeper and much simpler: What are people going to think of us for even suggesting such a thing?
I understand about slavery and all that, but that was a generally unpleasant time in our national history and it's firmly in the past. No one but a few folks who own "The Dukes of Hazzard: The Complete First Season" continue to think that slavery brought this country anything but shame and heartache. So we should all get over it, say we're sorry — I'm happy to do that to anybody who stops me at the Grove — and move on. Anyone whose ancestors were slaughtered by the U.S. Cavalry or spent time in a wartime internment camp may line up directly behind.
This is a nation of great promise and stunning achievement, yet our road to freedom is paved with blood and ambition; but, hey, enough about Hollywood. Today we should embrace the idea of a collective history and speed off into the future holding hands, enjoying and understanding the wonderful variety of our various cultures and head toward the glowing sun of a better tomorrow. And while we're doing this, why not acknowledge the achievements of several of our greatest playwrights — people like Lorraine Hansberry, David Henry Hwang, José Rivera, August Wilson, etc. — by allowing anybody who wants to play the parts they've written the opportunity to do so?
Don't forget, these actors still have to find a theater company brave (or crazy) enough to cast them. But if that happens — if someone does allow me to mount my all-white version of "A Raisin in the Sun" — then please let us proceed. I promise you, we'll be doing it not to be provocative but because it's a terrific American play. Don't picket outside the theater or send letters to the editor — if you have to, though, do that first rather than start up another annoying blog — or ask CBS to take away my radio show. (I actually don't have one, so relax, you can continue sleeping in in the mornings.)
Just think about it for a moment, though: Why do we barely bat an eye at an all-black version of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" or when Denzel Washington wants to play the title role in "Richard III" (did they really think this is what was meant by the "black prince"?) or Brutus in "Julius Caesar"? Mind you, I'm not complaining — great work has come from these brave and adventurous ideas — but why shouldn't it cut both ways? Isn't it simple prejudice to suggest that we should think otherwise?
Color is going to remain the great dividing line as long as we allow it to be. That's a simple fact. Religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality — all have fallen under the heavy wheel of progress, and thank heavens for that (although I'd rather not get into the "God" issue right now), but race remains the most feared stumbling block in the theater (and in society at large). That, and: Will this play sell tickets?
Now, I suppose if Brad Pitt (a big star and a hugely underrated actor) suggested that he was interested in the role of Walter in "A Raisin in the Sun" — I'm coming to you first, Brad, when I raise the money — then I can believe wily producers would begin hustling the idea quickly around the Great White Way (which is not a racial thing but fits very nicely into my theme).
Surprisingly, it's easy to forget that so much in the arts today is driven by pure, unadulterated economics — so much so that even a radical idea like this, one that would normally make Al Sharpton quiver with indignant rage, might seem palatable to him if he could raise enough money to get in on the ground floor of a Pitt performance on Broadway.
'Call me crazy'
Maybe this is a just silly idea — maybe "West Side Story" was a fluke and people really should play only characters that fit their looks and color and where they were born. I'm sure when the musical gets a decent revival in New York or London — and this needs to happen, people, it's the one musical score of genius this country has produced — then there will be a major uproar if anyone other than a Latina actress is cast as Maria.
Fair enough. Or is it? Shouldn't the best person for the part be considered, no matter what amount of makeup they have to wear or accent they need to conquer? If a major talent like, say, Kevin Spacey (who has continued to return to the stage throughout his career) decides he'd like to take a shot at playing Othello rather than Iago — but let's be serious for a moment, can you imagine how good that guy would be as Iago? — then let's let him do it. He's running the Old Vic, after all, taking on the headache of steering a major arts institution in London during the prime of his career. So if he has a hankering to wear coal dust smeared on his face every night in search of a greater truth, who are we to tell him no?
Even if you argue the point about the dust — I mean, we don't want to offend anybody who ever had a family member who spent his life working in a coal mine — why shouldn't Mr. Spacey march out on stage each night and put his arrogant trust (Othello's, not Spacey's) in Iago, begin to suspect his wife of an affair and finally kill Desdemona and himself in a fit of rage. And as far as I'm concerned, Desdemona can be any color she pleases.
Call me crazy or mad or just plain racist (I've already been called everything else). You can even call me "nappy-headed" if you'd like — just take a look at my picture sometime. It's true. But honestly, let's not waste any more valuable time in our lives fussing about something that doesn't really matter. If an Englishman puts on an Irish accent and can fool us successfully, then let him do it without our worrying about Cromwell and Belfast and the entire history of Ireland. If some white actress out there has her heart set on playing Madame Butterfly and she's got the vocal chops (I'm already sorry I used the word "chops"), then shut up and let the girl sing.
This is not an argument about opportunity or imbalance; all I'm asking is that you let the theater, that last bastion of illusion — a place of magic and hope and imagination — remain exactly that. The stuff that dreams are made of.
LaBute's works include the plays "Bash," "The Distance From Here," "The Mercy Seat" and "This Is How It Goes." Films include "In the Company of Men" and "The Shape of Things."
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood
Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday. Runs 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays.