Can a black actor be convincing in the title role of Shakespeare’s “Henry V”? Can an Asian or Hispanic actor be believable as part of an Anglo family in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”? Can any “ethnic” actor assimilate into the upper-crust, WASPish society portrayed in Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story”?

These were the questions raised here at an unusual gathering of about 500 theater professionals from around the country for the first National Symposium on Non-Traditional Casting sponsored by the Actors Equity Assn., at Broadway’s Shubert Theater.

“This symposium is the outgrowth of a lot of rhetoric that has been bandied about for a long time, and marks a serious effort to bring to the attention of the entire industry the real problems faced by ethnic actors in finding work,” said Harry Burney, chairman of Equity’s Ethnic Minorities Committee.

“Hopefully, efforts will open the minds of the industry to the possibility of using minorities in ways that have never been considered.”


“Non-traditional casting” is defined by Actors Equity as “the casting of ethnic, minority and female actors in roles where race, ethnicity or sex is not germane to character or play development.”

The symposium focused on ethnicity, and raised implications beyond the theater into all of the entertainment industry.

According to Joanna Merlin, a co-producer of the symposium, casting directors around the country are expressing dismay that ethnic actors are “too discouraged” to even turn out for auditions.

“The pool of ethnic actors being trained in this country is getting bigger and bigger, and the opportunities provided to them are becoming fewer and fewer,” Merlin said.


Other speakers included John Houseman, Raul Julia and Paul Robeson Jr., each of whom reflected on their personal experiences with traditional as well as non traditional casting.

Panel discussions alternated with scenes from classical, musical and contemporary plays performed by a multiracial company of 75 actors and directors. The scenes, such as one from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” that featured James Earl Jones and Stephen Collins, as Big Daddy and his son Brick, were intended to “jog the imagination” into seeing the possibilities that exist when roles are cast against stereotype.

Most participants and audience members proved to be already converted to the idea of non-traditional casting. However, some reservations were expressed by the participants, including James Earl Jones. He cautioned his colleagues to “face the fact” that the concept of non-traditional casting does provide a hurdle for audiences accustomed to tradition in the theater.

“We have to try to break down the walls that have been shutting so many of us out,” said actress Ruby Dee, one of several panelists representing the black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American actors who were the focus of the casting symposium.


“Most productions by mainstream professional theaters in this country are performed by all-white casts,” said another panelist, playwright Romulus Linney, citing studies of nonprofit regional theaters as well as the commercial theater.

Reasons for traditional casting ranged from racism to art to commerce. Some speakers, including Robeson, made strong political statements that the theater needs to take responsibility for dealing with racial conflicts raging in society.

Others maintained that there must be an “evolution of thought” when it comes to considering possibilities provided by certain plays. And much of the talk focused on the feeling that traditional casting was most firmly grounded at regional theaters around the country.

“We don’t trust our audiences enough,” said Sara O’Connor, managing director of the Milwaukee Repertory Company, which was cited throughout the two-day conference for its progressive attitude toward casting. O’Connor said subscriptions actually have risen since the theater established a policy of “colorblind” casting.


“The fact that we have to have a conference like this is in itself an irony and an absurdity, considering the context in which we are meeting,” said producer Robert Nemiroff, former husband of the late Lorraine Hasberry, author of “A Raisin in the Sun.”

“Here we are in a city (New York) whose major population is black or Hispanic . . . our theater world exists in many cities that are at least one-third minority population, and in a country whose rich and diverse population still does not know each other and in many cases are terrified of each other. We are also living in a world perched on the edge of destruction, and, of course, at a point of going into outer space and meeting real aliens.

“And here we are today,” he continued, “sitting at a conference discussing if actors of color can be cast in plays so that they reflect our population and perhaps assist our population in better understanding who they and their neighbors are and help them in reaching the 21st Century. The purpose of this conference is really to help us come to grips with all of this.”