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Colorblind Casting: It’s Not Yet a Tradition : When Black Is White, Women Are Men, And the Theater Is Challenging

The following is not a multiple-choice question. Ted Lange opened at the Inner City Cultural Center this weekend in what well-known Shakespearean play?

“Othello,” naturally. It remains the one star part in Shakespeare that a black actor can play without anyone’s remarking on his race.

This is an improvement over the days when it would be unthinkable to find a black actor playing King Lear or Macbeth, unless in the voodoo version.

But it’s not as much of an improvement as was hoped for 20 or 30 years ago, when theaters like Inner City started experimenting with racially mixed casts.

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The hope was that audiences would become “colorblind,” paying attention to the talent of the actor rather than to the color of his or her skin.

To a degree, it happened. But not to the degree that “colorblind” casting became the usual thing in any American theater. Black actors still play blacks, Asian actors still play Asians, Latino actors still play Latinos, and white actors still play everything else.

Even Othello. James Earl Jones was going to star in Jonathan Miller’s production of “Othello” for the BBC, but the part eventually went to Anthony Hopkins. It was explained that Shakespeare transcended skin color.

-- So why not have Jones play King Lear?

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-- Because it would distract from the play.

The last dialogue is imaginary, but it is the usual argument in our culture against colorblind casting: A white man can embody any human possibility, but a minority actor is first perceived as a member of his race, and we all know that Hamlet wasn’t black.

This same argument applies to gender-blind casting. Males can play females, as they did in Shakespeare’s theater, and as they still do in Kabuki. But females can’t play males, because Hamlet wasn’t a woman.

Don’t look for logic here. The issue goes much deeper than logic, and much deeper than theater, too. It involves the basic question of how we see people--of who taught us to see them that way. In Japan, it is said, women take their image of femininity from the great male actresses, the onnagatas . An ingenious way to educate them to their proper station.

Obviously this is a more complicated topic than it seemed back in the innocent 1960s. Recently we have even seen black theater people like Douglas Turner Ward and August Wilson arguing against “colorblind” casting, on the grounds that it’s an insult. They don’t want the race of black actors ignored on the stage. It’s part of their humanity.

So the issue has been broadened. “Colorblind casting” has become a subdivision of what is called “non-traditional casting,” defined thus:

“Non-traditional casting is the use of ethnic, female and disabled actors in roles where race, ethnicity, gender and physical ability are not germane to character or plot development. Simply put, it is attention to an artist’s talent without regard to stereotype.”

That’s from the prospectus for an all-day conference to be held on the subject Oct. 11 at the Japan America Theatre. (Information at 874-3163.) But talking with the Mark Taper Forum’s Madeline Puzo, one of its organizers, you discover that it’s not strictly accurate.

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“Non-traditional casting” these days can include instances where the performer’s race, gender or physical frame is absolutely germane to the role and the plot, although different from what the audience expected.

Puzo subdivides non-traditional casting into four categories:

1. Societal . This means waking up to the world as it is actually constituted these days, especially in cities like Los Angeles and New York, where half the population is nonwhite. It means that the doctor in “The Normal Heart” could be played by a black actress, although not written as a “black part.”

2. Cross-cultural. This means translating a play from a white context into a nonwhite one. We’ve had these shows forever--from Orson Welles’ voodoo “Macbeth” to Pearl Bailey’s “Hello, Dolly.”

3. Conceptual . Here the race, gender, whatever, of the actor makes a definite point. John Hirsch used the device in his recent staging of “Coriolanus” at the Old Globe Theatre, when he used Latino actors for the rebels, making us see the story as an analog of our involvement in Central America.

4. Colorblind . As above.

The categories may slop over a little, but it’s useful to have these distinctions drawn. It’s also useful that this won’t be one of those conferences that are all talk.

With people like JoAnne Akalaitis on the panel, the talk should be informed. Akalaitis had Asian actors playing Ellis Island Jews in the Taper’s “Green Card,” and got into a big fight with Samuel Beckett when she cast black actors in “Endgame” in Boston.

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But the heart of the day will be the demonstrations. Nine scenes will be presented from “Death of a Salesman,” “Hedda Gabler,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Caesar and Cleopatra,” “The Glass Menagerie,” and so on. Each scene will be cast non-traditionally, but with different strategies.

For example, what happens if one of the foul-mouthed real estate agents in “Glengarry Glen Ross” is a woman? That’s not so hard to picture, with women running half the real estate agencies in town. But does it make it another play? Maybe it makes it a more interesting one.

Nobody is claiming that each scene will work. But it will at least spark a discussion of why it doesn’t work, and for whom it doesn’t work. As another example (I have no advance information here), let’s suppose that a black actor plays the Gentleman Caller in “The Glass Menagerie.” It won’t be the first time. Paul Winfield actually played the role at Inner City in 1970.

But in white makeup, with blue contact lenses. Supposing that the actor in the scene at the Japan America Theatre is obviously black. Do we interpret this as an example of colorblind casting (i.e., do we look at the actor and not his race) or do we interpret it as conceptual casting, a comment on the play?

A hint will come from the other actors. If Laura is played by a Latina actress, Amanda by an Asian actress and Tom by an Anglo actor, then we’ll know what game is being played, always a vital piece for information in the theater. If the actors are all black, we’ll also know where we are.

If the other actors are white, we may sense that a statement is being, but be unable to figure out what it is. Does this mean that Laura had a crush on a black student in high school?

Then again, the performance may be compelling enough so that we simply see the characters. That will be both a tribute to the actors and a piece of information for us. It will signify that “The Glass Managerie” has moved far enough away from us in time to have become a classic.

We make different requirements of the classics than we do of modern realistic plays. An argument can be made for the verisimilitude factor when it comes to presenting the latter. “Raisin in the Sun” is about being black: Not just that, but also that. It probably needs black actors to do it right, at least in this generation.

In 50 years, maybe not. The older a play gets, the more it becomes a myth; the more its presentation becomes a ceremony, an example of these particular actors gathered on this particular stage at this particular time to tell us this story. Inner City once did an “Our Town” with actors of all complexions, and nobody said: “Now just a darned minute: Who ever heard of Asians in Grovers Corner, New Hampshire?”

That would have been provincial. The classics belong to everybody, and by now this may include “Death of a Salesman” and “The Glass Menagerie.” Obviously it includes Shakespeare. Who has any problem with Roscoe Lee Browne playing Prospero, or Raul Julia playing Petrucchio, or Randall Duk Kim playing Richard III, or James Earl Jones playing King Lear?

Nobody that I know. Yet the leading American Shakespeare festivals continue to use nine majority actors to one minority actor. If the argument is that the minority actor can’t handle the language, fine. But the ICCC’s annual Ira Aldrich awards (underwritten by Ted Lange, incidentally) turned up half a dozen young actors last spring who did have the chops for the classics, and the guts for them too. Sometimes you wonder if it’s the audience that has a problem being colorblind, or the casting directors.

Some of the scenes at the conference will also feature physically disadvantaged actors. The great lesson here comes from the National Theatre of the Deaf, which will be in town the same week, playing “King of Hearts” at UCLA and elsewhere. (Its founder, David Hays, will be on the panel at the JAT.)

This company gave us Phyllis Frelich of “Children of a Lesser God” and Howie Seago, around whom Peter Sellars built his production of “Ajax” for the La Jolla Playhouse. It gave us the most gripping production of “The Dybbuk” that I’ve ever seen.

And it gave us a new way of looking at theater. When a Theatre of the Deaf actor carves Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” on the air, you see the bare bodkin and the sea of troubles. You start wondering why theater in our culture makes so little use of the hand, as compared with Indian theater.

If the first purpose of “non-traditional casting” to open up new jobs, the second is to open up new possibilities.


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