Who needs a break?
Most roles go to whites
NEIL LaBUTE’S made a living as a misogynist (and misanthropic) playwright, skewering “political correctness” by asserting his right, as an angry male, to be a jerk. I suppose it was simply a matter of time before he decided to stand up for white actors against their colored oppressors. After all, who can argue that “when great actors are denied great roles on the stage because of their skin color, there’s a problem”?
Like many white people who feel that the world has placed an unfair burden on their shoulders, his central thesis is, “Slavery happened a long time ago, I apologize, now let’s get over it.” He doesn’t seem to notice that racism -- especially in the business of theater -- not only persists, but is still sanctioned in the 21st century. In minority-majority Los Angeles, 90% of the plays that you can see on any given night are either 100% white or very nearly so.
White people have played people of color for generations, and look what they’ve done: For every Olivier, there are dozens of Mickey Rooneys; for every Othello, there are hundreds of minstrel shows, Charlie Chans, Mikados.
I too wish for a day when our stages could be truly colorblind. Maybe that’ll be commonplace in American theater in our lifetimes, and maybe then American theater truly could be called American theater. But for now, I’d have to say that the “caste system” in American theater is still very firmly in place, and white actors are most definitely not on the bottom.
Every play is different
WHAT Neil LaBute overlooks are two critical questions: What is the nature of the play? and What is the relationship of the play to our time and place?
Consider Denzel Washington in “Julius Caesar,” as opposed to Laurence Olivier in “Othello.” The former needs no special makeup. Why? Because the play is not about race; in the nonnaturalistic setting of Shakespeare, the skin tone of an actor is irrelevant, except in very rare cases. In “Othello,” the lead actor must be visibly, and probably racially, different from the rest of the cast. Is it possible to cast against racial type? Sure: Give a white Othello a black Desdemona, Iago, etc. Our relationship to Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s to his source material, is such that specific races are not the issue. Racial difference is.
As to contemporary plays, however, such as the works of August Wilson, their specific relationship to our time and place does call for greater attention to racial specifics of casting. These plays are about experiences specific to a racial group, and those experiences are still in evidence in our society. A greater naturalism is called for, and, more importantly perhaps, a specific relationship to the characters’ experiences on the part of the actors. Shakespeare and his time are shaping influences on all of us, and so all actors have a place from which to tell their truths within his framework. Wilson’s influence on us is still in flux. For the time being, some of us can speak from within his framework, some of us must still listen. That will likely change.
I think the point is that colorblind casting is not a one-size-fits-all matter. Every play worthy of production has its own demands that must be respected, and those demands are not only intrinsic to the work but always also embedded in the relationship of the work to its performers and audiences.
Everywhere you look, white faces
NEIL LaBUTE’S racist screed on the “tribulations” of casting white folk in theater roles intended for people of color was the perfect coda to the Calendar’s promotion of white Hollywood. After sifting through page after page of swashbuckling white actors, auteur wannabe white male screenwriters and budget-busting white directors, it was perfectly clear that reverse discrimination against white people is endemic in the film and theater industries.
In a county that is predominantly black, Latino and Asian, the Calendar’s refusal to actively seek out and promote emerging filmmakers actors and artists of color is an outrage. Instead of devoting two bloated sections to big-budget retreads with lily white talent, why not spend time and energy spotlighting voices of color seldom heard above the insular Hollywood fray? Maybe that would retard your paper’s slide into irrelevance.
A black actor looking for roles
As a working actor, I am daily subjected to being unable to audition for roles I could otherwise do because their accompanying casting notices indicate characters as common as a mailman, the third customer on the left or the third man on the elevator are white despite the fact that nothing in the script, the situation or anything else denotes race other than the creative team’s lack of thought that anyone other than a white actor could or should play the part.
LaBute suggests, as an example of the way things should be in his world, a possible future all-white production of “A Raisin in the Sun.” That is ludicrous. “Raisin” is about a black family in Chicago in the ‘50s and its problems arising from the racial climate of that time. To suggest even laughingly that there should or could ever be an all-white production of this show is just as ridiculous as it would be for me, an African American actor, to be cast as Anne’s father in “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Colorblind casting was meant to remedy a situation that continues to occur even when roles need not be race specific. LaBute should know better.
The fight for opportunities
AS Neil LaBute said, let the theater be “the stuff that dreams are made of.” Blacks in America and other people of color do “have a dream.” The dream is that people of color in America get opportunities to get ahead and alleviate the many pervasive social problems they face in growing up in underserved communities and as heirs of displaced, fragmented and impoverished families.
Unfortunately, they know that to achieve the dream they must take action to protect the few opportunities that exist for them, as well as working tirelessly to create new ones. Nothing has been given to people of color without their fighting for it, while people like LaBute cry about reverse discrimination and demand the end of these opportunities immediately.
Furthermore, his casual apology for slavery is quite offensive and plain insensitive. Who is he? Why would it mean anything? Nobody is asking for his apology. What kind of misconceived-racist thoughts made him even consider this?
It is not about apologies. It is about horrible disparities in our society where black men are more likely to go to jail than to college and white fourth-graders are three times more likely than blacks to achieve math test proficiency. Does he think that blacks have something in their skin that causes this? I hope he doesn’t, or I could, yes, call him a racist.
I would better say that he doesn’t seem to have a clue about racial and social problems.
Olivier had reason to be sad
WHILE Olivier’s talent is not in dispute, I offer a different conclusion about his mournful introspection after a brilliant performance in “Othello.”
Perhaps he realized somewhere there was an enormously talented black actor who could have done just as well, and dare I say, a better job?
Maybe Olivier’s claim of “I don’t know how I did it” was really a sorrowful, “How could I do it?” How could he deprive a fellow and deserving thespian the rare opportunity to soar in one of the few roles that didn’t require him to play a servant or a dancing buffoon?
How could he continue to benefit professionally and profit financially from the racism and continued narrow-mindedness rampant then and now throughout the entertainment community (the recent casting of Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl comes to mind)?
How could he look himself in the mirror knowing that one more black actor has been forced to give up his dreams because the LaButes of the world think if it can be done, a white man can do it better?
I’ll buy into, support and applaud, even, LaBute’s idea of a colorblind theater when the original cast of “Wicked” features a black woman as one sister and an Asian woman as the other. Until then, LaBute, rest assured white actors will continue to find work even if they can’t do it blackface.
LaBute’s wrong on another score
“DON’T picket ... or send letters to the editor,” warns Neil LaBute. He needn’t fear attacks on his main thesis, not when there’s so much worth attacking in his minor opinions-in-passing.
For instance, he certainly can’t hope to get away with calling “West Side Story” “the one musical score of genius this country has produced” -- not in a week when this town offers the opening of a new production of “Porgy and Bess.”
PRESTON NEAL JONES
Equal opportunity would be great
WE can cut through much PC rhetoric in casting if we simply ask of any role: Is race (age, gender, physical ability) germane? If yes, simply cast it so. If no, give all actors an equal opportunity. For example, in “Hamlet” and “Hedda Gabler,” the conflicts are personal and hold no racial issues. All actors process their own emotional life and transfer that to the character -- all actors have a similar process of transference in conjunction with the imaginative process. If that process can be transferred to a culturally specific text by an actor’s ethnicity that is germane to the story, clearly the theater experience will be richer.
It is not enough for the black or yellow or brown actress to play Hedda, or Juliet, or Nina dozens of times. That only changes the look of the American theater.
LaBute is proposing that white actors appropriate culturally specific texts from actors who may finally have a chance to depict their own cultural heritage. My fear, as an actor who happens to be African American, is that his stance on this sensitive and controversial matter will be dropped as soon as he secures his audience quota. He will move on, casting all-white plays, but we actors of color will continue to struggle to not get typecast roles, while at the same time holding onto the small niche that our playwrights have worked very hard to establish in the public domain.
To change American theater itself, there must be black and brown and yellow Ninas in the American repertory. Blanches that are not blanched! When there are more ethnically specific lead roles out there that command attention and respect, there will be much more respect for nonwhite actors in all roles, traditional or not.
The realities of race in Hollywood
NEIL LaBUTE is not as knowledgeable about race as he presumes and is playing into the outdated binary racial characterization of black versus white. In Los Angeles, a city overwhelmingly Mexican and Chicano/a, and in Hollywood, African American actors hardly constitute a threat to talented white actors.
For example, dark-skinned black female actors have to manage a color line that white men and women do not, and the overwhelming majority of these actors and actresses could only hope that all-black casts of Shakespearean plays existed for them.
How many times have casting directors placed them as the wives of white male stars and cast white women in degraded stereotypical “urban” roles? How many times has their race been used as an excuse for them not receiving jobs?
LaBute constantly infuses his essay with emotionally charged phrases like “nappy-headed” to somehow show his blithe nature about racism and racial politics, but in the end he comes off as exactly what he is -- a privileged, white male Hollywood mover and shaker who has no clue about the realities of race in his industry and or the nation.
DEIDRE COOPER OWENS
Any minority actors in ‘Fat Pig’?
I’LL tell you why no one would bat an eye at an all-black version of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Because no one would think of casting Denzel Washington or Angela Bassett, famous as they are, in that play if it wasn’t in an all-black production.
I’ll tell you why Brad Pitt as Walter in “Raisin in the Sun” would cause an outcry. It’s because a black actor is automatically deprived of one of the few roles that he can look forward to without being dismissed simply because of the color of his skin.
I love Brad Pitt, and would love to see him as Walter, but only if the black actor, or Asian, or Hispanic, is considered and cast in Mr. LaBute’s “Fat Pig.”
Unless and until we are willing to level the playing field for black, Asian, Hispanic and minority actors, and unless they can vie for and play roles such as Moses or Spider-Man, I suggest we continue to deprive ourselves of blackface, yellow face or brown face white actors.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.