Many of us support the idea of “color-blind” casting (not paying attention to the color of an actor’s skin when casting) and I have to say that I think this is often a good idea. However, it would appear that this notion could be “difficult” when race might have been a consideration of the creator(s) of the piece. It seems hard to imagine a production of West Side Story, for example, which completely ignores the race of the members of the two gangs. When the conflict was between two Italian families in an Italian city (Romeo and Juliet), race wasn’t an issue. When it’s between “Puerto Ricans” and “Americans” we’re dealing with an entirely different situation where the physical appearance of the characters seems as though it could be of some importance.
I think it’s hard to conceive of a production of Driving Miss Daisy which ignores the racial differences between the main characters. We really have to pay attention to these characters’ race, given the period and locale of the play and, probably of greater importance, because it is a part of the play’s point, as is their gender. On the other hand, I know people who are reluctant to mount productions of some Tennessee Williams plays (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example) simply because those plays have Negro servants as minor characters and such roles are now viewed as demeaning. I think that Williams was simply reflecting the reality of the times and places about which he was writing. While it might be possible to set such plays in different times and places (often done, especially with classics), it seems to me that one must be careful not to ignore historical reality in recreating a period on the stage. After all, a play IS a product of its time and place and one should be careful about tampering with a playwright’s intent, even if some details don’t reflect current social practices. It would seem to me that a major consideration should be whether the intent of the material is significantly altered by ignoring these sorts of realities which were a part the original mise en scene of the piece.
For example, I’m not aware of any criticism of Downton Abbey because color-blind casting hasn’t been used in it. I think that’s a valid choice. Miller’s The Crucible probably needs an actress of color to play the role of Tituba both because the real Tituba was a slave AND because her race was a part of why she was accused of witchcraft. Of course, one can say that these are “historical fiction” so it would be inappropriate to introduce historical inaccuracies. I think that’s the point! A LOT of drama, maybe most, is “historical fiction” and the choice of the race of a character MAY have been as carefully thought out as any of the other choices made by the author. I think that this is a reality that we ignore to our (and the theatre’s) peril.
I am, generally, a supporter of color-blind casting, but I have to acknowledge that there are times when an author has made a conscious choice for legitimate reasons. I think Williams was aware of the history of the locales where he placed a number of his plays and didn’t create the servant characters to demean African-Americans, but simply to reflect the reality of those times and places.
As another example, it’s almost impossible, these days, to conceive of a production of Othello, without the assumption that it is necessary for an actor of African descent to play the lead character. The one major exception that I know of was a production with Sir Patrick Stewart playing the lead with an, otherwise, all black cast. Of course, this wasn’t ignoring race, simply reversing it, which seems a perfectly viable alternative approach to a play where race relations seem of some possible importance.
However, I think that it’s truly sad that many people seem to be embarrassed by or otherwise feel the need to deprecate the Othello of Laurence Olivier because he played the role in rather obvious black makeup (which was much more of a “coal dust” black than anyone I’ve ever met). I think this makeup was an unfortunate choice on Olivier’s part, but it’s too bad that we write off this performance by one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the 20th century because we don’t like his makeup.
Of course, Othello was, in fact, written for a Caucasian actor (Richard Burbage). There’s a story (probably untrue) that Dick Burbage and Will Shakespeare got drunk one night and Burbage bragged that he could play anything that Will could write. The story goes on that Will then decided to challenge Burbage by proceeding to create Othello. It is a fact that none of the actors in Shakespeare’s company were black, or Moors, to be correct as to how the character is actually described, and many non-African actors have played the role over the play’s history.
I have no problem with an actor of African heritage playing Othello. I think it’s a perfectly logical choice. Many folks have suggested that the role does seem to have been created with the “otherness” of Othello in mind as the important factor and race is one way Shakespeare emphasized that. But it seems a bit racist to limit the casting of this role exclusively along racial lines when this tale of jealousy leading to murder doesn’t really seem to puts its focus on race as the basis for those actions. So why then MUST this role be played by an actor of color?
Should Shylock only be portrayed by a Jew? Could Hamlet, or Henry V, not be played by an actor of color just because these historical figures weren’t “black?” I don’t think so. Nobody I know of seems overly upset that Denzel Washington played Don Pedro in Branagh’s movie of Much Ado About Nothing. Why? I think it’s because that character’s race doesn’t seem to matter to the play. If he had been cast as Don John (the “bad” guy), however, I suspect the casting would have been questioned due to the seemingly racist idea of the “bad” guy being of color.
I think that this leads to the idea that it’s generally wise to be careful about introducing the questions which still exist regarding race into a play where race isn’t an issue. It is probably unfortunate that we, as a society, have not progressed beyond the point where issues of race still exist, but I’m afraid that we haven’t. However, it seems to me that introducing such issues into a play when they aren’t of importance is unwise and should be avoided.
I was taught that we should strive to present the playwright’s intention and, when we force ideas into our interpretation of the author’s work which alter that intention, we are treading on dangerous ground. A black Ophelia with a white Hamlet (which I saw done in a production at the American Shakespeare Center) doesn’t seem to distort the major issues of Hamlet. To me, and to many others, the play revolves around the revenge tradition. I suspect that such a choice might make it logical to have Polonius and Laertes also be of color (which was not done in that production), but that doesn’t seem to have any impact on the vengeance motif, and there didn’t seem to be any difficulty in the audience accepting the idea of this actor as part of a family which has a position of some importance in the Danish court.
I, personally, have spent a fair amount of time working on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which I have tried to make provision so that a fair number of traditionally male roles could be played by females and where I have consciously suggested that a good deal of color and gender blind casting might be appropriate. I think that this could be appropriate for this play because I think this play is not about race, or gender, but what can happen when a government is changed through assassination and violence leading to civil war. I think this play really focuses on the motives of political leaders and the consequences of violence in politics.
It’s very common to believe that plays reflect the issues of the times of their creation. Certainly race can be, and has been, a real issue in our society, at least at times. But, when race, or gender, isn’t an issue in a play, we should be careful not to make it one.
I’m not sure that I have a simple answer to what I feel are legitimate concerns regarding race in casting almost any play. It is certainly true that color blind casting can be, and often is, accepted by many audiences. One can find a number of examples of “blended” families on television, etc. I think that’s as it should be. Still, I think that we do, commonly, pay some attention to the race of a character, so that that character’s race is a choice which should not be just ignored in casting. It’s a choice which can distort some plays, both historical and modern, in ways which don’t serve the play very well, or it can add considerably to the audience’s experience. Until we have a society in which race isn’t really an issue, I think we have to be somewhat careful about how we deal with it. Not to do so, risks what I think might be an unfortunate alteration of a playwright’s intent, and I think that’s not a good idea.