Thursday, November 13, 2008

Thinking about 'Color-Blind' Casting

About two weeks ago now I saw a remarkable production of The Voysey Inheritance at Remy Bumppo (see under 'Allies' at right). Much good has rightly been said about the production, though perhaps too much of this praise has focused on the 'timeliness' of a show about money managers, managing poorly, and I hope to put up a more complete review of this play shortly. However, I'd like to think first about an incidental aspect of this production and abstract it to its most useful. The play is about late 19th Century London aristocrats and the role of the youngest daughter of the large Voysey family was ebulliently played by Sharina Martin, a fine young actress who happens to be of African descent.

Now I think any educated theater-goer (and sadly all theater-goers are educated theater-goers) is familiar with this most fundamental convention of the stage—that those onstage are pretending to be persons they are not. So realizing that Ms. Martin’s character is white, though she herself is black, should not necessarily be anymore difficult. Quite the contrary, the reluctance I have about color-blind casting is that it may draw attention away from the play and toward the production, toward the recognition of the casting process at work—not as an irreconcilable obstacle to comprehension but as an overly instructive illustration of offstage work.

More importantly, there are so many things a ‘post-racial’ casting decision could ‘mean.’ Is it that this one character ought to stand out in our minds in some way? Are we to identify this person as incongruous, as privileged or oppressed as some snap-judgment reflection of our social system might allow? Or, are we to ignore it?

The deepest way in which ‘color-blind’ casting becomes problematic is in the following pair of observations. First, we are not color-blind (yet?): we will notice. Second, color-blind casting is not, like so many other incidental aspects and conventions of the theater, immediately interpretable. We know how to ‘read’ a stage-hand all in black walking on to move a chair—even in the middle of a scene—we ignore him. Conversely, if the tree onstage is green and leafy in Act One and brown and sparse in Act Two, we know how to read that—time has passed—even though this is not necessarily clear. Why should we ignore a person making some necessary action? We should time necessarily go forward and why would a tree signify that? But these conventions we accept.

Could it be then, that ‘color-blind’ casting is merely too young a convention to have become truly conventional? I suppose that is my argument. The trouble is, how will it be conventionalized and when, and what shall we do in the meantime?

My inclination is that it will be conventionalized as meaningless rather than as meaningful, and I think that has a few reasons. First, the largest group of theater-goers in this country right now would prefer to think of race as a non-issue, regardless of the truth of that claim. They would prefer to see race as a matter as superficial as the color of one’s hair, again despite the several stumbling blocks to such a belief—an actor for instance cannot walk out of a store-front salon forty-bucks later and be temporarily Asian. Furthermore, if ‘post-racial’ casting were to be meaningful the varieties of its possible meanings would probably be too complicated to control and may again bring out an unwelcome conversation.

It’s probably evident that I am not certain that this is the best use of resources. I am glad it will shake up casting departments enough that the classic plays by Dead White Men need not perpetuate necessarily an unfair distribution of roles along racial lines, and that it may allow the best actors—regardless of race—be given the proper roles.  

A lingering difficulty will be in dealing with those plays in which jagged racial relations are central to the actual theme. In a trivial example, in a future of truly color-blind casting will the opening scenes of Steve Martin’s The Jerk not be funny? I think there will be a danger in rendering race meaningless onstage. But, perhaps in doing so we will light extra fire to those times in which suddenly, sharply, race is meaningful. Like a stage-hand who comes on to fix a prop, then turns to the audience and screams. Conventions are not (obviously) made to be broken, and will not be, but when made they might be, and what happens then? 


Hank.Browne said...

Ms Martin is a wonderful actor and quite attractive. I support James Bohnen's typical courage and good judgment in casting as well as many other decisions.

I disagree that the fact that art imitates life is overdone. It displays a sensitivity and awareness of the real world.

However I do think that this casting into a genteel, stiff British family was distracting. One might have thought that the youngest daughter might have been the result in a dalliance out there in the empire and was part of the plot line.

But the outstanding production and outstanding acting effectively wiped away my concerns.

Looking forward to your actual review.

James said...

I thank you for the kind thoughts about our production of Voysey, but i want to add a simple response to your concern about "color-blind" casting. It seems to me that we must commit to casting the right person when that person walks into the audition. If, in the case of Sharina's casting a theatre goer (like Mr. Brown, for instance)has a moment spent puzzling about another meaning, that doesn't bother me for a moment, and they will quite quickly step around their surprise and dive into the play once again. If we wait and wait for the right time for Non-traditional casting (achieved by some intuitive feeling of the county's pulse on race perhaps?) it seems like a way of puting off what should be a natural expression of talent winning the job without other constraints. I disagree with Mr. Brown on one casting decision was not brave, just engaged in the process with a belief in the idea that audiences will absolutely accept such casting, and the more they think about the play, the cast and themselves in the world, the better.