Saturday, December 20, 2008

Color-Blind Directing?

Terry Teachout weighs in on the controversy at Lincoln Center Theater.  I wrote on 'color-blind' casting a few weeks ago, here.  Interestingly, I'm currently at work on a production of a new play, Po Boy Tango by Kenneth Lin that features two Taiwanese characters.  In the Northlight Theater's production both Taiwanese characters are played by Japanese American actors, and the show is directed by Singaporean playwright and director Chay Yew.  This is profoundly unlikely to draw any kind of controversy, and though I know exactly what the difference is, I wonder what the difference is.  

Perhaps because of the phenomenon of "school plays" and the relative abundance of girls interested in theater at a young age, I feel like our eyes may be more accustomed to women playing men or boys--as audiences of an earlier time accepted the opposite.  What is instructive about this analog is how it was at once--one assumes--used purely as a generic necessity and as a signifier.  A boy played Juliet, ah well, we understand.  A man played the nurse--hilarious.  This is a bit like the program I tried to suggest in my earlier post.  "Color-blind" casting can also open avenues for what is really "post-racial" casting, and then the opposite: casting that draws attention to or exploits the significance of an actor's or a character's race.  What does it mean to have a black Ariel in a white Tempest, or the opposite?  I look forward to watching this worked through, and I'm sure I'll continue to chew it over.

Directing, because it is invisible, is very different from acting as far as race is concerned.  Because it is creative and we live in a diverse society the largest possible spectrum of talented voices should be heard at all times.  Interesting to me, is that with the rise of the dramaturg, it is insignificant for a Director to be an expert on the subject matter.  Research will be done, packets will be compiled, copies will by made.  Depending on the production and the ambition of the Director, his/her role can be remarkably malleable.  McClinton is right that he understands better the African-American experience better than Sher.  It's unclear to me whether that's a substantive claim to be a better director.  More to come, almost certainly.


Zev Valancy said...

Teachout is often an idiot (his stuff about conservative theatre and the lack thereof made my head explode) but this is a decently intelligent article. Partially, even mostly, it's because for once he doesn't try to impose an answer. I think the choice of Bartlett Sher is a gutsy one, but the proof will be in how he does it. A question for Mr. McClinton: Would he object to a black director doing Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht?

Jack said...

The difference is, while Chekhov was writing about Being Russian, Shakespeare and Brecht were not writing about Being English or Being German (or Being Western or Being White for that matter) the way that Joe Turner's Come and Gone is explicitly about Being Black In America In 1911.

Does that disqualify Bart Sher? No (although I would suggest that his entirely easy, slick, boring, in-no-way-engaged-with-the-complications-of-the-text, "classic" staging of South Pacific disqualifies him from anything ever). Anyone is allowed to direct any play. That's how plays work (at least once Albee's dead and the Beckett estate lightens up). But I really don't want to see this version of Joe Turner.

Can a woman direct Glengarry? I'd see that. Can a man direct The Skriker? Uh, sure. Can a straight guy direct The Glass Menagerie? Ugh, if you must. These responses are inconsistent, just as my distaste for the Joe Turner situation is inconsistent with my firm belief that text belongs to everybody. So I dunno. It seems like a toothless and tone-deaf decision on the part of Lincoln Center. But maybe Sher will turn out to be right on.