Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Color Blind Casting, Alive Again

A letter to the NYT about Phylicia Rashad's performance in August: Osage County has been circling around, and it's worth reading largely because it is such a startling example of unreflective thinking.
I am offended that Phylicia Rashad is playing a white woman’s role in “August: Osage County.” It doesn’t make sense that she would have white siblings and children.

Offended? Nonsense. Frustrated, surprised, confused, irritated, exhausted, outraged even: maybe. But what would the offense be?  Your objection, is that it "doesn't make sense."  So you're not offended, you're confused.  But, there are some other things that don't make sense: people on a tall thing pretending to be people they are not, saying things they don't mean, wearing clothes that aren't theirs, pretending that you're not watching (except for that guy in the first scene, who talks right to you).

What is it about this particular convention that is offensive?  I've written before a few times about color-blind casting, and I still think that as a convention it is perhaps too young to have become conventional, but I think that it will. When was the last time someone was offended by a convention of the theater? Christian moralists decried acting as dishonest until they exploited it to share their faith.  Elizabethan nobility used costumers' demand to sell their once-used clothing to keep money and save face, and so turned a blind eye on the dangerous blurring of class distinction that the theater represented.  Today race is a central issue in our culture and one to which both social conscience and social structure are bound.  The topic here is an aesthetic issue that happens to deal with race so understandably then, the stakes are high. "Not making sense" works as an analysis of color-blind casting if you stay in the realm of aesthetics: this is an arguable position.  But outside of aesthetics, a rejection of Ms. Rashad's performance will fall flat and hard.

Unfortunately, the letter's author describes Ms. Rashad as "playing a white woman's role" rather than "playing a white woman," which makes his argument seem like it's much more about taking jobs than about aesthetic possibility or so-called suspension of disbelief. So, this isn't an aesthetic argument and this person is a fool.

If this were an aesthetic argument I would raise this question: aside from whether or not we can "forget" Ms. Rashad's race, can we "forget" Ms. Rashad?  The most powerful alienating factor in modern performing arts - and the one which no one talks about - is fame.  As far as suspension of disbelief goes, who the hell on Broadway knew who Deanna Dunagan was before this play?  Wasn't she just Violet Westin?  But Ms. Rashad is instantly recognizable from her TV work with Bill Cosby and from her previous Broadway successes, including last year's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  At least as meaningful as whether we can accept her as playing a white character, is how it is that we accept her as anyone other than Phylicia Rashad.  I think the answer to both of them must be the same.


Zev Valancy said...

Thanks for making it unnecessary for me to blog on that one. You've got it perfectly.

Jack said...

Jesus this is articulate and reasonable. I would have put the part about the commenter being a fool right up top and gone from there.

Color-blind casting is something Court Theatre has been exploring (and for which we were recently lauded by AEA). We have yet to (in my memory) cast a parent-child relationship without regard to race, but it's easily conceivable that we will at some point--sometimes the best actor for the role just makes a strong enough case for casting him/her in that kind of vacuum. After all, we don't spend a lot of time considering hair color or body type when casting related characters (we do consider it, but it's not a reason to cast an otherwise not-quite-right actor).

Personally, I think colorblind casting should be a mandate at any Equity theater. Most plays produced at that scale (especially at classics-based companies) are written by white men. If we want our productions to speak to modern audiences, shouldn't we make some effort to reflect that audience onstage?

I'm not saying "black audiences will only respond to plays with black actors in" or any other version of that silly canard. What I mean is, our world (the world of American cities, at least) is more diverse than ever, and it is the responsibility of theater artists to reflect and engage with that reality. That doesn't always mean "race-blind" casting so much as it means "race-conscious" casting--being aware of the valances and tensions you are injecting into your play when you cast across "traditional" racial expectations.

Interestingly, it is much harder to race-blind-cast plays that the playwright wrote with racial subtext or tension in mind, or that are set in a realistic period world (although the all-black Cat On A Hot Tin Roof worked marvelously due to the quality of the acting and actually added a fascinating layer of stakes for the family, when I expected going in that it would somehow feel preposterous in Williams's crumbling Southern aristocracy). Whereas a Latino Torvald or a South Asian Viola (with or without matching Sebastian) doesn't disrupt the dramaturgy of the play even a little bit.

The celebrity-casting issue is a whole nother thing. It is insidious and has basically destroyed Broadway as a place where interesting or surprising acting can be seen.