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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: July ::
Re: Colour-Blind Casting
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1531  Tuesday, 29 July 2003

[1]     From:   D. Bloom <
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        Date:   Monday, 28 Jul 2003 09:31:06 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1512 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

[2]     From:   Susan St. John <
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        Date:   Monday, 28 Jul 2003 17:44:32 -0700
        Subj:   Re: Colour-Blind Casting


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           D. Bloom <
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Date:           Monday, 28 Jul 2003 09:31:06 -0500
Subject: 14.1512 Re: Colour-Blind Casting
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1512 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

 Derek Cohen writes (rather vituperatively),

>The whole discussion about colour-blind casting is based on the rather
>arrogant assumption that Shakespeare belongs to white culture.  How
>would you like to see King Lear cast in Uganda or Gaza?  Canada will in
>the near future be more Asian than European.  How should we cast
>Shakespeare plays here when that happens?

Now wait a minute. What is meant by "belongs to"? "Is the exclusive
property of"? Or "arises out of"? The former is manifestly false (his
work is the exclusive property of the billion or so people who can read
English), but I don't know that anyone would argue that idea. The latter
is manifestly true, if we take it to mean that the Elizabethan
population was overwhelmingly composed of what we call (for convenience)
the white race.

That aside, there are some factors that need to be considered.

1) Shakespeare's plays tend to be about things. That's what makes them
so interesting, and leads to things like the SHAKSPER  list, endowed
chairs, plays in parks. One of the things that _Othello_ is about is
race (including racism), and a black man marrying a white woman.
Lorraine Hansberry's _A Raisin in the Sun_ is also about race and
racism, though set in 20th Century Chicago rather than 16th Century
Venice. The director's job is to figure out how to get the most out of
these plays -- not just to get a bunch of actors on stage with whatever
costumes, sets and lighting you can afford. The director's first job,
then, is to figure out what the play is about and cast actors who can
get that "aboutness" across.

Would it be possible to cast the Younger family with one or more white
actors and not have the play become absurd and stupid? I don't think so.
But why? And why should that apply to "Raisin" and not to some play of
Shakespeare's?

2) The problem is one of gains and losses. You make choices: they are
good if they increase the impact the play has on the audience, bad if
they damage it. Any given choice will gain one kind of impact at the
loss of another.  Thus, the director has to judge what will be lost
against what will be gained.

"Raisin" is too close to us. Many of us lived through and remember well
the "block-busting" days, as they were called. Nor have we by any means
overcome all the legacy of the racism that it depicts. Even the most
brilliant white actors could not (I think) depict Walter Lee, Ruth, Mama
and the rest without insulting all the millions of Americans who have
dealt with (and continue to deal with) the trials of racism.

"Othello" is farther away, but racism is not. While it might be
interesting in some ways to cast a black actress to play Desdemona, how
much would be lost? Too much, I think, to make it worth while.

But what about roles that don't involve race? Why not cast those
"color-blind"? No reason, except from what may be lost against what can
be gained. Insofar as "Romeo & Juliet" is about young love, you can cast
a man and woman of any race and the story won't suffer. (Or, let's say,
you'll gain in immediacy what may be lost from the Renaissance-feel.)
But insofar as it's about blood-feuds and social disorder, then you may
lose more than you gain. Are you going to make all the Montagues or all
the Capulets non-white? That will bring in race with a vengeance, but
will it spoil the rest of the play? Make them both non-white and they'll
match each other, but then the two families will look odd against the
rest of the cast (if it's white). This oddness will suggest a number of
things that you might not want distracting the audience from what you do
want them to think about and feel.

This takes us to the Uganda situation. Obviously, directing the play
there you'll presumably be casting all Ugandans. Race won't enter in at
all. The only question you have to deal with is that of how the
"aboutness" of your play can be understood by the audience, given its
different cultural background. As to "R&J" I don't think the young love
theme would have any problems. And (alas) I don't think Ugandans would
have any trouble understanding the extraordinary violence of European
culture that the play depicts.

"Othello," though, would not be so easy. I don't think you could flop
the entire racial structure of the play (with a white Othello and the
rest black) and have it mean the same thing. We are, I think, still too
close to the colonial period where positions of power were held by
whites. The racial antagonism toward this Othello would thus be
rational, and a powerful element of the play would be lost.

(Or would it? You might assume that the racism of Shakespeare's day was,
in fact, "rational" since it was based on an assumption of the innate
superiority of the white race. You might regain something that has been
lost in our interpretations that are based partly on our consciousness
of the evils of racism.)

Enough, and more than. My point is that color-blind casting is not
virtuous in itself. It brings along with it the weighing of gains and
losses that all directorial choices do. A director may think that such a
choice is quite meritorious and do considerable damage to the
effectiveness of the play. In such a case, "He chose poorly." (To quote
from Indiana Jones.)

Cheers,
don

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Susan St. John <
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Date:           Monday, 28 Jul 2003 17:44:32 -0700
Subject:        Re: Colour-Blind Casting

Some of us use color/gender-blind casting because there is no other
choice.  I teach in a high school that is 60% Hispanic and 35% black.
That leaves only 5% for white, Asian and Native American.  I also have
many more females than males auditioning.  If I cast a female in a male
role I have to make a choice about whether to change the character to
female or have her play it as a male.  Same goes for racial
issues...make it an important issue or ignore it? I sometimes choose one
way, and sometimes the other.  I don't put girls into romantic male
roles because that would cause too much giggling in the audience, but
other than that, just about anything goes.  My students and my audiences
are used to it; they have no problems with it.

However, it means I have a very difficult time doing the kind of play
that has themes and major plot points based on race, like Othello.  I
don't have enough white kids to make West Side Story work.  I just saw
Hairspray on Broadway  (and loved it), but I can't do it...how can I
tell all of my talented ethnic students that I simply have to cast 60%
whites in order to make the story work? (Although that play needs a fat
white girl in the lead, and a man in drag as the mother...will anyone
ever cast a WOMAN in the Divine/Harvey Fierstein role?)

So for me, I just don't do those plays.  If I think it could work I do
it; but if the story RELIES on race, I probably can't.  Can't do Raisin
in the Sun either.  But if the role and the story have nothing to do
with race, then why won't any racial mix do?  And why can't a fat Romeo
fall in love with a homely Juliet?  Beauty is in the eye of the
beholder...fat and homely people do fall in love...just because they
fall in love at first sight doesn't necessarily mean that they fit the
traditional standards of "good looking".

I have actually planned a lesson on precisely this topic for my advanced
acting class this year.  We will be doing a unit on defining their
"type" and what roles they should be auditioning for, and how far they
can stretch, and which theatre venue allows for more leeway (playing old
age in high school and college is a given, but will rarely happen in the
professional world).  I am anxious to hear their POV on casting
according to race, age and gender .

I think the important point here is that we (the people who make
theatre) are all trying to create a theatrical experience that will
touch someone, somehow, in some way.  I really appreciated the comment
from one list member (sorry, I don't remember who) about photos vs.
paintings...if you want reality, look at a photograph, but for an
interpretation, look at a painting.  Theatre has the capacity to be
either and the savvy theatre-goer needs to recognize that fact.

Sincerely,
Susan St. John
(fresh from a critically acclaimed performance as King Alonzo in The
Tempest)

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