Thursday, March 31, 2016

Is A "Non-White" Theater An Open One?

Even though I've reached the age (I'll be 60 later on this year, G-d willing) at which casting opportunities are fewer and much further between, I still look at casting calls that come my way via the Internet or e-mail.  One never knows, after all, unless one looks.  And so I did see the recent casting call for the current Broadway musical hit "Hamilton," which proudly and boldly announced that they were looking for "NONWHITE ACTORS ONLY."

Well.  Far be it from me to go where I'm not wanted.  Actually, I did not have a problem with the basic intention behind this specification.  I have known for a long time that, for purely artistic reasons, race can be an is a bona-fied occupational qualification (to use the legal language).  And I completely get what Lin-Manuel Miranda is trying to do in telling the story of Alexander Hamilton in rap music.  And the principles of non-traditional casting have no greater advocate than me.

In fact, now that I'm thinking about it, I have not only been an advocate of non-traditional casting, but an actual non-traditional actor.  Sixteen years ago, in a community-theater production of Craig Lucas' "Prelude To A Kiss," I played three minor roles:  a bartender, a clergyman, and a Jamaican waiter.  I did not, repeat NOT, play the role in "blackface," nor did I make any attempt to simulate an African accent.  For the sake of simplifying the demands of the production and its casting, we simply hypothesized the existence of a white Jamaican waiter, and had me play the role (which lasted less than one scene, as did the other two roles).

Still, I have to wonder.  The "Hamilton" casting call controversy makes me think back not only to my own earlier experiences as an actor, but also to an even earlier controversy:  the one involving the Broadway production of "Miss Saigon," in which the mixed-race role of the Engineer was cast with a Caucasian actor, Jonathan Pryce.  There were protests from members of the theater community, especially Asian members, but those protests led to counter-protests that ultimately allowed Pryce to go on in the role (and win a Tony award, to boot).

I think that this was the right outcome, for a number of reasons.  To begin with, the role that Pryce was playing was, as I mentioned, a mixed-race role.  Such a role all by itself raises the disturbing question of whether only a mixed-race actor should be allowed to play such a role.  Perhaps more disturbingly, it raises the question of why such a role should only be played by an Asian actor.  If the argument is that only an Asian actor can give a true artistic interpretation of an Asian character, isn't it fair to say that an Asian actor is, at best, only interpreting half the character?

Ultimately, however, the real point is this.  Freedom is freedom.  It means the freedom to cast "non-white" actors in "white roles," as "Hamilton" does.  But it should also mean the freedom to cast white actors in non-white roles.  So long as it is done within the framework of an artistic vision that is not based on the portrayal or perpetuation of stereotypes and other forms of racial slander, there should be no objection.  In fact, it has already happened:  Patrick Stewart once played "Othello" as the only white actor with an otherwise all-black cast.  And did so without adapting the text of the play to the casting.  It would be hard to be more race-neutral than that.

The minute I read the "Hamilton" casting call, I knew they were going to be hammered.  And rightly so--not for their intentions, but for the obliviousness of their approach.  One can argue for and practice non-traditional casting without using the type of discriminatory language that was once routinely and unjustly used against people of color.  That's what the people behind "Hamilton" should have done.  Let's hope that they've learned that lesson.  And let's all hope for a theater one day in which the only thing that truly matters in casting is whether a given actor is right for the part as an individual, and not as a member of any group, unless artistic demands say otherwise.

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