I had an interesting conversation with a theatremaker recently about casting. The discussion centered around multiethnic casting, particularly whether casting actors of different races as members of the same family would make the storytelling in the play unclear. The concern was that audience members would have trouble reading the actors as related and therefore have trouble following the play’s narrative.
If you’ve followed my blog for more than 12 seconds you already know what I think (diverse casting is GO), but I gave this particular aspect of diverse casting some serious thought, as this is nowhere near the first time I’ve had this discussion. Here’s where I landed:
Why is race the line?
That’s a serious question, btw, not a facetious construction meant to elicit a WOMP WOMP from my fellow SJWs. We take it for granted that we put our disbelief in suspension when we go to the theatre, but that suspension has limits. When we see something inaccurate onstage, for example, it pulls us out of the narrative. When an actor playing a medical professional pronounces the word “larynx” as “larnyx,”or says the blood type B+ as “B plus” (both of which I’ve heard), I have trouble maintaining the belief that that person is a medical professional.
In casting, however, we make enormous allowances. We take it for granted that the storytelling remains intact in a production of As You Like It although the actress playing Rosalind is married to the actress playing Celia, the actor playing Orlando is married to the costume designer, and the actor playing Charles the Wrestler has never wrestled a day in his life. We take it for granted that the storytelling remains intact in a production of Romeo and Juliet although we know Lord Capulet, Lady Capulet, Juliet, and Tybalt are not related and, in fact, look nothing alike. We lauded Peter Dinklage as Richard III although his disability is nothing like what Richard’s was, and we lauded both Sir Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey as Richard III, although neither has any disability at all.
It goes even further than that. People think nothing of casting a woman as Juliet’s nurse who is far too old to have plausibly given birth 13 years prior, although her entire relationship with Juliet hangs on that fact. People think nothing of casting a woman as Juliet who is visibly more than twice Juliet’s repeatedly stated age. We rarely expect an actor playing Iago to have military bearing although his years-long military experience and current military rank are central to the character and the narrative of the play. Hell, we live in a world where a major company can hire an all-white cast to do a show as vague “Native Americans” and almost no one bats an eye apart from Native American theatremakers and a few bloggers (also this).
So why is it so common for theatremakers to hesitate considering– or even refuse to consider– an actor of color to play the daughter of a white man, a Puritan farmer, the grandmother of a white woman, or a founding father (all examples taken from personal experience or discussions I’ve had with other theatremakers)? When we already are well aware that the actor isn’t the character, the characters’ relationships are (almost always) feigned, and the locations and actions are (almost always) pretend, why is that one factor– race– the line in the sand?
I don’t mean to discount the importance of race in our culture, or in the lived experience of people of color. What I mean is: Why is race so often THE most important consideration in casting, even when the production is not specifically about race? Why is race considered so much more important than other factors, such as age, suitability for the role, or skillset?
If you’re producing A Raisin in the Sun, M Butterfly, or Othello, the race of the characters is of primary importance, but most plays are not specifically about race. There’s no reason Tybalt cannot be Black in an otherwise all-Caucasian Capulet family. There’s no reason Eurydice cannot be Asian and her father cannot be white in Sarah Ruhl’s play. There’s no reason Joe Pitt cannot be Latino while Hannah Pitt is white in Angels. My own cousin is Black, and there are literally millions of other multiracial families in the US.
The three main arguments I hear about this go as follows:
1. But they WERE all white in that time and place. For one thing, are you certain? Because you’re probably wrong, even when you’re talking about Puritan Massachusetts or Colonial America. And also: So? There are lots of things we’re choosing not to depict accurately (some of which I’ve listed above), either because we have made a choice to believe they aren’t important, or because we don’t have the capability to. Think about this: 130 years ago, the difference between an Italian person and a white person would have been apparent to any American. To cast an obviously Italian woman as Juliet would have appeared absurd to an American audience in 1885, even though Juliet IS Italian, due to the enormous racial prejudice against Italian immigrants at the time.
2. Well, how about white people playing Black characters? Huh? Why can’t THAT happen? HUH? REVERSE RACISM. Well, it actually DOES happen, especially in Hollywood. Google “whitewashing.” I’ve already covered why this is problematic in this very space a bunch of times. Here, read this. Don’t believe me? Check out Racebending.
3. It will make the narrative hard to follow. This is the argument that arguably has the most (any) merit. A friend of mine has a daughter who looks exactly like her in every way but skin color, and did so even as a toddler. Although they looked so much alike, she was constantly asked, “Where did you get her?” I told my friend she should reply, “Out of my uterus.” People often unthinkingly assume all familial relationships are biological, and then use racial similarity as a marker for familial relationship, even though they know, if they pause to consider, that adoption, stepchildren, and biracial people exist. Stories like these underlie that. However, we can’t necessarily apply that to theatre. We don’t know the relationships of any of the characters onstage until they are revealed to us, and we already know we’re in the world of pretend. If you tell an audience that, for example, two men of different races are brothers, almost everyone in the audience will accept that. It’s not uncommon, especially in indie theatre and in areas with diverse populations, to see diverse families onstage. Yet some theatremakers still hesitate to cast people of color for reasons of narrative clarity, yet will discount literally every other physical marker as unimportant.
I think what’s going on here is simple. We see “white” as “normal,” the baseline: neutral. We see people of color as a deviation from that– particular, different, “other.” Race has narrative, of course, and we must consider that narrative while casting. If you have an all-white cast apart from one Black actor who’s playing the bad guy, you’re saying something specific. But often diversity in a play that’s not about race doesn’t change the narrative at all. How much difference would it make to the narrative of As You Like It if cousins Rosalind and Celia were of different races?
But because we see whiteness as “neutral,” when we look at white actors, we imagine a palette of possibilities, a narrative polyvalence, that we do not afford to people of color. A white person can be anything; a person of color is primarily and foremost “of color,” and therefore is relegated in most cases to inhabiting spaces already designated as such. A white person is read as “person”; a Black person is read as “Black person.” There are casting directors who still separate their files into “ingenue,” “leading man,” “Asian,” “Black.” White people are divided into types; people of color are their race alone. Thankfully, this is becoming less and less common, but we’re still far behind full inclusion of people of color. However, even small gains by people of color in casting are seen as a threat to white actors. We have a long way to go.
Years ago I made a personal commitment to include people of color in lists of actors I was recommending for roles wherein race wasn’t specified. Whether that had any impact on the eventual casting of the role or not, it was one way I felt like I could personally challenge the idea of whiteness as neutral in my day-to-day life. I get these all the time– people ask me for recommendations for roles like “woman, 20s, good comic timing, excellent physicality” or “man, 30s, sophisticated, witty, elegant.” All too often the implication is that a role is white if not otherwise specified, and I refuse to accept that. We’re getting better at diverse casting, certainly, but we’re still struggling with it, particularly on larger stages, where some directors can be enormously resistant.
While we take it for granted that an audience can see past a 30-year-old woman playing a 13-year-old girl (“come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen”), or a 70-year old woman playing that 13-year-old girl’s wet nurse; while we take it for granted that people will accept Kevin Spacey as disabled; we all too often refuse to take it for granted that an audience will accept a diverse family or a Black Puritan.
It’s time to rethink this. We need to slow down and recognize when we’re positing whiteness as neutral and color as a deviation from that, and we need to stop imagining that the only places audiences can tolerate actors of color are in spaces clearly designated for them. We need those ethnic-specific roles (and plays), certainly, but we also need to open our minds to making our onstage families look more like our offstage families; to giving our audiences credit for being willing and able to play pretend with us wherever we take them; and to giving actors of color consideration for their types, talents, and abilities apart from– and in addition to– their ethnicities.