Playwrights, race, and color-blind casting

What I Think about Color-Blind Casting

All of the controversy about casting two white actors in Puerto Rican roles in “The ____________ with the Hat” has got me thinking. It’s got a lot of people angry and a few people baffled.

Haven’t heard about it? Read about it on the New York Times Web site: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/30/playwright-criticizes-casting-for-production-of-the-____________-with-the-hat/?ref=theater.

My Bona Fides

I’m white. I’m married to an African-American. In my almost 10 years of marriage, I’ve been the only white person at my husband’s family’s church and at my in-laws’ house. I’m the only white person to have ever married into the family. I was one of only five white people at his cousin’s wedding. And I was the only white guest at my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration; the only other white people in the room were servers.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way…

My Take on Color-Blind Casting

I think that colorblind casting is wonderful, when it’s not enacting the belief that white is “normal” or “usual,” and non-white must be explained or justified. In other words, as long as colorblind casting isn’t reinforcing white culture as the dominant culture in the United States, I think it’s a good idea.

I believe that for directors – or anyone in the theater – to assume that if a character’s race is not specified, the character and the actor must therefore be white, that that’s a kind of blindness about who is capable of having certain jobs, who has certain feelings, who is important in this world.

I feel that to cast a white actor in “A Raisin in the Sun” for any role but the one white role, would be ludicrous. Who would ever do that? It just doesn’t make any sense.

Only exception I can see, is if a white actor could “pass” as a light-complected black person. And could play the role convincingly. And there was absolutely no way in heaven or in hell that a black actor could be found for the role.

Actors of color are so frequently only considered for roles of color, that they end up not getting the work that they deserve and are capable of doing. That’s why I feel it’s wrong to cast a white actor as a character of color. Because there are so few roles for actors of color, it’s wrong to take any of them away.

What Most White People Don’t Get

Most white people in the United States that I know, in the theater and in general, don’t get that there is “white” theater. They think there is “theater.” And probably “ethnic” theater. Until I started dating my now husband, I thought the same thing.

But take “Our Town,” for example. “Our Town” is a white play. You can cast actors of color in some of the roles, but that doesn’t change that it’s still a white play.

I mean no disrespect to white people. Why, many of my friends are white, and I would let my sister marry one. 🙂

Try This If You Think I’m Wrong

Pick a theater near you. One whose work you like to see, or would like to see. And – most important – pick a theater that will be doing a “black” play, or a “Latino” play, or a “nonwhite racial group” play in their next season.

Go to that play. Also, go to at least two other productions of theirs in the same season.

Pay attention to how you feel, in the audience. In the lobby. Walking to the theater and when you’re leaving.

What do you laugh at? What moves you? What bores you? When are you restless in your seat? What don’t you get? How “at home” do you feel?

Pay attention to the rest of the audience. What do they laugh that? What moves them? Etc.

After you see all three of these plays, reflect back on your experience. What do you think? Is there a “white” theater?

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About playwrightsmuse

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